Council cover up over Labour office deal
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Pursuing the power to direct governments, central or local, is what drives democratic debate. However, the ability to direct a local authority is not supposed to bring with it the ability to turn the local authority into a party political campaigner. But, under Labour control, South Lanarkshire Council has often appeared to be politically biased
- When Yes campaign or SNP materials appear, Council representatives are seldom far behind, insisting they be removed, or physically removing them. By contrast, there were still ‘Labour No’ posters outside polling places in East Kilbride just days before the start of this year’s General Election campaign.
- As Deputy Leader of the Council, Michael McCann was allowed to use Council photographs for his Westminster election campaign while a community group was threatened with legal action for using the Council logo in its campaign against opencast mining.
- At the General Election, a Roads Engineer was tasked with stopping the SNP displaying its message in East Kilbride. He said SLC has banned vehicles carrying a political message on public highways in its area. That should rule out any visits from the likes of these vehicles in future:
Some of these efforts make the Council look ridiculous and its Labour politicians desperate. As election results demonstrate, the Council’s bias does not impress voters; if anything, it makes people more determined to remove its political masters from office.
Matters took a more serious turn in this year’s General Election, with Labour using the Council’s headquarters in East Kilbride, the Civic Centre, as a poster site. There was an immediate outcry, but the Council reacted like a rabbit caught in headlights and it was almost two weeks before the posters came down.
This focused attention on the basis on which the Council makes an office in the Civic Centre available to Labour elected members. The Council indicated that the Chief Executive’s view was, “as the part of the premises at the Civic Centre on which the posters are displayed are leased exclusively to Mr McCann, the tenant, the posters are displayed by him and are not published by the Council.”
Clearly, no one at the Council had read the whole of Section 2 of the Local Government Act 1986. The provisions of Section 2.3 (below) are clear, it doesn’t matter that the material is ‘not published by the Council’; the Council provided ‘other assistance’ with publishing the posters.
As can be seen below, the Council operated a specific prohibition on political material in and around the Civic Centre and other operational premises. Either Michael McCann’s lease allowed for the display of such materials, in breach of this policy, or it did not.
If the lease allowed Mr McCann to display political material, this would constitute a breach of the 1986 Act. If so, as soon as this was spotted, the Council should have tried to persuade him not to trigger a breach of the Act by displaying such material.
If he broke his lease by displaying the material, the Council should have removed it or covered it from public view; an extended period of inaction would amount to a breach of the 1986 Act.
Given that the materials were on display for nearly two weeks, the public is entitled to know which of these scenarios is correct. Given that a breach of the 1986 Act occurred, someone should be held to account.
Labour defends its access to the Civic Centre
Long-term observers of the Council suspect the Labour administration wants access to the Civic Centre made available only to Labour elected members. Its response to Linda Fabiani’s defeat of Andy Kerr in 2011 confirmed this. Newly elected as the town’s MSP, Linda asked to take over Mr Kerr’s Civic Centre office. The Council refused Linda’s request and transferred the office to the Labour MP, Michael McCann.
On May 7th, Lisa Cameron took over as MP from Michael McCann. Yet again, the Council refused to make the premises available to an SNP elected member. Instead, they allowed Michael McCann to retain the office, this time as a private individual. This decision is in breach of the Council’s stated policy “to make available office space within the Civic Centre under commercial lease terms, to members of the EU Parliament, of the UK Parliament and of the Scottish parliament as their Constituency Offices, if requested’.
On this occasion, with no Labour member to pass it to, the Council simply suspended its policy.
Now for the cover up
The Council is now engaged in covering up the mismanagement of its relationship with the Labour Party over access to the Civic Centre. Responses to Freedom of Information requests and complaints range from incredible to desperate.
- The Council claims it no longer holds copies of the leases held by Adam Ingram MP or Andy Kerr MSP despite it being just five years and four years respectively since they left office. The loss or destruction of these leases, especially for such a high-profile property, is contrary to the Council’s obligation to maintain public records. An explanation for this state of affairs is required from the Council’s Chief Executive.
- The Council denies the MP’s office is part of “the East Kilbride Civic Centre or other such operational buildings” (as it was described in September 2014). Apparently, we are meant to accept that the Council can ‘carve out’ parts of its operational buildings for use in Labour campaigns.
- The Council refuses to comment on whether any officer or elected member tried to persuade Mr McCann not to run his election campaign from within the Civic Centre, or to put up party political posters within the premises.
The Council is attempting to conceal the evidence that would allow others to judge its efforts to comply with its statutory obligations. In conducting its cover up, the Council relies on the same discredited arguments used by the House of Commons when it resisted calls for access to information about MP’s expenses.
The Council claims that releasing information about this episode amounts to the release of Mr McCann’s ‘personal information’. Even if that were true, the Council would be entitled to release the information if there was a legitimate public interest. Thanks to Mr McCann’s behaviour, there is a very legitimate public interest in the arrangements the Council put in place when it leased part of an operational building to a Labour politician, and what steps were taken to prevent the Council being placed in breach of the 1986 Act.
South Lanarkshire Council has often acted for party political ends; it is time this stopped. Challenging this cover up is as good a place to start as any. One way we can all assist is to force the release of the information the Council is now trying to conceal.
How you can help
- Use Twitter, Facebook and other social media to raise awareness of this blog and of the cover up being conducted by South Lanarkshire Council.
- Email or write to your Councillors, of all parties, asking that they explain how we got to the position in which Labour seems to view the Civic Centre as party property. To find out who your councillors are, go here.
- Email or write to the Chief Executive of South Lanarkshire Council asking for the release of the information we need. An example follows, but feel free to express the request, politely, in your own way.
- Sign the petition here.
- Share your requests and your responses with others.
Draft email to the Chief Executive
Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dear Mr Freeland
I am concerned at South Lanarkshire Council’s apparent political bias, as demonstrated by events surrounding the premises in East Kilbride Civic Centre that have been leased to Labour elected members.
I have two issues of concern.
- The first is the failure of the Council to make space available within the Civic Centre for anyone other than Labour Party representatives. The Council first demonstrated this failure in 2011, when it refused to make premises available to Linda Fabiani MSP. It has demonstrated it again by the delay in transferring the MP’s office from Michael McCann to Lisa Cameron MP.
- My second concern is the display of Labour Party posters on the windows of the Civic Centre for a period of almost two weeks during the recent General Election campaign.
Please provide, under Freedom of Information legislation, the information I need to consider these matters of legitimate public interest.
- Please provide copies of any leases held by Adam Ingram MP and Andy Kerr MSP in respect of premises in the Civic Centre. If the Council no longer holds these leases, please confirm when they were disposed of or destroyed, on whose authority, and for what reason.
- Please confirm the dates of commencement and termination and provide a copy of any lease between the Council and Michael McCann in respect of premises in the Civic Centre.
- If the lease held by Mr McCann during the 2015 General Election campaign permitted display to the public of party political material, please confirm who authorised this lease.
- If the lease held by Mr McCann during the 2015 General Election campaign permitted display of party political material, please confirm what steps were taken to dissuade him from putting such material on display, and confirm if he was advised of the possible implications for the Council in terms of the Local Government Act 1986. Please provide copies of any relevant correspondence.
- Please confirm the date on which Mr McCann, or his representative, indicated to the Council his intention to use the office within the Civic Centre as his campaign headquarters for the 2015 General Election. Please provide copies of any relevant correspondence.
- Please confirm the first date on which Mr McCann, or his representative, was asked not to display party political material within the Civic Centre, or to remove any material already on display. Please provide copies of any relevant correspondence.
- If Mr McCann did not have or seek approval for the display of party political material, please confirm when Council officers became aware such material had been put on display and what steps were taken to have it removed or concealed from public view. Please provide copies of any relevant correspondence.
As the information requested relates to a matter of recent controversy, I understand it will be readily obtainable and can be provided ‘promptly’ as required by FOI legislation, and well within the 20 working day maximum period for compliance with this request.
I would be happy to receive the information directly by email, or by it being posted on the South Lanarkshire Council website and a link forwarded to me.
NAME AND ADDRESS
For further information, please email: email@example.com