The Chair opened the meeting and representations were made by Councillor Rathmell on behalf of Councillor Lawton, that the Standards (Hearings) Sub Committee meeting had not been called in accordance with legislation.
The Monitoring Officer confirmed that the meeting had been legally constituted in accordance with Middlesbrough Council's Constitution and the associated documentation had been issued in accordance with the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985, Section 100B.
On a vote being taken, the majority of the Standards (Hearings) Sub Committee members agreed that the meeting should continue. Councillors Hubbard and J Young did not agree to the meeting continuing and requested that this fact was recorded in the minutes.
The Investigating Officer presented her report, a copy of which had been circulated prior to the meeting, regarding an investigation which had been undertaken in accordance with the prevailing legislation and guidance in relation to allegations that Councillor Lawton had breached the Member's Code of Conduct thereby bringing the Council or his role as Councillor into disrepute.
The allegations were as follows:
1. Councillor Lawton had sent abusive emails and made posts on social media in breach of the Officer/Member Protocol and fell beneath the conduct expected of Elected Members.
2. Councillor Lawton had spoken about the Mayor and Deputy Mayor in a way that a member of the public was unhappy with, including comments he had made about sales of Council property, also that Councillor Lawton used Councillor Rathmell to get his views across and that Councillor Lawton damaged the town by the comments he put on social media (Facebook). Councillor Lawton had lied to the people of Middlesbrough about the sale of assets and closure of the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum, made vicious attacks on Councillors and the Mayor and staff of Middlesbrough Council. Also the way in which Councillor Lawton behaved in the Council Chamber and told people to turn up and cause problems in the meeting. This caused damage to the town.
3. Postings by Councillor Lawton on social media amounted to bullying, in particular remarks about corruption.
4. Councillor Lawton used social media inappropriately and had posted items on social media which were considered inappropriate, brought the Council into disrepute and caused distress to individuals who felt bullied and intimidated.
Councillor Lawton had submitted the following allegations:
1. That he had been bullied by the Labour Group and that there had been inappropriate use of Council resources and that he had been bullied by all Middlesbrough Labour Councillors on a Labour Party website.
2. That Councillor Rooney threatened him in a training session.
3. The behaviour of Councillors Budd, Rooney, Bloundele and X at the Council meeting on 19 October 2016 in respect of which Councillor Lawton had submitted a complaint.
4. That the Labour leadership had acted corruptly in approving the disposals of the TAD centre, Cleveland Craft Centre and Acklam Hall and there had been a failure to declare interests.
The Investigating Officer informed the Sub Committee that she was appointed to investigate the complaints by the Monitoring Officer of the Council on 6 December 2016. The Investigating Officer's report had been circulated as Agenda Item 6. The report included a summary of the complaints, relevant legal provisions, details of the Code of Conduct and Standing Orders, findings of fact and conclusions.
The Investigating Officer's report concluded that Councillor Lawton had breached the Member's Code of Conduct by making comments by email and on social media that were a breach of the Code of Conduct in respect of the obligation to respect others and not bully any person and were potentially in breach of law in respect of defamation and a breach of the obligation to use social media responsibly and in breach of the Council's Social Media Policy. In addition, the Investigating Officer found that there was a breach of the Code of Conduct in failing to treat others with respect and behaving in a way which was likely to bring the Authority or the office of Councillor into disrepute.
In respect of the complaints submitted by Councillor Lawton, the Investigating Officer concluded that these were not made out.
In respect of the complaint regarding behaviour of the Mayor and other Councillors, the Investigating Officer concluded that none of the Members behaved appropriately and well or treated each other with respect in the Council meeting held on 19 October 2016.
Having considered the Investigating Officers report, the supporting documentation, Councillor Lawton's evidence, the Investigating Officers comments and questioning, the Chair adjourned the meeting to enable the Sub-Committee to consider the findings of fact and, based on those findings, whether Councillor Lawton had failed to comply with the Code of Conduct.
On reconvening, the Chair summarised the issues and reported the decision of the Sub Committee.
In regard to the allegations, the Sub Committee unanimously supported the findings of the Investigating Officer's Report in its entirety including items where there was no breach of the Members' Code of Conduct. The Sub Committee concluded that the comments about Luke Henman and the comments about Councillors were unacceptable and breached the Members' Code of Conduct.
The Chair then sought the views of the Investigating Officer and Councillor Lawton in regard to what sanctions were considered appropriate to be imposed in this matter.
The Chair adjourned the meeting for a second time to enable the Sub Committee to consider the sanctions to be imposed.
On reconvening the Sub Committee it was ORDERED that the following sanctions were imposed:
1. Councillor Lawton would retain his Council IT equipment but email access would be limited to the Onestop to prevent abuse.
2. Email access would be restored at such a point in time as Councillor Lawton wrote to all persons named in the Investigating Officer's Report with an apology for his conduct, produced in such a way that it could be made public.
3. Social media access through Councillor Lawton's Council IT equipment would be disabled.
4. Whether through Onestop or otherwise, email communications from Councillor Lawton which sought the deal with matters that had already received a response would be filed without action and emails raising wholly new issues would be forwarded to Officers for action.
5. Councillor Lawton was required to undertake training in relation to the Code of Conduct, use of appropriate challenge and social media usage.