Inside the civic

The big news this week, as hinted in my last column, was the resignation of Deputy Lord Mayor Khan as he prepares to once again face the Standards Committee. This is certainly an honourable decision, however why it took so long (and a Labour group meeting) to convince Khan to resign perhaps signifies how unaware certain councillors are about what the public think of their conduct. Continue reading

Barnes impersonates Pits’n’Pots and is now suspended! – UPDATED 8/10

Tonight Mike Barnes’s future as Labour Group Leader hangs in the balance as the party’s National Executive have placed him under ‘administrative suspension’ with immediate effect. Yesterday, Mike Barnes admitted to impersonating someone from this website to try and find information about a rumoured news story in Cheshire West and Chester council. A BBC investigation has concluded thBy Tony Walley.

Tonight Mike Barnes’s future as Labour Group Leader hangs in the balance as the party’s National Executive have placed him under ‘administrative suspension’ with immediate effect.

Yesterday, Mike Barnes admitted to impersonating someone from this website to try and find information about a rumoured news story in Cheshire West and Chester council.

A BBC investigation has concluded that Barnes told a member of the communications department at Cheshire West and Chester council that he was representing a news website in Stoke-on-Trent.  He also admitted that he used a false name. Barnes denies claiming that he was from BBC Radio Stoke but admitted to me yesterday that he had claimed to represent Pits’n’Pots and in doing so he used a false name. Barnes made a full apology to me and my partners and stated that he had only acted to quell the rumours that were circulating the Civic Centre. At the outset of the investigation we were contacted by the BBC and were given both the name and telephone number used. Pits’n’Pots then made contact with the press and communications department At Stoke-on-Trent City Council and advised them that we thought there was a possibility that the identified the number was a Stoke-on-Trent City Council phone number. They ran a check on the number which confirmed our suspicions.

 Shortly after Barnes made contact with us and confessed that it was him that made the calls. Whilst accepting that Mike Barnes made these calls without any malice and with all good intent. We were disappointed that he had implicated us in a matter that we had already decided was not a news story in which we were interested. We have accepted his apology and we do not intend to take the matter further. We would however co-operate with any enquiry that emerges from this incident. That though may not be enough to prevent this matter going before the Standards Committee. A statement from Stoke-on-Trent City Council states: "Stoke-on-Trent City councillors must adhere to a strict code of conduct, and in cases where their standard of integrity and honesty is deemed to have breached that code, the Standards Committee may be asked to look at an issue regarding an elected member by fellow councillors or a member of the public". "If the case is deemed to have been a breach of the members’ code and adequate evidence is provided, the Standards Committee will meet to decide the appropriate action to be taken. The city council takes any potential breach of the code very seriously and demands high standards of conduct are maintained by its members at all times". BBC Radio Stoke’s hourly news bulletin claims that the number was investigated by them and found to be from the city council but we refute that as we informed the BBC investigator that we had found that the number originated from the Civic Centre and was confirmed by the press and communications department. Barnes who is currently on holiday,  absolutely denies that he used the name of the BBC in any phone calls to the authority concerned.  Last night Mike Barnes issued the following statement to the Labour Group within the City Council and the press:

6 October 2009 "I wish to totally refute any allegations that I impersonated or intended to impersonate a BBC reporter in any way at any time. I welcome the Labour Party’s investigations into this matter, as well as any potential referral to the Standards Board, and will co-operate to the best of my ability in order to clear this matter up. I am 100% certain that the claims cannot stand up to scrutiny and hope that it will be dealt with quickly upon my return next week" Mike Barnes | Longton South Labour Councillor | Labour Group Leader

UPDATE : We have just spoken to Cheshire West and Chester Council and can confirm that rumours circulating about Steve Robinson were part of a "malicious, totally unfounded and possibly defamatory premeditated campaign". Any comments relating to Mr Robinson therefore will now be deleted to avoid any possible legal action. Mike Barnes has issued a further statement today:

8 October 2009 The Labour Party, quite rightly, have acted quickly in taking any allegation regarding its representatives seriously, and made an administrative suspension of myself (attached). I have asked the City Council to referred the matter to the Standards Board in order that this can be openly investigated and reported, in the public interest. I have also submitted a formal complaint against Stoke-on-Trent City Council and its officers from the Media Department, as BBC Radio Stoke claim that Stoke-on-Trent City Council made a statement, falsely claiming I had admitted the current allegations against me, which added credibility to their story. I hope this matter is dealt with as quickly as possible. Mike Barnes | Longton South Labour Councillor | Labour Group Leader

Read : Labour Chief in BBC Hoax Probe on BBC Read : Councillor being investigated amid claims of impersonating a reporter on The Sentinel

Communication with the Council(lors)

By Mike Rawlins

In the age of the Internet and E-mail more and more people are using it as an acceptable form of communication. You can bank on-line you can book holidays, you can report holes in the  road to your local council, you can even E-mail your local MP or Councillor.. Just don’t expect a reply.

We have had few people contact us over the last year to say that councillors don’t respond to E-mails, we ourselves have had E-mail requests ignored by councillors and officers. We understand that while  councillors are busy working for their constituents they don’t always have the time to respond to requests from outside of their wards. Â  With the officers we thought it was just us, as we are not always flavour of the month within the council, so we just ignored it.

Then David Knowles who used to run the smokeontrent.co.uk site contacted us to say he had also had problems of E-mails being ignored and had complained, he told us that the matter was going to the Standards Committee.  Once the Standards Committee had come to a decision David said he would let us know the outcome.

David Knowles writes the following

City sets a precedent that Councillor’s can ignore emails
You’ll be pleased to know that Stoke on Trent City Council have set a precedence that if you contact your Councillor by email, they can simply ignore it (and even delete it) without any consequence.

I contacted my three local Councillors, Pauline Joynson, Paul Billington and Gavin Webb about a planning matter by email, after all, the Council’s website encourages us to email our Councillor and also publishes all Councillor’s email addresses.

None of them responded. 100% failure rate. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could ignore our Council Tax demands?
After a number of days I made an official complaint to the Standards Committee who took the decision that the Elected Members Code of Conduct had not been broken and that no further action should be taken. The only thing I could use from the Code of Conduct was respect. Is ignoring your constituent’s email communication disrespectful? I think it is. The Standards Committee think not. This is a very crucial decision by the Committee. It means that Councillors CAN ignore your communication and will not be held accountable by the Standards Committee.
Naturally, as we do, I appealed against the decision. It went to the Standards Review Sub-Committee. They too upheld the earlier decision and no action is being taken.
This defies the common principles of local democracy. How can ignoring your constituent’s emails without any consequence be democratic in any way?  Constituents have the right to contact their Councillor as a person who was elected to represent their interests, and expect to be treated with respect by receiving a response. According to this City, Councillors could in theory ignore any communication from their constituents in any form because you couldn’t complain to the Standards Committee and win. They have now decided that if a Councillor ignores you, they haven’t breached the Code of Conduct.
I asked Standards for England (the people who used to decide complaints about Elected Members) for their opinion on the matter. They commented:-
I can confirm that there is no statutory appeal route to Standards for England once the review committee have made their decision. You do have the option of applying for judicial review through the courts. Judicial review is a type of court proceeding in which a judge reviews the lawfulness of a decision or action made by a public body. If you have concerns about the operation of the standards committee you can complain to the council at which the standards committee is based.
Clearly, unless you have a million pounds in the Bank, then going to the High Court for a judicial review is not an option, and why would I give the Council the satisfaction? However, I will be making a complaint about the operation of the Standards Committee and will be writing to the Local Government Minister, who is well aware of the state of local politics in this City.
I can’t imagine that all of our local Councillors are happy with this situation, as I am sure some of them do respond to their constituent’s by email, however, this does not change the situation that there is no accountability for those who choose not to.
I asked the Review Sub-Committee a number of probing questions such as how do I obtain the information I requested from my Councillors if they refuse to communicate with me? Is it a case of making a Freedom of Information Act request? It looks as though it will be a FOI Act request costing the local taxpayer more money in wasted administration time.
All this for simply emailing your local Councillors. I find it totally unacceptable that Councillor’s can get away with ignoring their constituents. Councillor Joynson had told me that she couldn’t deal with the sheer volume of emails as there weren’t enough hours in the day, but at least she had the decency to contact me once I had made my complaint. Councillor Joynson talks of Democracy4Stoke but what about democracy for people who email her? If the Council encourage us to email our Councillors then shouldn’t they be entitled to a reply?
Councillor Webb has joined the Libertarian Party who’s aim to make the State subordinate to the will of the people. Where then does the party stand on its members ignoring their own constituents?

So it seems that the council have given the green light to councillors to be able to delete E-mails from their constituents without any fear of retribution if that is what they choose to do.   Now it would be unfair to say that this is what councillors do in general but we know that it does happen and now we know that there is nothing you or I can do about it in Stoke-on-Trent.

We contacted the three councillors named by David to ask for their responses:

Gavin Webb: Thanks for your email. What can I say? This was an oversight on my part largely based on difficulties getting into a new council email system and dealing with other matters once I did. Â   Â  I feel that email is an important form of communication. I have my council email address that is true, but I also have a private email address which has always been accessible via my website gavinwebb.co.uk. Indeed, there is a form that can be completed so that people don’t even have to open their own email client.

To conclude, this is not a case of me ‘ignoring’ my constituents, this was a simple oversight.  For residents’ information, I am in the process of significantly updating my website and as part of changing my details on the City Council website I am trying to get all mail to arrive at my private inbox which I can read any-time on my phone, which is particularly useful as I also have a day job. Unfortunately, this is hindered by an unnecessary government regulation that allegedly exists for data protection reasons.

Pauline Joynson: In response to Mr Knowles` letter, I am disappointed by Davids comments concerning myself. David see`s me regularly and we have always had a good working relationship, he has my phone number and has on occasion telephoned my-self concerning numerous matters, and I have always tried to assist him in any way possible.  It was never my intention to ignore him,and I have since contacted him personally.

Paul Billington: At the time of publication we had received no response to our E-mail, we will of course update this when we do.

We also contacted Ian Parker-Joseph Leader of the Libertarian Party: Â  Thank you for your email, although I am not privy to the details of this, and nor should I, your contributor David Knowles has not mentioned over what timescale he has awaited any response, but as requested this would be a generalised response from me.

It is right that we should reasonably expect all elected officials, councillors, MP’s and politicos in general to answer emails wherever possible as quickly as possible. Â Ã‚  However, having said that, I know from experience that some emails are not appropriate in their content when addressed to a particular official, may refer to the remit of another elected official or are the business of departments, such as a planning committee, that require specialist input. In those kind of  cases it may be best practice to refer the email on to the relevent person for them to deal with.

It is not always possible to make immediate responses, circumstances often take control of events and there are of course times, especially where a controversial issue is being discussed that the sheer volume of email queries is so high that responding in a timely manner may not be possible, or it may be that councillors being written to are on holiday, especially at this time of year, and this may also be a factor that may delay any response.

My overall view however is that the general rule should always be that wherever possible constituents emails should be responded to either directly responding to the query or confirming that the email has been passed on to others to action in as timely a fashion as possible.

Have you had E-mails deleted by councillors without them being read?  Is your ward councillor good or bad at responding to E-mails? Do you think that if the council publish councillors E-mail addresses they should be expected to respond to E-mails from people within their wards?