20th Mar, 2019

EXCLUSIVE: Independent investigator rules Coun Margaret Bassett BREACHED Code of Conduct with immigration tweets

Les Reid 1st Dec, 2017 Updated: 1st Dec, 2017

A SOLIHULL Conservative councillor who shared controversial tweets about immigration perceived in formal complaints as ‘Islamophobic and racist’ BROKE the council’s Code of Conduct, an independent investigation has concluded.

But the council’s monitoring officer in charge of upholding standards has DISMISSED the judgement of that taxpayer-funded investigation into councillor Margaret Bassett, we can also exclusively reveal.

The council’s Code of Conduct requires councillors to act with ‘respect and consideration’ for others, demonstrate ‘leadership’ and act as an ‘example’.

We understand the decision by monitoring officer Deborah Merry, the council’s Head of Legal and Democratic Services, prompted councillor Margaret Bassett to tweet on Wednesday that she has been “exonerated”, on her now more private and ‘protected’ Twitter account.

But the revelation today that the independent investigator had actually found AGAINST her has prompted opponents to question the whole standards process at Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council.

The monitoring officer, as with all unelected council officers, is ultimately answerable to the body of elected councillors.

As our front page revealed last month, the council’s leader, Conservative councillor Bob Sleigh, had not acted by suspending Coun Bassett from the Tory group pending investigation, despite previously claiming she had been.

By contrast, councillor Jeff Potts WAS suspended from the group, pending the same investigation process for similar re-tweets about immigration and Muslims.

We do not know the identity of the independent investigator who looked into Coun Bassett’s re-tweets, shared on her ‘Bassett4Silhill’ Twitter account, and conducted interviews with her and complainants.

Re-tweets on her Twitter account had included the comment: “Why should thousands of lives be unnecessarily put at risk for the sake of importing ‘refugees’ from a safe country?”

The independent investigator also considered an undated re-tweet on her account relating to a comment by the Slovakian Prime Minister that ‘Islam has no place’ in his country.”

Another tweet shared on her Twitter account was by English Defence League former leader Tommy Robinson which showed a picture of London mayor Sadiq Khan, a Muslim, and stated: “Defiant London Mayor proclaims we will not be defeated! World starts to wonder – who does he mean by we?”

Another tweet re-tweeted on her account purported to show a map of Germany illustrating crimes committed by migrants into that country.

When the Solihull Observer first broke the story of the tweets, Coun Bassett dismissed the response to her Twitter activity as a “political witch-hunt.”

We have not seen the independent investigator’s report which at this stage is private, we understand.

But we have obtained a copy of the monitoring officer’s Decision Notice, dated November 29.

It summarises the results of the independent investigation in stating: “He states that whilst it is therefore difficult to conclude with any certainty that MB (Margaret Bassett) acted in a deliberate or otherwise malicious manner when considering these tweets, she has caused others to perceive that her actions were racist or Islamophobic.

“.. the Investigating Officer has reached the conclusion that MB has breached the Code of Conduct for Councillors in that through her actions 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.”

He particularly noted that Coun Bassett, in sharing the controversial tweets, had not distanced herself in any way from the views expressed in them, and had failed to add any of her own commentary.

Coun Bassett had told the investigator she believed the tweets were of political interest and concern, and that by re-tweeting them she was contributing to ongoing political debate. It was not her intention to cause offense to any person or group of people, she maintained. Her Twitter account had stated re-tweets ‘don’t necessarily imply endorsement’, the report adds.

WHAT THE MONITOR OFFICER CONCLUDES…

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

“… The Code of Conduct for Councillors sets the standards to which Councillors must adhere; however it is not intended to interfere with robust political debate.

“In reaching my decision I have to consider the applicability of the relevant legislation including the Human Rights Act 1998.”

While also noting limits to freedom of expression in the law, she continues: “However it is well established in law that political expression is afforded an extremely high level of protection because of its fundamental importance for the maintenance of a democratic society.

“It is acknowledged that this protection does potentially create a conflict with the duty to promote and maintain high standards of conduct by elected Members.

“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.

“I have not been presented with any evidence to the contra and therefore I am not persuaded that the evidence is sufficiently robust to conclude that MB has breached the Code of Conduct.

“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.

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