Minister for Communities Brandon Lewis enters Rutland County Council defamation debate

Minister for Communities Brandon Lewis
Minister for Communities Brandon Lewis
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A Government minister has criticised a council’s decision to foot the bill if its officers opt to take defamation action against councillors.

Rutland County Council members voted to support chief executive Helen Briggs and other council officers if they decide to seek legal action against three UKIP councillors.

Couns Richard Gale, Dave Richardson and Nick Wainwright are accused of making defamatory comments about Mrs Briggs and other officers.

The council initially considered taking legal action as an authority before voting to fund individual cases.

Minister for Communities Brandon Lewis has now joined the debate on whether the council should fund legal action.

He cited the Derbyshire principle, which established that a public authority could not sue for defamation, but that an individual officer of a local authority would be entitled to sue if comment about the authority also damaged the individual officer’s private reputation.

Mr Lewis said: “The Derbyshire principle is clear that local authorities cannot bring libel or defamation actions.

“Democratic bodies should be open to public criticism, within the law. Whilst I make no comment on the nature of allegations, I believe it is totally inappropriate for private defamation actions to be funded by council taxpayers’ money, given the clear Derbyshire principle.”

The UKIP councillors are in talks with solicitors over building a case against the council for harassment. They say their comments were not defamatory.

Coun Gale said he agreed with Mr Lewis’ comments, adding: “It is what we have been saying all along and it is reassuring to now see it confirmed by the Minister for Communities.”

Regarding the accusations, Coun Gale said: “Over the last two years we have continued to request for greater openness and transparency, asking questions and seeking information in order to make informed decisions.”

He added: “Our inquiring conduct has always been sensible and reasonable when you examine the whole matter being questioned but we believe that too often backbenchers and the public are only given selective information.

“The only way to ensure a marked change in our inquiring ways is if in future we have proper full and detailed reports to make decisions from the outset and we have full access to minutes of meetings with outside bodies, etcetera.”

Council leader Roger Begy (Con) said: “We have made it clear from the outset that going down the legal route is an absolute last resort but one that we are prepared to take in order to protect our officers.”

Coun Begy said the UKIP councillors had not submitted any evidence to back up their claims despite repeated requests.