|Paul Lorber, right kneeling, outside the Barham Library building|
Cllr Powney was the architect of the Library Transformation Project that closed six of Brent's 12 libraries, including Barham Library.
Councillor Powney alleged that during an email exchange with Mr Duncan Smith, Artistic Director of the Association for Cultural Advancement through Visual Arts ACAVA), in September 2013, about the organisation's proposed tenure of the library building, Councillor Lorber:
- adopted a tone that was both offensive and intimidating
- disclosed confidential information in relation to ACAVA's proposed tenancy
- improperly used his position as a councillor to confer or attempt to confer an advantage to the Friends of Barham Library, a charity on whih Cllr Lorber acted as trustee.
Although the discussion could turn into a political Punch and Judy Show this thoughtful report merits a calm discussion on the role of councillors, their community involvements and what constitutes 'robust' communication.
This was recognised by the Independent Person, Sola Afuape who accepted the recommendation but according to Fiona Ledden:
I have extracted the following from the report to give a flavour of the issues considered by Alex Oram:...did however consider that there are a number of issues that give rise to questions and concerns coming out of the report, which she considered would be helpful to explore in discussions at the Standards Committee. The issue around conflict of interests, given the different roles a councillor may have in the community, should be considered. It may be helpful for clear written advice to assist members and enable the committee to promote integrity and probity as well as transparency. Brent has a very diverse community which could lead to councillors being in positions where conflicts arise, from competing community groups, hence clear published guidance would assist members in making sure proper declarations are made.
In considering whether this amounts to a breach of the Code I consider it important that members should be able to express themselves in a robust manner that allows them to be passionate. While Councillor Lorber’s comments and questions were direct and forceful, none were in my view offensive or demeaning.In my experience organisations whose work involves either the receipt of public money or their entering into contracts with a local authority should be prepared for tough questioning. Mr Smith was clearly not used to being challenged in the way that he was in this instance. While I acknowledge Mr Smith’s right to respond in the manner that he did, at no stage in the correspondence did Councillor Lorber cross the line from robust questioning into personal abuse or anything resembling the defamation he was accused of. Nor did the overall context of the exchange – email communications between Councillor Lorber, Mr Duncan, the ACAVA trustees and then the entire Council - render Mr Duncan at a disadvantage in any way as would be the case had Councillor Lorber attacked him or his charity in the Council chamber.I consider that Councillor Lorber’s comments were political or quasi-political in nature and benefit from a high level of protection under the Human Rights legislation. With this in mind my view is that the bar Councillor Lorber would have to cross, in terms of disrespectful behaviour, to breach the code is set high. While I am of the view that some of Councillor Lorber’s comments were ill judged and unwise, it is my view that Councillor Lorber’s comments were not so serious as to amount to a failure to comply with paragraph 3(1) of the Code and that any such finding would be a disproportionate restriction on Councillor Lorber’s right to freedom of expressionThe Localism Act makes it clear that it is proper for councillors to play an active part in local discussions and that people can elect their councillor confident in the knowledge that they will be able to act on the issues they care about and have campaigned on. In many cases councillors themselves will have a long track record of community activism before they were elected – their inspiration to serve their local communities will often have its roots in community work. The Act encourages councillors to reshape their role away from bureaucratically-driven, paper-heavy meetings and processes, to much more creative roles leading and energising their local communities and encouraging self-organised groups to be ambitious.
In trying to advantage the Friends of Barham Library Councillor Lorber was attempting to further a goal which he believed would bring a clear benefit to the community he represents. Councillor Lorber has maybe taken a more proactive role than many councillors might have under similar circumstances. However I have found no evidence that Councillor Lorber’s financial interests or those of his family or associates would be affected in any way by the outcome of any part of his correspondence with Mr Smith. In this regard I note that the Friends of Barham Library is answerable to the Charity Commission for its activities as a registered charity and that it is a Company guaranteed without share.
In my view, the threshold for a failure to comply with paragraph 5 of the Code in the case of expressions of view has to be set at a level that allows for the passion and fervour that often accompanies political debate or exchanges relating to decisions made by the Council. This is entirely consistent with the objective of maintaining proper standards in public life. In my view at no time did Councillor Lorber conduct himself in a manner that one might view as reducing the public’s confidence in him to able to fulfil his role; or adversely affecting the reputation of members generally.