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Confidentially breached ‘due to a leak in the press’ says Combined Authority

Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority row over Mayor remains unresolved

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Whoever leaked confidential information to the press about Mayor Dr Nik Johnson ahead of a code of conduct hearing has been criticised by the legal and monitoring officer of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority.

In a ‘wrap up’ report to the Combined Authority audit and governance committee Edwina Adefehinti, chief officer legal and governance and monitoring officer, says: “There was a breach of confidentiality due to a leak in the press”.

She says it is her view that “that some of the documents and information that was shared widely should not have been shared at that stage and if shared a confidential method should have been used.

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“With code of conduct complaints, it is good process for details of the complaint to be kept confidential due to fair hearing.

“It is not unusual for a code of complaint investigation to result in a non-breach, by which stage details of the member would have been in the public domain.

“The committee may wish to consider whether sanctions available in the constitution is adequate.”

Her report, though not giving away detail, also hints at her knowledge of a Twitter campaign against Mayor Dr Johnson – led by the husband of a former employee of the Combined Authority and believed to be one of those who featured in the complaints against the Mayor.

“The complaint had details and comments concerning ex-employees,” says Ms Adefehinti.

“However, the committee does not have jurisdiction to deal with employees.

“Employees fall within the jurisdiction of the head of paid service and interaction with employees are governed by HR rules and employment law.”

The legal officer added: “This committee would be going beyond its statutory powers and powers under the constitution, if it sought to determine conduct pertaining to an employee.

“Any decision made would most likely be ultra vires and challengeable by way of judicial review.”

She reminds committee members that the hearing panel – a subcommittee of audit and governance committee – met on 14th November 2023, to consider a report by an independent investigator.

The panel was a cross party committee consisting of John Pye as the independent chair, Cllr Andy Coles, Cllr Simon Smith, and Cllr Mark Inskip who are members of the audit and governance committee.

The panel unanimously agreed with the findings of the independent investigator which concluded there had been a breach of the code of conduct by the Mayor.

Sanctions included the Mayor providing a written apology “directly to one or more of the complainants”.

It was also agreed that Dr Johnson gave an undertaking not to repeat his behaviour, and to agree with the chief executive an appropriate development and training programme to take place over the next six months.

However, among those calling for a fuller report from the independent investigator to be made public is Cllr Steve Count, opposition leader at Cambridgeshire County Council but also chair of the conduct committee of Tory controlled Fenland District Council.

He tweeted: “It is now reported that a 21-year-old young lady, who has autism, had a personal alarm paid for by the CPCA for safety concerns.

Cllr Steve Count said he was heavily involved in setting up the combined authority “and I would still vote for it today”.

Cllr Steve Count has re-ignited the row over the Combined Authority’s independent investigation into the conduct of Mayor Dr Nik Johnson. PHOTO: Terry Harris

“This appears to be all connected to the enquiry into the Mayor Nick (sic) Johnson where the full report has not been published”.

In a second tweet he writes: “I haven’t seen the report – this was revealed in public session at FDC”.

Those ‘revelations’ were made by Fenland Council leader Chris Boden – also a Combined Authority board member – in a full council meeting.

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“I have seen physical evidence, documentary evidence to back up the claim, that the Combined Authority felt it appropriate to pay for Amazon to deliver a personal alarm to a 21-year-old young woman with autism who required it because of feeling under threat,” he said.

“Things like that are absolutely outrageous; they really should come out into the open.

“I am prohibited from saying anything which I learnt directly from the Combined Authority but let me emphasise it is not alleged the Mayor himself was responsible for those threats, I am not suggesting that for one second and I hope it is not true, as far as I am aware it is not true, but the whole thing stinks.”

Cllr Anna Bailey, Tory leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council and also a Combined Authority board member, said: “In my opinion, the sanctions available to the hearings panel and imposed by them fall woefully short of recognising the seriousness of the underlying issues which led to total chaos and dysfunctionality at the authority,” she wrote.

“Right now, my thoughts are with the victims, those who have suffered terribly, whose stories remain unknown. I apologise to all those staff that have suffered at the hands of the CPCA; the authority has failed you.”

She remains angry that the cross-party hearing “agreed not to release the investigator’s report, a decision with which I strongly disagree; the panel, the mayor and the authority all signed up to the principles of transparency, scrutiny and accountability”.

Mayor Johnson has threatened action against Cllr Bailey for her outspoken attack.

Meanwhile the legal officer Ms Adefehinti’s report tackles the issue of whether sanctions available to the Combined Authority are adequate.

She says the Government has rejected a recommendation by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) that local authorities should be able to suspend councillors without allowances for up to six months for breaches of the code of conduct.

The Government response was that there is no provision in current legislation for a sanction to suspend a councillor found to have breached the code of conduct.

This was a deliberate policy decision by the Coalition Government at the time of the Localism Act 2011 “to differentiate from the previous, failed Standards Board regime.

“The Standards Board regime allowed politically motivated and vexatious complaints and had a chilling effect on free speech within local government.

“These proposals would effectively reinstate that flawed regime”.

The Government response was also that it would be undesirable to have a government quango to police the free speech of councillors; it would be equally undesirable to have a council body (appointed by councillors, and/or made up of councillors) sitting in judgment on the political comments of fellow councillors.

Ms Adefehinti said the response insisted that ‘on the rare occasions’ where notable breaches of the code of conduct had occurred, local authorities were not without sanctions under the current regime, which included being subject to party discipline including being removed from that group or party.

The Government opinion, she says, is effectively that all councillors are ultimately held to account via the ballot box.

Ms Adefehinti also says that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities responded to a recommendation from the Committee on Standards in Public Life that councillors should be presumed to be acting in an official capacity in their public conduct, including statements on publicly accessible social media.

The DLUHC believes it is for individual local authorities to consider if their code of conduct is adequate in addressing the issue of councillors’ inappropriate use of social media.

They feel it is important to recognise that there is a boundary between an elected representative’s public life and their private or personal life.

Automatically presuming (irrespective of the context and circumstances) that any comment is in an official capacity risks conflating the two.

The audit and governance committee will be invited to “identify areas for further work which may include amendments to the code of conduct and/or hearings.

“The committee to consider whether to write to the government and Committee on Standards in Public Life to reconsider the law on sanctions”.

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