Public accountability proceeds, it seems, at its own solemn pace. Newham council's constitution says a standards committee investigation into the conduct of an elected member should take no longer than three months. However, six months has passed since a complaint was made against Mayor Sir Robin Wales, and only now has the committee published its groundbreaking decision - that the Mayor "breached the members' Code of Conduct by failing to treat a member of the public with respect".
Some background: in July 2014, a video [above] emerged on YouTube showing the Mayor losing control of his temper at the presence of Focus E15 Mothers campaigners at an event in Central Park in East Ham. He was so angry that the footage shows a member of council staff physically restraining him. In the week that followed, a formal complaint was made about the Mayor's behaviour, alleging that Wales had breached the Members' Code of Conduct by failing to observe the statutory principle of “always treating people with respect, including the organisations and public engaged with and those worked alongside”.
I'd met the young activists from the Focus E15 campaign for the first time only the previous weekend, when volunteering as a legal observer for a march they had organised though the borough. Appalled by the Mayor's behaviour, I gave them some advice soon after the video began to circulate about how to make a official complaint. Eventually I decided to submit a complaint myself and so, ever since, I've had a ring-side seat as the formal 'complainant' to the glacial process that has followed.
The complaint was about the conduct shown in the video, which was essentially the only evidence. However, after a meeting of Newham's Standards Advisory Committee on 31 July recommended a formal inquiry, an independent investigator was appointed. In August she interviewed me and some of of the campaigners who appear in the footage. The committee did not meet again until early October and then decided set up a Hearing Sub-Committee to consider the investigator's findings and determine whether a breach of the code of conduct had taken place. It met on 21 October and asked the investigator to rewrite her report with new recommendations. A meeting planned for December was cancelled and the Hearing Sub-Committee did not make its final decision until 15 January – but was unable to announce it because the council's constitution insists it was first checked off by its appointed 'Independent Person' (a requirement under the Localism Act 2011).
The procedure for investigating a complaint is clearly convoluted, slow and in need of reform. I have no idea either how an investigation within three months is even imaginable if evidence is more complex than a short video. I must stress, however, that the independent chair of the Standards Advisory Committee seemed just as frustrated by it as everyone else and was always as helpful as circumstances allowed. What probably hasn't helped was Wales' refusal to cooperate with the formal investigation – to this day, he has not even bothered to deny the accusation against him.
It is, nevertheless, hard to understand why there was a delay in early October to excise references to “the Mayor’s failure to deny the allegation upon which he chose not to comment at all”, when this rather embarrassing detail appears in minutes released this month. This decision was in all likelihood the work of some of the Mayor's slavishly loyal lieutenants on the committee, but as the discussions were held in secret, it is impossible to know for certain.
Even before the committee's decision was made, the question of what sanction it might recommend was always, of course, largely irrelevant. It was never likely they would adopt my tongue-in-cheek suggestion of 'anger management classes' and anyway, apart from a letter to Wales with advice on his conduct, which the Hearing Sub-Committee has asked the council's Monitor Officer to write, there are always few options available when a complaint involves an elected Mayor. His unwillingness to engage with or even acknowledge the investigation suggests any advice will disappear straight into the waste basket.
Nevertheless, what is significant is the decision itself: one of London's most powerful and imperious Labour politicians has received his first slap on the wrist in recent memory. For years, Wales has cultivated the idea that he is completely unassailable and therefore someone whose displeasure people should fear. It has worked too, I've seen it for myself both internally and amongst those who have to deal with the council. Even recently, I've been told by sympathetic insiders of threats that are a variant on “you'll never work in this town again”.
The trouble is, the notion of Sir Robin Wales' impregnability has been successfully undermined: amongst the many impressive achievements of the wonderful Focus E15 Mothers, this is perhaps the most unlikely, but it's true. It may only represent a first step, but I hope it encourages others in future who believe they have been poorly treated by the Mayor or those surrounding him to feel that it is finally worthwhile making a complaint that someone will listen to.
Maybe, too, if the Mayor ever decides to bang the table, shout down local people, issue threats or browbeat members of staff, he'll start to wonder whether his words have been secretly recorded, as evidence for a Standards Advisory Committee that has actually displayed some backbone.
The Investigation Report remains a (local) state secret, but you can see the Decision Notice here