Fenland councillor's code of conduct called into question
BY John Elworthy A FENLAND councillor must face a public grilling by a standards watchdog after failing to declare a personal and prejudicial interest whilst her Cabinet colleagues debated the £47 million Nene waterfront development. Perry Holmes, Fenlan
BY John Elworthy
A FENLAND councillor must face a public grilling by a standards watchdog after failing to declare a personal and prejudicial interest whilst her Cabinet colleagues debated the £47 million Nene waterfront development.
Perry Holmes, Fenland Council's new £80,000 head of legal services and monitoring officer, felt that Councillor Jill Tuck had not broken the council's code of conduct and called for the matter to be dropped.
But on Monday, after presenting his report to the council's Standards Committee, he was asked to remain outside the chamber whilst members discussed his findings. Some 30 minutes later they ruled that Cllr Tuck, of Wimblington, did have a case to answer and set in motion a local determination hearing- only the second time the committee has called such a meeting.
Chris Pope, acting chairman, said his members felt a "possible breach of the code of conduct has occurred" and it will now be settled at a public hearing when Cllr Tuck will be invited to put her side of the case.
The standards committee, comprising Conservative and Labour councillors but with a strong contingent of independent lay members, considered the allegations against Cllr Tuck in an 11-page report prepared by Mr Holmes.
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Mr Holmes refused to allow the press access to the report, suggesting that if the media wanted a copy they could apply for it under the Freedom of Information Act, which even if the request was granted would take at least a month to be released.
However part of the debate was in public, and by piecing together some of the threads, it would seem the failure by Cllr Tuck to declare an interest in the Nene waterfront formed only part of a wider investigation into Cllr Tuck's business interests and how they affect her public duties.
Cllr Tuck, whose Cabinet responsibilities include customer services, complaints, villages and community development, has listed all her personal business interests in the public register at Fenland Hall.
However, the council's of conduct insists that all councillors must declare those interests every time an item is discussed in which they could be construed as having either a personal or prejudicial interest.
Mr Holmes revealed that he had interviewed Cllr Tuck over the allegations which centred on her purchase of a property in de Havilland Road, Wisbech, in December 2005. Cllr Tuck had declared the purchase in the register of members' interest but, as Mr Holmes reminded the committee: "If you have an interest, each and every meeting that the interest could be linked to an agenda item then you shall, you must, declare an interest."
Cllr Tuck's failure to make known her interests at a Cabinet meeting in February 2006, despite having declared an interest at a Cabinet meeting two months earlier, was one of a number of questions raised by the original complainant.
His identity was revealed after Monday's meeting to be Liberal Democrat town councillor Chris Howes of Chatteris, who it also transpired, has listed alleged breaches of the code of conduct by Councillor Peter Skoulding, portfolio holder for finance. Mr Holmes is preparing a separate report to the standards committee covering those allegations and this will be considered at a later date.
Mr Holmes told the standards committee that it remained his opinion that Cllr Tuck had not broken council guidelines.
He accepted that Cllr Tuck's property in de Havilland Road was near the waterfront scheme, but said many other properties were nearby, too.
But he conceded that "if you take the ripple effect, it was obvious Cllr Tuck's property was closer to the centre of that ripple than others in Fenland".
He said there was no evidence of "insider dealing or insider trading; that evidence does not stack up because of all the others who will benefit".
But he told the committee: "The decision is yours. I implore you not to go with my judgement if you question the logic. It's for you to question that logic and come to a decision on whether you support it.