Messier and messier – Somerset poll latest
The poll asking people to give a view on the future of local government in Somerset is turning into a feeding frenzy. Starting with the delayed posting of ballot papers. Culminating in the infamous leaflet referring voters to a One Somerset spoof website.
Yesterday two letter went out to the four leaders of the district councils. One from the Secretary of State Robert Jenrick. Mr Jenrick has been against this poll from the outset. But in the past few days various MPs have written to him saying “it’s not my fault – he done it not me”. Under the circumstances, the Secretary of State’s letter contains few surprises. He demands that the leaders of the district councils apologise to those “affected by the offensive remarks in the spoof site.“
He asks for assurances that “whatever circumstances have led to this failure in poll administration, I would ask for your unambiguous assurance that you have now put in place arrangements to ensure that any information or material your council circulates in future will be wholly compliant with the Code.” The latter being the Code of Recommended Practise on Local Authority Publicity.
Having already warned of this before the poll, the Secretary of State finished with a veiled threat. Well it is not very veiled. He warns that there are no serious value for money implications. He hints darkly that these should (i think he means “must”) be discussed with the external auditors.
Meanwhile a further letter has gone out to the district council leaders from Pat Flaherty. He is Chief Executive of Somerset County Council. As someone else against the poll and in favour of One Somerset, again the letter is predictable. His claim that the error in referencing the spoof website is “your error” will surprise no-one. The same can be said for his noting it “is completely unacceptable, has corrupted your own poll and renders the outcome invalid.”
So far so predictable. However one of the claims he makes is interesting and bears repetition and further investigation. “You shared your initial draft packs with me on April 30th and I wrote to you to say that the County Council would have nothing to do with the poll. At no point did I comment on, or approve the wording of the poll question, the content of the supporting leaflets and any web addresses referred to. As I have consistently said, the Poll question and content of the leaflets is biased and seeks to deliberately mislead the residents of Somerset. I can now see that you made nine
changes to the text in the supporting leaflets between the version you sent to me and the final version sent to electors.“
Now this is interesting. Who made the changes to the leaflet after it was shown to Mr Flaherty. We have been assured this was an independent exercise conducted solely by lawyers with no input from the district councils. It would be helpful to see an unambiguous statement from the district councils about these alterations. They need to now confirm that:
- either Mr Flaherty is mistaken as to the fact that nine alterations were made
- or confirm that no members of district council staff made them
This is as we have suggested several times, a shambles. But this is not a time for councils to start suing each other. Especially as that would be at the public’s expense. Dark threats about defamation are all very well, but perhaps it is time for the headmaster to restore order. Surely this has gone far enough? All it has achieved is to bring local government in Somerset into disrepute.