The City of York Council Conservative Group added their voices to those of other cross-party opposition councillors in York in a no confidence vote in Lib Dem Council Leader Cllr Aspden at a special meeting of Full Council on Tuesday evening.
Conservative Group Leader and Strensall ward Councillor Paul Doughty who spoke at the meeting and seconded the no confidence motion said:
The release of the Auditors report and the subsequent need for the Public Interest report owing to the content around the nature of payments, the sums involved, the public interest and questions that need answering such as on prejudicial interest raise a great deal of concern. As reported in the media recently, this is only the fourth PIR needed nationally amongst higher tier authorities since 2016 and brings a considerable degree of shame onto the LibDem-led administration here in York and does not reflect well on the city at all.
It is regretful that Council Leader Councillor Aspden, despite what has come to light in recent weeks and we’ve heard about again this evening, has chosen not to resign thus far. It is a great shame that it has been necessary for opposition Councillors to call for rather than him having done the honourable thing and stood down himself. In defending him, his LibDem Councillor colleagues as a whole and the Greens who prop up this failed administration bring shame on themselves too. The citizens of York who put their trust in them at the last local elections have been badly let down. There are signs they will not forgive the latest shame.
It is clear to many that Cllr Aspden was a significant reason for the former Chief Executives departure and must surely be considered a conflict of personal interest. Had Cllr Aspden held his hand up early on to acknowledge that he should not have taken part (in the Staffing Matters and Urgency Committee), never mind having Chaired the meeting into the termination of the former Chief Executives employment contract, he may have saved some face. As confirmed by the Auditors, “the settlement agreement had been negotiated following the issuing by the Chief Executive of a claim in the Employment Tribunal which named the Council and Councillor Aspden as respondents.” Many residents will believe this does not reflect well in terms of integrity. I am quite surprised that what I thought an intelligent man does not recognise this himself. With Auditors also indicating that the departing Chief Executive was, at over £400,000, paid considerably more to leave than was necessary adds insult to injury to the taxpayers of York.
On top of the PIR assessment that the Leader of the Council failed to declare a prejudicial interest, it is further concerning to note that “payments exceeded contractual entitlements, facts suggest that this was not a genuine efficiency of business situation but involved the settlement of threatened claims and was arguably an unlawful payment.
The Auditor was not satisfied the Nolan principles on objectivity, accountability and openness were followed. These principles were published by the Committee on Standards in Public Life and apply to anyone who works as a public office-holder. They suggested Cllr Aspden, “prioritised political interest over the need for objectivity in decision-making, and propriety in the use of public funds.
It was disappointing that there has been no opportunity for probing Leaders Questions and Council Officer Questions sections as part of this extraordinary meeting. I do hope future accountability at City of York Council is tightened to ensure the actions required by staff and not just Members are observed. Democratic Services will know that I have shown concern in my view on several occasions that Minutes of Committee meetings are often not tight enough in this respect for any follow up on accountability.
For reasons outlined in the Auditor report, the Public Interest Report and the wording in the no confidence motion, the Conservative Group no longer have confidence in the ability of Cllr Aspden to be council leader with the integrity, professionalism and ethical standards required to represent York. I urged all Councillors, regardless of party to consider their own integrity and to vote accordingly. Unfortunately the LibDem Councillors with their Green coalition partners instead voted to save their Leader and they therefore share in this continuing disgrace which will not be going away anytime soon!