City councillors have voted in favour of reforming the City of London Corporation’s policy on perceived conflicts following the fallout from a gagging row that has gripped the public body.
The Corporation has faced accusations of attempting to muzzle representatives of City residents after Cripplegate councillor Susan Pearson was threatened with potential criminal prosecution for speaking against a proposal to delegate a planning application for a site next to the Golden Lane Estate to Islington Council – taking the decision out of the City's hands.
While the City of London Police confirmed last month that it would not investigate Pearson, her case has nevertheless raised concerns among councillors, who called her treatment by the Corporation “disgraceful” and “appalling”.
At a meeting of the standards committee last month, one councillor said the committee had taken an Ayatollah approach to dispensations, the process by which members are granted permission to speak and vote on matters concerning their ward.
Last Thursday at a meeting of the court of common council, councillors voted in favour of a reform motion put forward by Bassishaw councillor Graeme Harrower, who last month revealed the facts of Pearson’s case in a 10-page document that was first reported by City A.M.
The motion was amended by policy head Catherine McGuinness, who proposed that the standards committee adopt a position where members “would generally be granted a dispensation to speak”.
“With regret the court [of common council] feels that the committee may have adopted too rigid an approach with regard to dispensations for members representing residential areas with respect to speaking on issues affecting their constituents,” the amendment read.
She later added: "I think we want to give the standards committee a clear steer that we want a permissive rather than repressive approach."
At last week’s meeting, one councillor said McGuinness’s amendment offered a “proportionate and balanced approach”, while another said: “We’re not playing baseball – if the standards committee gets it wrong we should take the decision away from them.”
Harrower’s second motion, to set up a different working party to review proceedings for breach of code of conduct, was defeated but not debated, after a majority of councillors present forced a vote to be taken on the proposal without a debate.
Harrower told City A.M: “I’m glad my proposal triggered this ungagging of residential councillors, so they can speak on behalf of their constituents. It’s regrettable, though, that the opportunity was missed of dealing with the question of councillors voting. That has been left in the hands of the standards committee, who caused this crisis.”
He added that the lack of debate reflected “a wish by many councillors not to wash dirty laundry in public”.
“I’ve also received signals from other councillors that by exposing the facts of this case I’ve broken an unwritten rule of the club. But this is the dirty laundry of a public authority, so the public must see it being washed. And councillors are members of a public authority, not of a private club,” he said.