Two prominent Torbay councillors – one of them the wife of Torbay’s Tory MP – have been blasted by an independent investigator after a “chaotic” council meeting. Cllr David Thomas, the leader of the Tory group on Torbay Council, was found to have breached the council’s code of conduct while fellow Conservative Cllr Hazel Foster, the wife of Torbay MP and Government Minister Kevin Foster, was said to have bullied a council official.
Guy Henderson www.devonlive.com
Reports at the time said the meeting had echoes of the “Jackie Weaver” incident at Handforth Parish Council in Cheshire that went viral last year. The investigation report, which has been published on the council’s own website, will be considered by the council’s standards hearing sub-committee next week.
Cllr Foster told the Herald Express she would be making a statement to her hearing next Tuesday and declined to comment further. Cllr Thomas will go before the sub-committee on Friday May 13.
The investigation followed a meeting of the council’s housing crisis review panel last September, a meeting chaired by Cllr Foster, which Devon Live reported at the time had “descended into disarray”. Members engaged in a fierce hour-long debate over who could or could not be a member of the panel, with the political make-up of the panel the main issue, and at one point a council clerk became “visibly distressed”.
One councillor said the clerk had been “upset and crying”. Six councillors complained – five Liberal Democrats and one Independent – as well as the council’s director of place Kevin Mowat, sparking the investigation.
According to the report Cllr Foster, who was elected to the council in May 2019, was found to have breached Torbay’s own code of conduct five times during the meeting, on matters including not treating others with respect; bullying or harrassing a person and attempting to use her position improperly. The report says she also breached the code’s rulings on bringing her office or the council itself into disrepute.
The investigator said there was insufficient evidence to rule on two other possible breaches of the code. The meeting on September 27 was streamed online, and a copy of the recording was used in the investigation.
The report says: “Throughout the meeting, Cllr Foster appeared focused on and determined to take a vote on membership of the panel. The meeting was at times heated and this is what led to the complaints against Cllr Foster.”
It later says: “Throughout the meeting there are several examples where Cllr Foster appeared to dismiss the opinion of others and at times refused to allow others to speak. The clerk was clearly very distressed and yet no attempt was made by Cllr Foster to rectify the situation or even show any concern or empathy.
“In addition to this, Cllr Foster appeared to ignore the comments made by other officers and other councillors who did not agree with the process being suggested by her. The fact six councillors and an officer of the council all complained shows the strength of concern over the disrespect shown by Cllr Foster.
“I consider that Cllr Foster has not treated officers or fellow members with respect.” When interviewed for the investigation, Cllr Foster said she felt she was herself being bullied by officers.
Among the complaints was a claim Cllr Foster had used her position to give an advantage to the Conservative group, which had been a breach of the code. The report also says Cllr Foster had brought her own office and the council into disrepute.
It states: “There was a clear lack of concern for the officers in attendance, with the clerk being visibly upset and a senior officer being ignored and told he could not speak.” Cllr Thomas faced nine complaints around his conduct at the same meeting, and was found to have breached the code twice, in attempting to use his position improperly to secure an advantage or disadvantage, and bringing his office or the council into disrepute.
The investigator notes: “I am of the opinion Councillor Thomas acted in a blunt, straight-talking manner, as is clearly his way. This approach might be difficult to accept at times (and he might wish to consider how his approach comes across to others) though this of itself would not breach the code.
“People are familiar with his style and there is nothing in any of his individual remarks during the meeting that I would regard as crossing the line between plain speaking and being disrespectful.” It will now be up to the sub-committee at its meetings next week to decide if Cllrs Foster and Thomas have in fact breached the code of conduct.