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Cost of probe into Norfolk County Council email revealed

PUBLISHED: 10:04 27 July 2012 | UPDATED: 10:30 27 July 2012

Norfolk County Council leader Derrick Murphy.

Norfolk County Council leader Derrick Murphy.

Archant

It involves two of Norfolk’s major public and political figures, but the full story behind what has become known as Kevingate remains tantalisingly out of reach.

One thing we do know for sure is that Norfolk County Council leader Derrick Murphy asked a publicly-funded political assistant to tip off Radio Norfolk that a fellow Conservative leader - West Norfolk Council leader Nick Daubney - was facing problems.

That was the finding of an independent investigator commissioned by the county council to look into the sending of that email as part of disciplinary proceedings against Kevin Vaughan - the council worker who sent it on April 18 two days before Mr Daubney was due to appear on a radio programme to talk about the King’s Lynn incinerator.

And therein lies the reason why questions remain. It was not an investigation into the behaviour of Mr Murphy; it was an internal investigation into the conduct of a county council employee. And as such, the county council says that means the report must remain confidential.

Not making it public is a source of frustration for those wanting to understand more about Mr Murphy’s involvement in the sending of that email.

Chief among the questions which remain is - could, indeed should, Mr Murphy have prevented Mr Vaughan from being investigated at all?

If he had simply admitted he had instructed him to contact Radio Norfolk to tell them Mr Daubney faced a leadership challenges and difficulties in sourcing an alternative technology to incineration, would that not have stopped the probe?

And would it not have saved the £5,800 cost of the inquiry - which is after all council taxpayers’ money?

People also want to know at what point in the investigation Mr Murphy admitted culpability.

Mr Murphy himself says it was at the earliest available opportunity but that he was in the Turks and Caicos Islands in the West Indies, on a Foreign Office assignment to mentor political staff, when the investigation started on Monday April 30.

David White, chief executive at County Hall said this week that the independent report was commissioned by the county council when the email of the political assistant Kevin Vaughan came to light following a Freedom of Information Request made on April 24.

It was on Sunday, April 29, that Mr Murphy landed on the Turks and Caicos Islands and he said: “The first I became aware of an investigation into Kevin was on Wednesday May 2, when I was in the Turks and Caicos islands.

“I texted back and was told the matter was subjudice so I could not speak to anyone. I was told to wait and that the independent investigator would have to see me.”

He said it was during the “second or third week” of the probe that he met the investigator John Anslow. He said: “I was asked ‘would I be happy to meet him’ and I said ‘yes, I’d like to help as quickly as possible’.

“For the first week I was out of the country, so it was the second or third week that I met him.

“The investigator said to me, did you discuss it with Kevin and I said yes. But it was only retrospectively that I found out he had sent an email.”

Mr Murphy insisted, once the investigation had started, he could not have stopped it by publicly stating that Mr Vaughan was acting on his instructions.

He said: “I was hamstrung, because if I made a statement, I was advised that would prejudice Kevin.”

The EDP asked the county council if its lawyers had advised Mr Murphy that the issue was subjudice. The response was a rather evasive: “In determining what information it can make publicly available in relation to employment-related matters the council must have regard to both data protection principles and the employee’s legitimate employment rights.”

The irony in all this, and one not lost on Mr Murphy, is that journalists are often called up by politicians and told things in confidence.

The key difference with this case is the use of a political assistant to do that. Political assistants occupy an unusual role in that they are paid local government officers.

While they are employed to support local political groups in their day-to-day council duties, they are not allowed to voice their political opinion in public, nor publicly canvas for a particular political party, although they are allowed to convey their political opinion and advice to the group they support.

Exactly what sanction, if any, has been taken against Mr Vaughan is not clear and the county council are not saying. The closest we get is that “appropriate action has been taken” and Mr Vaughan has not been sacked. He has reserved his right to appeal and will have to decide whether he will do within 10 working days of the investigator’s finding.

While Mr Murphy describes the experience as “a salutary lesson” he has suggested that, if he had his time again, he would still tip off the broadcaster about Mr Daubney’s difficulties.

What he would do differently, however, is that he would call up the radio station himself, rather than asking his political assistant to do so.

He points out that the leadership challenge to Mr Daubney and West Norfolk Council’s difficulties in sourcing an alternative technology to incineration were in the public domain already.

He says he merely wanted the BBC’s Nick Conrad to ask questions of Mr Daubney which Mr Murphy felt needed to be asked.

One question which the county council has now answered is how much the investigation cost. The answer is £5,832.98 of taxpayers’ money has gone into the probe.

Quite what the Conservative Party thinks of a county council leader effectively briefing against a fellow Tory leader of a second tier authority remains unclear.

Tiz Baskerville, chairman of the East of England Conservatives, said she was aware the issue had “landed on the desk” of Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) but did not know what they were being asked to do or what their response might be.

The EDP contacted CCHQ yesterday to find out what action, if any, might be taken but had not received a response by our deadline.

Mr Daubney had hoped the North West Conservative Association would alert the party at a higher level about what had occurred.

His association, of which Mr Murphy was a member until very recently, had stated it was to look into the issue.

But that seems to have been a rather cursory look. George Eve, chairman of the North West Conservative Association, said “informal discussions” had taken place among its association members about the issue.

He said: “No conclusions were reached, which is to say that no action was agreed. We merely took note of what had happened. “It is an internal employment issue at the county council and we, as a humble association, felt there was no need for us to interfere.”

He said the discussions held would be reported to the executive of the association when it meets next month.

In any case, Mr Murphy is no longer a member of that association.

His membership lapsed on Friday, July 13 and he is now a member of the South Norfolk Conservative Association, where he hopes to win the seat of Forehoe in next May’s elections.

However, the man who was deselected to make way for Mr Murphy has no intention of going quietly. Jon Herbert, the current county councillor for Forehoe, has complained about Mr Murphy to South Norfolk Conservative Association and called for them to expel him for bringing the party into disrepute.

Deputy chairman Christopher Kemp confirmed he had received two complaints and the management team would meet on August 28 to decide whether the matter should go any further.

But he added: “I think it’s highly likely, unless more comes of this, that this will probably not go any further because at the moment I don’t think there is enough material there, but we will need to see if it develops in the coming weeks.

Mr Herbert recently quit the South Norfolk Conservatives to join the Mid-Norfolk Conservative Association.

And Mr Murphy said: “No-one in my association has brought any case against me. There has been no statement at all that I have breached any Conservative Party rules.

“This is what I would call rather base gesture politics. I have complete confidence that will be thrown out.”

In the meantime, a number of corporate complaints about Mr Murphy have been sent to the county council - though it has refused to reveal how many.

A spokesman said: “All standards complaints are considered by the monitoring officer. In the interests of fairness we don’t publicise details of any complaint received until the monitoring officer determines whether or not there may be a case to answer.

“Under the new standards arrangements introduced by the Localism Act and adopted by the council in May the monitoring officer will assess any complaints that come in and determine whether to take action.

“She will make her determination publicly available, as under the previous regime. if she conducts or commissions an investigation and there is a finding that there has been a breach she will consult the independent person as to whether the matter necessitates a hearing in front of the standards committee.”

dan.grimmer@archant.co.uk

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