Potters Bar county councillor defends use of 'offensive language' after formal complaint lodged

PUBLISHED: 18:11 03 April 2019 | UPDATED: 18:11 03 April 2019

Hertsmere Borough Council leader Morris Bright. Photo: Hertsmere Borough Council.

Hertsmere Borough Council leader Morris Bright. Photo: Hertsmere Borough Council.

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Hertfordshire's Liberal Democrats group has lodged a formal complaint against a county councillor who used language they say is "offensive".

Conservative councillor Morris Bright – who represents the Potters Bar West and Shenley division, and is also leader of Hertsmere Borough Council – made the remarks during the county council’s budget debate in February.

He was questioning the right of the Liberal Democrat group to criticise the Conservative-controlled council’s spending proposals.

In pointing to the party’s role in central government between 2010-15, when many of the cuts were made, he said: “They were in bed. They were doing whatever they needed to do, they bent over, they took it...”

Cllr Bright says he used the phrase to refer to someone allowing an authority figure – be it a teacher, police officer or parent – to give a reprimand, without fighting back.

Cllr Bright – who is also deputy executive member for highways and the environment at the county council – says he has also heard it used in reference to corporal punishment, when caning was permitted in schools.

However, the Liberal Democrats point to a different meaning of the phrase, which they say is “sexist”, “homophobic” and “offensive”.

At a meeting of the full council on March 26, the opposition Liberal Democrat party said they would not agree to the minutes from the meeting, because they did not include a reference to the remark.

Liberal Democrat group leader Cllr Stephen Giles-Medhurst told members: “In view of the offensive, sexist and homophobic comment made by a deputy executive member, this group will not accept the minutes and wish a recorded vote – unless that member so apologises.”

Now, Cllr Giles-Medhurst has lodged a formal complaint against Cllr Bright with the county council’s chief legal officer.

He says the comments breach the council’s ‘code of conduct for members’, which states that members should “show respect for others”.

Cllr Giles-Medhurst says they also breach the code’s obligation that councillors carry out their “duties and responsibilities with due regard to the principle that there should be equality of opportunity for all people regardless of their gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, age or religion”.

He said: “The words used are also a reference to rape, and the casual use of them to score political points betrays a male-dominant, abuse-of-power, privileged point of view.”

Cllr Giles-Medhurst says the comments are doubly offensive because of the tone in which they were delivered.

He says he was disappointed that the chairman did not intervene at the time to demand an apology.

However, Cllr Bright says he never intended to cause offence with his ‘off-the-cuff’ remarks.

He points to the different ways the phrase has been interpreted.

“Different people have different understandings,” he said.

“There was no malicious intent. If anyone was offended, I apologise. There was no intent to do so.

“My understanding of what this means is obviously different to others and I am sorry for any offence – that was not my intention.”

Cllr Bright says he sent a written apology to a member of the Liberal Democrats within 24 hours of the meeting, which was not accepted.

But he did not apologise at the meeting of council, because – he says – the only apology the Liberal Democrats would accept was the one they had drafted.

“I am not going to have words put in my mouth,” he said.

Following receipt of the formal complaint, chief legal officer Kathryn Pettitt has 28 days to review it and determine what action will be taken.

She could decide to take no action, to require a formal investigation, take ‘action other than investigation’ or refer the complaint to the county council’s standards committee.

Meanwhile, Cllr Giles-Medhurst is also asking the county council to review its policy relating to webcasting.

The meeting of the full council at which the budget was discussed was the first one to be available to view on the internet.

The footage, including the comment made by Cllr Bright, can currently be viewed on the council’s website.

Cllr Giles-Medhurst says in due course he will look at action that can be taken to have this section of the recording removed.

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