"Conflict of interest" claim made about Harrogate councillors' MP and Party work

Harrogate Borough Council's unchanged cabinet at Monday's meeting, including leader Richard Cooper (far left) and Coun Burnett (fourth from left).
Harrogate Borough Council's unchanged cabinet at Monday's meeting, including leader Richard Cooper (far left) and Coun Burnett (fourth from left).

The leader of Harrogate Borough Council's opposition has voiced her "serious concerns" about multiple councillors being employed by the local MP and Conservative Party branch, claiming it could lead to a conflict of interest.

Coun Pat Marsh, who heads Harrogate's minority Liberal Democrats, raised the issue at Monday's mayoral meeting where council committee membership for the upcoming year was voted upon.

Although not naming any councillors specifically, she said her party had "serious concerns" over the proposed membership of various committees.

Inferred in that were council leader Richard Cooper (an office manager for MP Andrew Jones and a proposed substitute for the general purposes committee); Coun Ed Darling (a proposed general purposes committee member who works in an administrative role for the MP); and Coun Sam Gibbs (proposed vice chair of the overview and scrutiny committee, and employed at the Conservative Party's Harrogate office).

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"The workplace we are concerned about are connected by affinity of having a shared commitment to their workplace and their political group," Coun Marsh said.

"In the majority of cases, this is unlikely to give any rise to any issues for the council.

"However the potential for conflict of interest can arise or be perceived by others to arise."

Coun Marsh also claimed the situation could lead to "issues relating to trust and confidence and the public image of the council."

In response, cabinet member for planning Coun Rebecca Burnett, herself a former case manager for Mr Jones' office, said she found the job a "brilliant" preparation for an entry into local politics, and rejected any notion that positions were based on employment.

"I don't think I got elected to council because I worked there (at Mr Jones' office)," she said.

"To say that any councillor takes a position on this council because of their employer is wrong."

Coun Cooper also responded, claiming Coun Marsh was citing "one rule for one and one rule for another here", and stating that multiple Liberal Democrat councillors worked under former Harrogate and Knaresborough MP Phil Willis during his time in office.

He said the Opposition had raised the point "broadly because it's political" and reiterated he would "appoint people to positions on merit (and) on talent".

He also expressed disappointment that the issue was being discussed during the mayor making ceremony.

“I caution people who say things like this to do so at a more appropriate junction than at the inauguration meeting of a new mayor,” he added.

Once progressed to the vote, the proposed committee memberships were approved by the Conservative majority, despite the protests of Liberal Democrat members.

Lachlan Leeming, Local Democracy Reporter