CROYDON LABOUR IN CRISIS: Shawcross joins condemnation of senior Labour councillors after they are let off lightly for breaking ethics rules.
EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES
Right to the bitter end, Paul Scott and Alison Butler, the couple who were at the core of the Croydon Labour cabal which bankrupted the borough, were bending the council rules to breaking point and beyond.
That has been confirmed by a ruling from the council’s most senior legal officer, released last night, which says that Butler and Scott broke the Town Hall Code of Conduct by attending, speaking at (in Scott’s case) and voting at a meeting to discuss the latest Report In The Public Interest to be slapped on their wretched administration, this time over the shambolic refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls.
Neither Butler nor Scott made any formal declaration of interests, even though Butler, as the former council cabinet member for homes, was criticised by the auditors who produced the RIPI as one of those responsible for the £67million Fairfield Halls fiasco, starting with the disastrous decision to hand the refurbishment work to in-house house-builders Brick by Brick.
Just as troubling, none of their councillor colleagues thought there might be anything a bit dodgy about allowing the husband of one of those singled out by auditors critical of the Fairfield refurbishment to speak at the meeting. Labour’s chief whip, Clive “Thirsty” Fraser, saw nothing wrong in including Scott as one of the councillors to cross-examine Grant Thornton.
But the disciplinary report, compiled by interim Monitoring Officer John Jones, reveals that Butler had spoken to him before the meeting, held in the Town Hall Chamber on February 3. But Jones allowed her to attend the meeting without any declaration of interest.
Although both Butler and Scott lost their cabinet-level positions (and most of their combined allowances of more than £90,000) when the council’s finances crashed in late 2020, both have remained as councillors and have continued to play influential roles, with full voting rights, in the behind-the-scenes meetings of the Labour group at the Town Hall.
Butler was deputy to the discredited council leader Tony Newman from 2014 until 2020. Some Labour insiders even described her as “the brains” behind the Blairite clique which ran Croydon Council.
Butler is also notorious as the ex-lover of David Evans, now the General Secretary of the Labour Party.
This latest transgression seems likely to be the last time that Butler and her husband Scott will ever break the Nolan Principles for conduct in public life. They have attended their final council meeting and are standing down as councillors at the local elections in five weeks’ time.
The couple’s actions in even attending the Fairfield Halls council meeting has brought condemnation from those who are standing for election on May 5, including from Val Shawcross, Labour’s candidate for elected Mayor.
Shawcross, who has pledged to have a copy of the Nolan Principles emblazoned across the wall of the Mayor’s office should she be elected next month, today told Inside Croydon that it was “obvious and a matter of commonsense and decency” that Butler and Scott ought to have declared their interests.
Butler, who represents Bensham Manor ward, and Scott (Woodside) have been councillors since 2002, so any excuse about them not knowing or understanding the rules won’t wash. Yet in the report from the Monitoring Officer, the couple are excused anything more than a mild reprimand because their failure to abide by the Code of Conduct “stems from a lack of understanding” and what he called “issues of misunderstanding”.
It might be argued that those “issues of misunderstanding” arise from the couple being accustomed to being protected by their Balirite mates in Newman’s numpties.
“They’ve considered themselves as being above the rules for years,” a Katharine Street source said today. “It must come as a terrible shock to them that they are not, in fact, above good, ethical practice after all.”
Scott has spent eight years never having to declare an interest at all, thanks to a “special dispensation” arranged for him by the discredited ex-leader of the council, Tony Newman. The dispensation meant that as chair and member of the planning committee, while working as an architect, Scott never once reclused himself from a decision that involved current or former colleagues and past or present clients. Scott’s firm, TP Bennett, have in the past worked on projects in London for Westfield.
Monitoring Officer Jones, took nearly two months to reach his judgement, in part because Butler and Scott delayed matters with a referral to the Ethics Committee’s “independent person”, as they had an entitlement to do.
But there is more than a suspicion that Jones also opted to wait until after the last full council meeting of the administration, which was held last week, before issuing what is a pretty damning ruling.
But Jones has decided against taking any disciplinary action against Butler and Scott for this blatant breach of the ethical code, only suggesting some training for the soon-to-be ex-councillors.
Perhaps even more extraordinarily, Jones revealed in his ruling that he was unaware that Butler and Scott are a married couple.
In his lengthy report, Jones wrote, “In law, it is the responsibility of each councillor to consider for themselves whether or not there are interests which ought to be declared and members are encouraged to seek advice from the Monitoring Officer if they are unsure.”
Jones ruled that the fact that Butler and Scott jointly own at least two properties is not a “disclosable pecuniary interest”, or DPI.
“Where a matter arises at a meeting which directly relates to a members’ financial interest or well-being… or a financial interest or well-being of a relative or close associate, the member is required to disclose the interest. The member may speak on the matter only if members of the public are also allowed to speak at the meeting. Otherwise the member must not take part in any discussion or vote on the matter and must not remain in the room unless the member has been granted a dispensation.” There was no public participation in February’s closely stage-managed ECM.
According to Jones, “Anything that could affect a member’s quality of life or that of someone the member is closely associated with, either positively or negatively, is likely to affect the members well-being. There may, for example, be circumstances where any financial impact of a decision may be minimal but nevertheless the disruption it may cause to the member or those close to the member could be significant.
“The Report in the Public Interest did directly relate to Cllr Butler in her role as erstwhile portfolio holder for Homes and Gateway for the relevant period of time covered by the report and whilst it was not a financial impact, it is considered that it is one which impacted on her wellbeing… given the critical nature of the report and the fact that she was one of three portfolio holders identified with responsibility for the project which was the subject of the RIPI.
“When advice was sought from the Monitoring Officer regarding declarations, the various interests under the Code were discussed and Cllr Butler was reminded that it was her responsibility to consider her duties under the Code. No advice was sought by Cllr Scott and the Monitoring Officer was not aware or made aware of the relationship between Cllrs Butler or Scott either prior to or during the meeting in question.
“Cllr Butler did not make a declaration at the outset of the meeting in question and did remain and vote on whether or not the report in the public interest ought to be referred to the police.”
Jones goes on to take the view that because the vote at the meeting was on a motion from the Conservative opposition over whether to call in the police to consider a possible multi-million-pound fraud, and that motion was only tabled during the course of the meeting, “therefore members in attendance did not have much time to consider whether or not it would be appropriate to declare an interest at that point and vacate the room”. Which is as feeble as it appears: councillors had no problem in deciding how they should vote on the motion, given the same amount of time.
“Nonetheless,” Jones continued, “it is considered that Cllr Butler ought to have declared an [Non-Registerable Interest, or NRI] in relation to both the report itself and in relation to the vote to refer the matter to the police.
“As the matter was one which directly related to Cllr Butler’s well-being it is considered that she should not have voted on the matter. In addition, she ought to have withdrawn from the chamber.
“In relation to Cllr Scott, it is considered that he had an NRI in relation to both the report itself (as it directly related to the wellbeing of his wife in fulfilment of her role as erstwhile portfolio holder for Homes and Gateway Services referenced in the report) and in relation to the subsequent motion to refer the matter to the police (which would similarly impact on the wellbeing of his wife as one of the portfolio holders which the report identified).
“It is considered that he ought to have declared this and should not have participated in the vote on the matter. In addition, Cllr Scott ought to have left the chamber having regard to the tests described above in relation to NRIs.”
Jones states that following the complaint being filed, Scott had said that “he did seriously consider his position prior to participating at the meeting”. Yet he still went ahead and attended, including putting some overtly hostile questions to the auditors from Grant Thornton.
“In light of what is set out above and having carefully considered your complaint regarding Cllrs Butler and Scott against the Assessment Criteria and the available facts, including the representations made by both [councillors], I consider that the failure to declare NRI’s and requirements to leave the chamber stems from a lack of understanding of the Code and supporting guidance.”
Jones notes that the council adopted a revised Code of Conduct last October, and sees this as some kind of mitigation, although in most respects the fundamental duties for councillors, as laid out by the Nolan Principles, have remained unaltered throughout Butler and Scott’s careers as councillors.
“As a result, it is considered that the matter ought to be dealt with by way of recommending training in relation to the Code for the members in question rather than referring the matter for an investigation.”
Dissatisfied with the outcome, Maureen Levy, the resident who lodged the complaint, is taking the matter up with the Local Government Ombudsman.
Mayoral election candidates were united in their condemnation of the ethics-lite actions of Butler and Scott.
Peter Underwood, the Green Party’s candidate, told Inside Croydon, “This is an example of the more important problem of councillors not holding themselves to a high enough standard and not being held to those standards by the systems that are supposed to keep them in line.
“If councillors don’t even understand their own code of conduct and don’t realise when it might apply to them, are they fit to make decisions on the complex issues that affect all of us?”
For her part, Shawcross responded to the Monitoring Officer’s findings against her Labour Party colleagues by saying, “Although councillors and the new Mayor all need to understand and abide by the Code of Conduct, it is obvious and a matter of common sense and decency that if there’s any chance of there being a conflict of interest as an elected member, you should withdraw from the debate, not take part and certainly not vote.
“Behaving ethically, to me, means erring on the side of caution and being concerned about the appearance of your behaviour as well as the reality.
“I welcome this ruling as it upholds the standards of behaviour in public life that we should all actively support regardless of party allegiance.”
But Andrew Pelling, the Waddon councillor who was hounded out of the Labour Party by his erstwhile colleagues, including Butler and Scott, for being a whistleblower, was clear that the couple had simply got off lightly once more.
“There’s been a bullying culture in Croydon Labour for many years, which discourages even polite questioning of council performance,” said Pelling, who is running for Mayor as an independent. “I would expect any member of the council to make proper declarations of interest when expressing their views. This did not happen in this instance, and yet again, there is a reluctance to take any sanctions.
“Such attitudes make it pointless to vote for Labour councillors in Croydon if they are not allowed to express views or concerns.”
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