Anger at bill for standards hearing

RESIDENTS of south Suffolk were left with a bill for almost £4,000 after last month's hearing into the conduct of a clergyman who had been a member of a parish council.

RESIDENTS of south Suffolk were left with a bill for almost £4,000 after last month's hearing into the conduct of a clergyman who had been a member of a parish council.

Congregational church pastor Rev Chris Jowett was called to a meeting of Babergh Council's standards committee after it was alleged that he had failed to declare an interest when a proposal to introduce parking restrictions near his home was discussed by East Bergholt parish council last year.

Mr Jowett was a member of the parish council at the time, but has since resigned.

Last month's standards committee meeting took nearly a full day to complete, and the council hired a specialist solicitor from London to present its case.

At the end of the hearing, the committee found that Mr Jowett should have declared an interest and withdrawn from the meeting when the matter was discussed but decided to take no action against him.

It had earlier been told that Mr Jowett had been advised that it was not necessary to declare an interest after reference to the code of conduct instructions.

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Because since he had already resigned from the parish council, the only option for the standards committee was to issue a reprimand, but they decided against doing that.

The main cost involved in the hearing was hiring solicitor Peter Keith-Lucas. His fees for work associated with the case totalled £3,954. The other direct cost to the council was expenses for members of the standards committee – this totalled £9.20.

The figures were released by the council after The Evening Star requested them under Freedom of Information legislation.

The council said the cost in office time was minimal and a member of staff from the Standards Board for England, who attended the hearing, was paid by the board and did not cost the council anything.

Mr Jowett felt the whole exercise had been an expensive waste of time which had achieved nothing.

He said: "Effectively this was £4,000 wasted. The council had to bring up this solicitor and we had a long hearing and in the end nothing happened.

"They felt I should have declared an interest but they took no action after they heard about the advice I was given. The whole thing was a waste of money."

He is still considering whether to appeal against the decision.

The crucial point was whether he had an interest in his home, The Manse.

The house is owned by the church, not Mr Jowett personally, and he is only able to live there as long as he is pastor – he is not a tenant and does not hold it on licence from the local authority.

Mr Jowett said the effect of the hearing could be to change the basis under which non-conformist ministers across the country occupy their homes.

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