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Monday, November 29, 2004

 

The rottenest borough

The 'Speechley Affair' in my home county of Lincolnshire is a major political scandal, yet it has so far received coverage only in the local media, the municipal trade press and the 'Rotten Boroughs' column in Private Eye. It is an appalling tale of corruption by a group of Conservative councillors and it deserves wider coverage.

At the centre of this scandal is Jim Speechley, a Tory councillor on Lincolnshire County Council and former leader of the council. A brief chronology of the affair is
here. Far more background than I can include here can be found simply by going to the website of the local evening paper, the Lincolnshire Echo, and putting the word 'Speechley' into the search box.

The key event was Speechley's conviction this April for misconduct. He was jailed for 18 months, having been charged with trying to influence the route of a road improvement scheme near his home in Crowland, in south Lincolnshire, to gain personal advantage from a field he owned. Had he succeeded, the value of his land would have increased ten-fold.

This case was merely the tip of the iceberg. An external auditor's report, published by KPMG in May 2002 after a two-year investigation, revealed a catalogue of malpractice and a "climate of fear" among council staff. Despite this report, and a
brave campaign by the Lincolnshire Echo, the Tories on Lincolnshire County Council re-elected Speechley as their group leader.

The case was raised in a House of Commons
adjournment debate by Lincoln's Labour MP Gillian Merron on 12 June 2002. It was also reported by Labour MEP Phillip Whitehead in an amusing article in the Lincolnshire Echo the same month. Read both these accounts and weep.

Speechley did not resign as leader until September 2002. He finally appeared at Sheffield Crown Court in February 2004, charged with the road diversion scam. In April, he was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison. His conviction followed a two-year police investigation involving four officers and an eight-week trial, in which Speechley was represented on legal aid. The investigation and trial cost taxpayers more than £2 million.

The Lincolnshire Tories, far from feeling chastened, decided to wreak vengeance. Speechley's close ally and successor as council leader, Ian Croft, tried to force out the council's chief executive David Bowles, whose whistleblowing had helped bring Speechley to trial. Giving evidence during the trial, Bowles described Speechley as "the most deceitful and dishonest person I have ever had to work with." Bowles eventually left the council's employment this September, in a settlement that cost the county council £400,000 plus hefty legal costs.

As if this were not enough, Croft faced a decision by the Lincolnshire Police Authority, of which he is a member, to refer to the Standards Board for England an allegation that he had brought the authority into disrepute, allegedly for blaming 'council systems' for Speechley's jailing rather than condemning Speechley's conduct.

An attempt this May to topple Croft as Tory group leader failed; Croft won the backing of his group by 21 votes to 17, having ignored appeals by Conservative Central Office to step down. Meanwhile, Speechley, despite being in prison, refused to resign as a councillor pending an appeal. He was given leave to appeal at the end of July. On 16 August, after 135 days in prison (a quarter of his sentence), he was released, having been fitted with an electronic tag and made subject to supervision by a probation officer and a 7pm to 7am curfew.

On 20 August, Speechley turned up at a special meeting of Lincolnshire County Council, which had been convened before his release to decide whether he should be disqualified from holding office because of non-attendance. Speechley's attendance rendered the debate academic; he would be allowed to remain a councillor until his appeal was heard. This was, incidentally, the first known occasion in Britain where a councillor has attended a meeting wearing an electronic tag.

In September this year came the news that the Audit Commission would be conducting a Corporate Governance Inspection into the circumstances surrounding the departure of David Bowles. This is a rarely used procedure and indicative of the severity of the situation. It could lead to a suspension of the administration and the government taking over control of the council. The inspectors arrived on 15 November for a week of investigations and their report is expected before the elections next May.

The same week, on 16 November, Speechley's appeal went before the Court of Appeal in London. The appeal was thrown out on 17 November and Speechley finally resigned as a councillor on 18 November. The court upheld Speechley's 18-month sentence and warned that he could have been given a longer prison term.

Speechley's close ally Ian Croft remains leader of Lincolnshire County Council, despite his unyielding support for Speechley and all the criticism that has been heaped on his head. In the next few months, Croft can look forward to the verdicts of two inquiries (the Audit Commission and a separate internal inquiry), plus a likely hearing before the Standards Board's adjudication panel.

What stinks most about this case is the sheer brass neck of the Lincolnshire Tories. No amount of damning reports or criminal convictions seems to knock them off course, or even give them pause. Their arrogance and corruption continues unabated. This attitude stems from the feudal culture that persists in much of rural Lincolnshire, which was by-passed by the industrial revolution. Rural Tory landowners remain a law unto themselves and think they have a perfect right to bully and cheat other people.

If there were any justice, the whole Conservative group would be thrown out in next May's county council elections. Unfortunately, for the third time in a row, these elections are likely to coincide with a general election and any local issues will take a backseat to the national political agenda.

That is why Liberals should help make a national issue of this case, to remind the electorate of how low some Tories can sink.


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