Northumberland County Council passes vote of no confidence in leader

The Conservative leader of Northumberland County Council has been removed from his position in a vote of no confidence.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 9th September 2020, 11:00 am
Coun Peter Jackson.
Coun Peter Jackson.

A motion by Labour leader, Coun Susan Dungworth, that ‘this council no longer has confidence in the political leadership and therefore resolves to remove Peter Jackson from the position of leader’ was passed by a single vote at last week’s full meeting of the authority.

It was the culmination of a turbulent period for the Tory administration since the announcement of chief executive Daljit Lally’s ‘period of extended leave’, which came just after she emailed all 67 county councillors to flag up what she claimed were ‘significant whistle-blowing concerns’, including in relation to Coun Jackson.

This was quickly followed by the resignation from the cabinet of deputy leader Coun Wayne Daley, where he was also responsible for children’s services, and Coun Veronica Jones, who was the portfolio holder for adult health and wellbeing.

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Last week, Coun Cath Homer, the cabinet member for arts, culture, leisure and tourism, also resigned.

And at the first full meeting of the council since February, members voted by 33 to 32 to remove Coun Jackson from his position.

The Bedlington independents voted against, along with most Conservatives, but the former deputy leader, Coun Daley, and his fellow Cramlington Tories, councillors Christine Dunbar and Mark Swinburn, supported the removal.

Labour, the other independents and two of the three Lib Dems all voted for the motion.

There are usually 67 county councillors, but Conservative Coun Karen Quinn was not present, while the vacancy in one of the two Alnwick seats following the election of Robbie Moore as a Tory MP has not been filled, because the elections in May were cancelled due to Covid-19.

Presenting her motion, Coun Dungworth said it was a very sad day for Northumberland County Council as very few councils have ever moved a vote of no confidence in their leader whatever their political make-up.

“Our reputation is in shreds and we are the laughing stock of the region,” she added, while claiming that staff are scared to raise their heads.

“Peter Jackson has become the story and his desperate attempt to save his reputation is causing incalculable damage to the reputation of this great county council, the staff who work for it and the people we represent, and it’s actually causing damage to our reputation for failing to deal with it.”

In response, Cllr Jackson said: “I absolutely refute the things that have just been said.”

He explained that due to the legal process, it has not been possible for he and his colleagues to clear their names about these ‘ridiculous smears’ and he later described the ‘whistle-blowing allegations’ as ‘bunkum’ – before being warned off discussing these matters in public – adding that he is being ‘judged and hounded by the press’.

Coun Jackson also said that he is proud of what he and his cabinet have achieved in the past three years.

“We need to stick together as a county council, stop this petty bickering, and focus on the things that matter to the people up and down this county,” he concluded.

Some Labour members questioned how rosy the situation really is given that three cabinet members have already resigned, but two of those remaining, Coun Nick Oliver and Coun Richard Wearmouth, both offered their support.

However, Lib Dem leader, Coun Jeff Reid, suggested that Coun Jackson should have stood down already.

“What does this look like to the 500 people watching online?” he said. “You should have faced up to your responsibilities last week and said, I’m going.”

One of the Bedlington independents who backed the leader, Coun Russ Wallace, said: “What we don’t have yet are facts. Until we do, we should get on with what we were elected to do.”

Coun Steven Bridgett, the independent member for Rothbury, agreed that people should be allowed to clear their names, but that the council should be led by others in the meantime.

This motion had not appeared on the agenda – which was the subject of some disagreement in itself – but following councillors’ questions, the leader of the opposition Labour group, Coun Susan Dungworth, moved to suspend certain rules of procedure to allow motions to be heard from the floor.

This was passed by 34 to 31 votes, thanks to the Conservative rebels, to pave the way for the vote of no confidence.

Later in the meeting, it was agreed that the election of a new council leader will take place at the next meeting with deputy leader Coun Glen Sanderson taking on the role temporarily.

Elsewhere, a second referral has been made to police in the ongoing row involving Northumberland County Council’s political leadership and chief executive.

It is understood that Mrs Lally has been suspended and a formal disciplinary process started, but a council spokesman said: “She remains on a period of extended leave. We can make no further comment at this time.”

Mrs Lally said in her original email to councillors that she had contacted police about some of her claims.

At the time, Northumbria Police confirmed it had received contact from an official at the council relating to Advance Northumberland, the council’s regeneration company, but could not add anything further as it had not yet discussed this correspondence with the individual.

This week, the force said there was no update in relation to this.I

n relation to Mrs Lally’s claims, Advance’s managing director, Ken Dunbar, said he was ‘surprised’ to see a reference to ‘significant concerns’ about the ‘well-run’ company, but that it would ‘thoroughly investigate if any significant allegations are brought to our attention’.

Other emails seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service suggest that a referral to the police has also been made.

A Northumbria Police spokeswoman said: “We can confirm on Sunday (August 30), we received an email regarding concerns at Northumberland County Council.”

This week, it also came to light that the sharing of some information in relation to allegations against Mrs Lally has led to a data breach.

A council spokeswoman said: “We can confirm that a data breach has occurred in regard to expenditure and income for the Northumbria International Alliance project. This relates to a small number of current and former employees, as well as external partners involved specifically in this area of the business.

“We apologise for this error, which should not have happened under any circumstances. We are in the process of contacting all those involved, and have already reported this to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). A thorough investigation will be undertaken to ensure that this does not happen again.”