South Ribble Borough Council leader says he was once called 'a c***' while shopping with his young daughter, as councillors are told their own words risk fuelling public fury towards politicians

South Ribble borough councillors have been urged to show each other more respect when debating their disagreements during meetings.

Friday, 29th July 2022, 8:58 pm

It comes amid a warning that the authority’s political discussions are too often being poisoned by personal attacks - sparking similar behaviour from members of the public when it comes to their own dealings with those who are elected to represent them.

Labour council leader Paul Foster said that he had been abused in the street - and was once called “the C-word” while out shopping with his young daughter.

A Conservative opposition member said that his son had been targeted at school simply because of the political persuasion of his father.

South Ribble Borough Council leader Paul Foster says he was subject to verbal abuse in front of his then five-year-old daughter

Other councillors revealed how their treatment at the hands of fellow members had left them feeling silenced and unvalued - with one even likening it to being in a warzone.

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The shocking stories emerged during a meeting of the full council at which the district’s politicians got a dressing down from the officer in charge of standards at the authority in the wake of a previous bad-tempered gathering back in May.

That meeting - which saw the installation of veteran councillor David Howarth as the borough mayor for the year ahead - would usually have been one of the more convivial occasions on the council’s calendar.

South Ribble Borough Council's monitoring officer Chris Moister told members to mind how they spoke to each other

However, it was marred by a series of exchanges across the chamber which led Cllr Howarth - charged with chairing council meetings in his mayoral role - wryly to ask whether he could give back the mayoral garb not long after he had donned it for the first time.

South Ribble Borough Council’s monitoring officer Chris Moister told the latest assembly of the authority that members of the public had voted with their feet at May’s meeting - and walked out of what should have been a “happy occasion”, because they were so “unimpressed” by the divisive display.

However, he said that his biggest concern was the way in which the attitude and actions of members might rub off on residents should they witness them on a regular basis.

“The public will see these behaviours in you and feel that that is appropriate for how they can approach and... raise issues with…[your] fellow councillors.

There are fears that the tone of the debate at South Ribble Borough Council's Leyland headquarters is setting a bad example to residents about how to approach councillors

“If they see bullying behaviour [and] aggressiveness, that normalises [it]...and the public, who, in some instances, are more personally driven by issues, may become more irate, more threatening, and more aggressive - because they have seen that behaviour being normalised,” Mr. Moister said.

He also appealed to councillors to temper their tone for the sake both of civilised debate and a healthy democracy.

“Recognise that there are other points of view - and even question your own...when they are being tested. Nobody is fully right, nobody is fully wrong.

“Is [what you are saying] moving the debate forward or is it just being rude and threatening or dismissive or disrespectful? Because that won't change people’s minds," said Mr Moister, who added that he was not attempting to take the politics out of what was, by definition, a political environment.

South Ribble's current mayor David Howarth had to intervene several times in a bad-tempered council debate in May

Councillors unanimously agreed to reflect on their role as community leaders and “the implications of their conduct” on the public perception of the council and themselves.

However, the lengthy debate on the issue unleashed a cavalcade of claims from members on both sides of the political divide in the borough about the behaviour of their political opponents - and the real-world consequences it can have.

Cllr Foster recalled the moment that he was confronted by a member of the public when he was in a supermarket with his then five-year-old daughter.

“[She] was stood with me, holding my hand at Sainsbury’s, and I get abused and called the C-Word and the F-word…in front of her - and she starts crying,

“[That was] because of things that were said by a certain member of this council…who then prints this stuff. It’s not just about what's said in here - it’s what’s then printed after what’s said in here.

“‘Let’s make him stressed, because it’s funny. Let’s print our Community News with a load of absolute garbage about Cllr Foster, because it’s funny’. It's not funny.

Cllr Barrie Yates says that his "Community News" pamphlet provides a platform for residents in South Ribble's eastern areas to ask questions of local councillors - but council leader Paul Foster claims that it includes "absolute garbage" about him

“I’m six foot two [and] have served this country [in] war - and it gets me. But that’s what he wants it to do, he wants it to get me - it’s bullying and harassment and I’ve had enough,” said Cllr Foster, who also spoke of a more recent incident when he was “accosted” while delivering leaflets in Bamber Bridge.

Although he did not name the member whom he suggested had contributed to the confrontations he had faced, the “Community News” to which Cllr Foster referred is a pamphlet produced for the east of the borough by Samlesbury and Walton ward member Barrie Yates.

Cllr Yates, a Conservative, was absent from the meeting, but later told the Post that the Labour leader’s experience was not something that he would wish on anybody - and he condemned the abuse. But he said that his publication was merely providing an outlet for the concerns of residents (see more below).

Meanwhile, Coupe Green and Gregson Lane Tory member Gareth Watson said he recognised - and sympathised with - the effect of political vitriol being vented towards family members.

“I know that my son has also received abuse in my time as a councillor, both in school and college, and...when he’s been out with me on the doorstep.

“I’m certainly not saying that anyone in this room had caused those things to happen - I think that’s purely because I’m a Conservative and…unfortunately some people…have such intense feelings of hatred in politics, that that’s the way it expresses itself.

“I certainly want to show my support for Cllr Foster…I know it hurt me and I’m quite certain it hurt him - and it's completely unacceptable,” Cllr Watson added.

The call for councillors to stick to political, rather than personal, jibes in the South Ribble chamber came against the backdrop of a recently-published report by the Local Government Association, entitled “Debate Not Hate”.

That document said that while “constructive challenge” was a key component of the democratic process, people would be deterred from engaging with politics if it crossed the line into “abuse and intimidation”.

‘WE’RE NOT KIDS WHO SHOULD NEED CONTROLLING’

While disunity has so often been at the heart of the kind of intemperate debates that South Ribble’s councillors are being encouraged to shun, members did at least agree on one thing - that there was sometimes a problem with the quality of their discourse.

Many of them lined up to condemn behaviour that they claimed was having a chilling effect on candid discussion.

Labour’s Jacky Alty rubbished the suggestion that councillors should “toughen up” and be obliged to develop the “thick skin” that Cllr Foster said he had been forced to grow as leader.

“Most of the exchanges I have observed - and been subject to - have resulted not from heightened emotion, but from a deliberate choice.

“We’re not children in a classroom who should require developmental guidance on how to manage our emotions or behaviours. The notion that [the mayor] should have to step in to stop playground behaviour is frankly ridiculous for adults who have been elected to represent the public,” the Farington East member said.Deputy Conservative opposition group leader Phil Smith was one of several Tories to claim that poor conduct was not the preserve of any single political group on the authority.

“It’s come from both sides - we need to hold our hands up to that. {There are members] who feel bullied in this council chamber…because they daren’t ask a question…[as] all they get is a load of abuse from the other side,” he said.

However, Labour planning committee chair Caleb Tomlinson said that if his group had acted in the way he said one Tory member had, they would have been kicked out of the local party.

Cllr Keith Martin, the Labour member for Middleforth, said that the killing of MPs Jo Cox and Sir David Amess showed the dangers of allowing a “hateful ideology that diminishes [and] belittles” to go unchallenged.

“I say how I feel, but I try and do it with respect…but I would never be hateful, because that is wholly wrong ,” Cllr Martin added.

The longest-serving councillor in the district - the Conservative Longton and Hutton West ward member, John Hesketh, who has sat on the authority for 41 years - said that there had been disrespect across the chamber down the years and stressed that the current crop of councillors “ought to take note of…and accept” the monitoring officer’s report setting out an acceptable way for them to treat each other.

That statement was echoed by Labour councillor Will Adams, who said that he had always “looked up to” Cllr Hesketh since being elected in 2019 - and that everyone in the chamber could learn from emulating how the veteran politician conducts himself.

However, Stephen Thurlbourn, who represents Farington West for the Tories, suggested that there was a long road to be travelled before South Ribble could be held up as a model of well-mannered debate - comparing his experience on the authority with that of his time in the armed forces.

“I’ve patrolled streets that I hope nobody in this council ever [has to] patrol…and sometimes I feel like I’m back there when I sit in this chamber. Sometimes there is so much hate in this chamber that you could cut it with a knife,” Cllr Thurlbourn said.

Meanwhile, Moss Side Conservative member Mary Green said she had often been left feeling “demeaned [and] unable to speak” in meetings.

“I don't [think] we should be made to feel that we can't do [our duty] because we might get rebuked or insulted,” she said.

‘ABUSIVE PUBLIC SHOULD SHUT UP’

After council leader Paul Foster pointed to the Community News pamphlet as a peddler of “lies” about him, its publisher, Barrie Yates, said that he could not understand the claim - but condemned any abuse directed towards councillors.

Cllr Yates, who produces the publication and distributes it to around 13,000 homes in Bamber Bridge and the eastern parishes of South Ribble, told the Post that any articles written by himself or other “supporters” of the endeavour are clearly marked with that individual’s name and the byline “Community News Reporter”.

A disclaimer within its pages states that the Community News is responsible only for features presented in that format.

Cllr Yates said that any other content originated from residents wanting to complain or ask a question of local politicians - and that he always pledged to provide a space to print their responses, whatever their political colour.

“I don't think I can be any fairer than that,” he said.

The disclaimer also adds: “Any opinions and comment expressed in the Community News are not necessarily the views held by the publisher.”

Speaking about Cllr Foster’s experience, Cllr Yates said he was “shocked” when he heard about it.

“I was really upset that he had to go through that with his family, because it’s not something that I would want to wish on anybody.

“As councillors, we do get comments thrown at us…but I’d be really annoyed if it was my child [who had been upset]. Whoever is going round saying those kind of things just wants to shut up and be respectful to people,” Cllr Yates added.

WHEN SORRY IS THE EASIEST WORD

South Ribble Borough Council’s standards boss last week told members that some of the behaviour exhibited at their gathering in May “fell below what should be expected” of them.

That meeting saw Tory councillor Barrie Yates ordered by the mayor to apologise to the authority’s chief executive, Gary Hall, after the Conservative member gesticulated towards the ruling Labour group and suggested that the council boss was “in the pockets – the same pockets -…as the other way”.

The mayor, David Howarth, also pulled up Labour deputy council leader Mick Titherington for saying that he was “fed up with the bloody lies that are being told in this borough”.

While monitoring officer Chris Moister did not refer to specific incidents in his report about the testy exchanges, he told the latest full council meeting that saying sorry was not a way of excusing poor conduct.

“If all that happens is that somebody stands up and apologises and then does the same thing again three or four meetings later, then it's worthless,” said Mr. Moister.

Cllr Howarth - who has temporarily stepped back from being Liberal Democrat group leader while fulfilling his mayoral duties for the next 12 months - said he believed that councillors had done ”a lot of soul-searching” during the debate.

In an earlier opening thought at the meeting, he also said: “If, as councillors, we debate and decide matters before us with integrity, honesty and in a spirit of mutual respect, our residents may rest assured that wise people have indeed found their way into politics…and may it always be so.”

‘WE’RE NOT ALL THE SAME’

A Labour councillor who was elected at the last borough-wide poll in South Ribble in 2019 said that members needed to show respect for each other in order to set an example - and to counter a public perception that “we’re all the bloody same”.

“Many people in this chamber work full time and put a lot more hours into this role than people think that we do,” said Middleforth member Will Adams.

His Labour colleague Matthew Trafford - who, at 19, was the youngest member ever elected in the district when he won in the Lostock Hall ward three years ago - told the latest full council meeting that he had “absolutely no intention” of standing again when South Ribble goes to the polls next year. He predicted that all parties would struggle to find candidates because of a lack of confidence that local government empowers people to make much of a difference.

“When we will just put anyone we can in a [council] seat, that lowers the quality of people that we could have in public office…because there isn't a competitive process.”

Meanwhile, the Conservative former council leader, Margaret Smith, said that “a protocol” was needed to address how residents dealt with councillors, as well as the existing code governing interactions between elected members.

“I think some of our residents do seriously expect us to be absolute wonder people [and] to solve all their problems - and when you can’t, you get a [tirade] of abuse,” said Cllr Smith, who added that one Tory member receives repeated phone calls from someone about being unable to get a GP appointment - something which councillors have “no control over whatsoever”.

Labour's Jacky Alty says councillors should not be behaving like children
Conservative councillor Gareth Watson says that there are "intense feelings of hatred in politics" which manifest themselves in unpleasant ways