Wokingham Lib Dems call for investigation over council standards committee

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CALLS have been made for an independent investigation to determine how Wokingham Borough Council allowed too many executive members onto a committee.

On Monday, January 11, a meeting of the Standards Committee was brought to a halt after a member of the public had tried to point out that it broke the council’s own rules. 

Now Wokingham Liberal Democrats have called for action to be taken.   

Cllr Lindsay Ferris, the party’s leader, said that Wokingham’s ruling Conservatives were acting “more like Donald Trump than responsible councillors”.

But council leader, Cllr John Halsall, said nobody, including officers and opposition councillors, had noticed the issue.

At the meeting, a resident tried to point out the standards committee included two executive members, and the council leader. But according to the constitution, it must only include one executive member, and “the leader of the council is not entitled to be a member of the Standards Committee”.

Cllr Halsall said the Liberal Democrats have also been serving on the committee for 21 months, and were yet to raise it.

“In all that time, they didn’t say anything or raise anything,” he said. “The appointments were made in a council meeting — the anomaly should have been pointed out then.”

He added: “It was a genuine mistake for which I have apologised. As soon as I discovered the anomaly, I corrected it.

“There are no legal consequences as a result of the mistake, as the committee is not prescribed by law, but a local preference.”

But Cllr Ferris said it was an “arrogant attitude”.

He said: “The leader of the council has claimed everything about this honest mistake is fine, even though it was against council rules. 

“We have seen far too many examples in the past few months of Conservatives at all levels thinking they are above the rules that apply to everyone else.” 

Cllr Clive Jones, deputy leader of the Lib Dems, said they didn’t look to see whether the committee membership was correct.

“You just assume all of that is being correctly handled,” he said. “I think it’s a red herring to say we should have noticed — we are not in control of the council.”

Cllr Halsall said it was the opposition’s job to hold the executive to account.

But Cllr Jones said: “I don’t think it is our job to scrutinise the makeup of committees – they’re trying to deflect on the issue.”

Cllr Prue Bray, Liberal Democrat member of the standards committee, said she expected officers to notice the issue.

“It has never happened before,” she said. “Normally the officers will tell you who can be on each committee.”

She added: “People make mistakes and I don’t think it was deliberate. You can’t notice absolutely everything.”

But she is concerned that because the council approved the appointments at the time, this may not present an opportunity for review.

“How can it not matter if you breach the constitution?” she said. 

Cllr Jones said it was for this reason the Lib Dems are calling for an investigation, independent of the council.

“We want to be 100% sure the first time it was noticed was last week,” he said.

A spokesperson from the borough council confirmed that none of the officers or elected members involved in this committee identified the issue, and cited their previous apology.

But Cllr Andy Croy, leader of Wokingham Labour said it all “looks terrible”, and is concerned about how the public see it.

“People must have confidence the right decisions were made,” he said. “Complainants who were unhappy with the decision should be allowed to have that revisited, as long as two members agree.

“People may think that because the wrong councillors were there, the wrong decisions were made. I don’t think anything will change in the decisions, but people who feel aggrieved need to have a way for that to be addressed.”

READ MORE: Calls for council leader to resign after committee mix-up

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