Lib Dems under pressure over Hancock as Councillor quits

Update 28/1: Final update for this post before I open up a new one.

Cllr Eleanor Scott gave an extensive interview to Victoria Derbyshire on Radio 5 Live this morning.  It was actually distressing to hear her evident discomfort at her experiences inside the Lib Dem group on Portsmouth City Council.  Although she resigned over the failure to remove Mike Hancock from the Cabinet, her grievances extend across a wide range of the “culture” of the Lib Dem group.  The audio is here.  She has clearly been subjected to appalling sexism, aggression, and all sorts of unacceptable behaviour.  Her comments on Nick Clegg are again damning for his failure to take the issue seriously.  She says Nick Clegg “protected his reputation up in London, but what about Portsmouth?”

I found a tweet I almost a year ago about Hancock and Rennard, saying these issues would threaten Clegg’s position and that the Lib Dems were in denial:

I have emailed the City Solicitor to ask him to look into the comment made by Cllr Les Stevens, “I am protecting Mike because I am his friend”.  Cllr Stevens’s can hardly continue to serve on a disciplinary panel on that basis.  Indeed, his conduct amounts in itself to a breach of the Council’s Code of Conduct (here, in pdf), which is based on a number of sensible principles:

CoC

Please note the requirements relating to “selflessness”, “integrity”, and “objectivity”.

I’ve been in correspondence with the City Solicitor about some other matters, which will form part of a blog I hope to get up some point tomorrow.

Update 27/1: In the wake of Cllr Scott’s resignation, described below, the “can of worms” has burst open.  She has given an interview to Jessica Parker of Radio Solent, and didn’t pull any punches.  You can hear the whole thing here.  Cllr Scott says:

“I can’t imagine anybody else on the Council in any political party being allowed to stay in a ruling cabinet given the fact that a QC who had been employed by [the] Council to express an opinion on a series of allegations has made comments such as we have here [i.e. in Pascoe's report].”

“Nick Clegg’s stance needs some serious looking at.  Because he did know about the seriousness of the situation down here in Portsmouth, particularly the culture, in which I was operating very unhappily.  I went up to Party Headquarters on the 21st June and I had a meeting with Tim Gordon who’s the Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrat party and Dave Allworthy was there, the Head of Compliance and I told them a fair bit about my feelings on the unacceptable culture on the Liberal Democrat group in the city.  So it’s not as though they weren’t aware there is unhappiness down here in some quarters, and one of those expressions of unhappiness came from the only woman member of the Cabinet at the time.”

That’s damning testimony and it raises much wider questions about Cllr Vernon-Jackson’s leadership of the group, given that Cllr Scott’s concerns seem to go far beyond the specifics of the Hancock case and concern the wider “culture” of the Lib Dem party locally.

We know as a result of earlier fall-out from Cllr Scott’s resignation that at Friday’s Lib Dem group meeting, the vote not to suspend the now-Independent Hancock from the City Council Cabinet was a dead-heat.  He retained his place on the “status quo” principle; 10 voted to remove him, 10 to keep him, 2 (including the Chairman) abstained, and 2 councillors were absent.  This destroys the statement Cllrs Hugh Mason and Rob Wood read afterwards, reaffirming the unity of the group.

This morning it emerged that the local Lib Dem Executive – representing the entire party membership in Portsmouth – has decided to run the selection process for their 2015 candidate in Portsmouth South while Hancock is suspended from the party.  This effectively deselects him, as he is ineligible while under suspension.

Hancock has reacted angrily, telling The News: “I’ll make the decision whether I stand as an MP or not when I decide, not when people are trying to make a decision when they know it will be impossible for me to be involved in it.”

The Executive have reaffirmed their support for Gerald Vernon-Jackson’s leadership.  If the intention is to quickly ditch Hancock and replace him with GVJ, the Lib Dems may well find they misjudge the mood of voters.  Everyone in their party connected to the Hancock affair and the surrounding cover-up is tainted.

Radio Solent again had an excellent report on the situation this morning (it’s a shame they can’t snip them out of programmes to append to their website news stories) which is here.

Yesterday’s blog continues below:

Cllr Eleanor Scott, who like Mike Hancock represents Fratton ward on PCC, has just resigned from both the Cabinet and the Lib Dem group over the way the Hancock crisis has been handled.  She has been a member of PCC for over ten years, and has served for most of that time as a Cabinet member, lately for Environment.  Her loss deprives the Lib Dem group of one of its most respected members.  Cllr Scott told The News: “I’m deeply unhappy with the group’s decision and I’ve done the only thing that I feel I can”. Radio Solent’s Political Reporter, Jessica Parker, quotes her saying she hopes “others involved in group’s decision on Friday will reflect on their positions & do the right thing.” 

Cllr Scott’s resignation undermines the position the Lib Dem group arrived at on Friday night when they had a meeting to discuss the crisis.  Cllr Hugh Mason was adamant that the Lib Dems remained “one group” when talking to the press after the group meeting.   Cllr Rob Wood said “This is about making sure we do the right thing together and we stick together as a group.”

Earlier in the day, Mike Hancock arrived at the Guildhall for a “decision meeting” in his capacity as Cabinet member for Planning, Regeneration and Economic Development.  He went in and out of a side-door to try and dodge the waiting press, and refused to answer their questions saying “You’re wasting your time”.

That evening, after the Lib Dem group meeting The News reported the statement they had agreed – you can see video of it on their website.  The text itself is worth analysing:

“Cllr Mike Hancock no longer remains a member of the Portsmouth City Council Liberal Democrat group, because having had his membership suspended by the party at national level, it is not possible for him to remain a member of the City Council group until such time as the suspension is lifted.”

Very true.  What everyone wonders is why the national party didn’t instigate a proper inquiry when they were first made aware of the complaint.

“The group acknowledges that the suspension has been imposed before the issue to which suspension relates has been properly and fairly determined through due process in the courts.”

Let’s be clear about this: if anyone is being denied due process, it’s the complainant against Mike Hancock.  The Pascoe report relates to a complaint against Hancock as a City Councillor in relation to alleged breaches of the Code of Conduct.  Pascoe was engaged by PCC to produce a report to inform the council’s own disciplinary process.

One reason PCC has not carried out its own due process is because there is a politically-motivated cover-up in operation.  Cllr Les Stevens, who sits on the disciplinary panel, admitted it in comments to The News: “I am protecting Mike because I am his friend”.  PCC has already been warned it is in danger of losing an application for judicial review by the complainant should she make one, because the Lib Dems have stalled the council’s own disciplinary process.  PCC lost a case on Friday in the High Court, and will now have to make a full copy of the Pascoe report available to the complainant.  But back to the statement:

“The group decided that the independent councillor Mike Hancock should retain his seat on the Cabinet at the City Council. This was decided because Councillor Hancock is best placed to fulfill the role of Cabinet member for Planning, Regeneration and Economic Development.”

It’s a nonsensical statement.  Given the poor performance of the City Council on projects such as Northern Quarter or the Palmerston Road pedestrianisation, it’s a wonder Cllr Hancock still has any kind of job anyway.  Clearly the Lib Dem group are hoping that after a short interval, public concern about Mike Hancock’s activities will wane and he can be allowed to carry on as previously, regardless of what Nick Clegg nationally eventually decides to do.

The Lib Dem group has outraged many Lib Dems elsewhere in the country, and are deepening the embarrassment to Nick Clegg and Tim Farron for their own failure to deal with the Hancock issue before it got to this point.  In refusing to suspend Mike Hancock from their own single-party Cabinet, they are rebelling against the eventual decision taken at national level to suspend Hancock as a Lib Dem.

Given the wider issues relating to the way Cllr Stevens and Gerald Vernon-Jackson have handled the case, I would think there is pressing need for the Lib Dem leadership to have an inquiry into the operation of the entire Lib Dem machine in Portsmouth.  It is out of control, it is damaging the reputation of the city, and is complicit in an outrageous mishandling of the complaint against Mike Hancock.

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3 Responses to Lib Dems under pressure over Hancock as Councillor quits

  1. Cllr Donna Jones says:

    Very thorough account!

  2. Michael Bilton says:

    Big question – given that the Lib Dems were voting for someone to retain a very powerful position on the city council’s cabinet – did the normal rules of declaring an interest prevail? If so, was Mrs Hancock allowed to vote – given that she had a direct and pecuniary interest in the outcome? Did Mrs H declare an interest?

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