Conservative group leader found to have breached code of conduct

The leader of Lewes District Council’s Conservative group has been found to have breached the councillors’ code of conduct. 

Wednesday, 24th November 2021, 11:50 am
Isabelle Linington, Lewes District Council's Conservative group leader

Following a hearing on Tuesday (November 23), a council standards panel found that Cllr Isabelle Linington had acted improperly in calling two Conservative councillors ahead of another standards panel hearing in March. 

The panel heard that Cllr Linington had called Conservative councillors Phil Davis and Roy Burman the night before a hearing to determine whether Liberal Democrat councillor Stephen Gauntlett was guilty of failing to uphold the council’s code of conduct — a charge he was cleared of.

While the exact contents of the call were in dispute, the panel heard that Cllr Linington had said words to the effect a finding against Cllr Gauntlett would benefit the Conservative group. Cllr Linington initially said these comments had been made as a “joke”.

The panel’s chairman Cllr Christine Robinson (Lab) said: “The panel concluded that although the exact content of the call is open to interpretation, it is evident that Cllr Linington did refer to the standards panel of March 19 and did use words to the effect that it would be advantageous if Cllr Gauntlett would be found in breach of the code of conduct. 

“Even if Cllr Linington had intended for her words to be taken in jest, they were capable of being interpreted as an attempt to influence the outcome of the hearing. 

“The panel also concluded that the comments were improper, as it was not Cllr Linington’s role to influence the way in which individual panel members conduct themselves in sitting of the standards panel.”

The hearing followed a complaint from Cllr Davis that Cllr Linington had made the call in an attempt to “coerce” him into finding against Cllr Gauntlett.

While Cllr Burman had not made his own complaint, he told an independent investigator he had received such a call and that Cllr Linington had put it to him “forcefully that the outcome of the hearing should be a finding of breach and disqualification”.

Cllr Linington had denied she attempted to coerce the councillors, saying she was attempting to offer reassurance and procedural advice ahead of the meeting in light of speculation surrounding the case.

In an interview with an independent investigator, Cllr Linington said she had said words to the effect that “it would be good if you found him guilty and then we could seek his resignation”,  but that these words had been said in jest.  

While Cllr Linington did not initially take issue with the investigator’s presentation of this conversation, she later said her words had been “shorn of the uncertainty and the qualifying comments expressed during the interview”. 

During the hearing Cllr Linington said she regretted not taking greater care before signing off on the inspector’s presentation of her words. 

However, she also said that content of the calls had been “deliberately exaggerated” by Cllr Davis and Cllr Burman as part of an attempt to oust her as group leader. 

Cllr Linington said both councillors had shown animosity towards her leadership for some time and that they had been involved in a previous attempt to remove her as group leader.

The panel heard further details about this from the Conservative group’s deputy leader Cllr Liz Boorman, although this testimony was given in closed session, without press or public, as it referred to “private and confidential information”.

Both Cllr Davis and Cllr Burman denied their involvement had been motivated by a desire for a change of leadership. 

Cllr Linington also pointed to the delay between the call (in March) and the complaint from Cllr Davis (in July) as evidence that her words had not been taken as an attempted ‘coercion’ at the time.

When asked about his delay in reporting the call, Cllr Davis told the panel he had discussed the calls with Cllr Burman in March but neither were of the opinion that a breach of the code had taken place. 

He said: “Cllr Burman mentioned the code but we didn’t go into it, because neither of us have the legal knowledge or ability to decide whether a breach of the code was made or not.

“As the hearing had been conducted properly for Cllr Gauntlett and he had been found not guilty we decided to let the matter die.”

The panel concluded that Cllr Linington had breached the code of conduct, both by attempting to improperly influence the hearing and by acting in a manner which could reasonably be regarded as bringing her office or authority into disrepute.

Despite this, the panel also concluded that Cllr Linington had not attempted to confer an advantage or disadvantage on another through her actions. 

Cllr Robinson said: “The panel is mindful of Cllr Linington’s previous record of good service to the council and considers that she has an honest but mistaken belief that her calls to Cllr Davis and Burman were not in breach of the code.

“The panel wishes to stress to Cllr Linington that standard panel hearings are a statutory and quasi-judicial process and under no circumstances should become interfered with, even in jest.”

After finding Cllr Linington in breach of the code, the panel agreed to publish its decision, which is to be reported to the next full council meeting. 

The panel also instructed the council’s monitoring officer to write to Cllr Linington about her breach of the code and to all other councillors with further advice on maintaining the integrity of the standards panel process.

In a statement released after the hearing, Cllr Linington said: “I am naturally disappointed that the standards panel upheld the complaint as I felt that I had put forward a clear explanation of why the complaint was unfair.

“However, I am pleased that the standards panel recognised I made an honest mistake.

“I accept the outcome and apologise that my actions were a breach of the code of conduct.

“I would like to thank my colleagues in the Conservative group, family and friends for all their support during this time.”