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Public standards hearing into former Norfolk County Council leader could have “implications for his future as a politican”

PUBLISHED: 12:00 25 January 2013 | UPDATED: 13:22 25 January 2013

Derrick Murphy, former leader of Norfolk County Council.

Derrick Murphy, former leader of Norfolk County Council.

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A forthcoming standards hearing into the former leader of Norfolk County Council could have “implications for his future as a politician” if held in public.

That is a comment made by Victoria McNeill, the county council’s monitoring officer and head of law, in a report which councillors will read before deciding whether a standards hearing into Derrick Murphy will be held entirely in public or partly in private.

But she also makes the case that “the public nature of a politician’s role means that there can be no general expectation of privacy and that a politician must expect to have information as to potential wrong doing in a public role enter into the public domain.”

Mr Murphy is facing a standards hearing after complaints from seven members of the public over his part in the sending of an email.

That email was sent by Kevin Vaughan, the political assistant to the Conservative group at County Hall, to BBC Radio Norfolk, in April last year.

It was sent two days before Nick Daubney, leader of West Norfolk Council. was due to appear on Nick Conrad’s show to discuss the King’s Lynn incinerator, which has long been a source of tension between West Norfolk and Norfolk County Council.

It suggested it might “be pertinent information” for the broadcaster to know that the borough council leader was facing “a serious leadership challenge” and that his authority had failed to procure alternative technology to the plant.

When the email came to light it sparked an independent investigation at County Hall, which concluded in the summer that Mr Vaughan had acted on the wishes of leader Mr Murphy. Mr Vaughan later left the council, with a pay-off.

Following the independent report, seven people complained about Mr Murphy’s behaviour and the county council asked Jenni Richards, QC, an expert in local government, to investigate.

She concluded that Mr Murphy should face a standards hearing, with her investigation finding he had asked Mr Vaughan to lie about who asked him to send the email and, in conversations with the council’s chief executive about the issue, Mr Murphy “gave answers that were misleading, evasive and lacked candour”. That, she said, meant he did not treat Mr Vaughan with respect, amounting to a breach of the councillor code of conduct and bringing his office and the council into disrepute.

The hearing where fellow councillors will decide whether they agree or not and what sanctions they will take if they do, will take place next Friday.

While the executive summary of Ms Richards’ investigation has been published, the committee must decide whether the full report should be discussed in public or private.

And their decision will determine whether the whole of the meeting is held in public or whether part of it will be behind closed doors.

And, in Ms McNeill’s report, which councillors will use to make that decision, she states there are likely to be “significant detrimental consequences for Mr Murphy if this information [the full report] is released” and the report “may well have implications for his future as a politician”.

But she adds: “It can be argued, however, that the public nature of a politician’s role means that there can be no general expectation of privacy and that a politician must expect to have information as to potential wrong doing in a public role enter into the public domain.”

She says the executive summary does not contain details of any wrongdoing and “it is arguable that the details need to be made available to the complainants and the electorate so they can have an informed view on how the investigator reached her finding.”

She stresses it is the committee’s decision, but that it is arguable that disclosure of the report would not breach the data protection act and that it could be argued the public interest in disclosing it (and therefore allowing the public into the whole of the meeting) outweighs the public interest in keeping it private.

Mr Murphy, who stepped down as leader earlier this month to focus on the standards hearing, has said he wants the hearing to be in public and remains confident he will be exonerated. He has also said he intends to call Mr Vaughan as a witness.

• See today’s EDP for more on this story.

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