City Solicitor: Council Does Not Have “Any Powers” to Address Tory Smear Plan

Responding to one of the local residents named in the recent Tory smear plan, City Solicitor and Deputy Chief Executive of Portsmouth City Council, Michael Lawther, says councillors were “acting in a private capacity and not as a councillor.” By Sarah Cheverton.

S&C exclusively revealed yesterday a leaked email that exposed Cllr Scott Harris’ call to all serving Conservative councillors – and one candidate standing for election in May – to “play dirty” and “smear” a range of people who have criticised recent cuts to council services.

Following a complaint from a local resident, S&C has had sight of a response from City Solicitor and Deputy Chief Excutive Michael Lawther, who states that his “role in relation to councillor behaviour is limited” and continues:

“As monitoring officer I am here to advise the Council on matters of ethics and standards and to assist in the consideration of complaints, once a formal complaint has been made against a councillor. The Council does not, however, have any powers to become involved in complaints or disputes which relate to non-councillors or indeed to councillors when problems arise which relate to their private lives or when they are not acting as a councillor.”

Lawther cites a precedent for this situation, the ‘Ken Livingstone case‘, in which the then London Mayor made inappropriate comments to a journalist as he was leaving a reception at County Hall. The comments were later the subject of a complaint against Mr Livingstone, in which he was accused of breaking the Code of Conduct of his office. In a subsequent appeal, the Standards Board Case Tribunal found that the comments were not made by Mr Livingstone ‘in an official capacity.’

The ruling judge on the Livingstone case, Mr Justice Collins, expressed doubt that Mr Livingstone’s comments would bring disrepute on his office rather than on him personally and, as such, did not fall under the Code of Conduct.

In comparing the plan sent by Cllr Scott Harris to the entire Conservative administration to the Livingstone case, Mr Lawther explains:

“The reasoning behind this is that there must be a clear distinction between what a councillor does in his or her private life and what they do when acting in their official capacity. In this instance Cllr Scott Harris’s email was sent from him to other people who are members of his political group. The email was not sent in the course of Council business. As such when he sent the email it is my opinion that he was acting in a private capacity and not as a councillor.”

Mr Lawther closes his refusal to address the plan to smear critics of recent council cuts proposed by the Conservative administration by stating that “as the Council’s monitoring officer I am precluded from further involvement unless a complaint is made about his behaviour.”

It remains to be seen if any of those named in Cllr Harris smear plan email – including Sisters Uncut, local charity Aurora New Dawn, and its CEO Shonagh Dillon – will make such a complaint, but if any choose to do so, Mr Lawther would not deal with it himself. He explains that “if such a complaint were made I would ask one of my colleagues to consider it afresh, as I have already expressed my opinion on the facts as I see them.”

S&C will continue to follow this story and will bring you updates as we have them.

Note: The Editors of Star & Crescent have decided not to publish without their consent the names of the individuals targeted by Cllr Harris in his email. Whilst we are aware other media outlets may not do the same, S&C is mindful of the significant power differential between the media and the citizens, charities and groups that become the subject of news stories. We aim to restore the trust of Portsmouth’s citizens in local media as a force for holding power to account, and to break the cycle of click-bait-driven journalism that often exposes the innocent subjects of news stories to unnecessary public focus and stress.

Image by Sarah Cheverton and Jackson Davies.