Yesterday, despite the failure of Cllr. Mahboob Hussain to appear before it, the Standards Committee of Sandwell council decided to proceed to deal with the charges against him.
The reason given for Hussain’s non-appearance was illness. This was not just an excuse. It’s understood that medics instructed by the council had agreed with his own doctors and confirmed that Hussain was unfit to attend.
The refusal of a request to adjourn the case, in these circumstances, is, at first sight, perplexing. Justice would seem to require that Hussain should be given a full opportunity to defend himself in respect of allegations which he has always denied. The matters alleged happened at least five years ago. Two detailed investigations have been conducted into them. The first for the purposes of the Wragge report. The second, unusually, on the complaint of Sandwell’s chief executive, specifically for this hearing. Further delay should prejudice no one.
The council elections in May 2018 might just be a consideration. Sandwell Labour must be hoping that, by the time the electorate can have its say, it will have forgotten allegations of sleaze at the council and the local Labour party will have had an opportunity to stash the knives and pretend brotherly and sisterly solidarity.
But the Standards Committee was taking a gamble. Its decision is obviously reviewable in the courts as unreasonable. The gamble is that Hussain’s ill health or finances will prevent him taking this step.
The allegations against Hussain are that he failed to disclose that he knew the buyer of the redundant public lavatories and allowed their sale at an under value and that he interfered in the administration of parking ticket penalties.
If the lavatories were sold under value, it’s clear that the council has no interest in recovering any loss.
It has not repossessed the premises, as it was entitled to under the sale contract, and re-offered them for sale. It has not taken up an offer made by Hussain to compensate it for any loss. Instead it has spent £1million on the Wragge report and continues to spend £thousands on lawyers, over egging this hearing with a barrister and a Q.C.
Cost/benefit, of course, is not the only consideration. Some Labour councillors in Sandwell seem unable to grasp the principle of conflict of interest, fail to declare interests and deal, as councillors, in transactions when they know the other party involved. This is improper and potentially corrupt.
Only if disciplinary proceedings are routine and sanctions consistent will they encourage proper behaviour. Under Sandwell’s current Labour regime discipline appears partial and enforcement inconsistent. Some councillors face a Standards hearing while others seem to get off scot free for similar offences.
The sanctions that a Standards Committee can impose are limited; the most severe, a training session. It can’t fine, suspend or disqualify a councillor.
In Hussain’s case, if his illness is such as to prevent his continuing as a councillor (and he’s due for re-election in May) what’s the point? Too ill to attend the hearing, he’ll presumably be unfit to go to or benefit from any re-training ordered.
Public money, i.e. Sandwell tax-payers money and the time of council officers should not be spent pursuing vendettas in the Sandwell Labour party. Cllr Eling has a whole stable block to clean out, not just the stalls of his political rivals and opponents within the Labour party.