Agenda item

Complaint against Councillor J.P. McCarthy, Watton Town Council (Agenda Item 5)

To consider the above case referred by the Standards Board for England.  The following documents are attached:


(a)    Pre-Hearing Summary Checklist

(b)    Report of the Ethical Standards Officer


Certain of the appendices to the Ethical Standards Officer’s report are considered to contain exempt information and accordingly the Committee is asked to consider passing the following resolution:


“That under Section 100(A)(4) of the Local Government Act 1972, the Press and public be excluded from the meeting for the following item of business on the grounds that it may involve the likely disclosure of exempt information as defined in paragraph 1 of Part I of Schedule 12A to the Act:


  • Agenda item 8 - Appendices to the report of the Ethical Standards Officer.”



The following persons were present for the hearing into this matter:


Member Concerned                        Councillor J.P. McCarthy


Ethical Standards Officer’s            

Representative                                 Natalie Birtle


Investigating Officer                         Alex Oram


Legal Adviser to the

Committee                                        John Chinnery, Solicitor & Standards Consultant


Attending Officer                              Miss E. Wilkes, Committee Officer


Observers                                         Watton Town Councillors:

                                                           Mrs. L. McCarthy

                                                           Mr. J. Craigie

                                                           Mr. K.S. Gilbert


                                                           Mrs. J. Seal,

                                                           Clerk to Watton Town Council


                                                           Substitute Members of Standards Committee:

                                                           Mr. J.P. Labouchere

                                                           Mr. M. Eveling

                                                           Mr. B. Rayner

                                                           Mr. M. Whittley


Summary of the Allegation


That Councillor Paul McCarthy, a member of Watton Town Council, failed to declare a prejudicial interest and withdraw from the chamber during the consideration of a planning application on 30 January 2007.  Further, that Councillor McCarthy voted against the planning application and then used his casting vote as chairman of the Watton Town Council’s planning committee to ensure that the council objected to it.


Procedures for the Hearing


The Chairman introduced the Committee and attending Officers and the Legal Adviser to the Committee explained that the hearing would be conducted as follows:


  1. To consider the findings of fact as submitted in the Ethical Standards Officer’s (ESO) Report.

  2. To consider whether, in the light of the facts as found, the Member had failed to follow the Code.

  3. If it was found that there had been a breach of the Code, to determine what, if any, penalty there should be.

At the end of each stage, following consideration of the report and any other information supplied by the Member concerned and the ESO’s Representative, the Committee would retire to consider its decision, which would then be announced.


Consideration was given to whether the appendices to the ESO’s Report should remain exempt or be released into the public domain. 


Councillor McCarthy expressed his concern that the report had been made public before the hearing had taken place.  He felt this was unfair and prejudiced public opinion against him before the Committee had considered the facts.  However, he had no objection to the release of documents after the hearing.


The Legal Adviser explained that it was standard procedure to release as much as information as possible in the interests of transparency.  The ESO’s Representative raised no objection to the release of the documents and stated that the Standards Board for England supported the aim of transparency and that no rule was laid down about when documents should be released.  Some Committees released reports early, while others did so either on the day or after a hearing.  Either practice was acceptable.  However, any prior press reports should be disregarded.


The Chairman indicated that the Council would review its procedures in the light of the concerns raised by Councillor McCarthy to ensure that respect for the individual was maintained.


             RESOLVED that the appendices to the ESO’s Report may be released into the public domain.


Findings of Fact and Reasons


Councillor McCarthy was asked whether he accepted the summary of findings of fact as set out in the ESO’s report, to which he replied in the affirmative.


On that basis, Councillor McCarthy was asked whether he accepted the ESO’s conclusion that the findings of fact led to his having a personal and prejudicial interest in the meeting concerned.


Councillor McCarthy replied that he did accept the ESO’s conclusion but wished to explain his reasons for declaring a personal interest only.


Before presenting the report, the ESO’s Representative referred to Councillor McCarthy’s written submissions on the final report (Form A, appendices pages 1-2), and stated that she considered there was nothing in those submissions which altered the ESO’s findings and accordingly accepted that the amendments in Form A be incorporated as findings of fact.


The Committee retired, and on their return, the Chairman indicated that the Committee had decided that the facts were as stated in the ESO’s Report, as amended by Councillor McCarthy’s comments in Appendix 1 (Form A).


Findings on whether any contravention of the Breckland Code of Conduct has occurred


The ESO’s Representative then summarised the findings of fact as detailed in the report and the reasoning as to whether Councillor McCarthy had a personal and prejudicial interest in the matter concerned.  From the facts, she believed that a personal interest existed on a number of counts and that there was a cumulative effect from the various counts of personal interest which led to the conclusion that a prejudicial interest also existed.


Councillor McCarthy was afforded the opportunity to respond and explained that he had been taking into account the concerns of two other site owners whose interests he felt needed protection, not just his own.


Answering a question from the Legal Adviser, Councillor McCarthy confirmed he accepted that he not only had personal interests for the reasons as explained but that those interests were also prejudicial.


Asked why, in agreeing on that point, if he was representing other interests as well, he had not declared such interest, Councillor McCarthy explained that he felt that there were other Councillors at the meeting who had opposing interests and that he considered that WECO’s views would not have been considered fairly.  In the circumstance, as the other Councillors remained in the meeting, he felt he could do so as well.


He confirmed he had not made that point at the meeting in question and that he had declared a personal interest but not a prejudicial interest.


The Committee retired to consider whether there had been a breach of the Code.


The Committee found the following:


(a)         Councillor McCarthy had a personal interest for the reasons set out in paragraph 7.9 of the ESO’s Report.

(b)         The interest was clearly also prejudicial, for the reasons set out in paragraph 7.11 of the ESO’s Report.

(c)         The Committee found that Councillor McCarthy had failed to comply with paragraph 10(a) of the Code of Conduct in that he did not withdraw from the meeting during consideration of the matter in question.

With regard to the question of whether Councillor McCarthy improperly influenced the decision about that matter in contravention of paragraph 10(b) of the Code of Conduct, the Committee concurred with the ESO’s findings, as agreed by Councillor McCarthy, that Councillor McCarthy had clearly influenced the decision but invited Councillor McCarthy to respond further to the ESO’s finding that he had improperly influenced the decision.


Following clarification of the definition of the term “improper” in this context, Councillor McCarthy accepted he had improperly influenced the decision in the matter.


The Committee accordingly found that Councillor McCarthy had breached paragraph 10(b) of the Code of Conduct.


Findings on penalty, if any, for contravention of Code


The possible penalties available to the Committee were outlined by the ESO’s Representative.


In the view of the ESO’s Representative, in mitigation, Councillor McCarthy appeared genuinely to have had concern about the participation of members of his committee and it was recognised that for many Councillors, the question of declaration of interests was a difficult issue.  However, aggravating factors existed from the fact that Councillor McCarthy was the chairman of the committee responsible for the conduct of the meeting and from the fact that he used his casting vote, although Councillor McCarthy had since said he would behave differently in the future if faced with the same situation.


Councillor McCarthy explained that there appeared to be little clear and precise guidance on when and where a personal or prejudicial interest existed and that members could not know all the rules inside out.  He understood that this had proved to be a good working experience for him and that training was needed.  He felt there should be more training workshops for people in his position.  He stated he had not been aware of all the facts regarding interests but would not plead ignorance and felt that it was something he would not normally have done.


The Committee then retired to determine its findings on penalty.




The Committee’s decision was announced by the Chairman as follows:


             RESOLVED that the Committee accept that Councillor McCarthy has learned his lesson but they believe that the use of his casting vote elevated the seriousness of the matter in that it changed the decision of the Watton Town Council Planning Committee.  The Standards Committee decision is therefore that Councillor McCarthy should be suspended from being a member of Watton Town Council for three months commencing from the date of this meeting.


The Chairman concluded by saying that the Committee appreciated that in regard to training, this had been a learning curve for Councillor McCarthy and reiterated the importance for members to undertake training.


Copies of the decision summary were made available at the close of the hearing.

Supporting documents: