Sandwell council leader’s ‘exoneration’ ‘falling apart’ as false statement emerges

Sandwell council leader Steve Eling has been trumpeting the result of a council investigation into allegations of misconduct against him ahead of a meeting of Sandwell’s ‘Ethical Standards and Member Development Committee’ scheduled for this afternoon. Mr Eling was under investigation over alleged breaches of the councillors’ code of conduct in relation to leaks of information to a local blogger as part of a smear campaign against political rivals.

Eling, a close ally of right-wing Labour MPs Tom Watson and John Spellar, said in response to the council’s findings:

The complaints against me have been fuelled mainly by inaccurate posts on social media which have been demonstrated as untrue in a legal statement made by a social media blogger as part of the investigation.

This misconceived complaint has been thoroughly examined by an independent investigator who concluded I had not breached the Members’ Code of Conduct.

Absence of evidence?

According to the Birmingham Mail, the council found there was no evidence that Eling had leaked information to blogger Julian Saunders, known as ‘the Sandwell Skidder’:

the investigation found that in the absence of any evidence beyond Mr Hussain’s claims, Cllr Eling had not breached the council’s code of conduct for elected members

However, as the SKWAWKBOX has also shown earlier this month, emails from Eling’s private email account were sent to Saunders – and Eling admitted this was specifically to avoid scrutiny at the council. All this information is in the public domain, making the claim there was no independent evidence of for Eling communicating with Saunders look bizarre:

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Some of the emails between the pair involved advance mention of at least one staff member’s dismissal, a matter that should clearly be kept confidential.

The false claim

But the bizarre conclusion of the report is not the only hole in its foundations. It also shows Cllr Eling making a demonstrably untrue claim in his evidence to the investigator about a data leak that became the subject of a formal complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and of legal action by the parent of the young person whose data was breached. The breach was by Simon Hackett, an employee of Eling’s political ally Tom Watson.

Eling told the investigation that both the council and the ICO found that there had been no data breach in the case:

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This is provably not the case. Months ago the ICO wrote to the complainant formally confirming that the council had been found to be in breach of its data obligations:

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This is not news to the council. Melanie Dudley is the council’s former assistant CEO and Monitoring Officer. She left the council and complained that she was forced out because she refused to change her finding that Hackett had committed a breach.

Ms Dudley told the SKWAWKBOX:

As I told the police in my formal statement, Eling told me that there would be a ‘falling out’ with him if I didn’t change my conclusion. I refused and three weeks later, the day after I came back from holiday, I was out.

Note above that Eling told the investigation that he did not “have any discussion with the Chief Executive or anyone else regarding Ms Dudley’s position as the Council’s Monitoring Officer.”

The removal of Ms Dudley was also discussed by WhatsApp with the Sandwell Skidder – before it took place – by a council ally of Steve Eling who also asked the blogger to give Ms Dudley ‘a kicking’.

But the council has also now confirmed to Ms Dudley that the ICO found the council to have breached its data protection obligations, after she complained that the investigation had not properly considered her evidence. The council’s solicitor and current Monitoring Officer wrote to her just this morning:

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The email is misleading, because ‘in its view’ is hardly a suitable description for a formal finding of the UK’s data protection authority. If the ICO says there was a breach, there was a breach.

However, the finding of the ICO has been known to the council for months. Mr Tour also states that the evidence to the investigator ‘was considered’ – but the investigator’s report does not highlight the falseness of Cllr Eling’s claim that the ICO found there was no breach.

According to council officials in Sandwell, the provable gaping discrepancies in the report undermine its entire conclusion. In a view that was echoed by several Sandwell councillors and officials, one councillor told this blog:

If Eling is on record lying to the investigator about one aspect of the complaint, who can say with any confidence that anything he told them was true? Especially when we already know he was in regular contact with the Skidder from his private email.

His claim that he wasn’t behind the WhatsApp messages and the council’s claim there was no evidence to show otherwise just don’t stand up. His supposed exoneration is falling apart – it’s an absolute whitewash.

When the SKWAWKBOX contacted Steve Eling in early September with questions about his private emails to Julian Saunders, Eling responded that it was a waste of his time:

Do not waste my time asking about this rubbish.

He has been contacted again with the following questions:

  1. You have stated to the investigation that the council and ICO found there was no data breach in the Hackett/[redacted] case. This is untrue, as the ICO found the council in breach and stated this in writing.
  2. Melanie Dudley has also gone on the record about her finding as Monitoring Officer that there was a breach and your comment ‘Do you want to fall out with me?’ when she refused to change the finding. This information is also included in her statement to WM Police. This also undermines your claim that the council found no breach, as it was only subsequent to her removal shortly after this refusal that the council ‘rescinded’ (the ICO’s word) the finding of a breach
  3. Why is today’s meeting being held in a council room that has no webstreaming?

He has not yet responded.

Edit 13.45hrs 28/09/18: a spokesman for the council has sent an email demanding the removal of this article and also pointing out that the meeting is being streamed. The article remains online.

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  1. Surjit Tour – former Wirral Borough Council solicitor.

    *Cue @Wirralinittogether…

  2. Steve Eling lies without hesitation – Sandwell MBC doesn’t use gag clauses – and then hundreds turned and he didn’t bat an eye……

  3. It is for reportage like this story, that I willingly donate what I can spare, to SKWAWKBOX!

  4. Yes we need to clean the Agean stables in local government and get rid of “council cretinism'”. Labour leaders should be elected by the whole membership OMOV in towns and cities and bring back committee structures – end patronage and boigeois vote for me on this and I’ll vote for you on that CRAP – as well as enhancing local democracy (it could be quite exciting with hustings being held) but it could free Councillors too – so people are elected on talent and IDEAS – the NEC needs to get this back on the table.

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