Hearing over Mayor's case to be in private

Oxford Mail: Alan Armitage Alan Armitage

A HEARING over allegations Oxford’s Lord Mayor Alan Armitage made inappropriate comments to a schoolgirl will be held behind closed doors.

Oxford City Council has announced the public and media will be barred from a standards committee meeting on Wednesday, January 16.

The committee will be investigating the allegation against the Liberal Democrat politician that he made inappropriate comments to the girl at a Sports Oxford event in June.

When interviewed by the Oxford Mail in July, Mr Armitage denied the allegation.

The complaint was originally made to Oxfordshire County Council and it was then passed to the city council to investigate under the councillors’ code of conduct.

Oxford City Council spokesman Louisa Dean said: “The standards committee has been asked to consider this particular matter in private as information disclosed to and discussed by it could lead to the identification of individuals.

“It would not be in the public interest to make these discussions public, and could constitute a breach of the Data Protection Act.

“It will be for the committee to decide if the hearing remains in private. “While the initial presumption will always be that business should be conducted in public, local authorities may rely on the provisions of schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972 in circumstances in which they need to discuss matters which should properly remain exempt from publication.”

The Oxford Mail has objected to the decisionmade by the council’s legal team.

It is understood the issue over identification is the girl herself but, in a letter opposing the decision, the Oxford Mail has given an undertaking not to name her.

The Oxford Mail has told the council the matter is of significant public interest and should not be held behind closed doors.

The results of the hearing will be announced after the meeting, even if it is held in private.

The seven-member committee can vote to overturn the ban, which drew a mixed response from councillors across the political divide.

Green group deputy leader Craig Simmons said exclusion of the press and public should be kept to a minimum using rules already available to help protect confidential information.

He said: “There are mechanisms in the local government access to information act which allow confidential information to be taken at the end of the meeting with a separate agenda and an explanation of why it is being heard in private.

“There is already a mechanism which should be used in this case. As much as possible should be discussed in public. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for the whole meeting to be in private.”

Liberal Democrat group leader Jean Fooks said members of the group would stand by their colleague until a final ruling was made, and said she didn’t object to the exclusion of press and public from the meeting.

Ms Fooks accepted the wait for answers must have been “grim” for those involved, but said it was to be expected.

She said: “I think it must be extremely hard for anyone to have something like this hanging over them for such a long time.”

In June 2011 a request for exemption was thrown out during a meeting where the council was investigating a complaint from Save Temple Cowley Pools campaigner Jane Alexander against councillor Bryan Keen.

The committee resolved that the public interest in excluding the press and public did not outweigh the public interest in holding the meeting in public.

Mr Armitage was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Committee chairman Gill Sanders refused to comment.

If the committee finds that Mr Armitage did breach the councillors’ code of conduct, he can be formally censured.

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