This is going to be a long one. If you are familiar with how councillor Alan Downing refused to ask councillor Peter Craske to switch on his microphone while chairing a scrutiny committee meeting more than a year ago then you may wish to jump to the final word by the Local Government Ombudsman. If you are new to all this, here’s a quick reminder of what happened between March and August last year.
Cast your mind back to the evening of 21st March 2012. It was the night of, ironically some might say, the Crime and Disorder committee meeting and it was chaired by soon to be mayor, councillor Alan Downing. Councillor Peter Craske was in full flow but he had forgotten to switch his microphone on and hence neither the public address system or the Hearing Loop for the hard of hearing could operate. I do not subscribe to the theory that councillor Craske deliberately left his microphone switched off, I may be mistaken but there is no evidence it was not just a simple mistake of the type anyone might make.
A hand went up from the audience and the words “Excuse me Mr. Chairman, could you ask councillor Craske to turn on his microphone please“ were heard to which the response was, “oh, sorry, turn your microphone on Peter old chap” and by the end of the meeting everyone had forgotten it had ever happened.
Except of course Downing didn’t respond like a normal civilized human being. Councillor Alan Downing said “If councillor Craske doesn’t want to put his microphone on, it’s up to him. I can hear what he is saying. If you can’t, you must have personal problems. Now sit down and be quiet”. Most of the Conservative councillors present cheered Downing’s performance like the unruly mob they are.
After the meeting, when informed of the possibility of a formal complaint, Downing faced up to the complainant while jabbing a pen at him to emphasise that he didn’t care about that. He said as much too.
Refusing to require the use of a microphone does not satisfy the council’s equalities obligations and it’s not the sort of response to be expected from the chairman of any meeting, let alone a senior councillor. The words reported above were not the subject of dispute at a subsequent Standards Board hearing or the following Standards Board review.
Bexley council as a corporate body recognised it was on shaky ground with the Equalities Act and promptly apologised and took steps to ensure that councillors understood their responsibilities which was an acceptable response and the Standards Board could not quite bring itself to apply the usual total whitewash to a misdemeanour of this magnitude. It injected a note of negativity into its verdict on Downing.
• Councillor Downing’s response to the request for the microphone to be turned on could be considered as disrespectful.
• Pointing a pen at a member of the public would be disrespectful if proved.
The pen pointing might be more accurately described, by me at least, as furious pen jabbing and it was witnessed by around 20 people so an appeal against a verdict that fell rather short of “guilty” was submitted. The review panel decided that the criticism embodied in the original decision was unwarranted and councillor Alan Downing was found to have acted entirely reasonably. Should one have expected anything else given that Downing was by then mayor?
The second Standards Board hearing concluded that to ask for a microphone to be switched on is “disrespectful and hostile”. That at all times, Downing’s response was “measured” and even after the problem was drawn to his attention “it was unnecessary to make adjustments of a potential issue of which he was unaware”. Jabbing a pen into someone’s face was a mere ‘gesticulation’.
In summary councillor Alan Downing can be as unhelpful as he likes and tell councillor Craske he was free to break the equalities laws if he felt like it. Basically it is rude for any member of the public to stick his hand up at a council meeting and say “Please”.
So the case went to the Local Government Ombudsman where it has been for a very long time.
The LGO is reputed to be staffed by ex-local government officers and far from impartial. When I complained to the LGO that council leader Teresa O’Neill and Chief Executive Will Tuckley went to the police with a cock and bull story about me planning to burn down the Civic Offices they decided that that was entirely fair. Anyone can go to the police to report anything they like about anyone and it is up to the police to sort out the hoaxes and the malevolent from the genuine article. No one at Bexley council owed me any duty of care and no one could be expected to conduct a modicum of research to ascertain I had made no such threat. A man on a quarter of a million pounds a year shouldn’t be expected to engage his brain even for a second. Thank you Helen Bingham of the Local Government Ombudsman’s office for finding a neat formula to get friends off the hook.
Following in her footsteps is LGO investigator Kay Chesterman. When asked to look into Bexley’s perverse verdict she ensured her idea of a level playing field by allowing councillor Alan Downing to produce his jeering and cheering witnesses while denying the complainant the same facility despite several being willing and able.
Having decided on such a set up Ms. Chesterman was wide open to misinformation from Bexley councillors. Her report suppresses the names of everyone concerned but here is a selection of the points made by Bexley council in their defence.
Mr. C. was the secondary complainant to the Standards Board and my recollection is that he is wrong. The primary complainant merely indicated he couldn’t hear when the microphones were off, neither could I.
The discrepancy is entirely irrelevant. There is a Hearing Loop sign in the council chamber and visitors whether hearing impaired or not have a reasonable expectation that all those speaking will be audible through the induction loop or the sound system. Downing was less than helpful when he deliberately permitted a councillor to opt out of the loop and sound system by not having his microphone switched on. No councillor denied he did that and the council itself thought his action sufficiently misguided that it issued a ‘briefing note’ to ensure compliance in future.
This is simply a lie by councillor Q. No one jumped up, shouted or rushed anywhere.
What prior behaviour? The comment acknowledged by councillor P. was the first response to the complainant’s initial request.
So councillor P. agrees that the complainant’s words were very polite but then claims he was shouting and rushing forward. He wasn’t even fully standing, just raised himself slightly from his seat. I recall no shouting.
Councillor P. again. The complainant chose to inform councillor Downing of his intention to make a formal complaint. Maybe he could have merely gone away and written his complaint but that does not make his chosen action wrong. If Downing had handled this in a different way the outcome would certainly have been very different and some councillors acknowledged that they would not have reacted as he did. Immediately below is councillor Q’s admission.
He certainly didn’t have a large trumpet attached to his ear but the comment is nonsense. The chamber is a large room with councillors at widely different distances speaking at variable volumes, some facing one way and others 180° opposed. Of course some can be heard better than others. For the record there was only one “remark” that could not be heard and which prompted the request to the chairman, not several as Mr. R. states. Presumably Mr. R. is a council officer.
The image of Downing jabbing his pen towards the complainant’s face is indelibly etched in my mind. The distance was between six and ten inches. It’s a matter of opinion whether that is reasonable or aggressive. Coupled with the raised voice and the words uttered, it looked aggressive to me.
Alan Downing is innocent, OK?
This is an LGO comment. Ms. Chesterman has taken the view that hearing impaired people must make their presence known before a meeting starts. She neatly avoids comment on Downing’s rudeness while refusing to issue an instruction that the microphones be switched on. Where else do you see an instruction that hearing impaired people must announce their deafness before the Hearing Loop is activated? Just like in cinemas, banks and taxis? No, I don’t think so.
The investigator considered the Standards Board’s original statement that “Pointing a pen at a member of the public would be disrespectful if proved”, a councillor’s confirmation that the pen was so used and the review panel’s decision to overturned the original finding and stated, “I find no grounds to conclude the decision was perverse”. Maybe not but it doesn’t shriek honesty either, more a formula to get mayor Alan Downing out of an embarrassing hole.
And that’s the final comment from the LGO. At least we know that mayor Alan Downing behaves inappropriately to residents and his Conservatives friends admit to being very ready to cover for him. It is a result of sorts.