Thursday, November 10, 2011

A sad day for bloggers, a sad day for freedom of speech, and a sad day for democracy

Today I had to appear before the East Riding of Yorkshire Council’s Standards Committee to answer charges that in response to a posting on this blog, I had allowed two specific comments written by others to be published. I was found to have breached the Code of Councillors and received a written censure.

The complaint was brought by Mike Whitley of Gilberdyke, who stood against me as a Labour candidate at the May 2011 East Riding of Yorkshire Council and Gilberdyke Parish Council elections - he failed to be elected to either.

Although disappointed, I certainly feel that the Standards Committee was put in a very difficult position today because of the evidence and recommendation provided by the Council’s Monitoring Officer, and in only censuring me I appreciate that they gave me the absolute minimum punishment they could.

I am particularly disappointed that the evidence provided was as narrow as it was and resulted in the decision being made on a very technical point. Some of the evidence was subjective and some clearly wrong, and both the Monitoring Officer and Investigating Officer have some serious questions they need to answer, and I will be buying them both an English Dictionary for Christmas.

I have been censured not for anything I have said or done but for failing to censor the free speech of Howdenshire residents, who understandably feel strongly about the continued actions of an individual that has put their homes and livelihoods at risk.

I understood we have free speech in this country and unless a comment is defamatory or untrue I will continue to allow free speech and debate on my blog. I did not then and still do not, believe the key comment was defamatory and it is certainly true that Mark Twain did include such events in his novels. I accept that this is subjective and accept that the Committee did not share my understanding of the strength of feeling locally.

The Standards Regime is supposed to deal with wrongdoing in the public interest not give a voice to Political candidates to score points against their opponents. The committee was not allowed to look at the wider context of the repeated and unfounded complaints – (8 times this individual has referred me or Gilberdyke Parish Councillors to the Standards Board and every one cleared) and also reporting me to the Police which was also deemed to be unfounded. Conversely the Investigating Officer was free to attempt to mislead the committee and to raise other matters unrelated to the narrow accusation.

The Political context of the repeated complaints, and the totally untrue comments and accusations the complainant put into the public domain was also not considered.

In short the public has just paid for a failed political stunt.

Councillors who break the law should face the full force of the law - everything else is a matter for the electorate. If a Councillor does not reach the standards expected of them they will not be re-elected. I am at a loss to know what this process has achieved. A censure is meaningless but has cost an enormous amount of taxpayers’ money. A retired officer brought back at who knows what rates to undertake extensive investigations. How much has this cost and what services to our residents do we cut to pay for this?

If ever there was an example of why the Government is right to abolish this expensive and misused system, this is it. Absolutely nothing has been achieved and no difference has been made apart from the taxpayers get the bill for someone to pursue a personal, vexatious Political agenda.

I will continue blogging!

The East Riding News coverage of the story can be found here

Update - The paper copy of the newspaper article in addition carries an interesting quote from an unnamed fellow ERYC Conservative Councillor at County Hall:

"Many in our group believe facebook and Twitter are akin to witchcraft"

Oh dear, we really do need to drag ourselves into the 21st Century.....

Update 2
- The comment (not written by me) but which I allowed on my blog was, ‘In Mark Twain’s classic literature perpetrators of anti-social activity were stripped, tarred and feathered then ridden out of town on a rail. Not that I would suggest such a thing mind’

“Guidance published by Standards for England about blogging” – because there was other part of the guidance included in the Investigators report I can only assume this is what he used to base his decision and subsequent recommendation – This guidance quite clearly states that a comment has to be defamatory or obscene to be in contravention.

If one looks in the English Dictionary it says that, “defamatory remarks are not true and make people have a bad opinion of someone” (so logically any remarks have to be untrue before they can be defamatory)

The dictionary also states that obscene remarks are, “indecent, disgusting or likely to deprave or corrupt”

I’m still at a loss, because the advice I was given supported my thinking that there is nothing that could be considered UNTRUE, INDECENT, DISCUSTING or LIKELY TO DEPRAVE OR CORRUPT in the comment.


Paul Robinson said...

I would add that that it is by my actions, and working with my community, my fellow Gilberdyke Parish Councils, the East Riding of Yorkshire Council and the Lower Ouse Internal Drainage Board – Gilberdyke has a new drainage culvert allowing those residents flooded in June 2007 to sleep better at night knowing that the risk of their houses being flooded has been reduced.

These are the people who I represent - and it was those people who judged not just me, but my fellow Parish Councillors, when they weighed and measured us all in this past May’s election when Mr Whitley stood against us. We were all elected and Mr Whitley failed to be.

So in effect the electorate had already made the decision on what the committee were considering.

Was appearing before the committee and all that Mr Whitley and his small band of associates have put me through been worth it?

Let’s just say that for the peace of mind given to my Gilberdyke residents flooded in 2007 – you bet it has….. and I would go through it all again without hesitation for their continued protection.

Anonymous said...

I can not understand how a negative comment which appeared on your blog has become a positive comment. This is double dutch to me and seriously flawed. Freedom of speech is vital to our communities, how else will anything get done and you Paul have done the most and you certainly do listen to the community, this is nothing more than a kick in the teeth. I do not want to create more ill feeling on your blog but this looks to me to be a witch hunt and those involved should look very hard at themselves.

Concerned resident of Gilberdyke.

Paul Ablett said...

As a Labour candidate, and quite often at political odds with him, I would like to state that I have never met a harder working local Councillor than Paul Robinson. It is indeed both unfair and unfortunate that he appears to have been demonised for being open and honest in the way he supports and encourages his electorate. The other parties in this process really do need to accept their limitations and realise that their abilities do not extend to democratically representing the local chip shop let alone the people of a Parish or Ward. I would urge Paul to consider taking the matter further in the interests of free speech and democracy, both of which, the last time I looked, were an integral part of our society.

Gilberdyke Resident said...

I agree with Paul Ablett. Councillor Robinson should not let it lie but appeal against this manifestly unfair decision. Anything else is allowing Mike Whitley to once more get away with making wild accusations then running to hide behind the Standards complaint proceedure.

Robbo's Mate said...

This is unbelievable Robbo – I know much of the case and what you presented to the committee. There was always a problem with the Investigating Officer’s report and the Monitoring Officer’s recommendation, and for the members to go against the recommendation would have been difficult. But there again Paul, the evidence you put forward demolished their argument. Why don’t you publish what you said at the inquiry for everyone to see?

And along with all those who have said appeal it – do just that. Chin up mate!

Bill Kane said...

I agree if the Committee would not hear your evidence then let your residents see it and make their own minds up. It seems to me that your understanding of the standards of openness and honesty are much higher than the Board.

Roy Hunt said...

I too had an unfortunate experience at the hands of the ERYC complaints process. What was I guilty of - joining a political party and being late in declaring it - why?, because I had no idea I had to declare such membership, and even the Standards Board for England agreed that the rules were not clear.

I was interviewed five times over a period of over a year by two different officers AFTER I had accepted in a letter that what I was accused of was true.

In the "trial" I challenged the interpretation of the rules provided by the prosecuting officer. So what happened was that the committee went into private session with the prosecuting officer and then came back and confirmed that the prosecuting officer had confirmed he was right. Incredulous.

In my defence I explained that in all the years I had been a councillor I had never been provided training on the Code of Conduct by the Standards Committee, which was a legal requirement on them. One of the panel said I was wrong, to be told be a colleague that actually I was right.

So, I reported the whole of the Standards Committee to the Standards Board for England both as a group for acting contrary to the law and individually for bringing their office into disrepute. The Standards Board admitted that they had investigated my complaint and told me they had instructed the Standards Committee to provide training for Parish and Town Councillors, but that they couldn't accept my complaint because the correct recourse was through the courts. So, if you break the law it seems the code of conduct can't be applied.

And by the way, by the time I had been bought to "trial" and had ceased to be a councillor for some months. So, they reprimanded me when I was no longer a councillor - but to what effect? A complete nonsense,

Ray Duffill said...

Is there an issue here about East Riding Council being really ill-prepared to embrace the potential of blogging, Twitter and social-media?

Social media can put you in touch with people in a direct and dynamic way. But it's not a sterile environment, it can generate a rough and tumble raw debate. Moderation can help temper some of this - but overdoing this and being too sensitive can stifle an online community.

I've blogged about this on HU12 Online and would make the point that any real emotive debate will always bring out those who really think that "the Ref was blind" or "the Prim Minister's an idiot" - if it didn't it wouldn't be real!

Carry on blogging Councillor Robinson!

Anonymous said...

"Many in our group believe facebook and Twitter are akin to witchcraft": As a public spirited individual I am sure Paul will want to test this theory. Bring out the dunking stool - if he drowns we can confirm that there is no witchcraft in social networking! Love it!

Ron said...

Non illegitemi carborundum Paul!!!

Anonymous said...

Two fundamental considerations emerge. 1. The abuse of the standards board and its original intent. A classic example of the law of unintended consequences! 2. The complainant Mike Whitley has made himself look petty and foolish to a far greater number of people than previously shared this opinion. It is now public knowledge that he has caused significant cost to the community of Gilberdyke through his antics since 2007. The electorate showed their feelings earlier this year.

Bill Kane said...

Although Paul is absolutely right in his technical appraisal of the rules, this is not, and never was, about rights and wrongs, standards or disrepute. Paul is guilty of one thing and one thing only – doing the job we elected him to do. He is one of the few Councillors who have the intelligence and ability to hold the Council Officers and Executive to account. All readers of this blog have seen what he does.

Just one example being that he is the only East Riding Councillor to actually fight and win a planning appeal at a public inquiry when the Council officers couldn’t and wouldn’t present any evidence – this could be seen as embarrassing for the Council.

It was notable that he was one of only a handful of ERYC tory councillors standing up for the residents of the East Riding outraged by the pension top up of senior Council Officers.

Witchcraft or Witch-hunt?

John Jessop, Gilberdyke said...

In my personal opinion, the whole issue is a result of Mike Whitley, the complainant, conducting a long running, vexatious campaign against Paul Robinson in particular and Gilberdyke Parish Council in general as can readily be seen by study of the Parish Council minutes and reports in the local press.

The saga started in the aftermath of the floods of 2007 when it was discovered that Mr Whitley, against drainage board advice, had installed two 12" pipes as an unofficial culvert into the critical water course carrying the majority of the surface water out of the village. Despite this action contravening more than one act of parliament the authorities tried hard but unsuccessfully to obtain a solution through agreement.Eventually as a last resort, the legal route was used and a legal notice was served on Mr Whitley by the Drainage Board. Subsequently the phase one works were completed, albeit approximately two years after an agreed, co-operative solution would have provided. The delays did result in a higher cost to the community insofar as the loan interest rate rose during the delays and the effects of rising contractor costs also came into play. Personally I would have used the legal notice immediately the obstructive behaviour started but that is now water under the bridge and the recently completed large culvert worked exactly as designed during the last heavy rains this year.

I am not medically qualified so can only give a laymans personal opinion but for Mike Whitley to conduct his ensuing aggressive campaign of misinformation and obstruction to hamper the flood defence work improvements plus personal unfounded attacks on members of the Parish Council I consider shows a considerable degree of paranoia.

Readers will not be surprised to learn that the same individual made three failed complaints against me via the Standards Board but each of these was rejected. In addition he has made failed complaints against the chairman of the Parish Council and previous failed complaints against Councillor Robinson. It seems obvious to me that he used the procedure as a free (to him) vehicle to cause disruption and a pattern of vexatious behaviour is established.

John in Gilberdyke said...

So are you going to appeal Paul? It really is time the unelected back-room crew were brought to heel by an elected representative.

fidi defensor said...

So todays East Riding Mail carried an article about Councillor Charlie Bayram and the now infamous tarmac drive chapter 2.
Evidently Charlie was not acting as a councillor because he did not tell the contractors he was a councillor. It is very strange that Paul robinson was found to be acting as a councillor despite the notice on his blog page stating this to be a personal blog - to quote

"All opinions expressed on this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of the East Riding of Yorkshire Council, Haltemprice and Howden Conservative Association or the Conservative Party."

Very strange indeed if Paul could be considered to have breached a code of conduct whilst Charlie has not.