18th Dec, 2017

EXCLUSIVE: £5k of taxpayers' cash spent on councillor's 'racist' re-tweets probe now dismissed, as we question Solihull council

Les Reid 7th Dec, 2017 Updated: 7th Dec, 2017

AN investigation which found councillor Margaret Bassett’s tweeting about immigration broke the code of conduct cost Solihull taxpayers £5,000 – only to be thrown out by an unelected officer in charge of upholding standards.

As revealed on our website and front page, Solihull council’s monitoring officer Deborah Merry over-ruled and dismissed the findings of the un-named investigator into Margaret Bassett’s re-tweets regarding Muslims, immigration and crime.

It comes amid an international furore over US President Donald Trump’s controversial re-tweets on the same theme.

This newspaper raised a series of ‘open questions’ with the council and its monitoring officer, which we publish here, including the answers.

The council told us it estimates the ‘independent’ investigation – by an un-named council auditor said to be independent of the council’s management – cost £2,000, and the total costs rose to £5,000, including the cost in officers’ time and ‘legal support’.

The monitoring officer’s Decision Notice stated the investigator had noted her failure to distance herself from the comments she shared, and had concluded, “she has failed to behave in accordance with the Council’s policies, protocols and procedures; she has not acted appropriately in regard to leadership and example, and she has failed to treat people with respect.”

Despite the investigator’s conclusions, the monitoring officer Ms Merry’s Decision Notice claims that she consulted another (un-named) ‘independent person’, under Localism Act requirements.

That independent person is said to have concluded Coun Bassett had not added supportive comments to the re-tweets and that “the matter be drawn to a close with no further action being taken.”

Ms Merry’s decision notice, seen by us, emphasises Coun Bassett’s ‘right to freedom of expression’ under the Human Rights Act 1998.

It adds: “… I have noted that the re-tweeted words were not MB’s own words in the tweets, she did not endorse the content of the re-tweets and that they were political rather than personal expressions.

“There was no evidence that the re-tweets contained overtly racist or Islamaphobic words, nor were they comments directed by MB to one person or a group of people.

“… Having reviewed the evidence in this case I believe the re-tweets posted by MB were within the boundaries of acceptable political expression and could be considered as part of the cut and thrust of political debate.”

Despite the international public outcry over President Trump’s retweets on the same theme, Ms Merry continued: “I do not consider that a reasonable person, in possession of all the facts would consider that the re-tweets were so offensive and disrespectful to an individual or were an unjustified personal and generic attack on a section of the public such that MB has breached the Code of Conduct for Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council.

“My decision therefore is that no further action will be taken in relation to these complaints.”

There is no appeals process but any party has the right to complain to the Local Government Ombudsman if they are unhappy with her decision, states Ms Merry.

OUR OPEN QUESTIONS TO COUNCIL

Questions for council leader, chief officers and the monitoring officer. Please be clear who is responding for each response…

In the interests of openness and transparency, please answer the following open questions…

* How much did the independent investigation cost?

* What is the estimated cost in total, including officer time, of handling the entire matter so far?

* Can we have a copy of his report? If not, why not? Will it be made public?

* Has the monitoring officer’s ‘decision notice’ been made public, apart from by us? If not, will it be?

* Can we see all communications relating to the investigation please, including interviews. If not, why not?

* What is the name and background of the investigator?

* Importantly, please can the monitoring officer signpost us to the section of the Localism Act to support her assertion that a lay person is required to be consulted in this particular context? I do not mean any provisions which have regard to wider standards/ethics processes.

* Who was the lay person?

* Can we see the lay person’s views in writing, or any other form?

* Doesn’t it make a mockery of the process for the monitoring officer to dismiss the investigation findings, and give equal weight to a full investigation and report, and the lay person’s comments (for whom there is no transparency or clarity)?

* The monitoring officer states a ‘reasonable’ person would not think the councillor breached the code of conduct when considering the degree of offence to any individual or section of the public.

Her decision notice contains views about whether re-tweeting is sharing, or promoting. Is she not aware that there has been widespread international condemnation of President Trump for non-critically re-tweeting, and therefore sharing and giving voice to, others’ tweets of a similar highly controversial and potentially inflammatory nature, on the same subject matter of immigration, Muslims and crime?

* Has the monitoring officer ever used Twitter?

* Has the council leader ever used Twitter?

* Doesn’t the way this has been handled potentially bring the council’s standards process, and the council, into disrepute?

What is the latest on the investigation into Coun Jeff Potts? Does he remain suspended by the ruling group (over similarly re-tweeted views about Muslims and immigration)?

COUNCIL RESPONSE IN FULL..

A Solihull Council spokesperson said: “The investigation, carried out by one of the Council’s internal auditors cost approx. £2,000 in officer time. Factoring in the Monitoring officer’s time and legal support the entire cost for the process is approx £5,000.

“The Monitoring Officer’s report will go to Governance committee on 18 January. Copies of the Monitoring Officer’s report have been sent to all complainants and Cllr Bassett. Copies are available on request.

“Solihull Council has a corporate investigations unit made up of professionally qualified independent investigators within Audit Services, which is independent of the management function within the Council.

“A number of Independent Persons are appointed by the Council to provide independent view of governance matters. Four were appointed at Full Council held on 11 July 2017.

“In making the decision the Monitoring Officer had to take in to account the investigators report, the Independent Person’s view and a person’s right to freedom of expression embedded in law by the Human Rights Act 1998. The section of the Localism Act to which the Monitoring Officer made reference was Section 28, subsection 7, paragraph (a).

“The Monitoring Officer does not have a twitter account, although the Leader of the Council does, but it is a professional account run by the Council’s Communications Team.

“Regarding Cllr Potts, his investigation is ongoing. He has had the whip withdrawn by the Conservative Group until the outcome of the Code of Conduct, and any other investigations, are known. He is currently sitting as an independent.”

OPPOSITION LEADER SAYS..

Green party councillor James Burn, the council’s opposition leader, said: “This situation is gravely concerning. When the Solihull Observer uncovered these tweets, I think all Solihull residents were expecting Solihull Council to send a strong message that councillors should not be spreading and promoting such views.

“Yet the council were silent and the Conservatives didn’t even suspend councillor Bassett while the investigation was taking place.

“Now, the independent investigation has finished and concluded that Coun Bassett broke the code of conduct. Unbelievably, the council’s procedures then allow for the investigation to be over-ruled – and that’s exactly what has happened.

“Why bother having independent investigations if they can be ignored? Having a process where this kind of thing can happen is something I’d expect from a rotten borough, not from Solihull.

“If you retweet information without adding a comment, you have republished it and are assumed to be agreeing with it. If that wasn’t already obvious to all Twitter users everywhere, UK law is also clear on this point – that’s how retweeters have been sued for libel.

“Furthermore, even Theresa May told Donald Trump this week that retweeting anti-Islamic comments “was the wrong thing to do”.

So, we have Theresa May, the courts, an independent investigation, everyone who has ever used Twitter and all journalists on one side – and Solihull’s Conservative-run council on the other. This situation, which was already concerning enough, just got a lot more worrying.

“If a councillor retweets “Islam has no place in this country” in the future what should I tell residents that Solihull Council will do? The answer is, very regrettably: “nothing”.

“What do I tell the many council staff who have told me they are ashamed of working for Solihull council because of this situation? That the power to change this situation lies in the hands of Solihull residents, who I’m sure will remember this at the local elections in five months’ time.”

Conservative leader Bob Sleigh did not respond to our questions.

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