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SPECIAL REPORT: Peterborough City Council gags former leader for ‘incredibly derogatory’ attack on Labour councillor

‘She constantly interrupts,’ Cllr Fitzgerald said of Cllr Qayyum. “’It’s a trait with her. She just loves the limelight’

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The fall from grace of Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald looked complete last night as he flounced from the council chamber of Peterborough City Council, unceremoniously gagged from speaking further. Urging other Conservative councillors to follow – most did – it seemed to many the end of days for a man who had dominated Cambridgeshire and Peterborough politics since his election as city council leader in May 2021 before being ousted in November 2023.

Throughout that period, he had for a time been deputy mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority under Labour Mayor Dr Johnson, but his world began falling apart as his influence and control of the local Conservative group of councillors diminished.

Seven quit the city council Conservatives last year heading in the direction of Peterborough First, the splinter group that successfully formed a new Cabinet and administration following a vote of no confidence to remove Cllr Fitzgerald on November 1.

But last night, probably more so than at any time in the past, Cllr Fitzgerald looked to have over stepped the mark, his former colleagues now with Peterborough First and grateful to express their disdain at his style of politics by supporting a motion to have him gagged.

So how did it happen?

Councillors were debating a report from an improvement panel that was set up to steer the city council – and its finances – out of the woods, and to all extent and purposes the news was positive.

But it all went pear shaped for Cllr Fitzgerald after chief executive Matt Gladstone referred to the “hard graft, excellent collaboration” of the first two years work of the improvement panel.

“There are lots of councils across the country who are in no overall control, but actually that demands a really good collaboration, mutual respect, and teamwork,” he said.

“My advice is lift our heads up a bit more and seize the opportunity, be longer term in our thinking. And I know we’ve had a debate around elections, there’ll be elections and we’ll get through that.

He added; “And I think we need to get clearer on what our priorities are and how we really want to see what’s important over the next few years and deliver that and seize those opportunities.

“That would be my advice, is that strategic, longer term thinking and a real drive. And there are some phenomenally exciting plans coming through.”

Cllr Fitzgerald spoke next, reminding councillors “as a former leader in the two years of the administration, I did bring everybody together collaboratively. Your words, not mine. So, I will take that credit and praise.

“But Matt, you’re kidding yourself if you think the last six months has been collegiate and collaborative”.

He rejected the assessment by Eleanor Kelly, who chairs the improvement panel, that the new leader Cllr Mohammed Farooq had found ways to work well and win support from the opposition groups in relation to key decisions.

“I would suggest you add the word ‘some’ in there, because they certainly don’t have the support of this group,” he said. “That’s for sure.

“And the unnecessary coup, which officers advised them strongly not to do six months ago, has caused that rift, particularly with opposition parties, such as the Liberal Democrats, Labour, the Greens, and others, to the point where there is a serious rift there.

“So, to suggest that we are one team is ridiculous. It is literally ridiculous. I’ll speak and other members of my group can confirm the same thing. That’s how we all feel. “So, there is no collaboration or collegiate……”

And that’s as far he got as Cllr Dr Shabina Asad Qayyum raised a “point of accuracy” by asking of Cllr Fitzgerald “’where his evidence is that opposition parties have a rift amongst each other and to evidence it from a documental point of view”.

Cllr Fitzgerald responded: “Hands up, group if you feel there’s a rift between us and the administration and opposition parties, that’s what she just said. Where’s the evidence? Sorry. She’s misinterpreting what I said. Could you perhaps clarify what you’re pointing at again?”

Cllr Qayyum replied: “It came across that Councillor Fitzgerald had made the point that opposition parties had rifts with each other, and he specifically named the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats, and the Labour Party”.

To which Cllr Fitzgerald responded, “no, no, no, sorry. “You’re misunderstanding. The Conservative Party have a rift with all of you now, which wasn’t present and that’s been caused…..”

At which point Cllr Qayyum pointed out that “the onus would be upon you, Councillor Fitzgerald, if you and your party have a rift with the opposition party”.

Mayor Nick Sandford, chairing the meeting, told Cllr Qayyum she had made her point, and called for “a bit of order here”.

And there it might have ended.

But Cllr Fitzgerald was not in the mood for pleasantries.

“She constantly interrupts,” he said of Cllr Qayyum. “It’s a trait with her. She just loves the limelight.”

Cllr Qayyum was having none of it, repeating “point of accuracy, Mr Mayor, point of accuracy Mr Mayor, point of order Mr Mayor, point of order Mr Mayor”.

She said: “I find Councillor Fitzgerald’s manner and conduct within this meeting is incredibly derogatory. I’d like to please table a motion that asks him to apologise for that very personal comment that he has made.”

Cllr Fitzgerald said: “I’ll apologise when Councillor Hiller does.”

He then asked: “What have I said?  She likes the limelight” and posed the question “apologise for what, Mayor?”.

Cllr Qayyum said: “I would like Councillor Fitzgerald to apologise for his wording towards me, incredibly personal, to say that I always want the limelight. And always interrupt”

Cllr Fitzgerald, invited to do so by the Mayor, added: “If she’s offended, I’m happy to apologise, but it doesn’t mean I can’t think it.”

But Cllr Qayyum had by then had enough, explaining that she wanted to “move a motion that we remove Councillor Fitzgerald from the chamber because of his very unwilling apology”.

Taking legal advice then took some minutes, and not before Cllr Gavin Elsey had offered his two pennorth worth.

“You’re asking if Councillor Quayyum’s motion is possible,” he said. “I refer you back to occasions where Councillor Ed Murphy and others have been made to leave the chamber, so it clearly has been in the past.”

Legal officers advised the Mayor that it was at his discretion if a motion to gag Cllr Fitzgerald went ahead.

Cllr Chris Haper offered the helpful suggestion that council rules say that “should a member behave inappropriately or offensively, a member can move that the member be not heard further”.

Mayor Sandford asked if members really wanted to pursue it but agreed “if you want to pursue it, I will permit it just so that we can get on. Do you want to pursue it?”

Cllr Quayyum replied: “Seeing I’m in the limelight (a reference to Cllr Fitzgerald’s earlier retort) I would like to pursue it. Thank you.”

Mayor Sandford enquired “are you moving that he be no longer heard or that he be removed from the chamber?”

Cllr Quayyum clarified her motion that Cllr Fitzgerald “is no longer heard”.

Prior to a vote, council leader Mohammed Farooq pleaded for it not to happen.

“This is a final meeting of the council,” he said. “Perhaps if Councillor Fitzgerald is apologising, I request Councillor Shabina Quayyum respectfully perhaps we… let’s carry on. “Let’s not remove anybody. Let’s go forward and…

Peterborough City Council leader Mohammed Farooq, who took office after Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald was ousted as leader in November, faces his first, and challenging, oversight of 2024/25 council budget. PHOTO: Terry Harris

Council leader Cllr Mohammed Farooq. PHOTO: Terry Harris

“Yes, let’s finish off the meeting. We have guests from outside. This council has conducted itself very well over the last few months, last six months. Please, can we just forgive on this occasion?”.

But it was not to be and after some further legal clarification councillors were advised that if successful the motion would allow Cllr Fitzgerald to remain “but he will be unable to speak on that item”.

Cllr Farooq, again, asked if Cllr Quayyum would withdraw but she explained that she wanted the motion to be put: it was duly seconded and heard without debate.

It resulted in 33 councillors voting in favour, 22 against with two abstentions.

Cllr Fitzgerald felt the motion applied only to the last item on the agenda and he protested that he would be unable to speak further on the improvement plan.

“But we’re halfway through this one, Mr. Mayor, so if I may, I’ll finish. That is correct, isn’t it?,” he said.

However legal officers advised the motion meant an immediate termination of Cllr Fitzgerald’s right to speak.

“That’s absolutely fine, but again, my limelight comment has proven to be true, and I won’t withdraw it,” he said.

Cllr Quayyum accused him of “absolutely disgusting behaviour” before Cllr Marco Cereste stepped up.

“As far as I’m aware, Councillor Fitzgerald may have said something that offended another councillor,” he said.

“Councillor Fitzgerald then apologised, which was accepted. Now, at what point do we hang people in this country when they’ve apologised and have shown and said sorry for what they’ve done, because that’s exactly what we’re doing in here?”.

Cllr Steve Allen argued that “the shenanigans we’ve just encountered perhaps takes away some of the points that I was going to make or maybe even enforces them.

“And I was going to say that the improvement panel’s optimistic report based on political cooperation is uplifting.

“But today, this evening, we’ve now seen that political cooperation is destroyed by this infighting that we have.”

Cllr Elsey reminded councillors that “politics is a bruising business, and you don’t necessarily always like the decisions that come out of it.

“But that doesn’t mean that you have to spill vitriol and bile in the chamber towards your fellow councillors.

“We’re all generally reasonable people. But the tarnish on this chamber at this moment in time is coming from one place.”

Cllr Christian Hogg said: “These are quite extraordinary circumstances that we find ourselves in, and I must apologise for the behaviour that has been exhibited tonight.

“I think it’s really important to stress that the cooperation across the chamber, not left to right, but across the parties, has definitely increased in the last four months.

“It saddens me to see that the Conservative group is not coming across with the same level of cooperation that the other parties, but it’s understandable. I understand why they are taking the position that they have taken.”

Cllr Alison Jones said: “What we’ve seen tonight actually is very sad, and I would like to say that having sat in the council chamber for nearly two years.

“In the last six months, obviously some of the comments that have been made by Councillor Fitzgerald have not been acceptable in terms of the dignity and respect that we would expect fellow councillors to treat each other.

“I think tonight was sadly the straw that broke the camel’s back and hopefully from now on here we will be able to speak to the Councillor Fitzgerald and the council and the Conservative group to bring things back to a level playing field where we are actually all work better together.”

Cllr Mohammed Jamil felt Cllr Fitzgerald had never got over the process of not being leader anymore.

“I think the sooner he sees that the sooner we can turn this city round.”

Cllr John Fox said: “I can say safely with my hand on my heart in 22 years as a councillor I’ve never known the opposition groups to work so closely together.

“We’ve become friends and that’s what the public want to see.

“They want to see all groups working together for a common cause and the common cause is this city and that tonight to me was an embarrassment.

“We’ve got to carry on working together for the good of this city because we can’t have this sort of behaviour.”

Cllr John Howard: “I’m a councillor, I’m a dad and I’m a husband and when people use words in the chamber such as amnesia cancer freak show do I want my children and do I want my wife seeing that on the live feed and the answer is no.

“And it’s not even about a political choice it’s about individual behaviour

“You don’t have to be of any political persuasion to use unacceptable language like this in the chamber and it’s time we have a more mature politics

“I know in the Conservative group the current leader is a smaller voice and sensible and more moderate voices will come through and the good will come out of that group and I know it will because it’s not about a Conservative group it is about individuals and the choices make.”

“And it’s one of the reasons I’m not sitting in that group at the moment but there you go.”

Cllr Farooq described the events of the night as “quite a sombre moment”.

He said: “Nobody’s been called more names than I have, and you know you have to tolerate that and what you need to do is you must always concentrate on the core objectives.

“And these are to deliver best for the residents of this city and once we emphasize on that and once we concentrate on that then almost everything else becomes irrelevant.”

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