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Life at the county council limped on, however. Paul Buchanan continued as deputy leader, taking a particular interest in two projects close to Alan Joness heart. Both men wanted Somerset to be transformed into a unitary authority, taking responsibility from the five existing
district councils. In my opinion, it was a mad idea, but Mr. Buchanan is a Liberal Democrat, so we have to allow for a certain degree of woolly-headed lunacy. Both Buchanan and Jones also wanted to see improvements in how services were delivered. So, in a peculiar fashion, Jones and Buchanan looked like peas in a pod. Jones was the go-getting chief executive, albeit with a weakness for women; Buchanan was business-savvy and energetic. What a team! Except that the go-getting chief executive much preferred compliant pussycat politicians who sit quietly in the corner and purr when officers tell them what to do. Mr. Buchanan had a failing: he was apt to ask too many questions. Furthermore, he came equipped with a brain.
The outfit is called Southwest One, and it is busy making a total hash of everything in the county. Its computer system does not work, it cannot place orders or pay bills and it is certainly not saving any money. Southwest One is the dubious end product of Alan Joness desire radically to improve servicesmad. The Jones philosophy is anything goes, which explains how he was able to hire the wife of Avon and Somersets chief constable to set it all up. Sue Barnes became Somersets project director without any kind of formal interview. Her hubby, Colin Port, is now on the board of Southwest One. Funny old world, isnt it?
Paul Buchanan was involved in assessing the merits of the commercial bidders back in 2006. He was, after all, deputy leader and he knows a thing or two about business. There were three rivals: Capita, which, as we all know, is a big player in local government; British Telecom, for which Alan Jones got a consultancy in Somerset; and IBM. With millions at stake, such companies spend hundreds of thousands of pounds polishing their bids. They twitch if anyone speaks out of turn because there is so much at stake.
On 12 February 2007, Sue Barnes went to London with Paul Buchanan to meet IBM representatives. My sources in the industry tell me that IBM was badly rattled. It had heard rumours that Alan Jones had been singing the praises of BT during a late-night drinking session at a conference of chief executives. I forgot to mention that Mr. Jones likes to unwind with a glass in his handbut this time, unfortunately for him, he was overheard. Sue Barnes and Paul Buchanan, to their credit, had to pour oil on IBMs troubled waters; otherwise, the whole project would have gone belly up.
Within a day or two of that meeting, Joness attitude changed completely; it was the trigger that launched the campaign to destroy Buchanan. Jones sent a letter to Councillor Cathy Bakewell, the leader, about Buchanans behaviour and persuaded his four most senior directors to sign it. Then Bakewell came to talk to the management boardthat is, Jones and his four toady directors. She promised to deal with Buchanan. In fact, she called
in the leader of the Lib Dems on the Local Government Association as a kind of mediator. Bad call. That particular individual, Richard Kemp from LiverpoolJoness home town; they may even be matesis known in Liberal circles as the Jackal. Assassination is his speciality, and Jones went to London to give him ammosigned statements from people in and around Joness office alleging Buchanans unspeakable behaviour. Jones is a bully; his staff probably signed those statements in their own blood, for all I know.
I apologise to the House, because I am forced to go into great detail in order to explain the way in which the chief executive has immersed himself in party politics and the political process. Chief executives, I had always thought, are meant to leave politics to the politicians, but at Somerset county council, with a weak leader on her way out, anything goes for Mr. Jones.
The Jackal came to Somerset with a cunning plan: if Buchanan quietly resigned as deputy leader, promised to shut up and be a good boy, and accepted mentoring from Jones and the Jackal, then the charges would be dropped. Mr. Buchanan was not playing. If he had agreed to the Jackals plans, he would have been accepting his own guiltand, as we all know, he was not guilty of anything except swearing, once, under his breath. Mr. Buchanan suggested another mentor, a far more respected and accomplished figurethe former leader of Somerset county council, Sir Chris Clarke. Mentoring in local government is a semi-official process. A contract is drawn up between one of the major local government quangos and the council involved. Somerset did agree to sign up Sir Chris to mentor Paul Buchanan, but that did not stop Joness campaign to destroy the man.
On 27 March 2007the very day that the Government announced a shortlist of councils seeking unitary statusthe Jackal e-mailed Lib Dem leaders, copying it to Jones, urging a full complaint to the Standards Board. He said:
It is an ideal time to deal with this because of the Unitary News.
Sound familiar? A good day to bury bad news? Now we know why Richard Kemp is called the Jackal. No serious attempt was ever made to deal with Joness complaints in-houseand that was what was meant to happen. Instead, Jones used the sledgehammer of the Standards Board, and the depths to which he and his henchmen have stooped are beyond belief.
This is a passage from a transcript of evidence to the Standards Board, which seems to be a deliberate attempt to blacken Paul Buchanans name by suggesting that he was romantically involved with Sue Barnes, the project director and wife of the chief constable:
Sue and Paul Buchanan were pretty much ensconced together at the back of the bus, sharing information and having a good time and having a laugh and a joke. I think what struck me was how close they were in terms of their body language...lots of whispers and laughter and what have you....Im not suggesting for one moment it was inappropriate!
Oh yeah? Pull the other one! The transcript was scored through, presumably by the man who gave the evidenceRoger Kershaw, Joness No. 2. It looks like, and is, an organised dirty tricks campaign: first, someone uses innuendo in evidence, and then they are allowed to correct their evidence before the other side sees it. Somebody close to Kershaw sent it, anonymously, to me.
The interview between Kershaw and the Standards Board was conducted in June 2007. It contains another glaring untruth. Mr. Kershaw states that after Sue Barnes and Paul Buchanan went to see IBM in February, Sue Barness contract was terminated. In fact, Sue Barnes served the entire term of her contract until the IBM deal was signed in late September. What on earth was going on, and why in the name of sanity did it go on so long?
The Standards Board rejected the first batch of Joness complaints because they were plainly ridiculousso Jones started complaining about its decision. By now, the chief executive of Somerset county council was behaving like Victor Meldrew with a Kalashnikov. It is no wonder that Southwest One is regarded as a dismal failure. Jones was obsessed with his vendetta. Next, he unilaterally severed the mentoring contract between Somerset and Sir Chris Clarke that was established to help Buchanan. Buchanan hit back with a letter to the council citing incidents of drunkenness, womanising and bullying by Jones. He could not take them up with the Standards Board, because there is no mechanism to do so.
Jones cross-volleyed with yet more complaints, this time claiming that Buchanan was bullying him by complaining about his behaviour. You could not make it up. It is a plot full of bureaucracy, bonking and a chief executive who has gone totally bonkers.
Dan Norris (Wansdyke) (Lab): You have made some very serious allegations, and no doubt you believe them to be founded. May I ask whether under the umbrella of parliamentary privilege you have given the people whom you are accusing of very serious things
Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I thank the hon. Gentleman. He came in a little late, and if I may I should like to tell him that all this is in the public domain. It is all part of the transcripts that were given to the Standards Board. Everything that I am speaking about is in the public domain already, so the people involved have had ample chance to examine it. The Standards Board makes all its findings public, and all the information can be got hold of.
Dan Norris: Can the hon. Gentleman tell me whether the people involved have seen the speech that he is giving today? Have they had a chance to digest it and comment on it before his using the privilege of the House in this way?
No, because quite honestly the information is already in the public domain. If it were not, I would have had no problem with that, but what I am saying is a catalogue of what is already known. I am putting it in chronological order and saying to the Minister that we need to have the ability to bring about investigation of senior officers by the Standards Board.
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, and the problem is that there is no mechanism for anybody in councils to criticise chief executives, including in his areas unitary council.
As I said earlier, it is important that we can stand up for people whose lives have been blighted by a situation that is outside their control. Everything that I have talked about is already known, and I am trying to bring in front of the House the facts of how a mans life can be ruinedhe is a Liberal Democrat, so I have no truck with himby one person demanding his head when the only thing that he is guilty of is swearing under his breath after two and a half years. That cannot be right. It is important that Members have the ability to stand up and defend people, and that is what I am trying to do. The House is, after all, meant to be the highest forum in the land. I have made all this information public on my website, although obviously not the speech, because I am just giving it. All the way through, for two and a half years, I have felt that the situation is out of control. At no stage have I held back from my beliefs. I welcome the hon. Gentlemans intervention, because it is important to say that all this is already in the public domain.
Before the final hearing, Jones was eagerly trawling county hall trying to persuade or threaten anybody to give any evidence against Buchanan. It was a waste of time. The proof came with the sensible, sober decision of the panel to acquit Mr. Buchanan. Paul Buchanan is still a Liberal Democrat, but his party will not have him as a council candidate in Somerset. He has been stitched up and, I am afraid, let down. The Liberal Democrats emerge from this sordid affair as weak-willed, mealy-mouthed and yellowthat is their party colour, after all. Alan Jones emerges as precisely what he isa busted flush. Chief executives have a duty to behave like officers and, I would say, gentlemen. Jones is no gentleman, and he has certainly lost all moral authority to serve as an officer. I am afraid that the time has come for him to go.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Sadiq Khan): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) on securing the debate. I thoroughly enjoyed his speech, and it is not often that I can say that in an Adjournment debate. I am pleased that he was able to speak candidly about issues about which he feels passionate.
I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the conduct regime for local authority members, to which the hon. Gentleman alluded, and the work of the Adjudication Panel for England and the Standards Board for England and the valuable role that they play in ensuring that high standards of conduct are maintained by local authority members. I welcome the debate, which gives me a chance to put on record the Governments support for the conduct regime for local authority members and allows me to discuss the treatment of misconduct in that regime. That goes to the core of the debate.
Mr. Khan: It is right that I should not be able to intervene in individual cases, as that guarantees the impartiality of the conduct regime and investigation process. Although I am happy to discuss the work of the Standards Board for England and the Adjudication Panel in general terms, I will not comment on or engage in debate about any specific ongoing case.
As the debates title suggests and as the hon. Gentleman outlined, the case concerns Councillor Paul Buchanan, a former deputy leader of Somerset county council, but given that the Adjudication Panel is due to convene shortly to determine the outcome of several outstanding allegations, I will not comment on it. However, I should like to address briefly the conduct regime and the two points that the hon. Gentleman raised with which I can deal specifically later in my short speech.
In this country, we have naturally high standards of probity, accountability and objectivityexpectations of behaviour that demand a serious, reasonable, robust and fair conduct regime. It must be fair to the public and to all in public life. That applies equally to those elected to local authorities and to Members of Parliament. It is worth remembering that the conduct regime was introduced in the Local Government Act 2000 to promote high standards of ethical behaviour by local authority members. It gave a clear ethical framework for local authority members to work within, and made clear to the electorate the standards of behaviour that they could expect from those whom they voted into office.
In 2007, a revised model code of conduct for local authority members was issued, which was yet clearer, simpler and more proportionate. It removed barriers to members ability to speak up for those they represent, for example, on planning and licensing issues, and has been well received by local government. All local authorities have followed it in their own codes, by which their members must abide.
In May 2008, the Government fulfilled their White Paper commitment, as recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, to introduce a more locally based conduct regime for members and co-opted members of local authorities in England. Devolving responsibility for conduct issues to local authorities provides them with greater ownership of the conduct regime and local conduct issues, and boosts their role in promoting and maintaining a culture of high standards of behaviour. That belief is shared throughout the local government world.
The Standards Board for England, which until that point had been responsible for investigating alleged breaches of the code of conduct, has assumed its new role as the strategic regulator of local authority standards committees, responsible for monitoring their performance and issuing guidance on the conduct regime. The Standards Board continues to investigate the most serious allegations of misconduct.
Let us be clear: the regime accords with the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, including the recommendation to establish a more locally based decision-making regime for
investigating and determining all but the most serious misconduct allegations, but with the Standards Board at the centre of the revised regime with a new strategic, regulatory role to ensure consistency.
The hon. Gentleman referred to serious allegations. It is a sad fact of political life that disagreement about issues can occasionally spill out of the correct channels for resolution and take on the form of remarks or accusations that suggest personal enmity. It is good to hear forthright views expressed vigorouslyhealthy debate is good for a healthy democracy and ensures that issues are thoroughly and publicly examined. That is true, whether in the Chamber, a council meeting or a parish hall. To some extent, we can also expect public figures to comment on issues in a private capacitywe are familiar with examples of that from our national and local media. For example, councillors with opposing views clearly express their opinions in the letters column of local newspapers.
As modern media have developed, so have the great opportunities that they afford for communication; indeed, the hon. Gentleman referred to his website. That is one of the reasons why my Department recently consulted on proposed changes to the code of recommended practice on local authority publicity. We want to remove barriers to communication between councillors and those whom they serve, by allowing, for instance, the local authority to host a councillors blog. However, with that freedom comes responsibility. There is no place in political debate for making hurtful, potentially damaging and unfounded accusations. That is why we take bringing the office of a councillor into disrepute so seriously and why doing so constitutes a breach of the local authority members code of conduct.
The other point that the hon. Gentleman made was about using the conduct regime as a political weapon. I am not insensitive in this context to the allegation that unscrupulous individuals may consider that the conduct regime can be used maliciously as a political weapon. I am conscious of that threat, but when we consider steps to halt what some might consider to be obviously false allegations intended to waste time and resources, we must take great care to ensure that in so doing we do not gag legitimate allegations.
Before the new regime, it was for the Standards Board for England to assess, and if necessary investigate, the some 3,500 allegations made about the behaviour of councillors every year. Under the devolved regime, the Standards Board investigates only the most serious allegations. One of the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman was about delay. Indeed, the facts of the delay are a source of serious concern. The Standards Board has a target of completing 90 per cent. of its cases within six months; he mentioned a period of two years and explained why there had been unfortunate problems in the case. The 90 per cent. target is a challenging target, but he will be interested to know that last year the Standards Board did not just meet it, but exceeded it, completing 96 per cent. of cases on target.
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