Email probe at Norfolk County Council places blame on council leader Derrick Murphy
12:03 19 July 2012
The leader of Norfolk County Council was behind an email which appeared to undermine the leader of another council in the midst of controversy over the King’s Lynn incinerator, an investigation has revealed.
The damning conclusion of an independent probe was that county council leader Derrick Murphy had asked his publicly-funded political assistant to suggest questions BBC Radio Norfolk might want to put to West Norfolk Council leader Nick Daubney, a fellow Conservative.
An email sent by Conservative political assistant Kevin Vaughan stated that Mr Daubney was facing a leadership challenge and was struggling to come up with an alternative technology to the proposed waste plant at Saddlebow.
But last night Mr Murphy was bullish over the implications of his involvement in that email, dismissing suggestions it was an issue over which he should resign.
He said Mr Vaughan had been “caught in the crossfire” amid growing animosity over the incinerator issue, and that Mr Murphy should have called the broadcaster himself.
And he insisted the email had not intended to undermine Mr Daubney, but merely to encourage Mr Conrad to quiz him about information already in the public domain.
The email, dated April 18, sent two days before Mr Daubney was due to appear on Nick Conrad’s radio programme to discuss the incinerator, suggested it might “be pertinent information” for the broadcaster to know that Mr Daubney was facing “a serious leadership challenge” and that his authority had failed to procure alternative technology to the plant.
The investigation, launched in May, sought to establish who had instructed Mr Vaughan to send the email and investigator John Anslow, after interviewing the political assistant and Mr Murphy, concluded Mr Vaughan had acted according to Mr Murphy’s wishes.
Anne Gibson, head of human resources and organisational development at Norfolk County Council, said: “The report has concluded that the leader of the county council agreed that he asked the Conservative political assistant to ensure that Nick Conrad of BBC Radio Norfolk was made aware of the leadership challenge at the Borough Council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk and the failure of that council’s procurement for an alternative technology to the Energy from Waste plant, in advance of a programme Nick Conrad was hosting relating to the waste facility at Saddlebow. The political assistant acted on the leader’s wishes.”
While the council said the findings of the internal disciplinary process would remain confidential they said “appropriate action” had been taken and Mr Vaughan had not been sacked.
The email came as the Conservatives at Norfolk County Council and West Norfolk Council were at loggerheads over proposals for the incinerator in King’s Lynn.
Mr Murphy last night shrugged off suggestions his involvement could lead to calls for him to quit as council leader.
He said: “It is a salutary lesson for us, particularly me. At the end of the day the proof of the pudding will be in how we move on from this.”
He said Mr Vaughan was aware of abusive emails Mr Murphy had been receiving during the incinerator saga and had been “caught in the crossfire”.
Mr Murphy said: “There is no excuse for Kevin sending an email like that, but the two statements he made were factually correct and in the public domain.
“But I should have called up the Nick Conrad show myself. I wouldn’t have been the first politician to call up a journalist and I wouldn’t have been the last. “I feel sorry for Kevin because he was caught in the crossfire.”
He added: “I don’t think it was an attempt to undermine Nick. It was a statement of fact. I know Nick loves West Norfolk with a passion and I also love West Norfolk. But in my present job I have to love Norfolk more.”
On whether it would have repercussions within the Conservative party, with one Tory highlighting issues faced by another Tory, he said: “I don’t think the Conservative party are enamoured when any Conservative is seen to be fighting another Conservative publicly.”
But in a reference to West Norfolk Council’s attempt to secure a judicial review over the award of PFI credits for the incinerator, he added: “I don’t think a Conservative borough council trying to take the Conservative secretary of state to a judicial review was popular either”.
And Mr Daubney retorted: “It was a deliberate attempt to undermine me. If Derrick told him there was a leadership challenge that’s fine, but the email went further than that.
“If it was a full and thorough investigation, and I’m told it was, then I have to accept that.”
Mr Daubney suggested he could yet take legal action on the issue. He said: “I am not satisfied by the result and will take further advice as whether I can take action as a private individual.”
Mr Vaughan, a University of East Anglia graduate, had been the Conservative group’s political assistant since August last year and has been suspended since the email came to light.