After a delay of 18 months, largely caused by incompetence by council officials, Stevenage Borough Council (SBC) Standards Committee eventually sent its report on Chells Labour borough councillor Howard Burrell to full council at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) on 10.6.2014. The main findings of the report were that Cllr. Burrell had breached the Code of Conduct for councillors, failed to treat SBC Liberal Democrat opposition leader, Manor borough councillor and Chells county councillor, Robin Parker, with respect and that he should apologize to Cllr. Parker.
Speaking at the council AGM, Cllr. Parker said “I was the injured party. Despite the inadequate officer report and Standards Committee decision, I have graciously accepted Cllr. Burrell’s apology to me.”
On the evening of Monday 21.1.2013, Cllr. Parker and his Liberal Democrat colleague Graham Snell, organized one of their series of Residents’ Meetings in the church hall of the Church of St. Hugh and St. John in Mobbsbury Way, notified to all properties in Chells Ward and Manor Ward by leaflets, all paid for from their local SBC budgets. Any local resident was invited to attend and to raise any issues of concern. Robin Parker was to chair the meeting, with Graham Snell alongside him at the front. Before the meeting, Graham and Robin provided light refreshments for the dozen or so residents who attended on what was a very cold, icy and snowy evening.
Shortly before the scheduled start of the meeting at 19.30, Cllr. Burrell, who had no involvement with the organization of the meeting, entered the church hall and took one of the reserved seats for Robin and Graham at the front. He arrived with another man, who sat in the audience. Before the start time, and before Robin and Graham were in their seats, Cllr. Burrell announced that he was starting the meeting, that it was his meeting, that he was chairing the meeting and that he should have been told about the meeting. Having hi-jacked the meeting, he then asked Robin questions about the organization of the meeting.
During the approximately ten minutes that Cllr. Burrell shouted, he twice called Robin Parker a liar. He also said that the Chief Executive of SBC had lied.
There was no argument between Cllr. Burrell and Robin or Graham. It was simply a tirade from Cllr. Burrell directed at Robin. After about ten minutes, Cllr. Burrell and his lackey left the meeting and did not return. Perplexed residents asked “Who was he?” and commented that it was a disgraceful display of bad manners and rudeness.
Following the attempt to disrupt the meeting, Robin chaired a successful Residents’ Meeting at which various important local issues were dealt with.
Robin says “I waited for a month after the meeting, until 21.2.2013, to see if Cllr. Burrell was going to apologize, but I heard nothing from him. Consequently, I referred him to the SBC Standards process with a formal complaint. Local resident Andy McGuinness (since elected as Liberal Democrat borough councillor for SBC Manor Ward) who had been in the audience at the meeting, also lodged a formal complaint to SBC. Cllr. Graham Snell provided a witness statement.
After long delays caused by incompetence of SBC officials, a report (acknowledging the breaches of the Code by Cllr. Burrell and that he failed to treat Robin with respect and recommending the apology) finally went to a Standards Committee meeting on 31.1.2014, which accepted the report’s findings and, after further delays by SBC officials, the findings of the Standards Committee meeting were reported to the SBC AGM on 10.6.2014.
Robin Parker commented “This was not a normal argument between politicians. Rather it was a rude and unprecedented slanderous public attack on me and, more important, a huge insult to the local residents who had attended on a very cold, snowy and icy winter’s evening, to raise important local issues with Graham and I. It was therefore necessary to take Cllr. Burrell’s actions to the Standards Committee. I am pleased that they agreed with me.”
Robin said “Standards Committee came back with a woefully inadequate conclusion and remedy because I had already made clear that an apology was also needed for the residents, and that there were several breaches of the code by Cllr. Burrell, not one. One wonders in how much detail they understood the papers. However, people are people so, inadequate or not, one has to accept it.”
At the AGM, Robin listed some ways in which the SBC officer investigation was a farce:
- It took over 6 months.
- No-one was interviewed.
- Assertions were made but not tested.
- Report was badly written and full of errors.
- Having delayed for months, there was a sudden tight deadline for comments, giving insufficient time to respond.
- One breach of the code was ignored.
- They seemed to think it was a ‘normal’ argument between politicians.
- When these and other failings in the officers’ investigation report were pointed out, no corrective action was taken by council officers.
At the SBC AGM, newly elected borough councillor, Andy McGuinness, also tried to speak on this item. He had been present at the attempted hi-jack on 21.1.2013. He was stopped from speaking after about 30 seconds by a mixture of incompetent chairing by Labour’s mayor and the Chief Executive, and not allowed to resume speaking, despite requests from himself and Robin Parker. The latter comments: “I have never heard of a member being stopped from making a maiden speech, let alone to have this done in such a muddled and clearly uncomprehending way by those notionally ‘in charge’.”
Robin concluded: “The Chief Executive and others need to get a better grip on who does investigations like this, monitor progress better and make sure that if a similar situation ever arises again that we get a professional, as opposed to an obviously amateur, report.”