Today was the culmination of a process which began in early 2009 when Conservative Cllr Ted Kemble filed a complaint against me for putting clips on YouTube. The full background can be read in my previous blog posts.
The Tribunal hearing was held in a room at the Hilton Metropole Brighton hotel. This was arranged by the Tribunal service. Whilst I was grateful for a good number of supporters in the public gallery, in the hot seat it was just me there to represent myself.
The Council on the other hand had brought Mr Wayne Beglan, an outside barrister along with two council solicitors, a press officer and the Chairman of the Standards Committee.
The Tribunal consisted of Simon Bird QC, Narendra Makanji and David Ritchie. I don’t know Mr Ritchie’s background, Mr Makanji is a Labour activist and involved in a number of public bodies. Mr Bird is a barrister from the same chambers as the Council’s barrister Mr Beglan. However that didn’t stop him rather comprehensively demolishing some of Mr Beglan’s arguments during questioning!
I presented my arguments first. You can view my notes for my presentation here [PDF], though I did range beyond my prepared remarks as the presentation unfolded. The tribunal panel challenged me on a number of points, but mainly on my argument that the code of conduct didn’t apply because I wasn’t acting in my official capacity as a councillor when uploading videos to YouTube. I had difficulty providing clear-cut, legally grounded responses to some of their questions and so I wasn’t surprised when in their judgement they didn’t agree with this specific argument. Thankfully that didn’t affect the positive outcome.
Then the City Council’s barrister made his remarks. I found them to be rather piece-meal and quite often misleading if not factually incorrect. It is hard to tell if these were deliberate attempts to spin the Council’s case or just oversights through failure to fully review all the paperwork. Mr Beglan tried to conjure up a view that I had changed my arguments each time I had been asked to defend my actions. But in fact I was able to rebut this with the paperwork already before the tribunal.
Mr Beglan completely failed to take on my arguments that the Council’s interpretation of the code of conduct impinged on my European Convention on Human Rights article 10 rights to freedom of speech.
I then had a chance to rebut Mr Beglan’s presentation, though the panel through their questioning had done better work than I could have done. To be fair to him, it wasn’t easy to defend the Standards Committee’s original decisions.
Much of the debate ended up being about what constitutes a council resource and what would be improper use of such a resource. Many metaphors and examples were wheeled out, which I think were helpful in exploring the ideas. In the end the copyright issues surrounding the webcast were sidelined by the primacy of the article 10 issues. But it wasn’t disputed that there are exceptions to copyright protection which I could use to legally excerpt clips, and I think this contributed to the view that no resources as meant by the code were used by my actions.
Essentially it came down to this… The Council’s interpretation of the code would result in discrimination against me because I was a councillor — members of the public could do what I had done without restriction, so why couldn’t I? The code of conduct could not and should not be interpreted to restrict my rights to freedom of political expression.
So after an adjournment of an hour and twenty minutes the panel returned to find that they agreed with me that I had not breached the code of conduct. They rejected the findings of the Standards Committee and the sanctions immediately cease to have effect.
The tribunal’s full reasoning will be published in 14 days and there are 28 days for the Council to apply for leave to appeal. In summary the tribunal stated, in reference to my actions that:
6.1 He did not fail to treat Councillor Theobald with respect;
6.2 The resources of the Council which he used in posting the video clips fell outside the scope of the resources to which paragraph 6b(ii) applied;
6.3 To find the Appellant breached paragraph 6(b)(ii) of the Code on the facts of this case would involve a disproportionate interference with his right to freedom of expression protected by Article 10 of the ECHR.
Whilst a stressful day, I didn’t find the legal debate and questioning quite as difficult as I had feared. For someone representing themselves (I refused to spend any money on this) I think I did reasonably well, mainly because a number of very kind people offered me tips and read my notes ahead of the hearing. Thank you to everyone who supported me in person, with messages or by signing ORG’s action on this.
I am absolutely delighted with the outcome. It completely erases the original sanctions and findings. It also shows that the code of conduct cannot be used to stifle freedom of expression, which is exactly what the local Conservative councillors were trying to do in filing the complaint in the first place. I address this further in the press release. For as long as the code of conduct still exists (Mr Pickles says it will be go), this result is important in giving councillors across the country greater confidence in their ability to express themselves freely.
Now, back to the work of representing my constituents as best I can. But I will also be following this up looking into a variety of issues. The Tribunal chose not to address my concerns with how the original Standards Committee panel worked including Cllr Lepper claiming not to have seen the videos in question (as supported by witness statements I collected) but then the Standards Committee subsequently flatly denying she said this. Also did the council really need to send so many people to the Tribunal, why did they fight my appeal so hard?
UPDATE: Freedom of Information request now filed. Cllr Kemble and the chair of the original Standards Committee hearing panel are spinning that all I had to do was apologise. No, I overturned being found guilty of improperly misusing council resources (a serious finding which I had to clear) and faced censure + suspension unless I apologised and submitted to re-training.
UPDATE 2: You can hear on BBC iPlayer the tribunal being discussed on BBC Sussex Radio before and after the result. In the second piece Dr Wilkinson from the Standards Committee and Cllr Kemble both participate, sounding rather unrepentant if you ask me!