Rugby council leader replies to criticism over handling of the public learning of plan to shut Hall of Fame

Several councillors said the leader's response to the press learning of the plan was marred by accusations and calls for computers to be surrendered

Friday, 19th March 2021, 1:11 pm
Updated Friday, 19th March 2021, 1:14 pm
Rugby's Hall of fame, sited on the first floor of the library and art gallery building in the town centre.

Rugby council leader Seb Lowe has responded to concerns from other councillors over how he handled the aftermath of the press learning of plan to shut the Hall of Fame.

Among the concerns shared with this newspaper are that Cllr Lowe demanded that councillors hand over their computers to be checked for communications with the press and that the behind-closed-doors meeting to decide the fate of the Hall of Fame was marred by accusations.

Earlier this month this newspaper exclusively revealed the plan to shut the Hall of Fame, which was based on a secret 'blue paper' report prepared by council officers which suggested that renewing the council's contract with World Rugby was not economically viable.

The final decision to close the attraction was made in a portion of March 16's full council meeting - in which the public were excluded on the basis that the discussion would contain sensitive financial information.

When the time came to vote on whether to exclude the public, Cllrs Maggie O'Rourke, Tom Mahoney and Ish Mistry called for the vote to be recorded - meaning each councillor's vote would be put on the public record.

Then, when the vote on excluding the public came, nine Labour councillors voted against it, 29 Conservative and Lib Dem councillors voted in favour and Lib Dem councillor Noreen New abstained.

The public were then excluded and the attraction's fate was discussed, this newspaper understands that all but two councillors voted against renewing the contract with World Rugby - thus shutting the Hall of Fame.

The morning after the meeting the Advertiser spoke with several councillors, including Labour's group leader Maggie O'Rourke.

Cllr O'Rourke said she had been concerned with council leader Seb Lowe's response to the press discovering the plans to shut the Hall of Fame and his behaviour in the March 16 meeting after the public had been excluded.

She said: "At one point [days before the meeting] he said, 'we are going to take your computers' - and then he said 'all of the Conservative group are going to hand their computers over to be checked - why won't the rest of you?'

Other sources, who did not wish to be named, also said that in recent weeks there had been talk of council IT officers getting access to councillors' government email addresses to discover whether any of them leaked information to the Advertiser.

Cllr O'Rourke and others said the days since the publication of the Hall of Fame plans have been marred by accusations, with no evidence, that specific councillors had leaked information.

This, Cllr O'Rourke said, came to a head with Cllr Lowe becoming heated in the private section of the March 16 meeting, repeating accusations and expressing anger over Labour's call for a recorded vote.

Cllr O'Rourke said: "I was not happy with his general tone.

"I was cross with him, questioning the democratic process in terms of our legitimate right to have a recorded vote.

"It did feel a bit like a dictatorship - that democratic right was challenged by the leader of the council."

Cllr O'Rourke added: "I don't approve of leaking the contents of a blue paper - but Cllr Lowe needs to ask himself why this has happened.

"Clearly something is going wrong if people feel they need to do this.

"We are are also questioning why some of the information is in the blue paper - I don't think saying it was all financially sensitive is a particularly strong answer.

"Perhaps this is an attempt to bury bad news in the run-up to the local election?"

When the Advertiser contacted Rugby council for comment, Cllr Lowe arranged to speak with us that same day.

Cllr Lowe said he does not deny that his response to a perceived leak to the press was strong, because he views it as a deeply serious matter that could affect the council's ability to negotiate with third parties in future.

The Advertiser understands that, since the beginning of March, Rugby council believed this newspaper had been privy to the full contents of the blue paper, and thus reacted on that basis.

It has since been clarified that this newspaper was made aware of the key points - rather than being sent the entire paper.

He said: "That report was only confidential on the basis that there was information that was pertinent to a third party - World Rugby."

He compared revealing the information to the potential buyer of a house approaching an estate agent straight away and, without negotiating, telling them exactly how much money they had to spend.

He believes that revealing the plans before a final decision had been made harmed the negotiations, stating that could very well have been the 'final nail in the coffin' for the attraction.

Cllr Lowe also rejected the idea that keeping the report confidential was an attempt to bury bad news, stressing that the decision to do that was taken by council officers, who are full-time employees of the council and are not appointed on a political basis.

He said: "I don't have any control or say in whether items are considered confidential or not - that is up to the monitoring officer and the executive director.

"I get on well with Cllr O'Rourke and I have got a lot of respect for her.

"She is very experienced, she has been a councillor for many years, and during that time she will have voted on many items on blue paper without commenting.

"It is really strange that the Labour group called for a recorded vote - it's very normal for local authorities to have things that are considered confidentially.

"And in that meeting all but a couple of councillors voted in favour of the plan not to renew the contract."

Responding to the reports of councillors being told to hand laptops over, Cllr Lowe said this was said jokingly - and he never intended it to be taken literally.

He did stress that he was very keen that, if information from a blue paper is leaked, he feels it vital that the person who did it is found.

"When we negotiate with third parties in future they need to have the assurance that confidential information will not be leaked to the public," he said.

Cllr Lowe added that, although he would not comment on the contents of a blue paper, he is confident that if the public saw what was in it they would come to exactly the same conclusion as the council.

"There was no other choice but to not renew the contract with World Rugby," he said.

Cllr Lowe said he believes in transparency with the public, and added that if he had really wanted to 'bury' the news in the run-up to the local election, there would have been far more effective ways to do it.

"We would have delayed discussions until June when all the elections were over, as council officers had advised - or we could have waited until purdah came into effect.

"I chose to have these discussions now precisely because I wanted the public to know about the decision before the elections."

Aftab Razzaq, monitoring officer for Rugby Borough Council, told the Advertiser: “The executive director makes the decision to consider an item in private based on the content of a report, after taking my advice.

"Items are considered in private if they include personal data, commercially sensitive information or information that would otherwise harm the ability of the council to conduct its business.

"These criteria are set out in Part 3D of the council’s constitution, which is adopted by councillors.

“On Tuesday evening there were five items that the executive director considered met the criteria to be considered in private.

"The decision to exclude the press and public was confirmed by councillors who voted to confirm a motion proposed by the mayor.

“The leaking of confidential reports and confidential discussion of those reports is a serious matter that affects the ability of the council to work with partners and to conduct its business.

"It is a breach of the councillor code of conduct that all councillors accept when elected.”