To consider a complaint under the Member Code of Conduct against Councillor Simon King of Fenland District Council.
Members considered a complaint under the Member Code of Conduct against Councillor Simon King.
Councillor Hoy introduced the Panel and external representatives. She clarified the Hearing Procedure contained within the Agenda Pack and asked if there were any preliminary procedural issues anybody wished to raise.
Councillor Hoy confirmed that Jonathan Goolden would not be calling any witnesses.
Mike Magee confirmed that Councillor King had asked Councillor Boden to attend as a witness, in his capacity as Chairman of Overview & Scrutiny Panel however Councillor Boden has a prior engagement today which means he will not be able to attend the Hearing until this afternoon. He explained that Councillor Boden will discuss his experience of the Members Allowance Scheme, lack of clarity surrounding expenses and other member’s views of the Scheme. He informed the Panel that an adjournment may be sought in order to allow Councillor Boden’s attendance.
Councillor Hoy asked Jonathan Goolden for his view on this. Jonathan Goolden said whilst he would not wish to deprive the Panel of all necessary material, he is unsure of the relevance or value of Councillor Boden’s contribution. He said that whilst he and Mike Magee are in agreement that aspects of the Members Allowance Scheme are not as clear as they could be, if the Panel recommend a review of this, it would be the responsibility of the Independent Remuneration Panel and not of the Overview & Scrutiny Panel.
Councillor Humphrey asked Mike Magee for confirmation of the date that Councillor Boden was asked to attend as a witness. Mike Magee said following conference with Councillor King on Monday 29 October, he had discussed inviting Councillor Boden as a witness. As a result of this, Councillor Boden was contacted and wishes to attend however indicated he had a pre-existing commitment.
Councillor Hoy asked Mike Magee for confirmation of the date that the Council were notified of Councillor Boden attending as a witness. Mike Magee said he believed it was Monday 29 October. Izzi Hurst confirmed that Member Services had been asked to invite Councillor Boden on Friday 26 October. Mike Magee said he may have been mistaken as Councillor Boden was discussed at an earlier date but is willing to attend as a witness.
Councillor Humphrey suggested that the Hearing should begin and the Panel should re-evaluate Councillor Boden’s attendance once the Hearing is underway. Members agreed to this.
Councillor Hoy said she was aware that Supplementary Documentation had been submitted by Tony Cheetham to the Council on Monday 29 October and asked for further information on this. Mike Magee said following his conference with Councillor King, it was decided that there were documents that may be of assistance to the Panel. The bundle includes email correspondence between Carol Pilson (Monitoring Officer and Complainant) and Councillor King, information relating to other Local Authorities Members Allowance Schemes and information on the tax treatment of Councillor’s travel expenses. He confirmed that Jonathan Goolden had been sent the Supplementary Documentation and advised that the Panel have access to this evidence.
Jonathan Goolden confirmed that he had received the information but had had limited opportunity to consider the documents in depth. He said whilst the information pertaining to other Local Authorities Members Allowance Scheme is of interest, it is the Fenland District Council Scheme members are considering today and he did not see the taxation information as relevant. He believed the email correspondence was of limited significance however it may be helpful for members to see this.
Members agreed to view the additional Supplementary Documentation provided by Councillor King.
The Hearing was adjourned at 10.27am to allow the Panel time to consider the additional evidence.
The Hearing reconvened at 10.49am.
The Panel returned to the Council Chamber and Councillor Hoy made the following statement;
‘Members of the Panel were concerned at the suggestion that Councillor Boden may be attending in his personal capacity, as the Council’s Constitution and Hearing Procedure does not allow for character witnesses. It is the Panels understanding from the information provided to Member Services, that Councillor Boden was requested to attend in his capacity as the Chairman of Overview & Scrutiny Committee. Whilst the Panel has reservations about the relevance of Councillor Boden’s evidence, in the interest of fairness, the Panel is prepared to hear from him provided that he arrives by the point in the procedure at which his evidence is required.
We have also reviewed the supplementary material and do not consider Part 1 and 3 are relevant and will not therefore be taken into account save as is already provided for in the Investigation Report. The Panel does however consider that Part 2 is relevant and have read this during the course of their deliberation. Parties are therefore asked to confine their evidence and questions to the matters contained in Part 2 of the supplementary evidence.’
Councillor Hoy invited Jonathan Goolden to present his Investigation report, to members.
Jonathan Goolden explained that as members had had access to his report, he would focus today on the key issues discussed in his findings and give his views on the Council’s Members Allowance Scheme. He explained that the Council’s Code of Conduct requires that when a member is using the resources of the Council, a member must act in accordance with its reasonable requirements. Secondly, a member must not conduct themselves in a manner which would reasonably be regarded as bringing their office or the Authority into disrepute.
He explained that pages 26 and 27 of the Agenda Pack include information on the Members Allowance Scheme. Paragraph 6.1 of the scheme outlines eight duties in which members can claim for whilst Paragraph 6.2 states that ‘Mileage can be claimed from Councillors normal place of residence or from a subsequent appointment on Council business. Mileage can only be claimed for journeys undertaken wholly and exclusively in pursuance of Council duties as set out in 6.1’.
As a result of this, he derives that there are two requirements of the Scheme; that a Councillor can make a claim if they are travelling to engage in any one of the eight duties listed and that a Councillor can make a claim if that journey is wholly and exclusively in pursuance of one of those eight duties. However, complication arises in the wording ‘Mileage can be claimed from Councillors normal place of residence or from a subsequent appointment on Council business’. Jonathan Goolden said, in his opinion, this means that you can claim for such journeys listed however negates to include the word ‘only’ and leaves this open to misinterpretation. He does, however, agree that the journey must be ‘wholly and exclusively’ in pursuance of one of the eight duties.
He explained that whilst processing Councillor King’s claims, Carol Pilson had highlighted differences between the miles claimed and the shortest routes available via Google Maps. Whilst the Scheme does not stipulate that the shortest route must be taken, an excessively indirect route does call in to question whether the journey is wholly and exclusively in pursuance of the Council business. He explained that Councillor King made various claims for his journeys between his home in Wisbech and Fenland Hall, March. He confirmed that the shortest return route between Wisbech and March is noted as 22 miles. Pages 29 and 30 of the Agenda Pack summarises Carol Pilson’s findings and give examples of Councillor King claiming significantly more than 22 miles for this journey, ranging from 34-66 miles. He agreed with Councillor King that the route taken does not have to be the shortest route and agreed that there may be situations in which a longer route is desirable, for example during periods of heavy traffic or roadworks. He highlighted that Councillor King had confirmed that he had relied on officers to disallow claims he submitted that were outside of the Members Allowance Scheme.
Jonathan Goolden stated that as the Scheme does not state the shortest route must to be taken and as there are margins in calculations of mileage, he concluded that there is insufficient evidence to establish whether Councillor King had breached the Code of Conduct in relation to these journeys. He reminded the Panel that this does not mean all of the claims listed are correct or incorrect just that it is beyond the reasonable scope of his investigation to establish sufficient evidence that those claims were incurred wholly and exclusively in pursuance of one of the eight duties.
Due to the volume of claims in the report, Jonathan Goolden said he would focus on just two examples which he considers to be outside of the Members Allowance Scheme. The first relates to Councillor King’s attendance at a Full Council meeting on 5 November 2015 and the second relates to Councillor King’s attendance at a Planning Committee Meeting at Kings Lynn & West Norfolk Borough Council on 7 December 2015.
Evidence shows that on 5 November 2015 Councillor King drove from his home in Wisbech to Huntingdon, parked at Huntingdon Railway Station, travelled by train to London, attended meetings in London on personal business, returned by train to Huntingdon and drove from Huntingdon to a Full Council meeting in March before returning home to Wisbech. Councillor King made two attempts to claim under the Members Allowance Scheme in respect of this travel. His first claim form in December 2015 (page 258 of the Agenda Pack) shows an attempt to claim 70 miles from Huntingdon to March to Wisbech and an attempt to claim for a return rail ticket to London and car parking at Huntingdon Train Station. This claim was refused however Councillor King then submitted a second claim in January 2016 (page 260 of the Agenda Pack) for this journey, however now described the route as 70 miles for Wisbech to March to Wisbech. This claim was also refused. However the travel was described in the claim forms, Jonathan Goolden said it was an attempt to claim for a journey to a Council meeting in March via either London or Huntingdon. Councillor King has confirmed that the meetings in London were not on Council Business and therefore it is clear that most of the journeys on this date were not wholly and exclusively in pursuance of one of the eight council duties. Jonathan Goolden confirmed that whilst the claims were not paid, Councillor King made two attempts to claim outside of the scheme for this journey and he believes that this is a failure to use the Council’s resources in accordance with the Code of Conduct and that this action is capable of bringing his office and Authority into disrepute.
The second claim Jonathan Goolden explained was a Planning Committee meeting at Kings Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council on 7 December 2015. Whilst Jonathan Goolden does not doubt that Councillor King had a reason to attend this meeting, no evidence has been provided to show that this was a duty that fell within the eight duties, set out in Paragraph 6.1 of the Scheme. Councillor King was not acting as a representative of Fenland District Council and his attendance had not been approved by the Chief Executive either. He clarified that there were a number of ways in which a duty is approved however there is no evidence of any of these methods taking place and payment was disallowed. Again, on this occasion Councillor King took the approach to see what officers processing expenses would let him claim for. Jonathan Goolden said Councillor King appears to find it acceptable to see what officers would let him claim for and not properly apply the scheme himself. He stated that whilst the Members Allowance Scheme may not be perfect, it is the responsibility of members to seek to apply it properly, make accurate and proper claims and not to play ‘cat and mouse’ with those officers responsible for processing the claims.
Jonathan Goolden concluded that whilst he recognises that journeys can be long and indirect and that allowance schemes are not always perfect, he has given Councillor King considerable benefit of the doubt on the vast majority of claims set out in Carol Pilson’s statement and has highlighted two instances in which Councillor King had attempted to misuse the scheme. Although Councillor King did not receive the money claimed for these two journeys, the attempt to claim was a sufficient misuse of the scheme and was a failure to use the Council’s resources in accordance with the Code of Conduct and thereby his actions were capable of bringing his office and Authority into disrepute.
Councillor King and his representatives had no questions for Jonathan Goolden.
Members asked questions, made comments and received responses as follows;
1. Councillor Hoy said the report suggests there could be misinterpretations of the wording in relation to where members can claim mileage from. She asked Jonathan Goolden if he believes a member of the public would misinterpret this in the same way or realise its actual meaning. Jonathan Goolden said he had considered the comments made by Councillor King’s representatives in relation to this and the wording does say a Councillor ‘can claim from’ as oppose to ‘can only claim from’. In his belief, a reasonable member of the public would be capable of understanding the Scheme.
2. Councillor Hoy thanked Jonathan Goolden for his presentation and response.
Members considered a presentation from Councillor King and his representatives.
Mike Magee asked Councillor King the following questions in relation to the journey in question on 5 November 2015;
1. Mike Magee asked Councillor King to confirm he had been a District Councillor since 1999. Councillor King confirmed he had.
2. Mike Magee asked Councillor King whether in this time, he had claimed expenses in relation to travel. Councillor King confirmed he had.
3. Mike Magee asked Councillor King if expenses had been paid to him since becoming a Councillor in 1999. Councillor King confirmed they had.
4. Mike Magee said following an amendment to the Members Allowance Scheme in 2011, had Councillor King continued to be paid these expenses on claims from locations other than his place of resident and did this continue until December 2015. Councillor King confirmed this was correct.
5. Mike Magee asked if Councillor King had made it clear on his mileage claim forms his place of departure for each claim. Councillor King confirmed he had.
6. Mike Magee asked if prior to December 2015, had anybody raised an issue or questioned any of Councillor King’s claims departing from another location aside from home. Councillor King confirmed that officers had not.
7. In relation to the journey on 5 November 2015, Mike Magee asked Councillor King if he was aware of the amendment to the Scheme in 2011. Councillor King confirmed that he was.
8. Mike Magee asked for Councillor King’s understanding of the amendment to the Scheme in 2011. Councillor King confirmed that he believed the amendment was made to clarify that members could claim from their home address, as there had been questions raised on the tax implications surrounding this. He said he believed this allowed Councillors to specifically claim from home.
9. Mike Magee asked if Councillor King’s understanding of the amended wording of the Members Allowance Scheme in 2011 was permissive in relation to the location of departure. Councillor King confirmed that was his understanding.
10. Mike Magee asked if Councillor King had made plans for 5 November 2015. Councillor King had explained that he had been involved in business meetings in London and he had intended to give his apologies to the Full Council meeting at Fenland Hall. He was then asked by the Leader of the Council to attend the meeting as it would have been his first meeting as a member of Cabinet. Due to this, he did not feel he could refuse to attend.
11. Mike Magee asked Councillor King if the Full Council meeting fell within one of the duties listed in paragraph 6.1. Councillor King confirmed it did.
12. Mike Magee asked Councillor King if he went to London on 5 November 2015 and had he had to alter his arrangements whilst there in order to attend the Full Council meeting at Fenland Hall. Councillor King confirmed that he had several meetings in London scheduled to take place that day however had to reschedule some of these to ensure his attendance at the Council meeting at 4pm.
13. Mike Magee asked Councillor King if he had incurred any additional travel expenses as a result of rescheduling these meetings for a later date in London. Councillor King confirmed he had as had had to return to London at a later date.
14. Mike Magee asked Councillor King if his reason for returning to March from London was solely to attend the Council meeting that day. Councillor King confirmed it was.
15. Mike Magee asked if Councillor Simon King received any correspondence from officers in relation to the claims form he submitted (page 258 of the agenda pack). Councillor King confirmed that, as per the Supplementary Documentation, there was correspondence between himself and officers.
16. Mike Magee asked members to draw their attention to part 2 of the Supplementary Documentation which shows emails between Councillor King and officers. He highlighted that the emails show the information Councillor King had provided officers with in relation to this claim and can see that clarification had been sought. He added that Carol Pilson had by 8 December 2015, known the circumstances surrounding the claim.
17. Mike Magee said in relation to the email between Councillor King and a Member Services officer on 10 December 2015 (page 41 of the Supplementary Documentation) Councillor King had responded saying that this issue had never been raised before and questioned their interpretation of the policy. He asked Councillor King if he had discussed this with Carol Pilson. Councillor King could not confirm if he had.
18. Mike Magee asked if the issue of only claiming from home had been raised with Councillor King prior to this email exchange. Councillor King confirmed it had not been raised previously.
19. Mike Magee asked if the subsequent submission of the claim in January 2015 (page 260 of the agenda pack) was for the same journey in question. Councillor King confirmed it was however he had removed the rail and car parking tickets and only submitted a claim for the journey from Huntingdon to March. He did confirm that he was unaware if he had ever claimed for the London aspect of the journey and believes he had only attempted to claim for the return part of the trip from Huntingdon.
20. Mike Magee asked Councillor King for his reason for resubmitting this claim in light of the email exchange with officers on 10 December 2015. Councillor King said his understanding was that the issue with claim was with the London part of the journey and he felt by removing this and only claiming expenses from Huntingdon, officers would find an acceptable application of the Scheme.
21. Mike Magee asked if Councillor King has ever received training or guidance in relation to his interpretation of the Members Allowance Scheme. Councillor King confirmed that he had not.
Mike Magee asked Councillor King the following questions in relation to the Planning Committee meeting in Kings Lynn on 7 December 2015;
1. Mike Magee asked if Councillor King had attended other Council’s Planning Committee meetings previously and asked if he had claimed expenses for these meetings. Councillor King confirmed that he had.
2. Mike Magee asked Councillor King if prior to his claim being rejected, he had ever been denied claiming for attending outside bodies meetings in his capacity as a Councillor. Councillor King confirmed that he had not been denied a claim on this basis previously.
3. Mike Magee asked Councillor King for further information on the Planning Committee meeting on 7 December 2015. Councillor King explained that the site in question was on the Cambridgeshire/ Norfolk border and the application would have had a direct effect on his Ward. If approved, the application would have a huge impact on the traffic in his Ward as well as other services such as GP Surgeries and Schools.
4. Mike Magee asked Councillor King if he felt it was appropriate to attend this meeting. Councillor King said he had been asked to attend by several of his constituents and he felt this was a key duty as a Councillor.
5. Mike Magee asked Councillor King if he had attended the meeting. Councillor King explained that on the morning of the meeting, his wife had taken his car keys and therefore he had no other option but to take public transport to the meeting. Due to the timing of the meeting, buses were unavailable and a taxi was his only option. He confirmed that he had got the bus back to Wisbech after the meeting.
6. Mike Magee asked if Councillor King represented constituents at the meeting and whether he had incurred any expense in carrying out this function as a Councillor. Councillor King confirmed that he had.
7. Mike Magee asked if Councillor King had believed he was entitled to claim when he submitted his expenses. Councillor King said he did believe he was entitled to claim and still does.
8. Mike Magee asked Councillor King to confirm that the expenses claimed for the Planning Committee meeting were solely incurred to represent his Ward in relation to the planning application. Councillor King confirmed it was claimed solely and exclusively for expenses incurred whilst on Council business.
The Panel and Jonathan Goolden were invited to ask questions of Councillor King and his representatives.
1. Jonathan Goolden highlighted that the email from the Member Services officer to Councillor King (page 42 of the Supplementary Documentation) highlighted that Councillor King had confirmed that he was travelling from a personal meeting to a Council meeting on 5 November 2015. He reiterated that there was no need for Councillor King to have travelled to Huntingdon or London to attend the Council Meeting at Fenland Hall. Councillor King clarified that he was leaving a location away from home to attend the Council meeting and he would not have had to make that journey otherwise. The journey was specifically made solely for Council business.
2. Jonathan Goolden highlighted that on page 176 of the Agenda Pack, Councillor King had commented on the 5 November 2015 claim that he had decided it was best to ‘show the full journey so that Member Services could decide whether to pay all or part or none of that journey’ and asked for clarification on this. Councillor King said his comment reflected the increasing confusion he felt over which claims were permissible and which were not. He believed that the wording of the Scheme stated that places other than home were permissible too.
3. Jonathan Goolden stated that in relation to the 7 December 2015 claim, Councillor King had confirmed he attended the meeting on behalf of his constituents and not as a representative of the Council. Councillor King confirmed that in his view, he had attended as a Council representative as the constituents had asked him to attend in his capacity as a Fenland District Councillor.
4. Jonathan Goolden asked Councillor King which duty listed in Paragraph 6.1, the Planning meeting on 7 December 2015 falls under. Councillor King said the meeting fell under ‘Formal meetings of outside bodies as a representative of the Council.’
5. Jonathan Goolden highlighted that Councillor King is not an appointed outside body representative of Kings Lynn & West Norfolk Borough Council Planning Committee. Councillor King said he was appointed ‘de facto’ as he was elected by the constituents that had asked him to attend as a Fenland District Councillor. Jonathan Goolden reiterated that this was not a position authorised by the Council and Councillor King had not asked for the Chief Executive’s authority to attend. Councillor King felt he did not have to seek authority for this meeting.
6. Councillor Hoy said whilst there have been discussions surrounding the purpose of the amendments made to the Members Allowance Scheme in 2011, given the public’s perception of member’s expenses would a member of the public understand these complexities or would they have a negative opinion of Councillor King’s perception of the policy. Councillor King said it was difficult to speak for the public, but confirmed he had received far more expressions of support over this complaint than he had criticisms. He said most of the individuals he has spoken to have understood the complexities and have been sympathetic towards him. He added that none of his constituents would have expected him to incur travel costs to the meeting at his own expense.
7. Tina Gambell asked if Councillor King had recognised that some of his claims were incorrectly claimed for or misinterpreted, after the complaint was made against him in November 2017. Councillor King said he felt he had done nothing wrong and has been living with this complaint for over a year. He feels that officers have misinterpreted the policy.
8. Tina Gambell said she was surprised to see that Councillor King had submitted further incorrect mileage claims in January 2018 (page 31 of the Agenda Pack) just two months after the complaint was made against him in November 2017.
9. Mike Magee reminded the Panel that the Investigators Report states that there is insufficient evidence to show a breach of the Code of Conduct on the other claims being discussed. Therefore the figures produced by Carol Pilson are based upon an analysis which is not adopted by Jonathan Goolden.
10.Councillor Hoy highlighted that Jonathan Goolden had confirmed that he had given Councillor King the benefit of the doubt on a number of mileage claims however as this is not a court of law; members are entitled to question Councillor King on any of the claims discussed in the report.
11.Fiona McMillan clarified that whilst the Investigator makes a recommendation to the Panel based on their findings, it is up to the Panel to accept this recommendation and therefore anything in the report is able to be considered by the Panel.
12.Mike Magee stated that the figures produced by Carol Pilson are not supported by Jonathan Goolden and therefore stating them as fact is incorrect as they are allegations that the Investigator cannot confirm as correct.
13.Councillor Hoy reiterated that members are not in a court of law and members of the public would want the Panel to question all discrepancies highlighted in the report, not just the ones discussed by Jonathan Goolden today. For example, even though the Scheme does not clarify the shortest distance must be taken; members of the public may want clarification on why it was not in this instance.
14.Councillor Hoy asked for further information on the journeys in July and November 2016 where Councillor King had claimed for 10 miles from his home in Wisbech to other locations within Wisbech, as she had concerns surrounding these figures (page 148 of the Agenda Pack). Mike Magee said there are situations in which it would be possible to drive 10 miles within Wisbech such as heavy traffic conditions and Councillor King’s starting point and end destination.
15.Fiona McMillan reminded the Panel that the Investigator had raised these journeys as a particular concern of his. (Page 30 of the Agenda Pack).
16.Councillor King said one of these journeys was on behalf of a Street Pride event and then on to an appointment with one of the Council’s Corporate Directors in Wisbech.
17.Councillor Hoy asked for further clarification on the distance of these journeys within Wisbech and the specific locations involved. Councillor King said it is difficult to recall the exact distance he travelled on the claim in question, however during his time as a member of Cabinet he was responsible for street-lighting in the area and he did travel a number of miles checking street lights for constituents as part of this role.
18.Councillor Hoy highlighted another claim where 10 miles had been claimed between a Wisbech 2020 meeting and a Civic Event also in Wisbech (page 148 of the Agenda Pack). Councillor King said he cannot remember these particular instances however highlighted that some parts of Leverington fall within the Wisbech boundary so it could have involved travel there. He reiterated that he would not have claimed for the journey and distance if it had not been 10 miles.
19.Councillor Hoy asked Councillor King for his opinion on why no other members have been highlighted as having issues when claiming mileage. Councillor King said he was unsure why he had been singled out over his expenses as he usually claimed a lot less than other members.
20.Councillor Hoy highlighted that Councillor King was present at the Council meeting in 2011 when the Members Allowance Scheme was approved and asked why he did not raise an issue with the Scheme then or following officer’s comments to him in 2015. Councillor King said when the policy was approved at Council, he was under the impression that the policy was clear and it was only officer’s interpretation of this that changed in 2015.
21.Councillor Hoy asked why Councillor King did not discuss his issues with other members or raise the issue via other channels. Councillor King agreed that in hindsight he should have pursued this issue more vigorously however it was a very busy time for him and he thought common sense would prevail.
22.Councillor Skoulding said Councillor King discusses in the report that odometers on vehicles can provide an over reading of 10% (page 174 of the Agenda Pack) and asked Councillor King if he has ever had his vehicle odometer checked. Councillor King confirmed that he had not had his odometer checked, but has made it clear in the report that he does not solely rely on his odometer to record his mileage.
23.Councillor Skoulding asked Councillor King why on some occasions the miles he has claimed for are correct and on other occasions the miles he has claimed for are incorrect. Councillor King said he records his mileage on every journey and disagreed that the figures are either correct or incorrect as these are simply the distances he has travelled and recorded.
24.Tina Gambell asked Councillor King why he felt it was acceptable to claim for a journey from Huntingdon on 5 November 2015 when he was not in Huntingdon or London on Council Business. Councillor King clarified that he had claimed for this journey because he had solely returned the March on Council business.
25.Tina Gambell argued that Councillor King would have returned from London anyway regardless of the Council meeting and said the policy clearly states you can claim from your place of residence or from a subsequent meeting on Council business. Councillor King disagreed with Tina Gambell’s interpretation of the policy and stated that he only returned from London to attend the Council meeting.
26.Councillor Hoy reiterated that Councillor King would have returned from London that day regardless of the Council meeting and therefore why did he claim for a return journey he would have made anyway. Councillor King clarified that he had rearranged meetings and would not have left London at that time if it had not been for the Council meeting.
27.Tina Gambell highlighted page 30 of the Agenda Pack which shows claims from a dentist appointment in Peterborough and other journeys from Rugby, Swaffham and Leicester. She asked what Council business Councillor King had been attending in these locations. Councillor King said he was unsure if this was Council business or personal however stated that the Scheme does not operate in the way Tina Gambell suggests, as it does not state that you can only claim from home or Council business.
28.Tina Gambell asked why Councillor King had claimed for a dentist appointment in Peterborough in January 2016. Councillor King could not recall this occasion due to it being a number of years ago.
29.Councillor Humphrey stated that his interpretation of the Scheme is that if he had attended a meeting in London and returned for a Council meeting, he would only be able to claim mileage from his home address and not from London. He said he found it difficult to understand Councillor King’s interpretation of the policy as it clearly states you must be wholly and exclusively on Council business or departing from your home address. Councillor Humphrey reflected that Councillor King had been a Councillor since 1999, had been present at the meeting in which the Members Allowance Scheme was approved in 2011 and stated that he was surprised Councillor King had not pursued his concerns and issues with officers interpretation of the Scheme when challenged in 2015. Councillor King said the policy lacks clarity and everybody has different interpretations of it. The number of claims that have been disputed are a very small minority compared to the number of claims he has submitted over the years, however he does regret not pursuing this further.
30.Councillor Humphrey asked for Councillor King’s interpretation of the wording in paragraph 6.2; ‘Mileage can be claimed from Councillors normal place of residence or from a subsequent appointment on Council business’ and his logic behind claiming for a journey from Huntingdon/London on personal business. Councillor King said the statement is permissive as it does not state that members can claim only from home or a subsequent appointment on Council business. The policy omits to state the word ‘only’ which opens the scheme up to different interpretation. He confirmed that he has applied this method to his expenses claims for many years prior to 2015 and these have all been acceptable to officers.
31.Councillor Humphrey said he had concerns over the large number of discrepancies in Councillor King’s mileage claims from 2011-2017. He explained that these claims could affect the public’s perception of member’s expenses and highlighted that many members, including him, do not submit claims for all Council work they carry out anyway. Councillor King agreed that he too has also undertaken many journeys on Council business and has not claimed for all of them. He said whilst he should have sought clarification from officers, Carol Pilson should have too.
32.Tina Gambell asked if Councillor King was not angered or upset by the fact his claims were consistently refused or questioned by officers. Councillor King said he may have complained via phone or email to Member Services but could not recall.
33.Tina Gambell asked why Councillor King continued claiming after being made aware of officer’s interpretation of the Scheme. Councillor King said Carol Pilson and officers are interpreting the policy incorrectly and he believes he challenged their interpretations via phone, emails and conversations with Member Services.
34.Tina Gambell asked Councillor King if he believes Carol Pilson’s interpretation of the Members Allowance Scheme has changed during this time and whether he believes she is alone in her interpretation of the policy. Councillor King confirmed that he believes Carol Pilson is incorrect in her application of the policy as the general interpretation of the policy changed when she became Monitoring Officer in 2015.
35.Councillor Hoy asked Jonathan Goolden for his opinion on Carol Pilson’s interpretation of the Members Allowance Scheme. Jonathan Goolden confirmed that whilst the Scheme does not require the shortest route to be taken however claims must be made for ‘wholly and exclusively’ Council business. Even if officers have applied judgment on the shortest route, there are still a number of questionable and excessive claims that have been submitted by Councillor King.
36.Councillor Hoy asked Jonathan Goolden for his opinion on the omission of the word ‘only’ in paragraph 6.2 of the Members Allowance Scheme. Jonathan Goolden said the policy is clear when you understand it and he has given the benefit of doubt to Councillor King in relation to a number of his claims as he is unsure if officers have applied the policy in the exact way he would have. However, there are a number of claims that he has questioned whether they were submitted wholly and exclusively for Council business by Councillor King.
37.Councillor Hoy asked why no other member has interpreted this policy in that way in which Councillor King has. Jonathan Goolden said during his investigation he had not discussed other member’s interpretation of the policy.
38.Councillor Humphrey asked Councillor King if he considers it member’s responsibility to submit claims according to the Members Allowance Scheme or that of officers. Councillor King confirmed that it was member’s responsibility to submit claims correctly within the Scheme.
The Hearing was adjourned at 12.30pm to allow time for Councillor Boden (Councillor King’s Witness) to arrive.
The Hearing reconvened at 1.12pm.
Councillor Hoy introduced Councillor Boden, in his capacity as Chairman of Overview & Scrutiny Committee, as a witness for Councillor King.
Councillor King and his representatives were invited to ask questions to Councillor Boden;
1. Mike Magee thanked Councillor Boden for his attendance and asked him if during his time as Chairman of Overview & Scrutiny Committee, whether any other members had approached him in relation to seeking a review of the Members Allowance Scheme. Councillor Boden confirmed that two to three members had approached him to ask if the Overview & Scrutiny Committee could review the Scheme.
2. Councillor Hoy asked Councillor Boden if these members had approached him before or after the complaint was made against Councillor King. Councillor Boden confirmed it was after the initial Investigators Report was published.
3. Mike Magee asked Councillor Boden if he found the Members Allowance Scheme clear. Councillor Boden explained that he is over-cautious when he submits his own expenses claims and has asked officers for clarification on a number of claims he was unsure about.
4. Mike Magee asked Councillor Boden if he has any concerns in relation to the location of departure when claiming expenses. Councillor Boden said whilst this has not caused him difficulty, as a member of Cambridgeshire County Councillor, he has on several occasions travelled from one of their meetings to a Fenland District Council meeting. As a result of this, he confirmed that he always takes extra care when claiming in these instances so not to incorrectly ‘charge’ the wrong authority.
5. Mike Magee asked Councillor Boden if it was clear to him which meetings he is permitted to claim for under the Members Allowance Scheme. Councillor Boden said he is not entirely clear on this as he has questioned whether he can claim for meetings with officers for example. He confirmed that he usually takes the stance that these meetings cannot be claimed for and does not submit claims for these, however is unsure if this is correct.
The Panel and Jonathan Goolden were invited to ask questions to Councillor Boden;
1. Councillor Hoy asked if Councillor Boden, as a member of the City of London Corporation, would ever claim for a journey back from one of their meetings in London to attend a Fenland District Council meeting. Councillor Boden explained that the City of London Corporation does not pay their members mileage or allowances but confirmed that he would only claim from home to Fenland Hall in this example.
2. Councillor Hoy asked Councillor Boden if he can think of an instance he has attended a meeting in his hometown and driven 10 miles to a meeting in the same town. Councillor Boden confirmed that he could not think of an instance however confirmed that he has travelled a number of miles checking street-lighting in his hometown.
3. Councillor Hoy asked Councillor Boden if he would claim for a taxi journey from his home to Fenland Hall if he had to attend a meeting and had misplaced his car keys. Councillor Boden said he would if there were no other options such as public transport available and believed that this would be an acceptable claim under the policy.
4. Councillor Hoy asked Councillor Boden what he would do if he believed an officer was misinterpreting the Members Allowance Scheme when processing his mileage claims. Councillor Boden said he would discuss his issues with the officers involved first and if it continued, discuss the matter with the Chief Executive.
5. Councillor Hoy asked Councillor Boden for his interpretation on the amendment to the wording in the Members Allowance Scheme in 2011. Councillor Boden explained that in his opinion, the policy states that members can only claim from a place or residence or from a subsequent appointment on Council business. He added that he takes an over-cautious approach and tries to be ‘120% sure’ when submitting his own expenses claims.
6. Councillor Humphrey stated that members have previously claimed for taxi expenses due to the fact they are not able to drive.
7. Tina Gambell said it was positive to hear Councillor Boden confirm that he airs on the side of caution when submitting his own expenses.
Councillor Hoy thanked Councillor Boden for his attendance at today’s meeting.
Councillor Hoy invited Jonathan Goolden to present a summary of his position to members.
Jonathan Goolden explained that the Scheme provides that regardless of location at the start of a journey, the travel must be wholly and exclusively for the purpose of approved Council duties. Members can claim from home or from a place of subsequent Council business and it does not specify that the shortest route must be taken. However, an excessively indirect route would call into question whether the travel was wholly and exclusively for the purposes of the approved duty. He confirmed that he had concerns about Councillor King’s general pattern of claims but within the context of the investigation, there was insufficient evidence to conclude a breach of the Code of Conduct. Councillor King was not in either Huntingdon or London on the 5 November 2015 on Council business and his journey back via either of these locations was not wholly or exclusively for the purposes of attending the Council meeting. He highlighted that Councillor Boden had stated that in those circumstances, he would only have claimed from his home address to Fenland Hall.
Jonathan Goolden reiterated that on 6 December 2015, Councillor King was not an appointed representative of the Council when he attended the Planning Committee meeting of Kings Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council. He could have obtained the Chief Executive’s approval to make his attendance to this meeting an approved duty however he did not do so.
Jonathan Goolden said the Council’s Members Allowance Scheme is not perfect and officers have applied it too strictly on occasions but reminded the Panel that they have heard today that Councillor Boden strives to be ‘120% sure’ when claiming expenses and tends to be very cautious in his approach. In contrast, Councillor King has been in-cautious and misapplied the Scheme to the extent that he has failed to use the resources of the Council in accordance with reasonable requirements and has bought his office and authority into disrepute.
The Chairman thanked Jonathan Goolden and invited Councillor King and his representatives to present a summary of their position to members.
Mike Magee started by reminding members that the complaint against Councillor King is not MP’s expenses, ‘duck ponds’ or ‘mansions in Mayfair’. On the advice of Jonathan Goolden, there are only two instances on 5 November and 7 December 2015 that have been raised and it has clearly been explained that on both of these occasions Councillor King was attending legitimate meetings in his role as a Councillor. Mike Magee added that on both of these occasions Councillor King had incurred expenses as a result of attending these meetings.
Mike Magee highlighted that on 5 November 2015, Councillor King was in London on pre-arranged business and would have been there all day, had he not been requested to cut his meeting short to attend a Council meeting. As a result of this specific request to attend the Council meeting, Councillor King had incurred expenditure wholly and exclusively for the purpose of attending Council business.
Mike Magee said on the 7 December 2015, Councillor King had attended a Planning meeting in relation to an application for a large development that would directly impact his Ward. He attended this meeting as a Councillor, made representations on behalf of his constituents and as a result, incurred travel expenses. He reiterated that the Panel needed to disregard the hysteria surrounding MP’s expenses and instead question whether Councillor King was entitled to claim for genuine work he had performed as a Councillor. He said Councillor King had only been reimbursed for expenses he had genuinely incurred.
Mike Magee stated that Jonathan Goolden is in agreement that the mileage claimed is permissive and the wording of the policy does not restrict claims to only journeys departing from member’s home addresses or Council business. He said this is of particular importance when members consider the journey Councillor King claimed for on 5 November 2015. He added that there is no requirement in the policy for the shortest route to be taken neither is there a requirement for members to claim for expenses in accordance with Google Maps.
Mike Magee said whilst Jonathan Goolden had explored multiple claims submitted by Councillor King, only two particular claims have been commented on and questioned. He said it was impossible for Councillor King to recall specific journeys he has taken a number of years ago and said great care must be taken if the Panel consider journeys that have been dismissed by Jonathan Goolden.
Councillor Hoy reminded Mike Magee that the Panel are able to consider the report in its entirety when making their decision.
Mike Magee said the investigation has been completed and as a result Jonathan Goolden does not consider any other claim in the report, a breach of the Code of Conduct. He reminded the Panel that they do not have detailed responses in relation to the other claims to allow them to make an informed decision on whether they were claimed correctly or not. He warned the Panel to consider whether it would be fair or proper to consider these other claims when making their decision.
He asked members to consider what they would want the Members Allowance Scheme to achieve. The objective should be solely to reimburse Councillors for expenses they incur whilst acting as Councillors. He reminded the Panel that the issue with Councillor King’s expenses was first raised around the time Carol Pilson became Monitoring Officer and said the Monitoring Officer before her had had obviously taken a different view when interpreting the Scheme. Mike Magee reminded members that the Scheme omits to use the word ‘only’ when confirming claimable departure locations and asked them to consider their decision based on how the Members Allowance Scheme is written, not how they think it should be written. He highlighted that Jonathan Goolden agreed with this too.
In relation to the journey on 5 November 2018, Councillor King had incurred costs due to his day being cut short and the request that he returned from London to attend a Council meeting. These costs were incurred wholly and exclusively due to his attendance being requested at the Council meeting. Mike Magee added that Jonathan Goolden had stated that in some instances, officers had misinterpreted the policy and the email shown on page 41 of the Supplementary Documentation, shows Councillor King clearly stating that he disagreed with officer’s interpretation.
Mike Magee said Councillor King had only tried to recover legitimate expenses he incurred for carrying out his role as Councillor on both 5 November and 7 December 2015. He said it takes a narrow and artificial interpretation of the policy to conclude that these claims are unfounded. He said Carol Pilson had interpreted the policy differently to the previous Monitoring Officer and said Jonathan Goolden had suggested a review of the Scheme in his findings due to the ambiguity of the wording. He highlighted that a large number of claims were questioned and scrutinised against the distance recorded on Google Maps however this is not part of the approved Policy. He highlighted that Carol Pilson states on page 164 of the Agenda Pack; ‘No other Councillors have been brought to my attention as having a high number of discrepancies within their claim forms’. He highlighted that this does not mean that no other members have claimed incorrectly merely no other members have been bought to her attention.
He reminded members that the email on page 41 of the Supplementary Documentation shows that Councillor King had a strong, genuine view on the policy and is open with officers about his disagreement with their interpretation. He asked members to consider amending the Members Allowance Scheme to make it less restrictive and align it more with other Local Authorities in the area. He said that as per the current policy and interpretation, if a member was in full time employment and travelled to Council meetings from their place of work, this would not be permitted under the current Members Allowance Scheme. He stated that the report mentions that Councillor King failed to submit sufficient details in his claims however argued that if officers require additional details, hey should amend the claims form to reflect this. He reiterated that Councillor King had given full clarification on the claims when questioned and his view had been entirely consistent throughout the process.
Mike Magee said Councillor King had been consistent with his opinion of the Scheme and he was only made aware of officer’s issues with his mileage claims in 2015. He stated that the Council’s interpretation of the policy changed in 2015 when Carol Pilson became Monitoring Officer and argued that she should have sought the approval of Full Council for the change in interpretation but instead analysed all of Councillor King’s claims to see if any other discrepancies had been made.
Mike Magee stated that the Scheme and its application changed inexplicably in 2015 without being discussed with members. In relation to the claim that Councillor King has bought his office and Council into disrepute, he stated that any negative public opinion is due to the public being ill-informed based on the incorrect application of the Members Allowance Scheme.
He concluded by reminding members that only two claims, out of over four hundred, have been bought into question by Jonathan Goolden and Councillor King has provided clarification on both of these. He said at its worst, this Hearing can only conclude that there has been an ‘understandable misunderstanding’ of an ambiguous Scheme by Councillor King claiming whilst carrying out his duties as a Councillor. He repeated that Jonathan Goolden had confirmed there was insufficient evidence to prove any wrong doing in relation to the majority of claims and reiterated the Councillor King has only claimed for a portion of expenses incurred whilst carrying out his job as a Councillor. He asked the Panel to remember this conclusion when considering the complaint today.
Councillor Hoy invited Tina Gambell (The Independent Person) to present her view of the facts as presented and whether or not she believes these represent a breach of the Code of Conduct.
Tina Gambell reminded members that when Carol Pilson had become Monitoring Officer in 2015, the amended Members Allowance Scheme had already been approved and implemented since 2011. She stated that she thought it was bad practice to suggest that any of this was Carol Pilson’s fault and said she had only investigated the matter because officer’s had raised numerous issues with Councillor King’s claims.
She highlighted that the claims in question amount to over 4995 miles; 3358 miles that were inappropriately claimed and paid to Councillor King and 1637 miles that were claimed and not paid to Councillor King. She explained that Carol Pilson had not ‘acted alone’ and had sought legal advice and had discussed the matter with the Deputy Monitoring Officer. Following this, it was deemed appropriate to raise the issue of Councillor King’s Conduct. Tina Gambell stated it was irrelevant if it was ‘Duck Ponds or Mansions in Mayfair’, misclaiming is misclaiming, regardless of the value.
She suggested members disregard other Local Authorities Schemes, submitted by Mike Magee, as the Panel are here to consider Fenland District Council’s policy only. She questioned why Councillor King had failed to argue his opinion with officers when the majority of his claims were unpaid or questioned and queried why he had never raised his issue with Corporate Management either. As he had been a Councillor for many years, she asked why Councillor King never pursued his issue with the Scheme when accused of falsely claiming or pursued his claim that officers were misinterpreting the Scheme.
In relation to the claim on 5 November 2015, Tina Gambell stated that the request for Councillor King’s attendance at the Council meeting was merely a request, not a demand and thought it would have been perfectly acceptable for Councillor King to give his apologies to the meeting based on his pre-arranged plans. She explained that the Scheme consistently states that claims must be made ‘wholly and exclusively’ on Council business and this is perfectly clear to other members and needs no amendment or clarification. Therefore, it cannot be made any clearer that claiming from dentist appointments in Peterborough or claiming from a business trip in London, is outside the remit of the Scheme.
Tina Gambell disagreed with Mike Magee that there are only two incidents for members to consider and argued that Jonathan Goolden has commented on numerous other claims he had concerns with. Although Jonathan Goolden has stated that there was insufficient evidence to make a decision on these claims, it does not mean there is no evidence for members to consider as he had raised them as serious concerns. She concluded by saying that, in her opinion, Councillor King has breached the Code of Conduct by bringing his office and Council into disrepute.
The Panel retired to make a decision at 2.10pm.
The Hearing reconvened at 3.33pm.
Councillor Hoy made the following statement;
‘The Panel has listened carefully to the Investigator, Councillor King’s representatives and witness and the views of the Council’s Independent Person.
The Panel has decided unanimously that it agrees with the conclusions of the investigation report that Councillor King has breached the councillor code of conduct in the following respects:
1) Councillor King did not use the resources of the authority in accordance with the authority’s reasonable requirements in that he has made numerous claims for expenses which are outside the Members’ Allowance Scheme. The Investigation report highlighted two examples of this but also found that there were ”numerous claims for travel expenses for journeys that are not covered by the Scheme as they were not undertaken wholly and exclusively in pursuance of Council duties”. Councillor King’s representative focused on responding to these two examples but did not address the report finding that “we have concluded that on a number of occasions these were attempts by Councillor King to claim allowances that he was not entitled to, which were at best made without due regard to the scheme.” In particular the finding was that Councillor King’s repeated attempts to claim 70 miles for attendance at a Council meeting on 5 November 2015 was a “deliberate and false claim”. The panel’s view was that trying firstly to claim for a return ticket to London along with mileage from Huntingdon to March when he was on personal business in London was clearly outside the boundaries of the scheme. They believed that a member of the public, in full possession of the relevant facts, would also have believed this to be the case and was a deliberate attempt to make a false claim.
2) Councillor King has, in consequence of a pattern of making numerous inflated claims for expenses, also conducted himself in a manner which could reasonably be regarded as bringing both himself and the authority into disrepute. This is because the Panel feels it is clear that his conduct would diminish the public’s confidence in the Council and harm its reputation as the public expect councillors to be open and transparent when using public funds and not to misuse such funds. The Panel are particularly concerned to put across their view that whilst this case does not involved large sums of money in the manner of some recent MPs expenses claims, it is nonetheless public money and the same principle should be applied.
3) In relation to a number of elements of the complaint regarding minor differences between the direct distance between Councillor King’s home in Wisbech and Fenland Hall in March and the amount claimed, the panel accepted the findings of the investigator that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that any discrepancies were deliberate and therefore a breach of the Code of Conduct could not be established in relation to those claims.
The Panel’s conclusions are that Councillor King should have been well aware that some of these claims were not justified and if he had any queries or challenges to the Council’s Allowance Scheme he should have raised these with officers or made attempts to have the policy clarified or changed, which he failed to do. Despite having numerous claims turned down by officers, with reasons given on why the scheme is applied in the way that it is, he continued to be lacking caution in how he made claims.
The Panel would also like to highlight that it did not accept the assertions of Councillor King in relation to the actions of the Monitoring Officer and would like to add its thanks to the Council’s Monitoring Officer, Carol Pilson, for her work on this complaint in fulfilment of her roles and recognises the difficult position making this complaint put her in. We would also like to thank the Member Services team for their work in scrutinising members’ claims in order to maintain best use of the public purse.
This is a summary of our findings and a full decision notice will be issued within 7 days of today.’
Councillor Hoy asked Jonathan Goolden for his views on whether a sanction should be imposed in this matter and if so what form of sanction, from the list available, might be appropriate.
Jonathan Goolden explained that the range of sanctions is very limited under the current framework. Referring to the Code of Conduct framework, he stated that the intention of a sanction should be to uphold and improve conduct and to foster public confidence in democracy. The aim should be to discourage and prevent future non-compliance and must take into account the actual and possible consequences of misconduct. He said the actual consequences of the complaint against Councillor King, has been that the Council has incurred a cost of two investigations and his own attendance at today’s Hearing. He said a potential consequence is that the Members Allowance Scheme has been brought into disrepute and this could be a significant adverse consequence to the Council.
Jonathan Goolden explained that the argument for a reduced sanction would be that Councillor King did seek advice from officers to an extent although he did not follow the advice he received. Factors to consider for an increased sanction, would be that Councillor King denied that he had misapplied the scheme, continued to misapply the Scheme and to an extent, tried to transfer responsibility for this to officers. Jonathan Goolden said he was reluctant to suggest a particular form of sanction to the Panel and asked Fiona McMillan to advise the Panel of the most appropriate sanction, having regard to the guidance he discussed.
Councillor Hoy asked Fiona McMillan for her views on whether a sanction should be imposed in this matter and if so what form of sanction, from the list available, might be appropriate.
Fiona McMillan said she would not give a particular view on the sanctions however highlighted that some of the sanctions available, are not appropriate for this particular breach of the Code of Conduct.
Councillor Hoy asked Councillor King’s representatives for their views on whether a sanction should be imposed in this matter and if so what form of sanction, from the list available, might be appropriate.
Mike Magee said if members felt a sanction was necessary, it had been accepted that the Members Allowance Scheme is unclear and therefore the Panel may feel training for Councillor King is appropriate.
The Hearing was adjourned at 3.45pm whilst members considered the sanctions available.
The Hearing reconvened at 4.13pm.
Councillor Hoy made the following statement;
The Panel have again considered the representations of all concerned regarding the form of sanction that should be imposed. As outlined by the Monitoring Officer the Panel are extremely limited in terms of options available to them and in terms of addressing the breach.
The Panel's decision is to issue a formal Letter of Reprimand which it will copy to the Leader and Chief Executive. The Panel considered publication of a formal notice in the newspaper but given that the press are present today, and mindful of the costs that have already been incurred, a formal notice of the breach will not be published in the newspaper however we will publish our findings in respect of the Member's conduct.
Whilst the Panel feels that
there is sufficient information within the current Scheme to enable
members to understand the nature of the claims they can make, they
have taken on board the comments made during the course of the
hearing as to the differences in opinion as to its
interpretation. Consequently, for absolute clarity in future,
the Panel would like to make a recommendation to the Council to be
taken forward by the Interim Monitoring Officer that the Allowance
Scheme is reviewed. The revised Scheme as appropriate should be
accompanied by an FAQ document giving typical examples of claims
that members are likely to make and should be included as part of
the member's induction programme.
The Panel AGREED that there had been a breach of the Code of Conduct by Councillor King and AGREED to impose the following sanctions;
· Issue a formal Letter of Reprimand to Councillor King, copying in the Leader of the Council and Chief Executive.
· The Panel considered publication of a formal notice in the newspaper but given that the press were present at the Hearing, and mindful of the costs that have already been incurred, a formal notice of the breach will not be published in the newspaper however we will publish our findings in respect of the Member's conduct