Councillors gagged by threat of 'personal litigation' ahead of farmgate debate

Cllr Peter Hudson said the threat of 'personal litigation' was given to the audit and accounts committee of Cambridgeshire...

Cllr Peter Hudson said the threat of 'personal litigation' was given to the audit and accounts committee of Cambridgeshire County Council. The warning was given ahead of debate over the farmgate inquiry. - Credit: Archant

A county councillor claims he and other members of a committee were threatened with possible legal action if they voted to release a confidential report. 

Cllr Peter Hudson revealed the legal threat at Friday’s audit and accounts committee considering the findings of a 400-page report.  

The report exposed what happened when the council offered the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton, to deputy council leader Roger Hickford.  

Mr Hickford has already quit the farm and resigned from the council but the committee was warned it cannot be published at this time.  

Cllr Hudson briefly touched on the warning they had been given in private session.

 “I think we should all consider very carefully, chair, the advice we got from both our solicitors this morning and advice from a barrister at law this morning,” he said. 

“They advised that the whole thing should be in private for the reasons they gave – legal reasons, including the safety from personal litigation for members of this committee.” 

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Faced with the threat the committee voted narrowly to debate recommendations from the report about management of its 33,000 acre and 200 tenant estate. 

But the bulk of the report – 97 per cent of the 400 pages – was shielded from public scrutiny after six of the seven councillors agreed. The dissenting voice was that of committee chairman Mike Shellens who promptly resigned as a consequence.  

Mazars completed the report after the council’s chief internal auditor went on sick leave days before it was scheduled for completion in December. 

Nigel Layton of Mazars said: “Just for clarity we did not re-perform the audit work or the fact checking conducted by internal audit.  

“We did however review the work performed and evidence obtained, and we also considered certain code of conduct and disciplinary issues.” 

Council leader Steve Count said after the meeting that 11 separate recommendations, considered further action in relation to financial, transparency and conduct issues. 

These, he said, would be considered under the members code of conduct and through officer disciplinary procedures. 

He said: “The audit committee is in charge of what they allow to go in the public domain not me, I have not been involved in any of the process or any of the advice they have been given.  

“This is to ensure there are no claims of interreference from me; all I can do is follow their lead and use what they decide to put in the public domain.” 

Cllr Count said a week earlier he made clear his position in a public statement noting that “having read the report I had two meetings with Cllr Hickford to consider implications for the council, outside of the remit of the committee.  

“Subsequent to those meetings Cllr Hickford has asked me to accept his resignation as my deputy leader and as a member of the council with immediate effect.”.

 

Cllr Count said on Friday: “I would add that anyone that understands local government knows that the sanctions available to a code of conduct hearing, training and/or being admonished, if applicable, would be much less severe than this outcome.” 

A county council statement said: “The audit concluded correct procedures were followed not only in relation to the tenancy award process but also to the approval of the additional extension works for the Manor Farm dwelling.   

“However other serious concerns were raised as a result of the wide-ranging audit investigation.” 

The statement added: “Cambridgeshire County Council is an organisation where, when concerns are raised, they are properly and fairly investigated. 

“It seeks to learn from what is found, take action where this is needed and most importantly put in place measures to prevent them reoccurring. 

“All of the committee members were adamant that this ethos should prevail as regards to this particularly important and far-ranging audit.” 

The statement concluded that chief executive Gillian Beasley had taken personal oversight of the progress of the audit since the end of last year. 

“She confirmed that the council fully accepts all the findings of the audit, and its recommendations,” said the statement.  

“Action on many of the recommendations are already underway and a follow up meeting for the audit and accounts committee to consider the progress of all of these actions will take place on March 23.” 

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