Finally, council may explain how former deputy leader breached code of conduct

Roger Hickford and Manor Farm, the council 'house' he acquired together with nine acres in 2017. He

Roger Hickford and Manor Farm, the council 'house' he acquired together with nine acres in 2017. He quit the council and left Cambridgeshire when a report critical of him was published. - Credit: Archant

Councillors will be invited to adopt a ‘publish and be damned’ stance to enable the public to see for themselves how their former deputy leader behaved.  

The constitution and ethics committee of Cambridgeshire County Council is being challenged to publish key findings into an investigation into former Tory councillor, and former deputy council leader Roger Hickford.  

The committee will be told that Mr Hickford is now outside the code of conduct sanctions as he is no longer a councillor.  

But a report to the committee says that if the council published the outcome of an investigation “it would demonstrate that the council had acted on concerns. 

“And any lessons learned in relation to the code (of conduct) and the way councillors interacted with officers could also be considered”. 

The committee will be challenged as to whether the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs public interest in disclosing the information. 

Manor Farm, Girton, which was let by the Cambridgeshire County Council farms estate to the then depu

Manor Farm, Girton, which was let by the Cambridgeshire County Council farms estate to the then deputy leader of the council Cllr Roger Hickford. The council also agreed £183,000 investment at Manor Farm and were in talks with Cllr Hickford to extend his five year lease by 14 years. - Credit: Terry Harris

If a decision is made to release details of the investigation that could happen immediately.  

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However, it will still leave open to debate what happens to the main report into what has come to be known as farmgate. 

And it is still unclear whether the council would want to publish the summarised version completed by Mazars or to finish off the audit committee report that was halted when the chief internal auditor fell ill days before completing it.  

Fiona McMillan, director of law and governance, explains in a report to councillors how Mr Hickford was awarded the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton, in April, 2017.  

In January 2019, the audit and accounts committee ordered a review after a request from Cllr Lucy Nethsingha.  

Mr Hickford was identified as the tenant a month earlier during a general purposes committee asked to rubber stamp a £180,000 improvement package for Manor House.  

Police were alerted but in March, 2020, and six months after it being referred to them, told the council no action was proposed.  

Once Mazars were handed the matter in December 2020 after the chief internal auditor fell ill, their findings were handed, confidentially, to the committee.  

Last July the committee began reviewing their next steps. 

Ms McMillan says that the committee felt it was important “that the public had faith in the integrity of local democracy.  

“The issues connected with the tenancy of Manor Farm had received significant public attention and concern. 

“Therefore, the committee believed it was important to have a clear response to any suggestions of impropriety.” 

Ms McMillan says that last August she instructed Jonathan Goolden, Head of Public Law at Wilkin Chapman LLP solicitors, to conduct an investigation. 

It is his findings that councillors will be asked to agree to make public. 

"The committee will be asked to consider and make a judgement whether that exemption should be maintained or not,” says Ms McMillan.  

Precedents have been considered and the test for disclosure is fairness.  

“This involves balancing the legitimate interests of the data subject in maintaining confidentiality against the public interests in disclosure,” she says. 

One precedent points to a finding that the public was entitled to know whether a serious complaint regarding the conduct of an elected representative was found to be justified, regardless of their status when the report is disclosed. 

She says that the ruling they considered concluded that ‘transparency is essential to the maintenance of proper standards in public life, whether or not the subject of the complaint remains in office’.  

Ms McMillan said: “The fact that they were no longer in office was no obstacle to disclosure.”  

How we first reported farmgate - explaining the background to the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton, tha

How we first reported farmgate - explaining the background to the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton, that had been awarded to deputy council leader Roger Hickford - Credit: Archant

She says the council had made many improvements since the Mazars report.  

These included the council’s respect at work policy and guidance for staff relating to any incidents of violence and aggression at work. 

And 52 of 61 county councillors have so far seen a virtual training session on the code of conduct and ethical standards. 

A new “conflict of interest” guidance document has been produced.  

And an updated whistle-blower policy which was “more concise, clearer”.