Council denies leader broke confidentiality on farmgate report

Gillian Beasley, chief executive of Cambridgeshire County Counci

Gillian Beasley, chief executive of Cambridgeshire County Council. She has received a complaint from the Lib Dem leader about alleged leaking of confidential sections of audit report into farmgate. - Credit: Cambs CC

Opposition leader Lucy Nethsingha has raised a formal complaint with chief executive Gillian Beasley over confidential information she claims was leaked by the leader of Cambridgeshire County Council Steve Count.  

Her claims have been strongly refuted by the council who insist Cllr Count was quoting from an agreed statement by the audit committee and from remarks made in public by the chief executive.  

A council spokesperson said; “All that has gone into the public domain was an official statement approved by the chairman of the committee (following the unanimous agreement of the committee that he would do this).” 

There was also a “mention of a factual point which had been said in public session at the meeting”.  

From left: Cllr Steve Count, former deputy leader Roger Hickford, and Cllr Lucy Nethsingha. 

From left: Cllr Steve Count, former deputy leader Roger Hickford, and Cllr Lucy Nethsingha. - Credit: Archant

Cllr Nethsingha, the Lib Dem leader, says it is “not acceptable” that council officers and Cllr Count were selectively choosing which parts of the farmgate report to be shared publicly.   

“I am deeply concerned that double standards are being applied here,” she told Mrs Beasley.   

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“While members of the committee are not able to quote from the report, it seems council officers and the leader are doing so.  This is not acceptable.    

“Please could you indicate to me where in the papers which are publicly available these sections come from, or if that is not the case, I would like to raise a complaint against Councillor Count for breaching confidentiality.”  

I understand the audit committee agreed in principle on Friday to issue a statement that was ‘signed off’ by the chairman the following day, prior to its release.  

The committee discussed broader recommendations on farms tenancies but lawyers advised councillors to keep the bulk of the report, which dealt with former councillor Roger Hickford, out of the public domain.  

Cllr Peter Hudson even went so far as to say committee members had been warned of the threat of “personal litigation” if they did so.   

In a press release on Saturday – quoted in a weekend blog from Cllr Count – some findings of the report were made public.   

The council’s press team quoted a section which said the report had concluded “correct procedures” were followed not only in relation to the tenancy award but also in the approval of the proposed £183,000 Manor Farm extension.   

It also said there were 11 separate recommendations relating to financial, transparency and conduct issues which were now ongoing. Members code of conduct and officer disciplinary measures were being considered.   

But Cllr Count, in his blog, added that “the audit work correctly identified that it was at my personal insistence that the tenant be identified at the committee I chaired December 18, 2018, for transparency and to avoid conflict”.  

Cllr Nethsingha told the chief executive: “I was very very concerned to see that the statements which came out from the council and from the leader in his blog over the weekend referred to sections of the audit report which we have been told are confidential.  

“While I recognise that the first and second of the statements above had already been put out by the council prior to his blog, the third statement does not come from the council’s press release.  

“It appears to be quoting the audit report in a way which other councillors have been told would lead to serious consequences for councillors and the council.”  

Aidan Van de Weyer, Liberal Democrat candidate for Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, said: “This sordid saga should have been coming to an end with the completion of the audit report into the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton.   

“Instead, the public is being kept in the dark while Tory councillors and their lawyers work out how much they can keep secret.”  

He added: “Cllr Count has said that he ‘fully accepts all the findings of the audit, and its recommendations’.   

“Yet he refuses to support the publication of the findings and all the recommendations. It is untenable to selectively refer to parts of a secret report in this way.   

“Cllr Count is making a blatant attempt to influence the opinion of the public before the full facts are known.”  

Cllr Nethsingha said: “I call on Cllr Count to tell us his side of the story, not hide behind spurious claims of impartiality. He is the leader. This happened on his watch. The buck stops with him.  

“Cllr Count has many questions to answer. What did he know about the award of the tenancy to his deputy leader Roger Hickford and when?   

“When did he learn of any of the allegations against Roger Hickford? What action did he take as leader at the time, especially in relation to the welfare of staff?   

Lib Dem Aidan Van de Weyer, and candidate for mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough

Lib Dem Aidan Van de Weyer, and candidate for mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. He says Cllr Count is making a blatant attempt to influence the opinion of the public before the full facts are known' - Credit: Archant

Why did Cllr Count appoint Roger Hickford to the board of the Greater Cambridge Partnership when the investigation was under way?  

“If Cllr Count and Tories on the county council continue to cover up the findings of the audit report, public confidence in the council’s ability to act fairly and in the interest of all residents will be severely damaged.”  

Mr Hickford said last week: “I have been taking legal advice throughout this process both in relation to the council’s conduct regarding the tenancy and in relation to the audit process, and will continue to do so.” 

He added: “I had already decided not to stand for re-election at the May elections because of the way the council had treated me as a farms tenant and a councillor throughout this process. 

“However, I felt I had no other choice but to step down as deputy leader of the council and also resign my position as county councillor with immediate effect because the situation has been made untenable for me to continue. 

"I am very disappointed that my time at the council should end in this way.” 

He has left Manor Farm and moved to Norfolk.