Monday, 15 December 2014

The council the law and the money

If like me you pay council tax here in Thanet you may be wondering just what is going on with the council and its legal fees.

There is the fifty grand on exonerating the chief executive, see http://www.thanetgazette.co.uk/Council-boss-influence-probe-cost-pound-46-8k/story-25699346-detail/story.html and of course the question; while she was on leave did she receive any wages from the council?

Then there is the twenty grand they spent on trying to stop Cllr Ian Driver from releasing secret documents about the Pleasurama development in Ramsgate, which they are trying to claim back from Ian Driver, who doesn’t have the money.

In both of these cases of course Ian Driver was involved and at the end of the day it looks like seventy grand that should have gone into improving facilities in Thanet has gone into the pockets of lawyers.

Underlying this is that Ian Driver is an elected councillor who seemed to have been doing what a lot locals seem to be saying they want local councillors to do. By this I mean tackle the secrecy surrounding important local issues in the council and point out possible wrongdoing by the senior people running the council.

Now perhaps all of the blame should be laid at the feet of one Ian Driver, perhaps all of the documents that the council would like to keep secret should be kept secret and perhaps no councillor officer should ever be accused of maladministration by the elected councillors. Or conversely perhaps only councillors with sufficient funds to engage in legal battles with the council should be allowed to stand for election.

Putting aside the cost of the business with the chief executive I think the business over the secret council documents is a new one. By this I mean I think the business of a council using the law and the cost of the law to control what a councillor reveals about council projects to effectively gag a councillor is a new one.

Of course you may not like Ian Driver and you may not agree with what he has to say but the business of controlling what he says to the Thanet council taxpayers as their elected representative by using legal facilities that he can’t afford seems to be possibly setting an unfortunate president.

I have to admit to not really knowing the answers to this problem, having been on the receiving end of the council’s lawyers over the Pleasurama information which involved two letters from the council’s solicitor’s both threatening me with a fine or imprisonment, in one instance for linking to an Isle of Thanet Gazette article and in the other instance for linking to the Google cached page of the same article, I came to the conclusion that something isn’t quite right here.

Of course when the council is paying £20k in legal fees to stop a councillor releasing information or a few hundred pounds for a couple of solicitors letters forcing me to remove information from the blog it is actually our money that officers are using and not their own.
I guess one aspect of this is the sledgehammer to crack a nut, inasmuch as the council didn’t use the much cheaper approach of emailing me or phoning me up and asking me to remove the information before going down the expensive route of paying for a solicitor’s letter.      

I guess one lesson here for councillors is if the council serve and injunction against you, don’t try and defend it unless you have several thousand pounds to spare to pay for a barrister.   


I may ramble on here if I get any more ideas about this one.            

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good post.

Couple of issues - Cllr Driver sought to expose matters that he alone considered to be in the public interest. He may well be right - the information contained may well have been in our interest. But, the fact remains that the officers of the council found that it should be restricted. And, he chose to ignore this. He cannot put himself forward as being the only arbiter of what is in the public interest. That would be incredibly dangerous.

The council applied to the courts for an injunction to stop Cllr Driver seeking to do what he wanted to do - drive a coach and horses through confidentiality on the grounds that Driver thinks he knows best. The court agreed with the Council, and Cllr Driver was injuncted.

At this point, anyone sensible would have consulted legal advice. Unfortunately, legal aid is no longer available to fight injunctions - and that is scandalous. But, the fact that Cllr Driver, in spite of making pleas on social media, could not find anyone to represent him, should have given him pause for thought. He is not a stupid man, and yet he chose to go to court, and I cannot believe that he would not have realised the high stakes that he was playing against.

When he lost his appeal in the High Court, damages were awarded against him - this is quite normal. The Court is not complicit in any conspiracy to bankrupt Cllr Driver.

So, while I accept that Cllr Driver truly believed that he was acting in the public interest, I cannot believe that he was so naive as to believe that there might not be some financial consequence should he lose his case against the council. If he didn't believe this, then that opens up another can of worms completely - specifically, does he have the knowledge that he needs to be a councillor, or is he so arrogant that he believes that his legal and political skills are superior to anyone else's?

As for the Chief Executive, actually I think that's money that was necessarily spent. There have been so many accusations of corruption towards officers and members of the council, that finally it is a good thing that we have some kind of proof that the Chief Executive is not guilty of corruption. We can, it would appear, at least trust her.

Anonymous said...

Cllr Driver is also appealing for money on his facebook page, to largely deaf ears (where's all his lefty friends now?).

Michael Child said...

To be honest it is much more the “pour encourager les autres” aspect of this one that worries me.

The main point in this post is that Thanet Council seems to be the first UK council to use the courts as a method of gagging one of it’s elected representatives.

While I can see that the council may well have been in the right and that the documents should be kept secret it would appear that this could only have been fairly determined if councillor Driver had had legal representation.

What I am getting at here is that if the council has decided to use the high courts to resolve standards issues then it should ensure that those councillors sanctioned in this way have proper representation.

What is very important here is that we are talking about our elected representatives and if they feel that the council is withholding information from the public unjustifiably but in attempting to get a fair judgment on the issue they risk bankruptcy then we are moving towards government that is only fair to those who’s representatives can afford it.

Anonymous said...

Yes, those who can afford it... or those that follow the rules that they sign up to, like most other cllrs.

Anonymous said...

The problem here is the party system. No councillors have supported Driver's stance. Yet if the councillor trying to reveal documents had been Labour or Tory they would have been backed up by their mob and this would never have happened. The councillors in the major parties have stood around watching whilst Driver has been beaten up by the officers. They may even have filmed it on their mobiles and posted it online. The major worry for me is that this will drive the independents out of the council and we will be back to the "take-it-in-turns" two party system that has served us so poorly over so many years.

Anonymous said...

Mmm. That's interesting Michael - that one side of a legal argument should provide legal representation for the other? Can't see that catching on in an adversarial system.

The other question is, why didn't the Green Party provide him with legal support? That would surely be more appropriate than expecting one's opponent to do it. Or, did they have a look at it, and decide that it was a lost cause?

Michael Child said...

Anon at 21.28, you miss the point, no councillor signed up to standards being taken to the high court as the first point of adjudication. TDC are breaking new ground here, other councils don’t seem to have used this method

Anonymous said...

TDC may well be the first to take this action. But, perhaps that's because they're the first council to need to - either because their councillors adhere to the code of conduct, or perhaps because they don't have anything to hide.

Could be either.

Anonymous said...

Michael

I don't think that this is so much a standards issue - and even if it were, standards has no teeth, a fact that Cllr Driver knows very well, rather this is about risk management on the part of TDC.

I suspect that the injunction was taken out against Cllr Driver to prevent him from acting as a councillor, and breaching the law in a manner that could have led the council into murky legal water. Yes, the document would have been leaked by Cllr Driver working on his own, but in his capacity as a councillor, he represents the Council's corporate body. A serious breach of confidence (whether it was in the public interest or not) is something that would have opened the Council up to the possibility of legal action being taken against them. If TDC were to be sued by an organisation that has deep pockets, this would probably cost us, as TDC council taxpayers, a damn sight more.

I just would like to see the day when Cllr Driver balanced things up before he takes action, and I'd like to see him remember that, due to the fact that he was elected as a TDC Councillor, he shares some of the corporate responsibility. If he doesn't like it, then he probably shouldn't be a councillor.

I'm not saying that TDC is perfect - God alone knows it isn't, but I wonder if it might be more fruitful to try and change the organisation from within, rather than someone have a lot of fun getting their face in the newspapers at the expense of you and me.

Or, maybe I'm the one that's tripping.

Anonymous said...

Which councillors agreed the document should be secret. And who agreed the court injunction against Driver and the Gazette?

Anonymous said...

Anon 08:42

The usual procedure is that the officers recommend that a document should be restricted in line with the Local Government Act, and reasons are given to the committee. Then a vote is taken in the relevant committee to affirm this recommendation, or to go against it. Usually, one would expect a Councillor to comply with a decision made in committee in this manner.

As to who agreed the court injunction - the court did. The evidence would have been presented before a judge who would decide, on the balance of probabilities, whether the injunction should be granted. Even the most rabid conspiracy theorist can't possibly believe that the judiciary are out to get Driver, can they?

As to who decided to apply for the injunction - who can tell? I would suspect that advice would have been given by the monitoring officer (who is legally qualified) that there would be a risk to the Council; either to its reputation or financial risk, if this document were to be published. Certainly, the decision would not have been taken lightly - it is possible that the court's decision might have gone against the council, after all?

Instead of focussing on the £20K that Cllr Driver now owes the Council, think about what the expense to the council tax payer would have been if the Council had been sued for a breach of confidence. You can be sure that whoever it was wouldn't sue Cllr Driver - he hasn't got enough money, after all, but the Council that he was representing as a Councillor does have money and assets. Whether he honestly believes that he was in the right, he bears corporate responsibility for his actions when he's acting as a councillor.

I applaud his attitude to the secrecy of the Council - it needs to stop. But, some of the more extreme measures that he's taking could end up costing him, and us, serious amounts of money. I just want him to think a little before he acts, and weigh up the consequences of his actions before he jumps.

Anonymous said...

10:23 seems to specialise in answering questions at length but without any knowledge whatsoever except trying to blame Driver for everything.

It was a simple question on who at TDC approved making the documents secret and sought the injunction?

Clearly the council using public funds to prosecute a councillor in their private capacity has ramifications for democracy. Did Iris approve these actions beforehand or not?

Barry James said...

"either to its reputation" odds on this hits the mail on the head