Last year, I was reported to the standards board of Lewisham council for tweeting concerns that last summer's riots were spreading to our area (which they did – you can read my tweets here). I was bizarrely accused of inciting riots.Yes, it’s awful, isn’t it Mike?
The intervening weeks weren't much fun. I wondered whether the board would publicly reprimand me, leading to my possible suspension from my political party, or whether I'd be banned altogether from the council chamber for six months – unable to vote on issues directly affecting my constituents.*shakes head* Terrible state of affairs.
I guess you’ll be supporting #TwitterJokeTrial now?
Oh. Hang on. You’re not concerned about the ordinary person at all, are you?
In the end, the claim against me was thrown out. But every year, claims are brought against councillors. One individual made 170 complaints about their local authority and elected members, at a cost to taxpayers of £160,000. Not a single one of their complaints was upheld.Well, boo hoo! Plenty of complaints are upheld. So what? Should you be above scrutiny?
The code of conduct, written by the dead hand of bureaucracy, pays little thought to the importance of free speech. Councillors are expected "not [to] conduct yourself in a manner which could reasonably be regarded as bringing your office or authority into disrepute". And to "show respect and consideration for others". These clauses are so broad as to be meaningless. What they do is give your opponents a powerful toolkit to use against you.Well, indeed. Just like the general public are finding out when they see cases prosecuted under the Communications Act.
One of the most infamous cases concerned a tweet by former Cardiff councillor John Dixon while shopping in London: "I didn't know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off." After being reported for a breach of the code of conduct (from a Scientologist living in East Grinstead, Sussex), Dixon was cleared as his tweet was made in a private capacity, not as a councillor. Yet, the public services ombudsman for Wales who referred the case to Dixon's local board for judgment, said Dixon "may" have breached the code. The ombudsman's witless judgment is worth quoting from: "I am, however, concerned that a member who has served his community for over 10 years and has recently attended training does not appear to understand the provisions of the code, particularly paragraphs 2(1)(b), 4(b) and 6(1)(a). I also note that Councillor Dixon has not shown any remorse for his actions."It’s about equality, Mike. If you’re a councillor, you aren’t supposed to show bias. This is not new.
He just thought the Scientologists would be an easier target to sneer at and get away with it than any other potentially risky group, like Muslims, and he found out about the law of unintended consequences…
Finally, a judge has stood up against this type of nonsense. Mr Justice Beaton's decision in the high court declared that elected politicians should "possess a thicker skin and greater tolerance than ordinary members of the public". His ruling that political speech is protected under article 10 of the Human Rights Act is a judicial rebuke to these inquisitions.I can’t see how that would have helped Dixon – not by any stretch of the imagination could that Tweet be interpreted as ‘political speech’…
This case concerned Councillor Lewis Malcolm Calver's blog, which contained sarcastic comments on the council chairman. Hardly the most scurrilous blog written about local government, but it landed Calver in trouble with the Adjudication Panel for Wales, which ordered he undergo training and publicly admonished him for "snide comments" (no, really). Thankfully, Calver's victory will now establish a higher threshold for cases against councillors to proceed at standards boards.But councillors will still be free to go merrily on crushing dissent amongst the general public with impunity?
. The sanctioning of penalties against elected officials, for behaviour that is not illegal, has gone on for too long. It has taken the judiciary to finally stand up for the free speech of those elected by the public.And what of the free speech of the public themselves? Until you start standing up for that, you’re unlikely to find many people in your corner.