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Sandwell’s shenanigans: will anyone notice?

Sandwell’s shenanigans: will anyone notice?

🕔29.Jan 2018

Chamberlain Files always hesitates to get involved in Black Country politics, having more than enough to contend with on its own doorstep. But the latest shenanigans involving Sandwell Council cannot pass without comment, says Paul Dale.

An incendiary speech in the House of Commons by Halesowen and Rowley Regis Tory MP James Morris must rank as one of the more outspoken attacks on the quality of local government by a member of parliament in recent years.

Describing Sandwell Council as “a den of incompetence, corruption and cronyism”, Mr Morris claimed the local authority had become “a stain on the reputation of the area” and urged the Government to intervene by sending in commissioners to “bring an end to this rotten regime”.

Taking advantage of parliamentary privilege, which permits MPs to say whatever they wish in the Commons without having to worry about the laws of libel, Mr Morris spoke of “the abuse of power by individual councillors and officers, a manipulation of processes and a culture of fear and bullying amongst those who work for and sit on the authority.”

Despite the blustering of Sandwell Council leader Steve Eling, who accused Mr Morris of abusing his position by trotting out a series of “unevidenced allegations”, pretty much all of the MP’s claims have been in the public domain for many months and were the subject of a council inquiry undertaken by lawyers Wragge.

The investigation found:

• The former deputy leader of Sandwell Council, councillor Mahboob Hussain, was involved in the sale of three council-owned toilet blocks to a family friend for £35,000 – when they were worth £130,000. Cllr Hussain has denied any misconduct.
• The inquiry examined the conduct of Councillor Hussain and Councillor Babu Bawa and “found potential collusion and fraudulent practice” over land sales.

Mr Morris highlighted concerns “regarding disposal of a plot of land removed from public auction.” The MP told the Commons:

Even more astonishingly Sandwell Council spent £200,000 on demolition of eight terraced houses and the clearing of the site, for this to be purchased by Councillor Rouf’s son for £65,000 and then granted planning permission for a seven-bedroom house, where Coun Rouf now reportedly lives.

Turning his attention on to the Sandwell Council leader, Mr Morris said Cllr Eling had promised to “drain the swamp” when he took charge in 2016 but had “allowed the swamp to fester, and the smell of corruption and cover up is as strong as ever”.

He then called upon Cllr Eling to resign, an invitation which the council leader unsurprisingly declined.

Cllr Eling’s defence to all of this is that the local authority is pursuing the various allegations through the proper legal channels, but that it is taking a long time to comply with the law relating to council standards.

He said an independent peer review on the Labour-run council’s performance, to be published imminently, would prove Mr Morris wrong.

Cllr Eling told the Birmingham Mail he would be complaining to the Speaker about an alleged breach of parliamentary procedure.

Cllr Eling insisted that delays in processing the complaints could not be blamed on the council.

It’s no good complaining that the standards process takes forever when it is filibustering in Parliament and taking things through the courts that has really caused the delays. It’s in the government’s gift to change it.

According to Cllr Eling, the Peer Review, conducted by the Local Government Association, congratulates the council on its handling of the issue and praises its ‘robust governance process’, including its ‘strong financial’ management. But the review is yet to be published.

A report published today says that widespread and serious failures remain at children’s services in Sandwell, even after failings were highlighted eight years ago. Ofsted even said some services had deteriorated even further within the department, which was already rated inadequate.

A new Children’s Services Trust, headed by former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, will take over running of some services in the need the next few months.

Deputy Labour party leader Tom Watson, MP for West Bromwich East, has also been dragged into the various accusations swirling around Sandwell council. Mr Morris said Mr Watson had been unusually quiet over the issue.

Mr Watson responded:

Mr Morris is perfectly aware that a number of allegations have been made against councillors in Sandwell and that they have been investigated by the ethical standards committee and they will now be dealt with by Labour’s disciplinary procedures in line with party rules.

If he has specific allegations about criminality he must hand them over to the police.

And so, what will happen to Sandwell council as a result of Mr Morris’s outburst? Nothing very much I suspect. The MP has had his moment in the sun, but most of what he had to say amounted to packaging together old news.

That does not make the allegations of corruption any less serious. Clearly, this is a troubled local authority and its failings cannot be helped by the absence of an effective opposition – there are 67 Labour councillors, four Independents, and Cllr Mahoob Hussain who sits as Independent Labour.

The suggestion that Mr Morris somehow abused his position by speaking out in the House of Commons is nonsense. You could hardly expect the Conservatives to take the fight to the Sandwell council chamber – there are no Conservatives.

In any case, the history of party politics is littered with examples of MPs using parliamentary privilege to make a pointy and gain headlines.

Of course, if the Government was remotely interested in the quality of local government it would at the very least order an inquiry. Civil servants and ministers at DCLG must be aware of the blog site mentioned by Mr Morris which almost weekly continues to publish lurid accounts of alleged corruption at Sandwell council.

These allegations are such that Chamberlain Files must respect the laws of libel and cannot repeat them, but they are there for anyone to see and, so far, the council has not moved to close this blog down.

It was noticeable when Mr Morris launched his attack that sitting next to him was Marcus Jones, the MP for Nuneaton and until recently a local government minister. Mr Jones is now a Tory party vice-chairman with responsibility for local government, but unless he can persuade his successor at DCLG to act then Mr Morris’s tirade will have been in vain.

And since it is obvious that this government cares about nothing at the moment other than attempting to hold the Tory party together while the wretched Brexit negotiations continue, it is fair to assume the conduct of Sandwell council will not be high on anyone’s agenda.

Of course, if this had happened a couple of years ago everyone would be jumping up and down about the impact Sandwell’s behaviour might have had on forming a West Midlands Combined Authority and negotiating a devolution deal with the government.

But since devolution no longer really exists, and given that the region’s Labour council leaders are at loggerheads with the Tory mayor, no one at Westminster is going to get stressed about Sandwell dragging the West Midlands into the mire.

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