The council admits it used public resources to hire the Queen’s solicitors to make threats of libel action on behalf of Tony Newman and Jo Negrini.
STEVEN DOWNES, Editor of Inside Croydon, writes that in doing so, the council’s senior legal staff may have broken the law
Official accounts show that last year Croydon Council paid £25,434 to Harbottle and Lewis, a firm of solicitors who more usually act on behalf of the Queen.
While the records made public by the council fail to specify what Harbottle and Lewis’s services involved, the timing of these payments coincides exactly with the period when the solicitors had been writing multiple letters to Inside Croydon to threaten libel action on behalf of Tony Newman and Jo Negrini, who were at the time the leader of the council and its chief executive.
Inside Croydon robustly rejected the threats made by Harbottle and Lewis’s high-powered legal team. All the articles mentioned in their complaints on behalf of Newman and Negrini remain published, unaltered, on this website.
Indeed, particularly in the case of our reporting of Newman’s failure to go to the police over a violent sexual assault against a young woman by one of his councillor colleagues, this website had a public interest defence prepared and was ready to give evidence in the High Court.
Now, nearly two years later and after repeated excuses, refusals and delays, Croydon Council has recently managed to respond to a Freedom of Information request and a direction from the Information Commissioner which ordered them to release the internal correspondence involving Newman and Negrini and Harbottle and Lewis.
Claiming to have acted on advice from the swanky Savoy Court solicitors, the council has still refused to release some of the emails and other documents from the widely discredited ex-councillor and his former CEO.
But documents which the council has released under the FoI clearly show that the threatened libel action against this website, and the engagement of Harbottle and Lewis, was carried out under the direction of Jacqueline Harris-Baker, then the council’s most senior in-house lawyer, and Sean Murphy, effectively her deputy.
As the council’s monitoring officer, Harris-Baker was responsible for ensuring that the highest ethical standards should be maintained by council staff and councillors, that the Nolan Principles of conduct in public office should be upheld, and that the law should be followed.
However, in using the council’s legal department’s time and resources, and by hiring Harbottle and Lewis for a possible libel action, it seems very likely that Harris-Baker and her assistant, Murphy, together with Newman and Negrini, were all acting in contravention of The Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) Order 2004, article 6 (3).
This legal order is supposed to prevent council staff (“officers”) and elected councillors (“members”) from using the tax-payer funded resources of their local authority to fund libel cases.
Since 1993, it has been the law that local authorities are not allowed to sue for defamation. As experienced public sector lawyers, Harris-Baker and Murphy really ought to have been aware of this. As the council’s highest-paid official, on £220,000 per year, it is something that Negrini, too, should have known. As a councillor since 1994, even Newman could not claim ignorance as an excuse.
Until very recently, it had been impossible to file a formal complaint to Croydon Council about this apparent breach of the law and possible misuse of thousands of pounds of public money because any such report would have been directed to the desk of the monitoring officer… Jacqueline Harris-Baker. Or to her deputy… Sean Murphy.
Even when Inside Croydon obtained the support of the Information Commissioner to try to uncover who was behind the questionable legal spending by the council, Katherine Kerswell, by now installed as the council’s new CEO, referred the matter for review to… Sean Murphy. This was not the “corporate blindness” of which the council has been justifiably accused. This was the executive wagons being well and truly circled.
Now, none of the quartet at the centre of this piece of costly legalistic hubris is any longer working at Fisher’s Folly.
“Negreedy” was the first to scarper, in August 2020, with the council’s finances collapsing around her ears. She didn’t make her exit before ensuring she had stuffed a £440,000 “golden farewell” into the pockets of her neatly tailored trouser suit, though.
Newman quit as council leader last October, then was suspended by the Labour Party for his part in the council’s financial collapse. He finally resigned as a councillor earlier this year, although it is suggested that he retains some influence in the Croydon Labour Party.
Harris-Baker, after a lengthy spell of sick leave, recently resigned from her council job. Although she was never actually suspended, Harris-Baker was among five senior executives who faced the possibility of disciplinary action over their parts in the council’s financial collapse.
Before he left Croydon in April, Murphy had been the council’s head of commercial and property law, and therefore played a prominent part in the council’s purchase of properties, such as the Croydon Park Hotel, overseeing the operation of Brick by Brick, the Westfield CPO and also any legal issues arising from the council’s planning policies. Murphy is now working for the Department of Health and Social Care as interim head of commercial law for the NHS Test and Trace programme.
While it cannot be certain that the whole of the £25,000 in bills from Harbottle and Lewis were solely relating to legal threats against Inside Croydon, it seems very likely that most, if not all, of the payments were for this action. Even a senior member of the council’s current legal team has suggested as much.
The first Harbottle and Lewis letters on behalf of Newman arrived in December 2019.
They referred to two articles, Council leader delayed reporting violent incident to police, which we published on November 27 2019, and Fears that Newman cover-up could impact Jones’s election, published on November 30, just days before the 2019 General Election.
Then, on February 21, 2020, we received another threat from the suits, this time on behalf of Negrini.
Negrini had the right ’ump with us because of an article published that January entitled Negrini’s legacy on housing is also costing Newham millions.
Our report dealt with the plight of Red Door Ventures, an arm’s length house-builder in the borough of Newham where the Labour-run local authority was struggling to deliver homes for local residents and profits to the council.
If this all sounds familiar, then you should not be surprised. Negrini had worked at Newham before bringing her talents, such as they are, and Brick by Brick to Croydon.
As with the previous legal threats, we rejected Harbottle and Lewis’s claims entirely.
But this time, the Queen’s lawyers did respond to one of our questions by stating, “We write in our client’s capacity as chief executive of the council.”
Clearly, Harbottle and Lewis thought that they were being paid by and acting on behalf of council official, Negrini, rather than private individual Negrini.
Which appears to mean that Negrini was acting in contravention of that Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) Order from 2004 which states, “No indemnity may be provided under this Order in relation to the making by the member or officer indemnified of any claim in relation to an alleged defamation of that member or officer…”.
Some might regard such actions by someone in public office as being an abuse of their position.
More recently, in their latest correspondence over the FoI request, the council has claimed responsibility as the clients of Harbottle and Lewis. “It is Croydon Council who instructed the firm of solicitors and the firm represented Jo Negrini in her capacity as chief executive,” wrote Nicola Thoday, the council’s senior corporate solicitor, in a letter to Inside Croydon last month.
In seeking full disclosure of the correspondence, we had made a public interest argument, which includes considerations such as any apparent lack of transparency in the public authority’s actions or whether there was a large amount of money involved.
On this latter point, Thoday’s response states, “The amounts paid to Harbottle and Lewis Solicitors are already available in the public domain, thus meeting the public interest regarding the spending of monies.”
Now Croydon Council spends millions of pounds on external legal advice every year, but the monthly accounts of spending amounts of £500 or more show no payments to Harbottle and Lewis at all for the first three months of 2020.
Then, in April that year, there are four invoices from Harbottle and Lewis that receive payment. In May, there’s a further payment from the council to the solicitors. After that, Harbottle and Lewis make no further appearances in the council’s records of its spending for the rest of 2020. So unless the council was trying to sue someone else in late 2019 and early 2020, it seems reasonable to assume that all these payments to Harbottle and Lewis relate to their work on Inside Croydon.
- On April 6 2020, Croydon paid Harbottle and Lewis £13,197.50 for an invoice dated March 30.
- On April 9, they paid them £5,137.50.
- On April 15, the payment was £4,356.00.
- On April 27, Harbottle and Lewis received £1,902.50.
- And on May 15, they got a further £840.50.
All of these payments are listed as for “legal services” under an account description of “third party solicitors fees”. All are assigned to “Chief Executive’s Office” as their cost centre.
In her letter, Thoday denies that the council’s attempts to avoid responding to the FoI request were in any way deliberate, as the final response was delayed until after the four figures at the centre of interest had, conveniently, all left Croydon Council.
“The processing of your review was not deliberately delayed whilst key individuals left the council, to avoid the necessity for disciplinary action to be considered against them,” Thoday said. “Some individuals had already left before this review commenced.” She blamed covid and the council’s financial collapse for the slow response. Conveniently.
At the heart of this matter has always been a question we put to Harbottle and Lewis when we replied to their first legal threat on behalf of Tony Newman: “How is your client funding his legal representation?”
After nearly two years, at last we have an answer to our question about who was paying: it was the Council Tax-payers of Croydon all along.
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