Wigan councillor found guilty of slurs in local election

A Wigan politician will be asked to apologise after a probe found he falsely claimed a political rival had been 'voted the worst councillor in  Salford.'

Monday, 3rd December 2018, 8:41 am
Updated Wednesday, 5th December 2018, 1:20 pm
Councillor Bob Brierley

Bob Brierley – a councillor in Wigan – was judged to have breached the town hall’s code of conduct for claims made in an election leaflet.

The independent politician also wrongly stated Gena Merrett – a former assistant mayor in Salford – had been ‘dismissed from being a teacher’, a hearing was told.

Both claims, written as part of a supporting letter for a ward colleague’s election material, were ‘100 per cent fake and untrue’ – and amounted to a ‘personal, vicious attack’, an independent investigator said.

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Coun Brierley accused the standards committee of holding a ‘kangaroo court’ and said the town hall had failed to follow the correct procedure in dealing with the complaint.

He left the hearing and did not return having voiced his concerns to the panel, before the main body of the meeting was underway.

Directly addressing the council’s video camera, he said he was facing ‘false charges’ and the ‘illegal’ hearing was a ‘disgrace’.

When proceedings restarted, independent investigator Linda Comstive told the hearing Dr Merrett – a former headteacher and education advisor – was a candidate in this year’s local elections, standing for the Labour Party in Hindley Green.

She had complained to the town hall about Coun Brierley’s ‘supporting letter’ for then independent candidate Paul Maiden, now a councillor, which had been distributed to households in the ward.

Dr Merrett said it was ‘just a lie’ she had been voted the worst councillor in Salford.

On the second false allegation, she told the panel: “What do you think when you think someone has been sacked as a teacher? You think ‘oh my god, what’ve they done?’

“It went out really late, in the last two or three weeks so it was difficult to counter it.”

Dr Merrett told members it became apparent during later canvassing in the lead up to election day that some had believed the contents of the letter, but she said ‘she will never know’ if it influenced the final result.

She said: “For me, it’s not about what he’s done to me, which is a point because he’s defamed my character and it could have impacted on my ability to work as an educational advisor, but it’s the fact, in my opinion, he has defrauded the people of Hindley Green, he has lied to the very people he was elected to serve.”

The claims were repeated on social media leading to Dr Merrett being subjected to abusive comments online, the panel was told.

Asked by Coun Mike Winstanley if she would have made the complaint if she had won the election, Dr Merrett said: “Absolutely. I would have made the complaint anyway because, yes, I lost an election, I was disappointed on the night, I’ll move on from that, but this is about other people standing in those positions.”

Ms Comstive said: “He [Coun Brierley] wanted to blacken Dr Merrett’s name and ensure she was given a very bad reputation before people went out to vote.”

She added: “It’s not political rough and tumble, it’s a personal, vicious attack on a woman. It needs to be stamped out and I regard it as very serious.”

Ms Comstive also told the panel that Coun Brierley had not provided evidence to support his allegations which are ‘100 per cent fake’ and ‘potentially defamation’.

His references to the council procedure not being followed were a ‘red herring’, she said.

The investigation had considered posts made on a Facebook group, but Ms Comstive had found Coun Brierley was not responsible, the panel heard.

The panel – made up of one Conservative and two Labour members and an independent person – found Coun Brierley was acting as a councillor in relation to the comments in the letter.

He had therefore breached the code of conduct in relation to bullying and abusive behaviour, bringing the office of councillor into disrepute and misuse of position as an elected member, members said.

He will be asked to apologise to Dr Merrett in writing and the letter – once agreed with the council’s monitoring officer – will be made public, the panel ruled.

The committee also recommended that the monitoring officer be asked whether there are any additional ‘administrative measures that could be put in place’ to curtail Coun Brierley’s ‘use of officers’ time and council resources’.

Coun Brierley, who has been the subject of three standards committee hearings in the last two months, had earlier questioned why the council had conducted its own investigation when complaints regarding the election process should be dealt with by the police.

Dr Merrett reported the content of the letter but the police had chosen not to proceed, she had later told the hearing.

The panel was told, however, that council legal officers and the standards committee’s independent person had found there were grounds for a code of conduct investigation.

Coun Brierley, an independent member for Hindley Green, had been joined by several residents who had gathered outside Leigh Sports Village before the hearing with placards reading ‘This is not impartial’ and ‘Stop Wigan Labours Kangaroo Courts (sic).’

Before leaving the proceedings, Coun Brierley, addressing the council’s video camera, said: “I’d like it on record…I’m following the correct procedure, I’ve received documentation with not my name on it, for a kangaroo court hearing, public money being squandered.

“Thousands of pounds with investigating officers on false charges. I’m going. You’ll be hearing from whoever regarding this issue.

“If any procedures are carried out after I leave the room, you will be in serious consequences of misconduct in public office because you are not following the correct procedure of standards.”