Councillor rapped for online slurs

Gareth Fairhurst
Gareth Fairhurst

A COUNCILLOR who posted “defamatory” allegations about why a Wigan chamber colleague lost his job will be asked to formally apologise.

A standards committee investigation yesterday upheld a complaint by former postman Clive Morgan about statements written on a web forum by Coun Gareth Fairhurst.

Independent investigating officer Mike Dudfield said he found the posts – which suggested Coun Morgan had been sacked for stealing mail and intercepting postal votes – went way beyond freedom of expression.

In a statement, Coun Morgan, a Labour representative for Winstanley, said the “barrage of lies and accusations” had been “a cause of great distress to my family and myself.”

The committee was told that Coun Morgan had been subject to two disciplinary charges against himself and a colleague by Royal Mail in 2011 - that he had misled a manager and that he had finished one shift five minutes early.

Both employees were sacked and an appeal against the decision was also dismissed. An employment tribunal said the pair had not misled their manager but the decision was “within the range of reasonable options for the company manager” regarding the other accusation.

Coun Morgan, who was not present at the hearing, added in a statement: “I believe that my dismissal was deliberate and that I was made a scapegoat. There was no allegation of stealing mail at any stage (and) no reference to any mail involved relating to postal votes.”

The complaint related to November 2012, when Coun Fairhurst - posting as cllr_gareth_fairhurst - wrote on a message-board: “It has been brought to Wigan Council’s attention that a current Labour councillor has been sacked and lost his appeal to get his job back.

“The reason for the sacking is for stealing mail and it has been brought to the attention of the chief executive that it could well be related to postal votes.”

Another writer, using the name mick-dorset, posted: “Which one gareth? I know councillor Morgan was sacked by royal mail last year, for deliberately leaving mail behind so he could finish early to go to a shindig (probably at our expense).

Coun Fairhurst responded, followed by a smiling face emoticon: “You’ve answered your own question Mick, so I am told.”

The committee was presented with information showing that when Coun Fairhurst was first informed of the complaint against him he asked if there was proof that the person posting using his title was actually him.

He later defended his actions to Mr Dudfield by adding that the posts were done in his own time and therefore should not be subject to the council’s code of conduct.

And in a written statement from solicitors William Graham Law Ltd, it was put to the committee that because he was acting in an unofficial capacity, his comments were justifiable under the Human Rights freedom of expression regulations.

The committee was told that Standish Independent Coun Fairhurst had said that he would have corrected his statements if questioned by Coun Morgan but it was explained that the latter was subject to a confidentiality agreement with Royal Mail.

Mr Dudfield dismissed the defences and found that there had been a failure to comply with the council’s code of conduct.

He said: “It is defamatory to suggest that someone has been sacked for doing something that is a criminal offence. It is way beyond freedom of expression. When I first read it I thought it was awful that someone has been accused of something that they have not done.

“I saw the Royal Mail tribunal report and the dismissal had nothing to do with stealing mail.

“Under the previous disciplinary regulations I could be suggesting a short-term suspension but that is no longer an option.”

Committee chair Coun Charles Rigby said Coun Fairhurst would be asked to make a written apology to Coun Morgan and instructed to complete a training scheme relating to his behaviour.