71: Standards In Public Life: Is it STILL all a matter of perception?



Re-written blog article, originally published on 12th December 2015.

As the result of a Code of Conduct Complaint submitted by me, Keith Barrow was found guilty of a serious breach of Shropshire Council’s Code of Conduct.

At the time it was reported in some quarters that…

In accordance with the Council’s procedure for the resolution of findings of a failure to comply with the Code of Conduct, Members of the [Standards] Sub-Committee were satisfied that the proposed apology and commitment of Councillor Barrow to undertake training represented a reasonable outcome without the need to hold a formal hearing.

For the record, as is obvious from the Shropshire Star article, he didn’t actually make a public apology but he did resign as Chairman of the council-owned trading company, ip&e, which he had established. A week later he resigned as the Conservative councillor for Oswestry South, ending his tenure as Leader of Shropshire Council, a post he’d held since the authority became a unitary one in 2009.

In fact I had the final choice whether the matter should be taken further or whether it should be dealt with “in house”. I chose the latter because Keith Barrow had been found guilty of something I hadn’t actually accused him of!

I’ll give you some of the back-story because it has significance for the electorate of Shropshire who have a justifiable expectation that their elected representatives are seen to promote and maintain the highest values of public office, observing standards that are, by any measure, beyond reproach.

Now I’m going to have to take a step back here because events began to merge, confusing the chronology, so bear with me.

Keith Barrow was a partner in Peakfast, a company that existed solely to hold interest in land immediately adjacent to a potential development site in Morda, just outside Oswestry. Setting aside the propriety of the Leader of the Local Planning Authority owning a share in a potential development site whose value was wholly dependent on decisions made by the Local Planning Authority that he led, of far greater significance than Peakfast’s ownership of that land was the link between Keith Barrow and one of his fellow partners in Peakfast, Tony Mathews, who just happened to be the principle partner in accountants DRE of Oswestry, a potentially beneficial interest (known as a ‘pecuniary interest’) that Keith Barrow failed to declare at crucial times during the process that led to DRE being appointed as independent auditors of ip&e, a failure that not only breached Shropshire Council’s Code of Conduct but breached the guidelines of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW).

It was the link between Keith Barrow and Tony Mathews that was the basis of my complaint, the breach of the guidelines of the ICAEW, not what was subsequently revealed to the independent solicitor investigating my Code of Conduct Complaint: the non-disclosure of Keith Barrow’s pecuniary interest in the mutual business dealings with Tony Mathews during the appointment of Peakfast as ip&e’s auditors.

My written Member’s Question to Full Council questioned the propriety of DRE’s appointment as auditors to ip&e, I never for one moment believed that ANYONE, let alone an experienced businessman like Keith Barrow, Leader of the local authority that ‘owned’ the company he was chairman of, would be stupid enough NOT to declare that pecuniary interest prior to a meeting of ip&e’s directors to select the accounting firm that would become ip&e’s auditors.

My question was in fact intended to give Keith Barrow the opportunity to put the record straight. This is the first time the original Member’s Question has appeared in print…

Given the extent of public disquiet surrounding the creation of ip&e would Council agree that, purely in the interests of probity, the appointment of auditors for ip&e should have been on the basis of competitive tender from companies throughout the county, rather than on the basis of what could unfairly be interpreted as a long-standing personal and professional relationship with a director of ip&e?

[Note: I subsequently stated in the phone call to Claire Porter (in response to her voicemail to me) that, had the question gone through, I wanted “probity” to be replaced with “prudent accounting practice”.]

It was in that exchange with the Head of Legal & Democratic Services that the suggestion that a formal Code of Conduct Complaint would be a more appropriate vehicle – “given the seriousness of my allegations” – to address the issue I’d raised.

Who was I to argue?

As to the eventual outcome? Of considerable significance was the subsequent testimonies to the independent investigating solicitor by directors and senior council officers involved in ip&e that, despite Keith Barrow’s failing to formally declare his connection with DRE and Tony Mathews, they insisted that Keith Barrow had never “influenced” the process that led to DRE being chosen over the other three candidate firms who had tendered for the contract. They were, in effect, expecting us to accept that they were ignorant of the distinction between a sin of omission and a sin of commission.

In that sense, Keith Barrow did not act alone.