Former leader considers action against Norfolk County Council
- Credit: Simon Finlay
The former leader of Norfolk County Council has announced he will not stand for election in May, but that he is considering taking the authority to the High Court after the chief executive secretly recorded him during a telephone conversation.
Derrick Murphy, pictured, who was found to have breached the council's code of conduct at a standards hearing last week, is also looking at whether to report the actions of County Hall's top officer David White to privacy and local government watchdogs.
But Bill Borrett, acting leader of the council has ruled out the council taking any disciplinary action against Mr White.
The revelation over the secret recording come during an eight-hour meeting of the council's standard's committee on Friday, where Mr Murphy was accused of seven code of conduct breaches.
He was cleared of all but one – that he breached the code of conduct by asking his political assistant to claim it had not been Mr Murphy's idea to send an email to the BBC last April.
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But it was Mr White's admission that he secretly recorded a conversation with the then leader during his own interviews over that email which was the major shock at the standards hearing – and which led to Mr Murphy's solicitor accusing the chief executive of breaching the data protection act.
Mr Murphy had already ruled out a return as leader saying he needs to focus on pursuing 'important issues' against the county council.
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And yesterday he announced that he and his wife would not be standing for election in May's elections. The pair had been selected by South Norfolk Conservatives to stand in Forehoe and Clavering in South Norfolk, switching from Freebridge Lynn and Gayton and Nar Valley.
He said: 'We made the decision ages ago. We felt that people would be taking pot shots at us and what I want is for the Conservatives to get as many seats as possible in the elections. If Janet and I got elected and the Conservatives did not get a majority that would not be satisfactory. But if we stand down, people concentrate on the policies and the Conservatives win then I will be happy.'
However, he has unfinished business with County Hall. In relation to the alleged breach of the data protection act, he said: 'I am sitting down with people more versed than I am in law in taking that forward.
'I've had a number of suggestions offered to me – reporting that to the information commissioner, the local government ombudsman or possibly seeking a judicial review.
'It has meant I cannot carry on as leader. I am going to have to weigh up how much time this is going to take and I am going to have to do that very quickly. I think there is a big principle at stake here.
'A big question for me is how many people at the council knew he had made this recording, when did they know and why did I not know until the second time I was interviewed by Jenni Richards [who carried out the independent investigation]. Was this a complete one-off? I hope it was, but how can I be sure?
'This is an issue which transcends me and we need it resolved.
'There are questions over whether evidence such as this should be admissible in a hearing like that and someone needs to make a decision on that.'
A county council spokesman said that was a matter for Mr Murphy and that 'the authority will respond to any such action as necessary and appropriate'.
But Mr White has been given support from Mr Murphy's former deputy, Bill Borrett, who has been acting leader since Mr Murphy stepped down as leader last month.
He said the chief executive would not face disciplinary action.
Mr Borrett said: 'We heard during the standards committee hearing from the chief executive that when he recorded his telephone conversation with the former leader, he acted not in his own interest, but in the interest of the authority and its public reputation.
'After much careful consideration we do not believe that action concerning the chief executive is necessary. As has been public knowledge since before Christmas, the chief executive is leaving the authority shortly because his post, as currently constituted, is being made redundant.
'Members of the personnel committee noted his own conclusion that his job needed reassessment in the light of the Enterprising Norfolk review and full council agreed to make his current post redundant.
'Last week's standards hearing into the complaints about the conduct of the former leader has not changed that fact.
'This investigation has already involved the authority in considerable time and expense. Taking all this into account, I do not consider it would be sensible or appropriate to use any more of our council taxpayers' resources to investigate this further.'
The hearing was triggered after seven members of the public complained about Mr Murphy's behaviour in relation to an email sent in April last year.
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 Mr Murphy should face the 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'.
But the committee cleared him of six of the seven complaints, including those which related to the conversations with Mr White.
Mr White had told the hearing he had recorded a conversation on April 27 last year and had part of it transcribed because he had feared further down the line it could be his word against Mr Murphy's. He said Mr Murphy often spoke 'in riddles'.
Mr White had told the hearing: 'While others might judge that not to be in my own personal interests, I felt the interests of the authority must come first.'
Mr White said he had sought legal advice before making the recording, but, when asked at the hearing whether he would share what that advice was, he said: 'It is something that I have no longer retained.'
Jonathan Dunning, branch secretary of UNISON at County Hall, who acted as an advocate for Mr Vaughan at the hearing, said the trade union would meet next week to discuss its response to the revelations.