Politics probe after Labour leaflet inserted in Hartlepool Council documents

The Labour leaflet
The Labour leaflet

A COUNCIL leader is facing an investigation into why political leaflets were distributed as part of local authority documents at a Hartlepool Borough Council-funded event.

Labour councillor Christopher Akers-Belcher admitted he asked for the four-page leaflets, titled Your Hartlepool, Labour Manifesto, to be handed out inside council material at the recent launch of the council’s Hartlepool Youth Investment Project at Hartlepool’s Maritime Experience.

Christopher Akers-Belcher

Christopher Akers-Belcher

But Councillor Jonathan Brash claims its distribution is against local authority regulations as well as the council’s own code of conduct and an investigation is now under way.

Other councillors said their political groups should have been offered a similar opportunity and Coun Akers-Belcher, who said he took full responsibility for the leaflet, is likely to be quizzed by the authority’s chief solicitor.

Coun Akers-Belcher took responsibility for the leaflet, which has also been distributed to households across Hartlepool, and said he was happy to speak to the chief solicitor after the meeting.

But Coun Brash called for a formal investigation to be carried out as to how it happened, which the council’s chief solicitor Peter Devlin agreed to do.

The leaflet sets out Labour’s key goals and aspirations, around the new model of governance at Hartlepool Council, and focuses on children and young people, adult services, regeneration and neighbourhoods.

Coun Brash, who refers to himself as independent Labour but is classed as independent by the council, said the material was handed to him by a business representative who had been at the launch of the Hartlepool Youth Investment Project.

Coun Brash, who asked what guidance was in place regarding publicising political parties, said: “I raise this question because a constituent gave something to me that I was absolutely disgusted by.

“It is a long-held legal position that the council cannot promote any political party. Yet at a Hartlepool Borough Council-funded event, documents from the economic team also included the Hartlepool Labour Party manifesto.

“That is out of order.”

He added: “This local authority does not do the job of political parties.

“I would like to move that this council directs the chief solicitor to see if any laws or code of conduct have been broken.”

Coun Akers-Belcher responded: “I asked for it to be put in.”

He added that the leaflet was paid for by the Hartlepool Constituency Labour Party and outlined the positive changes since the Labour-controlled council took control and said the message in the leaflet was that they were building a “future to be proud of”.

Coun Akers-Belcher added: “I can take responsibility.

“If the chief solicitor says it should not have gone in then I will make sure that it won’t go in again.

“If the chief solicitor wants to speak to me, then fine, I take responsibility for it.”

Coun Brash said it is perfectly legitimate to produce material and said he agreed with most of the manifesto but said it was “not acceptable” to be handed out at a council-funded event and wanted a “formal judgement, not informal advice”.

Putting Hartlepool First councillor Geoff Lilley said other political groups should have been given the opportunity to have their manifestos distributed as well.

Coun Lilley said: “I would have appreciated that we were asked to submit one as well.”

Mr Devlin told councillors: “I will conduct an enquiry and report back to members.”

SIDEBAR:

COUNCILLOR Jonathan Brash had asked at the full council meeting what guidance was in place for the use of local authority funding or resources in the promotion of an individual political party.

The council’s publicity code provides guidance on the content, style, distribution and cost of local authority publicity and while Coun Brash said he recognised the Labour manifesto was not printed by the council, he still wanted a formal investigation into how it came to be part of the council documents being handed out.

A written response to Coun Brash’s original question from ceremonial mayor Stephen Akers-Belcher was handed out at the meeting.

It said: “The council’s code of conduct for members indicates that regard should be had to ‘any applicable Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority publicity’ issued under the Local Government Act 1986.

“A Code was first introduced in 1988, with revisions in 2001 and more latterly in 2011.

“The publicity code provides guidance on the content, style, distribution and cost of local authority publicity.

“The Code does not override the prohibition on the publication by a local authority of material which in whole or in part appears to be designed to affect public support for a political party.”

It added that the code had been a feature of the guidance provided by the council’s returning officer at election times.