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Councillors warned: don’t risk reputation
Published 01/09/14

COUNCILLORS across South Oxfordshire are to be warned not to misuse their titles as a result of the David Silvester affair.

It follows a six-month investigation carried out by South Oxfordshire District Council into the comments made by the Henley town councillor in a letter to the Henley Standard about the legalisation of gay marriage.

The investigation, which cost 1,350, found that the 74-year-old should not face disciplinary action because what he did was not covered by the councillors’ code of conduct.

But he has been advised not to use his honorific title in personal correspondence.

In a statement, the council said that its monitoring officer Margaret Reed had accepted the investigator’s view that Cllr Silvester was not acting in his official capacity when he wrote his letter, even though he signed it “Councillor David Silvester”.

It continued: “As such, she considers that this matter falls outside the scope of the council’s standards framework. She therefore has no powers to take any further action in relation to the allegations.”

Mrs Reed has written to Cllr Silvester warning him that using his honorific title in personal correspondence is inadvisable as it lays his reputation and that of the town council open to “unnecessary risk”.

She will issue similar advice to district councillors and parish clerks within the district, the statement added.

In his report, investigator Alex Oram, of investigation specialists ch&i associates, said: “In this instance Cllr Silvester has to bear some additional responsibility for the reputational damage that might have been caused to Henley Town Council.

“By signing off his letter as a councillor it was perfectly reasonable (indeed always likely) that the Henley Standard would reference Henley Town Council when publishing, both to differentiate him from a district or county councillor and to stress the link to the town.

“Cllr Silvester has denied writing the letter in his official capacity, however, stating that it contained personal views expressed in his personal capacity.

“The editor told me that in his view by signing his letter ‘Councillor’, Cllr Silvester was clearly making a political comment and therefore it was perfectly legitimate to ensure his readers knew all the details.

“He made the point that he would not have published the letter had Cllr Silvester not signed the letter ‘councillor’.”

Mr Oram said the code of conduct could only apply to Cllr Silvester when he was acting “in the role of councillor”.

He added: “In writing his letter to the Henley Standard it is my view that Cllr Silvester was not engaged in conducting council business.

“There has been no suggestion that he was instructed to write the letter by the council and the Marriage (Same Sex Couple) Act was not legislation that the council was called on to consider.” But he added: “It is my view that it is likely that Cllr Silvester used his honorific title because it made the publication of his letter more likely.

“It also potentially gave his comments extra credibility and thus encouraged people to support his political view.

“It is my opinion that any reasonable, objective observer would be able to read the letter that was published and discern that Cllr Silvester was expressing his own opinions and not those of the town council as a whole.

“As such, the application of the code would be a disproportionate restriction on his freedom of speech.

“It is relevant that Cllr Silvester did not include a reference to Henley Town Council in his correspondence as had he done so it is arguable that his conduct would more likely have been considered within the jurisdiction of the code.”

Two complaints, from Vanessa Hoare and Sarah Butcher, were referred for investigation into whether the councillors’ code of conduct applied and, if it did, whether it was breached.

In her complaint, Miss Hoare said: “It appears that his decisions are heavily swayed in favour of an extreme belief and he is unable to make decisions impartially or take into account the correct factors and values.

“I find it highly unlikely that he is able to act in Henley’s best interest given his comments and he has substantially damaged the town’s reputation.

“Mr Silvester has shown that he is unable to act impartially and in accordance with equal opportunities legislation.” Mrs Butcher said: “He has lost credibility with local and national people. He has really upset friends and families of the gay community and has even brought members of the Henley Town Council to tears based on his views.”

Simon Bradshaw, editor of the Henley Standard, denied Cllr Silvester’s claim that the newspaper had been “really mischievous”.

He said: “Not only did Councillor Silvester sign his letter as such but his comments were overtly political, criticising the Prime Minister and leader of his own former party.

“Our policy when we receive such a letter from a councillor is to identify which council they are from because we report on something like a dozen different councils in our circulation area and, if they are making an overtly political point, to publish their political hue too.

“This policy — both long-standing and common to almost every newspaper in this country — is to ensure our readers are fully informed and to do otherwise would be failing in our duty.

“Neither Cllr Silvester nor any other Henley town councillor has ever questioned this policy when their letters have been published in the past.

“Cllr Silvester talks about his freedom of speech but with that privilege comes responsibility yet he admits to using his honorific title ‘on a lot of things’ when he is not speaking as a councillor.

“To say, as the monitoring officer did, that is inadvisable is putting it mildly.”

• What do you think? Write to: Letters, Henley Standard, Caxton House, 1 Station Road, Henley, RG9 1AD or email letters@henleystandard.co.uk

Published 01/09/14

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