A PANTOMIME IN SANDWELL

AUDIT COMMITTEE PROCEEDINGS

Along with the dismal German (sorry mini continental) market in West Brom, Sandwell’s leading socialists decided to stage a pantomime.

And so the council’s audit committee met to interrogate Cllr. Ian Jones about the sale of the lavatories which featured in the Wragge report.

A stellar cast included; Cllr Gurchan Sidhu as Chairman Rabbit, Cllr Robert Piper as Buttons the Blogger, Cllr William Gavan as Jock the Langley Laddie and Cllr Dr. Ann Jaron as the Awful Abbess of Abbey.

The lead, in more senses than one, was Cllr Ian Jones as The Most Likely Not At All Wicked Sheriff of Sandwell.

Councillor Sidhu looked most uncomfortable in his role. The few questions he asked were barely comprehensible. He seemed unable to follow the set order of questions and advertised the low standard of competence of many Sandwell councillors. He was a perfect “Rabbit in the Headlights”.

By far the most impressive was Cllr. Jones. If anyone expected him to be over-awed by the forensic ineptitude of Buttons, Jock or the Abbess they were sorely disappointed. He immediately pointed out that a redundant lavatory block in Bearwood which originally formed part of the sale package had been withdrawn from sale through the intervention of Piper, Jaron and their fellow Abbey ward councillor Eling causing a loss to the council of perhaps £120k?

He was able to point out that the decision to sell the lavatories had been made long before he became the council cabinet member responsible for land sales. Consequently, he did not have to approve the sale. Further he said that hundreds of sales go through without the approval of the responsible cabinet member. A fact accepted by Jaron on behalf of the committee. No doubt this is because such sales are of low value and significance.

There was a Land Disposals Committee but Cllr Jones was not its Chairman.

Cllr Jones was also able to point out that he was not the responsible cabinet member when the sale of the lavatories was completed. A fact which seemed to take some members of the committee by surprise but which was confirmed by officers present from written records.

This surprise would have been avoided had committee members been provided with an agreed chronology of events or taken the trouble to devise their own. If this is how Sandwell councillors conduct themselves in public knowing the proceedings are being recorded, how do they behave when the camera is turned off? The reality is many couldn’t run a bath.

A crucial point is that the lavatories were sold for £35,000 when a district valuer’s report had valued them at £130,000. How this came about is a question which is outstanding and requires an answer.

What Cllr Ian Jones did was to provide clear answers to questions of his role. First he said he had not asked for a district valuer’s report. There was no dispute on this. Jaron said “I accept you did not commission the district valuer’s report”. Secondly it was unquestionably established that the report was delivered after he had ceased to be the responsible cabinet member, had been replaced at Regeneration by Cllr Derek Rowley and had assumed the entirely different cabinet portfolio for Neighbourhoods.

Thirdly, Cllr Jones stated that he was unaware that the sale of the lavatories had taken place and of the existence of a district valuer’s report until months later. He was informed of the sale on enquiring whether the lavatory block in Wednesbury could be leased from the council by an arts group and learned of the existence of the report as a result of a radio interview.

At the end of the hearing the committee decided to seek further evidence from others.

Cllr. Jones, having taken voluntary suspension from his party when these issues first arose, then brought a High Court action against the Labour party for reinstatement. He won. Crucial to that decision was whether there was evidence of wrongdoing by him. Had there been any evidence to warrant investigation, Cllr Jones would have lost. He would have remained suspended pending a further investigation by the Labour party.  Gavan was therefore wrong, to dismiss this as an irrelevance at the audit committee. A High Court judge had found the allegations too flimsy to warrant further enquiry.

Cllr Jones was been interviewed regarding the lavatories sale by the police who found no evidence to proceed against him.

He was interviewed for the purposes of the Wragge report which concluded that he was a “passive bystander” in the transaction. Piper, at audit, put it awkwardly by saying that Cllr Jones was “not guilty of any sins of commission ……did not do anything consciously wrong”. We have higher standards and believe it improper for a councillor to stand by winking at skulduggery. But Cllr Jones’ case is not that he stood idly by witnessing dodgy dealing. It is that he was unaware of the sale of these premises at an undervalue and so ignorant of any possible sharp practice.

In deciding where the truth lies, the audit committee needs to focus on evidence and avoid prejudice. Prejudice is asserting like Jaron “I find it difficult to believe Cllr Jones had no knowledge of this transaction” She came to the committee without doing her homework or properly reading her papers. Consequently, it was a surprise to her, at the committee, that Savilles had also done a valuation to test the accuracy of the district valuer’s report.  Her demeanour and tendency to make statements rather than ask questions suggested lack of an even handed judicial approach.

She and her fellow committee members need to focus on the evidence and draw conclusions which are evidence based. Unless they do, many are likely to conclude as Gavan mused “Cllr Jones is out to be the fall guy” and that the whole process is more about malice in the Labour party than rooting out corruption in Sandwell.

So far the evidence has all been one way. Its actors need to beware of turning a pantomime into a kangaroo court.