Since writing up this blog, a version of the entire Pascoe report has been leaked online, and it – and the uproar it’s generated – are all over the media. I’ve put up another post with some of the reactions to today’s events here. Hancock has been suspended from the party at national level, but Portsmouth Lib Dems still back him, and Gerald Vernon-Jackson refuses to suspend him from his Cabinet position. Yesterday’s original blog continues below:
There are two parts to what happened today in the Council Chamber at the Guildhall; a Cabinet meeting to consider the ill-fated Palmerston Rd South pedestrianisation, and the regular monthly full meeting of the Council at which the Pascoe report into Mike Hancock was debated. I’m going to take them backwards in chronological terms, and deal with the full Council meeting first, as it was marginally more bizarre than the Cabinet meeting (but either one would shame a “banana republic” dictatorship).
The full Council meeting got quickly into the main business to be dealt with. First of all there was a motion from the Labour group calling for central government to devolve powers to local councils to control the spread of betting shops and the operation of “fixed odds betting terminals”. These are typically the roulette machines you now find in many bookies. There is a reasonable libertarian approach which says “you can’t regulate against addiction” and a paternalist approach which says “you shouldn’t put temptation in people’s way”. I think the outcry over FOBTs is out of all proportion to their impact, but in that the motion was asking for powers to regulate rather than an outright ban, I wasn’t too upset that it was passed with a large majority. I look forward to the motion from the Labour group at the next meeting in support of the “War on Sugar”, as launched at PMQs last week by Keith Vaz.
The next item was the Pascoe report into Mike Hancock, and the motion proposed by Cllr John Ferrett and seconded by Cllr Luke Stubbs (Labour and Conservative respectively) called for publication of the report. The full wording of the motion was:
“This council notes with concern the recent public disclosure in the Guardian newspaper of a hitherto confidential investigation report into a complaint made against an elected member. This disclosure followed the decision of the Governance, Audit and Standards Hearing Sub-Committee of the 15 November 2013 to defer a decision on the complaint until civil proceedings on the same matter had been concluded.
The printing of excerpts from the report has led to a great deal of debate, conjecture and innuendo. It has also led to public demands for the disclosure of the full report.
This Council believes it is now in the interest of all concerned, including the member who is subject to the complaint, to disclose the Pascoe report to the public. A failure to do so could result in the report being released and disseminated in an uncontrolled fashion, thus causing continuing damage to the reputation of the member and, indeed, this Council. Therefore, the Council resolves to instruct the Monitoring Officer to reconsider whether, or not, the Pascoe Report can now be disclosed to the public”.
I’ll pick out the “highlights” from the debate which followed, and as one would expect was almost entirely divided on party lines.
Cllr John Ferrett opened and pointed out that Nigel Pascoe QC himself recommends publication of the report and that PCC wouldn’t want to be accused of acting in “similar dilatoriness” to another body currently in difficulties over poor handling of a case of sexual harrassment. Whoever could he mean? He repeated a charge he’s made before against Gerald Vernon-Jackson, that GVJ said the complainant “was doing it for the money”. I don’t think there was any denial of that later on when the council leader spoke.
Cllr Ferrett complained that excerpts from Pascoe have already been printed in the Express and The Guardian, and that these partial leaks exposed the report in “the worst possible way”. Ian Wise QC had considered the position and warned PCC that delaying the progress of the PCC inquiry into Hancock risked judicial review and an award of damages against the council, and Cllr Ferrett argued that therefore legal opinions counted up two in favour of proceeding (Pascoe and Wise) against one against (Michael Lawther, the City Solicitor).
Cllr Lee Hunt spoke next, dismissing everything as being a political smear campaign. It was a loud speech which said nothing much because, ironically, it consisted of nothing but politics. When Mike Hancock was under investigation originally in 2010, the Lib Dems were insistent that there was nothing to investigate and any legal action was a waste of time. Now there is a legal action, they are adamant that nothing should be done for fear of prejudicing it. This selective fondness for judicial process is so nakedly political on the Lib Dems’ part that I’m amazed even they have the nerve to try it on.
Cllr Vernon-Jackson spoke next, pointing out that the City Solicitor has said that he would not publish Pascoe even if the motion was carried. His argument goes that as there is an FoI appeal to the Information Commissioner for release of Pascoe, they should do nothing until that appeal has been heard. I would say that if PCC wanted to publish the report they could do so straight away without waiting for the ICO. It was a confused argument.
Cllr Bosher referred to the legal advice circulated by the City Solicitor and asked why he assumed in his advice that it was a council member who had leaked the report to the press, and not a council officer. No council member had a copy of the report in their possession, any copies were returned to the City Solicitor at the conclusion of the meeting at which it was discussed.
In fact, while Cllr Bosher was speaking, a full copy of the report was circulating in the public gallery. It consists of 8 chapters plus an Appendix and looked like a photocopy of a photocopy (so who knows how many copies there actually are in the public domain?). I made some notes on the content, which I will not repeat here at this point – I intend first to ask the City Solicitor if he will verify that the version circulated is in fact an authentic copy. I don’t know the person who was passing it round, so I have no way of assessing the source or the document.
Cllr Luke Stubbs seconded the motion, pointing out that the public had paid a lot of money (probably around £60k by now) for this report and should all get to see it.
Cllrs Hugh Mason, Terry Hall, and Darren Sanders all repeated the Lib Dem line that PCC should do nothing and let matters play out in court.
Cllr Donna Jones pointed out the long list of things that Mike Hancock has been found to have a case to answer for. These charges can be summarised thus:
1) Failing to treat people with respect
2) Conducting himself in a manner which could reasonably be regarded as bringinghis office or authority into disrepute
3) Using his position as a member improperly to confer on or secure for himself or any other person, an advantage or disadvantage
4) Doing something that may seriously prejudice their authority’s ability to complywith any of its statutory duty under the equality law
5) Bullying a person
These are very serious allegations, and were they to be made against a Council employee, they would be suspended immediately pending an investigation. Cllr Jones repeated her disappointment that Mike Hancock has not been suspended.
Cllr Winnington disputed Cllr Ferrett’s comparison between Hancock and Rennard, saying that Rennard’s case has been concluded and therefore the outcry over him had no relation to that over Mike Hancock. It was a strange argument given that Rennard, like Hancock, refused to talk to the relevant QC, and has just again now been told he will face another Lib Dem inquiry. The Lib Dems have stalled their own party’s inquiry into Hancock. The charges against him are arguably more grave than those Rennard faces.
Cllr Ferrett wound up the debate by pointing out the ludicrousness of the PCC position. They are going to court to argue that the Pascoe report should not be called as evidence in the civil action against Hancock, and if they get their way the Pascoe report will not feature in the court action. At the same time, they are arguing that Pascoe cannot be published because of the court action which they argue Pascoe is irrelevant to. If the Council do not think the Pascoe report is relevant to the High Court action against Mike Hancock, what possible justification is there for suppressing it or for failing to complete the PCC disciplinary process (which the Lib Dem majority has stalled until after the High Court action)?
In the end, the motion was defeated by the Lib Dem majority. The Lib Dems have got themselves into an incomprehensible position – they could have refused to allow the motion to be debated (which was what I expected them to do), but they imagined that having the debate while voting to carry on the cover-up was somehow a less damaging position. It looked like political lunacy to me.
There are two elements to this scandal – a political one, and an administrative one. The political scandal is that the Lib Dems have used their majority on the Council to delay, obstruct, and frustrate the progress of the internal disciplinary process against Mike Hancock.
The administrative scandal is that PCC are now arguing corporately that Pascoe should not be used as evidence in the High Court (who the hell are PCC to tell a court what it may and may not do?), but that Pascoe cannot be released all the same until that court process has been completed. The Council’s legal position is total chaos, and very expensive total chaos.
It’s time to bring the disciplinary process to a close, publish the Pascoe report, and allow the High Court case to go on its way independently of the awful political manoeuverings of the Lib Dems in Portsmouth.
I’m told that all the national papers have a full copy of Pascoe from whatever source, and clearly some people locally have a copy too. That was why there was a photocopy of a photocopy doing the rounds in the gallery. In order to prevent unscrupulous people circulating fake copies containing salacious and potentially libellous content about any party to the inquiry and legal case, there is clearly an urgent need for Portsmouth City Council to publish a correct version of the Pascoe report.
I made a note of the concluding part of the version I saw earlier, and I could not put the argument in favour of publication – and completion of the disciplinary process against Hancock – better myself:
“Finally, in my view, the time for equivocation has ended. These matters should have been addressed definitively a long time ago in the interests of [the complainant] and Mr Hancock.
Nigel Pascoe QC, August 28th 2013
Note: For the avoidance of doubt, I consent to the full and unabridged publication of the Report.”
In “Part 2” of this review, I’ll go back (yet again) to the sad story of the Palmerston Road pedestrianisation, and cover the latest attempt by Council staff to stop members of the public tweeting and blogging during the meeting – in clear contravention of recent DCLG guidance.