Three former Handforth councillors subject of £85,000 investigations named

The CEC Investigation reports into historical breaches of the Code of Conduct by three ex Handforth Parish Councillors have now been published by Cheshire East Council with their names revealed.

As reported earlier this month on, three ex Handforth parish councillors were found potentially in breach of the Code of Conduct following lengthy independent investigations which cost almost £100,000 in external and internal costs - according to a report prepared for a meeting of Cheshire East Council's Audit and Governance Committee.

All three councillors involved - Barry Burkhill (initially referred to as Councillor A), Brian Tolver (initially referred to as Councillor B) and Aled Brewerton (initially referred to as Councillor C) resigned before any action could be taken in relation to the complaints and their names were initially removed from the Member Code of Conduct Sub-Committee Report "to protect personal data".

However, members of the Audit and Governance Committee voted to publish the reports in full without names redacted at their meeting on Thursday, 10th March.

A spokesperson for Cheshire East Council said: "The investigation reports in question represent the conclusion of a lengthy and expensive process involving multiple complaints about councillors at Handforth Parish Council. These complaints include allegations of misconduct during the public online parish council meetings that went viral in December 2020.

"Ordinarily, the investigation reports would have been presented to a hearing sub-committee for consideration. However, each of the councillors found to be potentially in breach of their code of conduct resigned from office during the process.

"Cheshire East Council's audit and governance committee considered the issue of publication of the investigation reports at its meeting in March. The committee resolved that, in the interests of openness and transparency, the reports should be published with appropriate redaction of third-party information.

"Whilst the early stages of complaint investigation are confidential, once a final investigation report has been issued, there is a strong public interest in the disclosure of findings on conduct matters regarding holders of public office. This is especially so when the conduct alleged is serious in nature and occurred within the public domain.

"The public interest in openness, transparency and accountability were compelling factors in reaching this decision. In this case, the committee concluded there is a legitimate public interest in publishing the reports, with third party information redacted."

A spokesperson for Handforth Town Council said "The published cost of this is already £85,000.00 external legal costs, plus £10,000.00 internal costs (CEC Officer time).

"There has also been direct costs to the residents of Handforth for electoral costs to replace these individuals on Handforth Town Council which are circa £19,000.00.

"HTC believe that the residents of Handforth, Cheshire East and the wider community are entitled to a full account in the public interest and in the interests of openness and transparency."

Between 2018 and 2020, Cheshire East Council received 21 formal complaints regarding the conduct of councillors. A number of these were from fellow councillors and many were regarding the infamous virtual meetings in December 2020.

The complaints arising within HPC received were as follows.

8 July 2020 - a complaint about two HPC councillors (councillors A, B),

8 and 16 September 2020 - three further complaints about three HPC councillors (councillors A, B, C) from three fellow HPC councillors (D, E, F).

15 October 2020 - three further complaints about three HPC councillors (D, E, F) from three fellow HPC councillors (A, B, C).

21 October 2020 - a complaint about a HPC councillor (councillor C). This complaint related to allegations of intimidation and bullying by a councillor.

All the above complaints were referred to a single external investigator because of the complexity and serious nature of the allegations.

The complaints ranged from election offences, fraud, financial impropriety, to poor behaviour, and were expressed in language of significant gravity.

Additionally there were conflicts of interest within Cheshire East Council itself as the complaints were challenging the Returning Officer and electoral process and legal proceedings were threatened.

Further complaints were also made against the independent investigators.

The investigation process suffered repeated and prolonged delays due to insistence on revisiting, repeatedly and in detail over the course of approximately two months, matters falling outside the scope of the investigation or a refusal to engage at all.

The findings of the independent investigator were:

8 July 2020 - concluded that both subject members had potentially conducted themselves in breach of the provisions of the Members Code of Conduct relating to Objectivity, Openness, Leadership, and Respect for others.

8 and 16 September 2020 - concluded that all three subject members had potentially conducted themselves in breach of the provisions of the Members Code of Conduct relating to Objectivity, Openness, Leadership, Respect for others. The investigator noted that the councillors did not initially agree to come forward for interview. The investigator provided a firm deadline by which interviews must be conducted (29 January 2021), however it was not until 2 March 2021 that interviews were able to be conducted with 2 of the 3 members. The third member did not engage by way of interview at all.

15 October 2020 - concluded that all three subject members had not breached of the provisions of the Members Code of Conduct relating to Objectivity, Leadership, Respect for others, Information, or Bullying.

21 October 2020 - The conclusion reached by the investigator was that the subject member (councillor C) had potentially conducted themselves in breach of the provisions of the Members Code of Conduct relating to Leadership, Respect for others, and Bullying.

The Monitoring Officer also received a large number of complaints about HPC councillors in relation to two virtual meetings which took place on 10 December 2020 via Zoom (the majority of complaints from members of the public arose much later after an edited version of the meeting was publicised in social media).

These were also referred to an external investigator for investigation which resulted in three additional separate investigation reports.

However, due to the resignations of the three councillors involved prior to the Sub Committee hearing none of the reports were considered by the Audit and Governance Sub Committee and no formal findings made against any Councillor.

On 16 June, the Monitoring Officer issued Determination Notices to all three councillors who had been found potentially in breach of the Code, confirming the course of action to be taken in relation to each complaint. Two of the three resigned from office, so it was not possible to pursue these matters against former councillors.

Councillor A resigned during the latter stages of the investigation process as the draft report was substantially completed.

Councillor C purportedly resigned during the investigation process in March 2021. The resignation was however misdirected and confirmation of the tendered resignation was not received for some time, but it was necessary to continue with the outstanding investigations in the intervening period.

Councillor B resigned after the finalised reports had been provided prior to the third rearranged Sub Committee hearing.

On 8th February 2021, councillors A, B, C wrote to the Council threatening Judicial Review of various matters which had underpinned the initial tranche of councillor complaints. The Council was obliged to engage further independent legal representation to compile a response to the threatened claim.

A further letter, sent by councillor C made a number of very serious allegations of financial impropriety. Due to the nature of these allegations, the Council had to liaise with the Police. It was established that there was no foundation to these allegations.

Further separate allegations were made by councillor C regarding the perceived illegality of an electoral process. Again, the Council was obliged to consider these in detail and they were found to have no foundation.

The independent investigator was, as the matters were concluding, also subject to complaints which necessitated resolution. The nature and the manner in which the complaints were expressed resulted in the external investigators firm engaging their own staff protection protocols. This included complaints to external statutory bodies such as Information Commissioner and professional associations.

Cheshire East Council said that there continues to be information requests, complaints and correspondence from former HPC councillors on the same issues that were subject to investigation. Additional correspondence continues to be received relating to ongoing potential litigation and complaints against Cheshire East Council officers.

The costs associated with this long running matter include £85,716 for the external investigations and a number of internal costs that have been incurred in the progression of these complaints. Approximately 30 hours were spent by each councillor on reading and preparation and a similar amount of time again spent on pre-hearings.These officer related costs total more than £10,000 based on a standard charge rate.

To annual Parish Precept (the part of your council tax which is charged by Handforth Town Council) is approximately £85,000 for 2021/22.

Source: Member Code of Conduct Sub-Committee Report, item agenda for the Audit and Governance Committee to held on Thursday, 10th March.

Photos: Barry Burkhill (initially referred to as Councillor A), Brian Tolver (initially referred to as Councillor B) and Aled Brewerton (initially referred to as Councillor C).