South Tyneside councillor set to be sanctioned over 'disrespectful' text message to community centre official

A Labour councillor has been formally censured after sending a ‘disrespectful’ text message to a community centre official.

Friday, 19th March 2021, 11:54 am
Updated Friday, 19th March 2021, 4:59 pm
Cllr Margaret Peacock, South Tyneside Council

Councillor Margaret Peacock, who represents the Bede ward, was called before South Tyneside Council’s Standards Committee this week in relation to a complaint lodged last year.

The councillor had sent a text to the chair of Bilton Hall Community Trust (BHCT) regarding a new food bank being set up at Bilton Hall, which was being supported by independent councillor Keith Roberts at the time.

In the text, marked as confidential, Cllr Peacock said the food bank was “supposed to be apolitical” but that she and “a few other Labour members” had been “barred.”

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Copy of text from Cllr Peacock to Mr Hemmer included in the Standards Committee report discussed on March 18, 2021

The councillor referenced the food bank getting a “free room” and said she was worried that the council leader at the time, Iain Malcolm, would see this as a “deliberate attempt to take over Bilton Hall by the independents” and if so, would “close it down.”

The text also asked the community centre official to “put a stop” to the food bank or “insist that it accepts all political parties.”

In an interview statement, the BHCT chair and text recipient, Keith Hemmer, said he felt “angry” and “concerned” about the message.

While he did not feel “personally scared or intimidated”, the statement explained, he said he was concerned that unless he did as the text told [him], the “future of the community centre could be affected.”

Cllr Peacock maintained the text was a ‘heads-up’ to Mr Hemmer, who was a member of the Labour Party at the time, about Bilton Hall leaders potentially breaking the terms of their lease and constitution.

In her interview statement related to the complaint, Cllr Peacock said she was told the food bank was “getting a free room” at the centre, without approval from the relevant committee.

The text, she explained, was sent as both a councillor and a Bilton Hall Community Trust member and she allowed it to be read out at a subsequent board meeting following a request by Mr Hemmer.

In her interview statement, Cllr Peacock also said she did not believe the text could be “perceived as a threat” and instead, was about making sure the food bank was set up and managed correctly to “ensure it lasted”.

The complaint about the text was submitted by Bede ward councillor, Keith Roberts, who claimed Cllr Peacock was using the name of the council leader to “put the fear of God into people.”

In an interview statement, he stressed that his support for the food bank was “never anything political,” – with independent members only wanting to “try and get funding for the community centre.”

He also added he had since moved away from the food bank and had started helping a similar project on the Scotch Estate.

The complaint was dealt with formally by South Tyneside Council’s Standards Committee on Thursday (March 18), which was held via videolink and broadcast on YouTube.

In a report presented to councillors, investigating officer for the complaint, Nicola Robason, said the council’s code of conduct was relevant and that the wording of Cllr Peacock’s text message “could reasonably be considered to be threatening” and “disrespectful.”

This included it potentially causing Mr Hemmer, as chair of the BHCT, to “feel vulnerable or at risk in terms of the operation of the business.”

However, the investigating officer said, based the evidence and reasoning set out in the report, the wording of the text was “not personally threatening, bullying or intimidating and was a one-time matter.”

Acting independent person, George Clark, also provided comments on the complaint in a report.

His statement said it could be argued that Cllr Peacock was giving Mr Hemmer the “utmost respect by pointing out the possible problems” and “offering a chance to take corrective action in advance of any possible future action.”

This included Cllr Peacock feeling she was “privately advisinga fellow member of the board and political ally,” even if the wording of the text was “clumsy and perhaps not reflective of that intention.”

Independent councillor on the Standards Committee, Glenn Thompson, said he found no evidence in the investigation report that suggested anyone had been barred from the food bank.

Although a previous ‘political dynamic’ around the issue was referenced at Thursday’s hearing, councillors were asked to focus on the wording of the text message in their deliberations.

After retiring to consider the investigation report and evidence in private, the Standards Committee concluded, on the balance of probability, that Cllr Peacock had breached the code of conduct in several areas.

Independent chair of the committee, Professor Grahame Wright, read out the findings on behalf of the committee as follows:

:: In sending the text message, Cllr Peacock “failed to treat the recipient with respect and decency.”

:: In sending the text message, Cllr Peacock “conducted herself in a manner which could be regarded as bringing the council and her office as a member of the council into disrepute.”

:: In sending the message, Cllr Peacock “conducted herself in an improper manner which could be reasonably be seen as being intended to confer on, or secure for herself or any other person, an advantage or disadvantage.”

:: In sending the text message, Cllr Peacock’s conduct “did not amount to bullying.”

Mr Wright said the committee took into account that the behaviour complained of, amounted to a “single and isolated act and not a pattern of behaviour” and that Cllr Peacock “had issued an unreserved apology to the recipient of the text, who had accepted that apology.”

The Standards Committee chair went on to say: “The committee took into account the fact that Cllr Peacock did not dispute any of the findings and showed remorse for her behaviour.

“In addition, the committee noted the motivation behind the sending of the text and are satisfied that there is no significant risk of the conduct being repeated.

“In the light of the above, the committee considers that the only appropriate sanction would be to issue a formal censure of Cllr Peacock.”

Cllr Peacock, speaking earlier in the meeting, told the Standards Committee that she regretted writing and sending the text message.

“If I had known that it would have affected somebody as much as it did, I wouldn’t have written it and I certainly would think twice about writing anything similar again,” she said.

“You are responsible in all parts of your life if you’re a councillor and I think I fell short on this [text].”

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