Friday 3 January 2014

Paul Lorber cleared of Code breach over Barham Library by Independent Investigator

Paul Lorber, right kneeling, outside the Barham Library building
Following a complaint by Cllr Powney that Cllr Paul Lorber (Liberal Democrat leader) breached the Council's Code of Conduct for Members an Independent Investigator has made the recommended  finding that he did not breach the Code.

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.
The full report by Alex Oran, Independent Investigator, will be considered by the Committee on Thursday January 9th and can reject the recommendation although Fiona Ledden recommends that the Committee accepts it. The full report is HERE

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:

...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.
I have extracted the following from the report to give a flavour of the issues considered by Alex Oram:
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 expression

The 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.


Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting case, and one that I was not previously aware of. Thank you for (yet again) bringing such matters to our attention, Martin.
Since writing a "guest blog" last month about the need for the Council and the Barham Park Trustees to work together with the local community over the Barham Park buildings, I have become aware of the meeting of the Barham Park Trust Committee which was held on 3 December 2013. This considered a report from a Senior Council Officer on the Trustees options on what they could do following the decision by Planning Committee to refuse their application for a change of use of the former library from community use to business use. Not only did none of the Trustees think to advise me that such a meeting was taking place, but the sensible option which I had put to them in an email on 15 November was not included (or even mentioned) in the report! Instead, they were given only two options, and accepted the option to appeal against the Planning Committee decision (which as a "guest blog" I wrote last November explained, was a correct decision in line with Brent's own planning policies!).
You may be wondering how one Brent Council Committee can appeal against the decision of another Brent Council Committee? They can do so in the name of the Barham Park Trust, which is a separate legal entity, although all of the Trustees are members of Brent's Executive, and all of the work for them is carried out by Brent Council employees. Still confused? Here is the explanation, as given in the minutes of the Barham Park Trust Committee on 3 December:
'In response to queries that members were acting as trustees and not sitting as a Council Committee, Fiona Ledden (Borough Solicitor) explained that although members were sitting as trustees and their role was to consider the needs of the trust foremost, the meeting was a sub committee of the Executive and therefore a Council meeting and would be conducted as constituted under part 4 B of the Constitution.'
Coming back to the "blog" above that I am commenting on, if the Executive sub committee members and/or Trustees (who appear to be wearing two hats at the same time) are incurring futile expenditure out of Brent Council and/or Barham Park Trust funds in appealing against a correct decision of Brent's Planning Committee, in line with Brent's adopted planning policies, are they bringing the Council into disrepute under the Council's Code of Conduct for Members and/or breaching their obligations as Trustees under Charity Commissioners guidelines?
Philip Grant.

Anonymous said...

Do you think Mr Powney will do with himself after May?

Martin Francis said...

The following comment on the above post was received. I have deleted one suggested meaning on grounds of good taste:

WHAT do you think Mr P will do with himself after May?', or does s/he mean, 'Do you think Mr P will do SOMETHING USEFUL with himself after May?' ?

Free meal voucher for 2 at the Queensbury for the correct answer..........?

Anonymous said...

I really should read my posts before PUBLISHING them - sorry Martin
Yes - It was supposed to be "What do you think MR Powney will do with himself after May?"
MR is the important word - NOT Cllr Powney........
That man has caused so much trouble in Brent - and it won't we forgotten for a long time.

Anonymous said...

Although it is not a direct reply to the comment I posted, I have received the following reply from Cllr. Ruth Moher, Chair of the Barham Park Trust, to a detailed email I sent to each of the Trustees about the meeting on 3 December and its decision:
'Dear Mr Grant,
Thank you for your comments. The meeting was publicised in the usual way and it is not the policy of the Council to alert individually people who might be interested. The trustees made their decision based on the information provided, which was full and detailed. The Executive of the Council have been kept fully informed of any proposed actions.'