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News and Comment May 2012

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16 May (Part 1) - The man who would be mayor

Alan Downing Action for DeafnessI saw it for myself. This man, councillor Alan Downing, when asked to ensure the council chamber microphones were switched on so that the hearing loop for the deaf would work, said that councillors didn’t have to switch on their microphones if they didn’t want to and if a man was deaf that was his problem and by implication not Downing’s.

Not content with that, at the end of the Crime and Disorder Committee meeting he was chairing and upon hearing that a formal complaint was likely, he said, “Good, I will look forward to that”. Then, after the possible consequences may have sunk in he shouted "Don’t you threaten me” before the Acting Borough Police Commander intervened causing Downing to retreat.

Cheryl Bacon Alex SawyerThere were lots of witnesses which would make it an open and shut case of offending against the Members’ Code of Conduct one might think, but many of those witnesses were Conservative councillors and most if not all of them were jeering and gesturing at the deaf man. Unbelievable but true.

Complaints of this nature go to the Standards Committee. And who might they be? Conservative councillors on a rota, in this instance Cheryl Bacon and Alex Sawyer plus ‘independent’ Chairman Peter Richards. So independent that to get the job he had to be interviewed by Conservative councillors and paid £2,133 a year to ensure his loyalty. What did they have to say about Downing’s outrageous, even criminal, behaviour, bearing in mind the requirements of the Equalities Act?

The Standards Committee concluded that…

• As Chairman, Downing “must be allowed to manage the proceedings. Members of the Public do not have the right to address or interrupt the meeting” and therefore the deaf man was wrong to have asked for the microphone to be switched on. Whilst the councillor was absolved of all responsibility for the incident the deaf man was criticised for his “manner”.
• That councillor Downing “had not done anything to cause the authority to breach any of the relevant equality enactments”.
• That at no time had Downing “bullied” a member of the public.
• “Councillor Downing had not conducted himself in a manner which could reasonably regarded as bringing his office or authority into disrepute. Councillor Downing was acting in his capacity as Chairman and a member of the public had interrupted the meeting and Councillor Downing was endeavouring to control the meeting. He had not breached part 5 of the Members’ Code of Conduct.”

The Committee noted that…

• “Chairmen should be mindful of the needs of those in the public gallery who may not be able to view or hear the proceedings.”
• The issue of interruptions “should be referred to its Monitoring Officer given that actions taken in relation to managing interruptions from members of the public at committee meetings could be perceived as contravening paragraph 3(1) of the Members’ Code of Conduct”.
• “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.”

So in essence the Committee acknowledges that the deaf should be given consideration, that pen jabbing is unacceptable and that Downing’s response could be considered to be disrespectful. Perhaps councillors Bacon and Sawyer recognised that Downing had overstepped the mark to a considerable degree but felt unable to find a fellow Conservative guilty of any offence. There can be no recourse to the Standards Board for England because that was one of the few casualties of David Cameron’s ‘Bonfire of the Quangos’. Never mind, at least, if predictions are correct, you’ll be able to see a man without a stain on his character draped in chains this evening. To have a man like Downing elevated to mayor of Bexley sums up this borough beautifully.


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