A Herts council leader has said she can now “move on” after allegedly “leaking” the contents of a private conversation to the press. North Herts Council leader Elizabeth Dennis-Harburg (Hitchin Walsworth) will remain in post after facing calls to resign.
An independent reviewer found she had a “case to answer” over standards in public life. In January 2022, the Labour leader of the authority told The Comet and Hitchin Nub News that the Conservative Group had opposed a cap on attendance at council meetings at a time when Covid-19 was rife. It is against council rules to disclose the contents of internal council meetings without the consent of the people involved.
Leader of the opposition Claire Strong (Hitchwood, Offa and Hoo) fronted the bid to oust Cllr Dennis-Harburg as leader at a meeting on Tuesday, April 18. But councillors quashed the motion 19 votes to 14, with a single abstention. Reacting to the decision, Cllr Dennis-Harburg told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “I am relieved that I have no longer got this hanging over my head.
“Today’s vote gives the council clarity and certainty as we move on. My focus is now on the elections, and getting on with the work we need to do to continue delivering on the priorities of people in North Herts.” In the meeting, Cllr Strong said: “This motion is about standards in public life following the report to the standards committee about a complaint against a member of this council.
“There was a case to answer that the leader had breached the code of conduct, and that she brought the office of leader into disrepute. This case dates back to January 2022, which should have given the leader plenty of time to consider her position and leave office.”
Cllr Strong added: “What I witnessed in that January meeting at what I witnessed in press statements and on Twitter was not ‘leading by example’.” Conservative councillor for Letchworth Grange Morgan Derbyshire originally made the complaint against Cllr Dennis-Harburg.
The standards case was closed when the leader of the council issued an apology on December 5, 2022. Cllr Derbyshire said: “Regardless of the apology, it doesn’t excuse the leader for damaging the office of the leader.” Cllr Gerald Morris, Conservative councillor for Ermine, said: “We do not do this job thinking it will be an easy ride.
“Most of us do it because, in our own little way, we want to make North Hertfordshire a better place. Much of the code of conduct is obvious, especially confidentiality and the importance of the code is spelt out to us very clearly by officers… The problem now for officers and members is that in future, both may have to be careful when disclosing confidential information, wondering if the councillor has had a bad day, wondering if confidential information could again find its way into the public realm.”
Deputy leader of the council Ruth Brown, Liberal Democrat councillor for Royson Heath, said: “We were assured by an independent person this [case] was thoroughly and impartially investigated, that it was done independently, and that the conclusion was there was an error of judgement, but that an apology would suffice. An apology was given and the case was closed.
“As far as I’m concerned as chair of the standards committee, this case has been thoroughly investigated and it was closed, and I am disappointed we are still debating it.” She added: “If you have never made an error of judgement, then support this motion.
“But if you have ever made an error of judgement amid the myriad of statements and decisions that a leader of the council has to put out – if this is the only error that has been found in the years Elizabeth has been leader, she’s done very well.” Labour councillor for Hitchin Oughton, Cllr Nigel Mason, said: “In politics as in life, context is all.
“To pass judgement on this matter, one has to place oneself not in this chamber here tonight, but here in January 2022, two years into the Covid-19 pandemic and at the height of the Omicron variant. A time when Covid was rife, and just a month after we lost our colleague Paul Clark to the virus.
“When that January meeting went ahead, I was sat at the back of the chamber, jammed in next to colleagues separated only by some Blue Peter-esque DIY barriers for social distancing, sat next to councillors wearing the best PPE they could get their hands on. Meanwhile, other councillors of all parties were forced by ill health or clinical vulnerability to absent themselves. Because of the lack of any agreement on proportionality, it meant they or their constituents were disenfranchised.”
In her original apology, Cllr Dennis-Harburg said: “By way of an explanation, but not as an excuse, I want to make clear that at the time, I was deeply distressed by the death of my deputy leader, Cllr Paul Clark, who passed away due to Covid-19 in December 2021.” She added: “I felt that a decision to hold a meeting with all members in attendance could pose a serious health risk due to the rise in numbers of those infected with Covid-19 at the time. However, I fully accept that, as set out in the external investigator’s report. I should not have disclosed confidential information to Hitchin Nub News and The Comet. “