Conservative councillor sacked after accusing council of corruption

It’s happened in the London Borough of Sutton:

A Cheam councillor has been disqualified for a year after being found guilty of breaching the councillors’ code of conduct.

Eleanor Pinfold was stripped of her title today after a councillors’ watchdog [the Standards Board] found she had used brash and offensive language when communicating with council officers and Sutton Police.

She was also found to have brought the council into disrepute by claiming its planning department was corrupt…

Supt Shadbolt made a complaint about her after she had also accused him of being politically biased towards the Liberal Democrats and of skewing crime figures.

(Read full local newspaper report here)

Is the Standards Board right to sack councillors in such situations? Discuss…

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28 Comments

  • Geoffrey Payne 22nd Dec '07 - 10:08am

    This may look like an issue of freedom of speech, and that Liberals should support this councillor.
    On the other hand, all councillors sign up to this code of conduct and should obey by the rules. She cannot complain if she has broken the rules she signed up to.
    So the next question is; Is the code of conduct reasonable?
    Historically council chambers have witnessed all kinds of shenanigans. No doubt those involved felt justified, but councillors are not serving their voters if they obstruct the business of the council.
    I do not recall this code of conduct being passed into law, and I assume that all political parties supported this and that freedom of speech was not an issue.
    In my opinion this is the fundamental point.
    If the code of conduct was opposed by the Tories, then the councillor may have a case that her freedom of speech was violated.
    If not she doesn’t.
    It may be the case that she did not break the code of conduct and an injustice has been done. However the only people who can comment on that are those involved in the process that decided her fate and who are aware of the facts and the evidence.

  • Anonymous cllr 22nd Dec '07 - 12:06pm

    Geoffrey Payne well and truly misses the point – which is that the dice are now so loaded against councillors it is not true. What officer is forced to sign up to a draconian Code of Conduct? (The code is national and mandatory)

    Unfortunately, the vacuous crap in the Councillors’ Commission (which bleats about compatibility with work but proposes jack to deal with it) isn’t going to solve any of it, and its key recommendation of STV will be blocked by a Labour Party that has so much corruption still to hide in local government.

    In my council (Labour-run) one Lib Dem cllr was threatened this week with the Standards Board and summarily summoned to a meeting with the Chief Executive during work time (they work full-time). The offence? Talking to someone over a pint about a bizarre incident, which then got reported on a blog.

    Meanwhile I hear allegations of Council corruption every week in my work. A Unison newsletter has just been sent, in internal post, to all cllrs, with the results of a staff survey with one recommendation – ‘tackle all the corruption in the Council’. Whenever I start chasing it, I get silence or shrill messages telling me to stop digging. I once got sent an email from an officer to a senior colleague in response to a casework request noting ‘this is the way they twist things’. I was advised not to make a formal complaint.

    I’ve heard some not very nice things about the Cheam Cllr in question – and her comments to the police are simply laughable; at the best she must have made a terrible opposition leader.

    But every single opposition councillor must sympathise with her predicament.

  • I have sat on a Standards Committee in the past, all local committees now have an independant member of the public as chair and about 1/3 of their membership as independant non-cllrs. The other 2/3 are Cllrs.

    I would assume as this wasn’t heard by the local Standards Committee then the allogations were too serious.

    The rules are changing so nearly all complaints are judged at the local level first rather than as at present, the compaint is made to the S.Board who then decide basically, no action, refer to local committee or hear the case themselves.

    I fear there is more to this Cheam case than meets the eye and only a view of the full transcript will show what went on (not on website yet)
    http://www.standardsboard.gov.uk/Casesummaries/Standardsearch/

  • Martin Land 22nd Dec '07 - 2:50pm

    I’m the first person to gloat when a Tory is in trouble, but I’m increasingly uncomfortable about this whole ‘standards mafia’ and the legislation that surrounds it. I feel it’s not being used to keep up standards in public life but to silence councillors who feel they are doing their job. And if they are not doing their job, it’s the electorate who should decide. It’s here where the Brown Government does owe less to Mr Bean and more to Stalin.

  • Geoffrey Payne 22nd Dec '07 - 4:14pm

    I do not agree with Gavin Whenman that you cannot be kicked off unless you break the law. You can be disciplined at work without breaking the law, and likewise if you obstruct the business of the council it must be right that action can be taken against you.
    That is something that should be understood when you sign the code of conduct.
    If anyone has any evidence of corruption they should present it to the police. I cannot see how that can be contrary to the code of conduct.
    If the code of conduct is too stringent, then I recommend you get in touch with the Parliamentary Liberal Party and campaign to get it changed. I do not think that councillors should be expected to defend themselves by taking time off work, so that is one policy I would work on.
    I would be interested to find out if the code of conduct was opposed by either the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives when it was debated in Parliament. No one has commented on that.

  • Spot on Martin Land.

    I’m a Tory (I’ll be honest) but in discussing the SB it really doesn’t matter.

    The only people that Councillors should be accountable to are their electorate and i would say the same whatever colour the Cllr may have been.

  • Angus J Huck 22nd Dec '07 - 10:57pm

    “Is the Standards Board right to sack councillors in such situations?”

    The answer to the question is a resounding “NO”.

    I agree with Gavin Whenman. Councillors are elected by their constituents, and are answerable to their constituents for what they do as councillors.

    If a councillor commits a crime, then he/she should be prosecuted. Similarly, if he/she defames someone, breaches a contract, commits equitable fraud, etc, he/she can be sued in the civil courts in the normal way.

    The Standards Board has the power to remove councillors from office for breaching a non-statutory code, much of which is referable to conduct that is far too vague to amount to a crime or a tort.

    What on earth is “brash and offensive language”? Whatever the Standards Board says it is, it seems. And what falls within the definition of conduct “bringing the Council into disrepute”? Anything of the Standards Board’s choosing, apparently.

    Clearly, councillors cannot be allowed to put themselves in a position where they have a conflict of interest and duty. This was recognised by the Divsional Court in R v Hendon Rural District Council ex parte Chorley (1933). If a councillor has a pecuniary interest in a matter to be decided he/she must recuse him/herself.

    The non-statutory National Code of Local Government Conduct, which came into force in 1976, extended the Chorley rule to non-pecuniary interests, whether or not the councillor was acting in a quasi-judicial or merely administrative capacity.

    The National Code arose out of the Radcliffe-Maud Report, which was mindful of the need to root out the corruption that had been widespread in local government since the days of rotten boroughs, as exemplified by the recent Poulson scandal. A perfectly laudable objective, and one much needed at the time.

    Sadly, the process has become perverted. Councillors are now so shackled by a panoply of rules that they are unable to do their jobs and represent their constituents. They have effectively become rubber stamps for decisions taken either by officers or forced upon them by central government through ever more prescriptive circulars.

    In particular, the rule that councillors cannot take a view on planning applications before they come to committee (recommended by the Nolan Committee) has reduced the role of planning councillors to poodles.

    The Standards Board is a further nail in the coffin of local democracy, which is now very largely an illusion.

    When I was a councillor (1994/8) I campaigned against planning applications before they came to committee, and did so on many occasions, something I would not be permitted to do today. I was able to do the job I was elected to do.

    I also wrote a number of polemical letters on behalf on my constituents, and could not be prevented from so doing. No doubt, if I did this today, the Standards Board might consider them “brash and offensive”, depending on what they had for breakfast that morning.

    All of this is deeply dangerous.

    As a councillor, I never found proof of any actual corruption, though I did hear plenty of rumours, a few of which I consider to be true. And I never accused any councillors or council officers or policemen of committing crimes. To do so would have been to overstep the mark.

    I lived in Councillor Pinfold’s ward for 5 years between the ages of 3 and 8. During that time, the Conservative councillor who lived opposite us spoke to my father only twice. On the first occasion, he asked my father to help him clear the snow blocking his front drive. On the second, he asked my father to vote for him. Not exactly what one calls service and action all the year round!

  • Ch Supt Chadbolt and the seniour council officers could have taken Eleanor Pinfold to court – judging not least by the standards board rulling – they would have won a liable case against her.

  • A quango should not have power to remove an elected politician from office. Only a proper court of law, such as the English High Court or the Scottish Court of Session should be able to do so.

    The Standards Board is typical of the evolving European pseudo-democracy. Where politics and politicians are bureaucratised and kept on message. The next nail in the coffin of real democracy will be public funding of (established) political parties. No doubt anyone who might upset the apple cart will be ineligible for public funding and banned from raising private funding.

    With regard to the posted case, if she is rude, her constituents can vote for someone else next time; If she were to libel someone then they could sue; In any case, they can complain to her party.

    In any event, a high proportion of the people who think about planning believe it to be fundamentally corrupt. So the councillor is just saying about Cheam what many of us, believe about most local government planning through the UK. Should we be suspended from voting for such a thought crime?

  • I think Geoffrey’s comments on whether or not particular political parties supported the codes of conduct is not relevant to whether a councillor should be suspended by the Standards Board. Political parties may support the codes of conduct, but independent (or independently-minded) elected councillors are caught in the undemocratic unaccountable net.

  • The standards body is increasingly being misused as a means to muzzle councillors who ask awkward questions and for that reason alone I would be in favour of abolishing it.

    What is needed is protection for the individual against the state and not the other way about. Even if that means occassional discomfort for councils.

    Councils have resources and control over information etc at their disposal and don’t deserve to be able to ride over the heads of those elected to represent their constituents. Mps are protected against this kind of interference and we all know when that protection has proven invaluable. For councillors to be hamstrung, imtimidated and feel unable to raise questions for fear of a standards board referral is an inditement of the system.

    In the case of planning applications, there needs to be a clear code set out which allows councillors to represent their residents or their own views and to do so honourably – fully disclosng any interest etc but not to be made impotent by having taken a stance bu those whom they are opposing. The current situation is a mess.

  • “if you obstruct the business of the council it must be right that action can be taken against you.”

    No, sorry. It is the job of opposition parties and Councillors to obstruct the business of the Council within reason. What is reason is a matter for the voters.

    There is a fascist philosophy gaining ground in local government. You must not undermine the Council. The top officers and ruling party = the Council. Therefore you must not undermine the officer and councillor administration in any way. Or you will be struck out.

    The Standards Regime is arbitrary and not subject to much in the way of judicial safeguards. It is a disgrace.

    While the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill was going through I moved an amendment in committee to abolish the whole of the Standards Board and its regime! At least it got the thing debated.

    The Code of Conduct is (I think) a “negative instrument” so did not get debated in Parliament.

    Tony Greaves

  • Hywel Morgan 26th Dec '07 - 6:15pm

    Why not make a point by not standing in the by-election?

  • Typically many of the comments here show a complete lack of understanding about this case and I’m sure no-one bothered to attend the hearing (I did) and find out what this woman did/said, other than read the bland reports in the local press. I am a long standing Conservative voter in a neighbouring ward to hers, and also an officer at Sutton who knows many of the other Officers who made complaints. I can assure you that the comments and allegations made by Eleanor Pinfold were disgraceful and (as Simon mentioned) libellous. Senior managers at Sutton did their best to dissuade officers from filing complaints about this woman, frightened no doubt by the usual political pressure that councillors put on them (but with no thought for their employees). Thankfully, once it appeared that this was an ongoing systematic abuse against what are generally (in Sutton at least) hard working council employees, someone in the Chief Execs dept realized they could not just sit on the complaints any longer. Given that the Conservative party moved to distance themselves from her and her abusive allegations long before her hearing shows that they were only too aware that her comments would not be looked on favourably by anyone; standards board or not. As an Officer who deals with abusive residents day in day out I (like my colleagues) put up with much of the stupid and thoughtless rules we have to work too (and that cause much of the complaints we deal with); I do not expect to be further insulted and abused by those who are elected to help the residents of the borough and who generally do not have a clue about exactly what happens ‘on the shop floor’. Pinfold did not help anyone. She merely obstructed legal processes and wasted Council Officer’s time and money through her continuing thoughtless self-promoting campaigns that did nothing to help those who have to live in her borough. Now she has gone I shall return to voting Conservative. I look forward to the by election. I hope her convenient “ill health” dissuades her from standing again.

  • Sutton Watcher 13th Jan '08 - 3:01pm

    Ms Pinfold has suffered because she asked awkward questions of the powers that be ie those who run Sutton that is the Senior Officers of the Council – not the elected representatives. May she overeacted out of sheer frustration but I feel that the actions by a few are going to come back to haunt them for the rest of their careers. When worse things are exposed – and at this moment believe me things are being researched – will the Lib-Dems take actioin or more to the point will the Police @ Buckingham SFO. What and see. Eleanor, remember revenge is a dish best served cold…but also without emotion and facts. Look @ LBRuT pre-2002!

  • Sutton Watcher 13th Jan '08 - 3:09pm

    Sorry about the spelling etc. Unlike other bloggers I banged this out without draft or party clearance! Oh, most importantly I should have written ‘with facts’ Even better I also should have added with an audit trail… but I am sure the reliable plods at Buckingham Gate will pick that up once The Sun etc ‘ pass their file onto the Police’.

  • James Graham 13th Jan '08 - 9:20pm

    #25: wow, that’s the first time I’ve seen good spelling used as “proof” of spin.

  • martin brighton 5th Jan '09 - 5:53pm

    What is described here is not specific to any political party, but all.
    Sheffield City Council, regardless of the changing political administration, has been institutionally corrupt for at least a decade.
    Councillors themselves have admitted that the culture of fear and bullying that pervades the council is used to good effect.
    The Standards Board acts with consistency. When a councillor would expose corruption, guilt is automatic. Where a councillor is a part of that corruption, innocence is assured.
    One responder notices what happens when someone asks the right questions – the questioner is removed.
    There is a lot more to come out of this affair.
    Who is brave enough to challenge both the Executive and Leadership?

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