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Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): I have to inform the House that in the Division for leave to bring in a ten-minute Bill this afternoon, we reported that the votes for the Ayes were 163. They were in fact 154.
Tony Baldry (Banbury): This is the petition of the residents of the villages of Arncott and Piddington in my constituency, supported by people in neighbouring villages and the town of Bicester. The petitioners object to the proposal by the Home Office to build an accommodation centre for asylum seekers on land vacated by the Ministry of Defence. They are concerned that the proposal to locate an asylum seekers' accommodation centre in Bicester is not in the interests of the asylum seekers themselves and they are alarmed that the centre will overwhelm local communities. The petition has been signed by almost every single resident of the villages of Arncott, Piddington and Blackthorn and is supported by people in neighbouring Bicester. The petition states:
Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford): I am grateful to have secured this short debate on a matter that is of considerable importance to many of my constituents in Bedford and Kempstown and to other residents of the borough of Bedford, some of whom are represented by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), whom I am pleased to see in his place.
The matters that I wish to bring to the attention of the House arise from events that took place within Bedford borough council during and after the counting of the votes at the district council elections in May 2000. I do not wish to dwell on the detail, but it is necessary to outline the context before I come to the substantive issues.
Bedford borough council is a hung councilno party has had overall control for 15 years or so. For the past two years, councillors have failed to elect a leader of the council, which has inevitably led to a situation in which responsibility for decisions is not transparent, there is no clear accountability and little openness, the chief executive has developed a very powerful influence among councillors, and personalities rather than politics have become predominant.
After the declaration of the result for the Brickhill ward in Bedford at the May 2000 electionsa result that delivered a narrow victory for the Conservative candidate over the sitting Liberal Democrat councillorit was discovered that 86 postal votes had not been opened and had therefore not been counted. The ballot papers were subsequently openedthe following day, I believeby an officer of the council acting on the prior advice of the council's solicitor. Candidates and agents were not present, but were later told that the informally counted postal votes did not alter the result.
Ten days or so later, a Liberal Democrat councillor suggested to the chief executive and the council's solicitor that the council should, under rule 47 of the local election principal areas rules, ask the county court to order a recount of the ballot papers. The officers agreed to do that. The hearing took place on 23 and 24 May 2000. On both occasions, it was adjourned. At some point later the council discontinued its action.
Immediately after the hearings, the local Conservative party agent issued a news release, claiming maladministration by the borough council for pursuing a misconceived application under rule 47. That procedure is designed for election agents who represent candidates, not returning officers. The content of the news release contributed to the coverage of the Brickhill election count in a local weekly free newspaper called Bedfordshire on Sunday.
Three senior council officersthe chief executive, the council's solicitor and the council's employed lawyersued the Conservative agent and local Sunday newspapers for defamation. The complaints were about the Conservative party news release and two articles published by Bedfordshire on Sunday. The case was heard in the High Court in February before a leading libel judge, Mr. Justice Gray.
The council's solicitor and lawyer lost all their claims. The chief executive lost on two counts and won on two, and was awarded £27,000 damages because the judge ruled that the news release had wrongly alleged political bias on the chief executive's part. The claimants were ordered to pay 80 per cent. of the costs to the defendants. The amount is likely to be £400,000 to £450,000.
The important point is that the complaints were private actions that Bedford borough council supported and maintained from the start. The council's executive committee met on 7 June 2000 and, in private session, received a report from officers advising the committee that the council had to support and maintain the private libel actions under its duty of care to its employees. Councillors apparently considered legal advice to the effect that because the three officers were criticised for actions undertaken in the course of their duties, the council could face legal claims for dereliction of its duty of care if it did not agree to support them.
The all-party committee duly agreed to support the libel actions. It agreed that the costs of the intended claims should be financed from the contingency reserve. Furthermore, on 14 February 2001, the executive committee agreed to take out insurance of £50,000 to cover up to £250,000 costs should the private libel actions prove unsuccessful. Again, the public were excluded from the meeting. In the event, the council did not purchase the policy, and decided to self-insure out of the contingency reserve. The bill, as I said, will exceed £400,000.
On 6 March this year, the executive committee agreed to support and maintain the council's solicitor and lawyer if they were successful in seeking leave to appeal against the judgment. Full council has yet to endorse that position, but if an appeal is made, and if it is unsuccessful, the costs to the public purse in Bedford borough will naturally be substantially higher.
Bedford borough council has agreed to use public money to maintain private libel actions. It has also committed staff time and resources in support for many months. It has justified that under its duty of care to employees.
I am deeply disturbed by the situation, which has serious and wide-ranging implications. The obligations and responsibilities associated with the duty of care do not include maintaining private libel actions initiated by employees. Duty of care, as I understand it, covers matters such as safeguarding health and safety, dealing promptly with grievances, taking reasonable care, and acting in good faith.
I do not believe that any case law suggests that duty of care extends to funding private libel action. I do not believe that an employment tribunal in the land would consider any failure to sponsor such action to be a fundamental breach of the contract of employment. Councils can and do fund prosecutions when employees have been assaulted in the course of their duties, but there appears to be no duty of care to fund libel actions. However, given the contrary position adopted by Bedford borough council, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider for the avoidance of doubt whether the Government's advice to local authorities on such matters should be reviewed.
Public criticism of an officer or councillor may sometimes be harsh and unfair, but that is an occupational hazard. The more senior the individual in an organisation, the better one would expect that to be understood. If a council considers a particular instance worthy of an investigation and a reasonable response, it has the means to pursue such a course of action; supporting and maintaining a defamation action is clearly beyond reasonable. That being the case, it is perhaps unsurprising that English local authorities have only twice sued for damages, in 1891 and 1972.
I hope that my hon. Friend will agree with me that local authorities should not maintain and support libel actions directly or indirectly. I hope that he will also agree that such actions cannot be in the public interest, that they would undermine freedom of speech in our country, that they form no part of duty of care, and that they must therefore be stopped once and for all.