War of words between Norfolk County Council leaders Derrick Murphy and Paul Morse

The seventh complaint against the leader of Norfolk County Council in 12 months has ended with a standards committee concluding he was disrespectful of the leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition, but did not breach the councillor code of conduct.

Watchdogs at County Hall received 21 standards complaints against members in 2011, after just five complaints over the previous three years.

Seven of those 21 complaints were against Derrick Murphy and yesterday the county council leader found himself accused of disrespect and bringing his office into disrepute by his Lib Dem counterpart Paul Morse.

An independent investigation into the complaint was carried out and the standards committee, made up of a cross section of councillors and independent members, agreed the hearing should be held in public.

Committee members yesterday heard audio tapes of a council meeting from September last year where Mr Morse, during a discussion about re-allocation of committee places following the July 25 defection of former Lib Dem Paul Rice to the Conservatives, was called 'dilatory' by Mr Murphy – a word which means slow in doing things.

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Mr Morse took issue with that label, claiming it called into question his professionalism as a councillor and leader of the opposition and that Mr Murphy's behaviour brought his position into disrepute.

Mr Morse told the hearing he had, on returning from a holiday, requested a council officer email Mr Murphy with his proposals for the seat allocation changes – with the Lib Dems losing two seats on committees because of the defection – yet had heard nothing back from Mr Murphy.

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Mr Murphy said he had conducted matters through the head of democratic services so as not to 'raise the political temperature' further following the defection, and, when he had not had input from Mr Morse, he took the decision, as was his right as leader under the constitution. He told the committee he did not regret the use of the word dilatory, as Mr Morse had taken taken eight days to deal with a matter Mr Murphy regarded as 'a very important decision'.

The committee also heard from former Green group leader Phil Hardy, who has since defected to the Conservatives.

Called as a witness by Mr Murphy, Mr Hardy said he had been left feeling 'very uneasy' during a discussion with Mr Morse over an incinerator-related motion where the Lib Dem leader had said he hoped the motion would lead to a 'public thrashing' of Mr Murphy.

The committee concluded Mr Murphy had used the word dilatory, which had been disrespectful to Mr Morse, but had not breached the councillor code of conduct.

The other complaints against Mr Murphy included allegations of bullying and disrepute. No evidence of bullying was found, but monitoring officers did write to members, urging them to adhere to the spirit, as well as rules on scrutiny, while meetings with Mr Murphy and other cabinet members were ordered to discuss avoiding public discontent at meetings and to ensure decisions were seen to be taken in an open and transparent way.

A number of the complaints followed the cabinet meeting last March where it was agreed to award a contract for the King's Lynn incinerator.


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