Thursday, January 24, 2013
The former leader of Norfolk County Council will face accusations at a standards hearing that he asked his political assistant to lie about who instructed him to send an email which appeared to undermine a fellow Conservative leader, it has emerged.
And the standards committee will hear that an independent investigation has also concluded that Derrick Murphy, who stepped down as county council leader this month to focus on the standards hearing, gave answers which were “misleading, evasive and lacked candour” when he was quizzed by the county council’s chief executive over the email.
The revelations emerged after the agenda for the standards committee meeting, where fellow councillors will decide whether Mr Murphy breached the councillor code of conduct, was published.
The complaints surround an email which was sent by Kevin Vaughan, the political assistant to the Conservative group at County Hall, to BBC Radio Norfolk, in April last year.
It was sent two days before Nick Daubney, leader of West Norfolk Council. was due to appear on Nick Conrad’s show to discuss the King’s Lynn incinerator, which has long been a source of tension between West Norfolk and Norfolk County Council.
It suggested it might “be pertinent information” for the broadcaster to know that the borough council leader was facing “a serious leadership challenge” and that his authority had failed to procure alternative technology to the plant.
When the email came to light it sparked an independent investigation at County Hall, which concluded in the summer that Mr Vaughan had acted on the wishes of leader Mr Murphy. Mr Vaughan later left the council, with a pay-off.
Following the independent report, seven people complained about Mr Murphy’s behaviour and the county council asked Jenni Richards, QC, an expert in local government, to investigate.
Her full report has not been made public, but a summary which has concludes that:
• It was Mr Murphy’s idea to provide the information about the leadership challenge to the BBC and he instructed Mr Vaughan to do so.
• Mr Murphy saw the email (probably only briefly) before it was sent.
• The contents of the email were largely factually correct and in fact already known by Mr Conrad.
• The email came to light after a Freedom of Information Request by Mr Daubney and, on April 24, Kevin Vaughan was questioned about it by his line manager.
• In a conversation on April 24, Mr Murphy told Mr Vaughan to say it was twin hatter councillors (those who sit on the county and West Norfolk council), rather than Mr Murphy, who had asked him to provide the information to the BBC. Ms Richards said by asking Mr Vaughan to say something which Mr Murphy knew was not true, his conduct was “unfair and unreasonable and he failed to treat Mr Vaughan with respect”.
• In conversations between Mr Murphy and County Hall chief executive David White on April 27 and May 23 about the email, Mr Murphy’s responses “lacked candour and were misleading and evasive”. Ms Richards says, again, that was “unfair and unreasonable” conduct towards Mr Vaughan and failed to treat him with respect.
Ms Richards reported: “For a member to act in this way could not but result in a reasonable person considering that both the office and the authority were brought into disrepute” - with the code of conduct breached both by Mr Murphy asking Mr Vaughan to lie and in relation to his conversations with the chief executive.
However, she also concluded Mr Murphy had not failed to treat Mr Daubney or Mr Conrad with respect. She added a lack of clarity at the council, over the extent to which a political assistant should deal with the media, meant Mr Murphy had not failed to treat Mr Vaughan with respect with specific relation to requesting him to send that email.
While the sending if the email was “ill-advised”, she said, that particular action was not so serious as to amount to a code of conduct breach and nor did it bring Mr Murphy’s office or authority into disrepute.
She also said Mr Murphy could not be held responsible for Mr Vaughan’s suspension, for the length of the internal disciplinary process or for the fact he later quit.
Mr Murphy, who has previously revealed he intends to call Mr Vaughan as a witness, has always said he believes he will be exonerated by the standards committee and hopes to return as council leader.
The hearing will take place at County Hall on February 1. The council’s monitoring officer, head of law Victoria McNeill, will recommend that the full report could be considered behind closed doors, but it will be up to the committee to decide.
The committee, made up of seven county councillors, including five Conservatives, could recommend to the council that Mr Murphy be removed from his position if they agree he breached the code of conduct and brought his office into disrepute.
Other options include censuring him, ordering training in ethics or standards or preventing him from having access to council premises.
Last night, Mr Murphy said: “From my point of view, I am looking forward to February 1 and I have always said I would like the standards committee meeting to be held in public. I would like the report to be made a public document.”