Croydon, where a constituency Labour meeting last summer banned the use of the word “Blairite”, this week saw the words and phrases “Tory government”, “Barwell”, “Conservative”, “Labour”, “Reed” and “May” all proscribed from use by councillors at a full council meeting at the Town Hall.
Election purdah, the period in which council activities have to be strictly neutral to avoid any accusations of partisanship, does not begin until May 5. But Jo Negrini, the council chief executive, was adamant that she had received legal advice that meant that there was to be no political debate in the council chamber.
George Orwell would have been so proud of Negrini’s bizarre interpretation of the rules, which left the leaders of both the Labour and Tory groups on the council looking more confused than usual, and saw councillors tongue-tied as they tried to ask questions of cabinet members without mentioning… well, the unmentionable.
No one tested the point, but it is possible that the words “Thatcher”, “Mayhem” and “Corbyn” might have been allowed under Negrini’s version of Newspeak. Not that anyone in the majority Labour group would have dreamed of using such language in a public meeting.
It means that, effectively, Negrini has shut down the business of the council as far as the borough’s elected representatives are concerned for the next six weeks. The scheduled next cabinet meeting has already been cancelled.
“What’s the point?” one disgruntled Labour cabinet member shrugged.
In true Orwellian fashion, all mention of the scheduled cabinet meeting date has been wiped from the council website, as if it had never existed at all.
Another experienced council official said that the move at the full council meeting, which was held on April 24, a full two weeks before purdah is supposed to begin, demonstrated, “the power and arrogance of officials over councillors”.
Negrini threatened the elected councillors present that if the banned words were used, “in a worst case scenario, election results could be invalidated”. The councillors, including council leader Tony Newman, seemed genuinely astonished at such a ruling.
On Negrini’s orders, council officials had scurried around the council chamber ahead of Monday night’s meeting, placing a last-minute briefing document on councillors’ desks telling them what they could and could not say during a time of “heightened sensitivity” running up to an election.
It rendered the council meeting more pointless than usual, with councillors reduced to discussing the merits, or otherwise, of deputy leader Stuart Collins’s tie. Leopard skin print, in case you’re interested, worn for a bet which will see a three-figure donation made to the Cats Protection League charity.
In the real world outside Negrini’s bubble in Fisher’s Folly, councils conduct the business of running their borough and avoid any political references, or references to council figures associated with a particular political party, during the purdah period. It ensures that publicly funded council press releases, posters and other publicity maintain a semblence of neutrality.
In truth, council activities ought to be conducted in that manner all the time, not just before an election. But politicians from the Croydon duopoly have repeatedly abused council resources to promote their political parties, with the willing participation of senior council officials.
But Negrini claimed that its was the Local Government Association’s advice which had created this pre-purdah shutdown, which she was now applying above and beyond the restrictions contained in the 1986 Local Government Act.
“In addition a Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity published in 2011 makes clear that particular care should be taken in periods of heightened sensitivity, such as in the run up to an election,” Jacqueline Harris-Baker, the new Borough Solicitor, wrote in a note circulated on Monday afternoon to all councillors. “The Act defines publicity as ‘any communication, in whatever form, addressed to the public at large or to a section of the public’.”
Negrini and Harris-Baker maintained that even the council meeting itself was “publicity” and therefore in their view it came under the definition.
Negrini was unable to answer whether tweets and other social media postings sent from the chamber using the council’s resources – that is, the Town Hall wi-fi – would be covered by the restriction.
- Inside Croydon is Croydon’s only independent news source, still based in the heart of the borough. In 2016, we averaged 17,000 page views every week
- If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, a residents’ or business association or a local event to publicise, please email us with full details at email@example.com
Don’t understand why Negrini couldn’t answer on Tweets etc. “Communication, in whatever form” seems simple enough to understand. Also it is addressed to the public or section of the public as otherwise who is it addressed to? I’ll send her my legal consultancy fee invoice.
Does your legal expertise run to possessing a 2017 calendar or diary? If so, David, can you advise whether we have yet reached May 5, or not…
My calendar stops at April 30th so as to avoid reaching a new decade!!!!!
This is another clear example of Negrini exceeding her authority and attempting to control the elected members of the council. She is the employee of the Council yet acts as if she is the employer.
There were several cases under the last administration where the previous Chief Executive exceeded his authority and threatened Councillors.
It is about time that the ruling party decide to take back control and put their officers back in their place. As someone correctly stated, this demonstrates “the power and arrogance of officials over councillors”.
The threat of invalidating election results is so disgraceful that Negrini should be dismissed forthwith.
There is something seriously wrong with the legal advisors feeding her this nonsense and putting them back in their place as advisors rather than instructors is long overdue.
I could not agree more with the last two paragraphs of Adrian Dennis’ comment.
Having ‘defined’ “publicity” as any communication in whatever form addressed to the public at large, how do a supposedly senior legal eagle and an experienced Chief Executive, both paid a vast amount of Residents hard-earned cash, explain why, at Council Meeting the exchanges, between Parties in the chamber which are not addressed to the public gallery, can be banned?
Reblogged this on sed30's Blog.