Conservative political assistant at Norfolk County Council suspended as email probe launched

A publicly-funded political assistant at Norfolk County Council has been suspended and an investigation launched over an email which appeared to undermine the leader of another Norfolk council.

Independent investigators will probe the message which Kevin Vaughan, the political assistant for the County Hall Conservatives, reportedly sent about West Norfolk Council leader Nick Daubney.

With the Conservatives at Norfolk County Council and West Norfolk Council at loggerheads over proposals for an incinerator in King's Lynn, Mr Vaughan allegedly sent an email to BBC Radio Norfolk to tip off the broadcaster that Mr Daubney was facing a leadership challenge.

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'.

Norfolk County Council last night confirmed, that with the email brought to their attention, Mr Vaughan had been suspended, ahead of a full investigation.

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Anne Gibson, head of human resources at Norfolk County Council, said: 'I can confirm that Kevin Vaughan, political assistant to the Conservative group, has been suspended, pending an investigation.

'Suspension is a neutral act which ensures a full and fair investigation can take place in the interests of Kevin and the authority.

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'The investigation will be carried out by an investigator independent of Norfolk County Council and as this matter is ongoing, I am not in a position to comment further at this time.'

The independent investigator, yet to be appointed, will want to establish whether Mr Vaughan did send the email, and if he did, whether he acted on his own initiative or whether the Conservative group, or a member of it, asked him to send it.

Political assistants are local government officers, employed to support a local political group in its day-to-day council duties.

But their posts are 'politically restricted' and, while they are allowed to advocate support for a particular party, they may not speak in public so as to create the impression that they are speaking as an authorised representative of a political party.

They must also not publish or be involved in the publication of a written or artistic work which gives the impression the publication is authorised by a political party.

Mr Vaughan, a history graduate from the University of East Anglia, has been the Conservative group's political assistant since August last year.

Mr Daubney, who saw off the leadership challenge referred to in the email, said he had obtained a copy of it from County Hall after hearing rumours the message had been sent.

He said: 'Obviously I am disappointed if a salaried officer of Norfolk County Council has attempted to promote a leadership challenge against the leader of a district council.

'I hope there is an investigation because it has got to be unprecedented for a taxpayer funded post to try to undermine a directly elected official.

'I hope the investigation will establish the facts. I know the political assistant reports to the chief executive and I know the county council's chief executive David White will ensure a thorough investigation.'

On the radio show, Mr Daubney was quizzed about the alternatives to incineration, but was not asked about the leadership challenge.

Derrick Murphy, leader of Norfolk County Council, said he did not want to comment on the investigation, while David Clayton, editor of BBC Radio Norfolk said, with Nick Conrad on holiday, he had no way of ascertaining whether the email was received.

Mr Daubney's West Norfolk Council is seeking a judicial review of Norfolk County Council's decision to award a contract to Cory Wheelabrator to run an incinerator at Saddlebow in King's Lynn.

The county council, which has been awarded �91m of private finance credits towards the plant, says it is needed to deal with the county's waste.

But in a poll organised by West Norfolk Council 65,000 people said they were against it.

The county council's planning committee is due to discuss an application for the plant later this year, but six of Norfolk's MPs want communities secretary Eric Pickles, not the county council, to make the final decision.

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