Out of court pay-off 'not a guilt admission', say Wigan Council
Wigan Council has paid out tens of thousands of pounds to a former councillor in a defamation dispute.
The local authority reached an out-of-court settlement with Jim Ellis, who was an independent representative for Hindley ward, over comments made about him in the press by chief executive Donna Hall.
The case was due to be heard at the High Court in London in December but a few weeks before the trial the town hall instead agreed to the settlement.
Confusion remained today as to what the payment signified, with Mr Ellis saying he had won while the council said it was not admission of guilt but a way to save taxpayers’ money through costly court proceedings.
The case involves allegations, which Mr Ellis has always strongly denied, that he secretly recorded town hall staff and then used what he had captured to “threaten and intimidate” them.
Neither the council nor Mr Ellis would be drawn on the size of the pay-out but it is believed to be in the lower regions of a five-figure sum.
However, the payment appears to have done nothing to dampen the flames in the row, with Wigan Council sending a strongly-worded statement in which it defended its actions and attacked Mr Ellis once more, even repeating the allegations that prompted the legal action in the first place.
That provoked a furious response from the ex-councillor, who described the local authority’s attitude as “unbelievable” and “scandalous”.
Speaking after news of the settlement broke, Mr Ellis said the case raised questions about Ms Hall as he claimed there had been serious breaches of the processes which are normally used to investigate concerns about an elected representative.
He said: “What wants questioning is that she [Donna Hall] can do this. She is governed by codes of conduct and if she can’t follow the code how can she expect anybody else to do it? Yet the council can pay for it and she can carry on.
“I don’t see why she has this need to control everybody and exceed her brief.
“They’ve driven a coach and horses through the code of conduct, which clearly states complaints against a councillor become confidential and shouldn’t be disclosed until there’s a resolution. The rules covering disclosure to newspapers are quite specific.
“She will not print a retraction and will not apologise. It’s absolutely scandalous.”
Wigan Council’s response to the payment, however, suggested saying sorry or admitting wrongdoing were far from the minds of town hall bosses as it said it only stopped short of heading to court in order to avoid spending public money.
In a joint statement council leader Lord Peter Smith and GMB trade union representative David Hope said: “At Wigan Council we believe all of our staff have the right to be treated fairly and with respect while at work.
“As an employer it is our duty to ensure these standards are met and we take this duty very seriously.
“Unfortunately this view isn’t shared by everyone, including the former councillor, Jim Ellis. Audio recording staff for political reasons is completely inappropriate.
“Staff should be allowed to do their job without fear of being threatened or intimated. This act is a breach of basic human rights.
“When we are made aware of these actions we alert staff. We stand by our decision to alert them on this occasion.
“Unfortunately we’ve been advised that defending staff in court would be more costly, so in order to save money we have no choice but to settle outside of court to keep costs to taxpayers to a minimum.”
Mr Ellis issued an angry retort to this, saying: “The simple facts are, I sued the council for defamation, they paid both costs and damages to end the action.
“To the man in the street the person who gets paid costs and damages has won their case.”