A NORTHUMBERLAND councillor spoke of “deep concerns” about the local authority’s complaints procedures as two of Northumberland’s most senior politicians were cleared of misconduct.

Independent investigations have found no wrongdoing by either John Riddle or Richard Wearmouth, two members of the county’s Conservative cabinet, following complaints made by the council’s chief executive and head of HR.

The complaints, dating back to October 2020, came amid turbulent months of high controversy at the council – with clashes between senior officers and elected councillors, CEO Daljit Lally being placed on leave, and ex-council leader Peter Jackson deposed.

The findings of external probes into the two Tory councillors were presented to members of the authority’s standards committee on Thursday.

But a Labour representative told colleagues she had “deep concerns” over the high-profile matters not being deferred until worries over the committee’s political balance had been resolved.

Nine county councillors currently sit on the committee, five of whom are Conservatives, but the total is due to be cut to eight.

The Tories lost their majority on the council in December after the Lib Dems emerged victorious in the Hexham East by-election, though they remain the largest party.

Coun. Dunn said that delaying discussion of the complaint reports was the only option “if this council wants to show it is carrying out its standards duties correctly”.

The Lynemouth councillor added: “I think it would be highly inappropriate and cast doubt if these were heard today while the committee operates in limbo.”

The committee was told that other serious complaint issues, in which breaches of the council’s code of conduct have been found, have been held back until the proportionality issue is resolved.

But Neil Masson, the council’s senior legal manager, said that because investigators found no breaches by Coun. Wearmouth or Coun. Riddle, who represents Bellingham, the matters could be disposed of without any further action being taken and without needing the approval of the standards committee.

After being told that the two complaint reports were being presented for information only, the committee then held a further discussion regarding the investigations in a private section of the meeting from which the press and public were excluded.

Both complaints were made by Mrs Lally and HR director Kelly Angus, who alleged that Coun. Riddle had: 

  • Behaved in a way which was disrespectful and / or sexist towards officers of the fire service;
  • Interfered within the recruitment process for a senior fire officer;
  • Been involved with a land transaction related to the council in which he had a personal interest;
  • Brought his office into disrepute by interfering into matters related to planning applications;
  • Sought to use his position to prevent or interfere with an investigation into members of his family by the children’s services department of the council and Northumbria Police.

However, the investigator found that the fire service issues were “not regarded as something of complaint by those who were involved”, there was no evidence of interference in planning matters, and that his involvement had no effect on the children’s services investigation.

The land transaction issue was deemed “de minimis”, meaning too small to be meaningful or taken into consideration.

Coun. Wearmouth was alleged to have:

  • Treated officers in a disrespectful manner and, as a result, failed to ensure that the affairs of council development company Advance Northumberland were properly managed, resulting in financial exposure and negative publicity for Advance and the council;
  • Breached obligations with regards to confidentiality, in particular with regards to disclosure of information related to the British Volt development in Cambois;
  • Interfered with a development project at Ashington commissioned by the previous administration.

The investigating officer found that, while there were “substantial differences of opinion” between Coun. Wearmouth and Mrs Lally over Advance, “attention was given by him to points raised by her” and it had “not been demonstrated that Coun. Wearmouth treated issues that were raised in such a manner as to amount to treating the officers involved with disrespect.”

Regarding the alleged breach of confidentiality, the report concluded that the information given by Cllr Wearmouth was already in the public domain.