Friday 27 November 2015

Standards at Brent Council - An open letter to Carolyn Downs

Regular readers will be aware of Wembley Matters' attempt to hold Brent Council and its leader Muhammed Butt to account. No one has been more consistent and persistent in this than Philip Grant who has written this Guest Blog. Philip is not affiliated to any political party but deeply committed to upholding standards in public life.

This post is much longer than I usually publish but I urge readers to read it and its attachments so that they are fully aware of the issues involved. The 'Challenge' document lists the full allegations against Muhammed Butt.

Standards at Brent Council – an open letter to Carolyn Downs

In a recent “blog” I referred to the “scales of justice”, which form part of Brent Council’s Coat of Arms LINK. Experience suggests that “scales of injustice” is now a more accurate symbol of the Council, where the interests of Cllr. Butt and his closest allies outweigh the rights of Brent’s citizens (and of its employees who were victims of the Cara Davani HR regime). The inscription that I visualise over the Civic Centre reads: ‘Punish the weak and protect the wrongdoer’. If you cannot see it too, perhaps that is because it has been covered up! I invite you to read this blog, and to add your views as comments. 
Question: When is a breach of Brent’s Members’ Code of Conduct ‘outside of the scope of the Code’?
Answer: When you are Cllr. Muhammed Butt.
Five months ago (on 18 June 2015) I made a complaint to Brent Council’s Monitoring Officer, Fiona Alderman, alleging a number of breaches of the Members’ Code of Conduct by the Leader of the Council. I added further allegations against him in emails of 21 July and 18 September. The breaches included failures to comply with all seven of the general conduct principles which Council members must comply with, under the Code, in order to maintain the high standard of conduct required of them: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.
These allegations should have been referred to the Council’s Standards Committee at its meeting on 1 October 2015. On the eve of the agenda for that meeting being published, I was told by the Monitoring Officer that she would not be referring them, as ‘these matters are beyond the scope of the actions or behaviours of an individual member and are therefore outside of the scope of the Code.’ I immediately wrote to Ms Alderman and to Brent’s new Chief Executive, Carolyn Downs, to challenge that decision, and it was agreed that they would review the case in discussion with ‘the Independent Person’.
After a further two months, I received the result of that review, which effectively restates the Monitoring Officer’s original view, as if it were fact, that the detailed allegations of breaches of Brent’s Members’ Code of Conduct which I made do not come within that Code of Conduct. When I read the absolute nonsense contained in Ms Downs email to me of 18 November, I knew that I had to reply, not only to show that it was wrong, but to set out in detail why it was wrong.
As well as being serious allegations which quite clearly related to breaches of the Code by Cllr. Butt in the performance of his role as a Council member, the Monitoring Officer’s failure to follow the rules in Brent’s Constitution and its adopted Standards procedure meant that the allegations could not be dealt with openly and transparently. My allegations against Cllr. Butt were being covered up, and the Standards Committee (the body which could be held publicly to account for its decisions) was being prevented from dealing with them. I was also concerned to find, when trying to discover who the ‘Independent Person’ was who had been consulted over my challenge, that Brent does not appear to have had a properly appointed ‘Independent Person’ for Standards purposes (under the Localism Act 2011) for the past 18 months!
I am setting out below, in the public interest, the text of my open letter to Carolyn Downs. The appendices to the letter are in a pdf document attached, as is the text of my “challenge” to the Monitoring Officer of 23 September. How Brent’s new Chief Executive and Brent’s Standards Committee (whose members have also been sent copies of these documents) deal with my letter will tell us much about their openness and integrity.

27 November 2015

Dear Ms Downs,
Failure by the Monitoring Officer to refer my allegations of breaches of Brent’s Members’ Code of Conduct to Standards Committee
I am writing in reply to your email to me of 18 November 2015. You will see that I am treating this as an open letter. I intend to copy it to the members of Brent’s Standards Committee, for reasons which I will explain below, and to make it publicly available, in the interests of openness and transparency.
I do not accept the justification(s) which you have given, on behalf of the Monitoring Officer and the ‘Independent Person’, for why the detailed allegations which I made to the Monitoring Officer on 18 June, 21 July and 18 September 2015 should not be referred to Brent Council’s Standards Committee. I will set out my reasons for this at 1. and Appendix A below. As some of my points refer to a document which I sent to you and Ms Alderman on the evening of 23 September, I am attaching a copy of that document, for ease of reference.
By not referring my allegations to Standards Committee, the Monitoring Officer has failed to abide by Brent’s Constitution, and the Standards procedures adopted by the Council. My reasons for this statement are given at 2. below.
There also appear to be irregularities, and a possible breach by Brent Council of the Localism Act 2011, over the ‘Independent Person’ who is said to have been consulted over my allegations, as set out in Appendix B below.
1.1  I believe I have shown, both in my “challenge” of 23 September and in Appendix A of this letter, that the statements made, as if they were facts, by or in support of the Monitoring Officer’s view, are arguments which are plainly incorrect. The serious allegations I have made, in good faith, are allegations of breaches of the Members’ Code of Conduct by Cllr. Muhammed Butt, and cannot be dismissed as if they were matters which do not fall within that Code.

To give one example, the serious nature of my complaint of 18 June can be seen by the fact that the allegations include improperly conferring an advantage on two senior Council officers. One of those officers (according to separate allegations which are in the public domain, and for which Ms Alderman’s department may hold at least circumstantial evidence) may have had a “hold” over Cllr. Butt, which in turn may have influenced his behaviour as a Council member. If the Council’s Leader is party to actions which do not serve the public interest, but instead serve the mutual self-interests of himself and one or two senior officers, that would be a very serious breach of the principle of selflessness, which the Code requires all members to follow.

2.1  As I pointed out to Ms Alderman, by reference to Part 5 of Brent’s Constitution, in my email of 24 July, and repeated on 23 September at paragraph 1.3 of my “challenge” (attached), the Monitoring Officer has a duty to refer those allegations to Standards Committee. It is that committee which then decides ‘whether to ask the Monitoring Officer to investigate allegations … or to take no further action.’
2.2  The position I have just set out is confirmed in Part 2 of the Constitution. Article 9.3 states:
‘the function of the Standards Committee is to promote and maintain high standards of conduct by councillors and co-opted members and hear allegations of misconduct against members.’
The functions of the Monitoring Officer, at Article 13.5, include:
‘© Supporting the Standards Committee:
The Monitoring Officer will contribute to the promotion and maintenance of high standards of conduct through the provision of support to the Standards Committee.’
By not referring my allegations of breaches of the Members’ Code of Conduct to Standards Committee, Ms Alderman is not supporting the functions of that committee, she is usurping them. The committee cannot carry out its function of hearing allegations of misconduct against members if those allegations are concealed from them by the Monitoring Officer.
2.3  Although Ms Alderman has not referred to it in her correspondence with me on this matter, I am aware that there is a “Procedure for dealing with complaints under the Members’ Code of Conduct”, which was adopted by the Council in July 2012. Section 4 of that procedure (“Will the complaint be investigated?”) does give the Monitoring Officer the right to review every complaint made, and to decide, in some cases, to take no further action over the complaint. However, that is not a power which she can use at her own discretion - she can only do so within the detailed rules set out in Section 4.
There are three possible outcomes for complaints which are allegations of breaches of the Members’ Code of Conduct. The first two are:
(i)             ‘No formal investigation and no further action paragraph (4.6) below;
(ii)           No formal investigation and local resolution paragraph (4.8) below.’
The nature of my allegations does not fall within those listed at 4.6, and they are not matters which could be dealt with by local action under 4.8 (and have not been dealt with as such).
The third outcome is that the allegation will be dealt with under Section 5, which begins:
‘5.1 Where a complaint does not fall within paragraph 4.6 or 4.8 the case shall be referred to the Standards Committee for a decision as to whether the complaint merits formal investigation.’
If the Monitoring Officer had been following the proper procedure set out by the Council for dealing with Members’ Code of Conduct complaints, 5.1 would have been the outcome.
2.4 The failure by the Monitoring Officer to refer my allegations to Scrutiny Committee also goes against the principles of openness and accountability (which are supposed to be enshrined in Brent’s Constitution, through the purposes set out at Article 1.4). In order for Brent’s residents to have confidence that high standards of conduct are being promoted and maintained in the borough, it must be seen that Standards Committee is considering allegations made by citizens (or by other Council members). The committee needs to carry out its role openly, rather than the matter being secretly covered-up by a Council Officer, so that there is an effective means of holding those who make decisions on such allegations to public account.
2.5  It appears that the Monitoring Officer’s treatment of my allegations against Cllr. Butt may not be an isolated case. I am aware of a complaint made on behalf of a residents’ association in February 2015, against another Cabinet member. The Monitoring Officer’s reply, received more than two months later, was that ‘the complaint does not fall within the Brent Code of Conduct.’ When the complainant challenged this, on the grounds that the member had failed to comply with the Code’s principles of accountability and openness, the reply remained:
‘I do not accept that this falls within the Members’ Code of Conduct …’
3.1 Throughout this matter, I have put my points to the Monitoring Officer, and since 23 September to you also, in a reasoned and reasonable way. In response, I feel that I have been “fobbed-off”. That is why I am making this letter publicly available, and copying it to the members of Standards Committee. I hope that the committee will be able to persuade the Monitoring Officer to properly refer all of my allegations to them, where I have failed to persuade her. I do not personally expect to receive a reply to this letter from you, other than an acknowledgement that you have received it. You may, however, need to reply to any points arising from this letter raised by others who may be concerned by its contents.
3.2  I hope that you will treat this letter as a complaint, although it is not a complaint to which I require a formal answer. I do not wish this complaint to be directed at a single individual, but I would like the various errors I have highlighted to be properly considered, and lessons learned from them. I realise that you have been Brent’s Chief Executive for less than three months, but (as I tried to say in the Deputation to Full Council, which I was not permitted to present on 7 September) I believe there are problems with the “culture” which Senior Officers and members have allowed to develop at Brent Council in recent years.
3.3  Here are some quotations, which I am sure you will recognise from your former role at the Local Government Association:
·      ‘a council in denial’;
·      ‘a culture of covering up uncomfortable truths’;
·      ‘some members have not set and modelled the high standards expected of those in public life’;
·      the council ‘has a culture of suppressing bad news and ignoring difficult issues’;
·      the council ‘goes to some length to cover up information and to silence whistle-blowers.’
Although not in the same context, I believe (from my own experience) that these criticisms are as applicable to Brent Council as Louise Casey found them to be in her “Report of Inspection of Rotherham Borough Council”, published in February 2015. 

I wish you luck in your efforts to turn Brent Council around. Promoting high standards of conduct, and dealing properly with breaches of those standards, must be a key part of the necessary improvements.

Yours sincerely,
Philip Grant


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Go, Philip!

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous, 27 Nov. at 17:57:

Noted, thank you!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your encouragement, Anonymous at 11:18.

However, my voice alone is not going to bring about a change in the poor standards of conduct we have experienced at Brent Council since at least 2012. Brent's elected councillors need to speak out as well, which is why I tried to encourage them to join the new Chief Executive in tackling this problem at the Full Council meeting on 7 September, see:

That may also be why those in power prevented me from speaking to Full Council!

Now the members of Brent's Standards Committee have the chance to 'promote and maintain high standards of conduct', which is, after all, their purpose, by taking up the failure by the Monitoring Officer to refer complaints of breaches of the Members' Code of Conduct to them. They will be under pressure from those in power to ignore my open letter above (particularly because of who my complaint is against!).

Any Brent resident reading this can give their support to my efforts by emailing their local ward councillors, referring to my open letter, and asking them to urge their colleagues on Standards Committee to insist that my allegations of breaches of the Members' Code of Conduct by the Council Leader are referred to the committee, so that they can be considered openly and transparently. If you do send an email, please copy it to Brent's Chief Executive at: . Thank you.

Philip Grant.

Anonymous said...


The draft minutes of the Standards Committee meeting held on 1 October 2015, now available on the Brent Council website, include the following item:

'6. Any other urgent business

Notice of items to be raised under this heading must be given in writing to the Head of Executive and Member Services or his representative before the meeting in accordance with Standing Order 64.


Reference was made to allegations of misconduct that had been recently emailed to councillors by a member of the public. The Monitoring Officer advised that under the procedure, she would be considering the complaint with the Chief Executive and the independent person. If necessary, there would be a referral to a special meeting of the Standards Committee.'

Even if the Monitoring Officer does not take any action in response to my open letter to Carolyn Downs, any member of the committee can raise this point under "matters arising" at the next meeting on 7 January 2016.

Philip Grant.

Anonymous said...

Noted - has anyone sought independent legal advice?