A ROW has erupted over claims that a new council policy to tackle problems caused by persistent nuisances is aimed at silencing a leading political opponent.
Liberal Democrat-led Northumberland County Council wants to introduce the policy to help officers deal with obsessive and unreasonable complainants who bombard them with questions and demands.
It is designed to help council staff decide when complainants become “habitual and vexatious”, how to log their activities and, eventually, end all contact with them.
Now anger has erupted after the Conservative Party claimed that a senior Lib Dem councillor has admitted the policy targets Anne-Marie Trevelyan – the Tory candidate who stood against Sir Alan Beith MP in Berwick at the general election.
The Tories say Coun Andrew Tebbutt admitted during a conversation with fellow councillors that the clampdown aims to prevent Mrs Trevelyan from uncovering information and criticising the council.
Last night Coun Tebbutt – executive member for corporate resources at County Hall – reacted with fury to the claim, describing it as “complete and utter rubbish”.
He said: “I am extremely angry about this. It is absolute rubbish and it just shows the depths to which some Tories in this area will stoop. I have no recollection of making such a comment, but if I did it was just said as a joke or an aside, and not to be taken seriously.
“This policy is not aimed at any individual, but it is to protect our staff, particularly, against a small number of people who pursue things long after the issue has been resolved, or do so in a manner which is threatening to staff.
“It was made quite clear that it does not apply to any political organisation or individual. It is about tackling people who misuse the system continually.
“Anne-Marie Trevelyan is far too astute a budding politician to be someone who would be caught by this policy.”
The complaints policy, which is still to be ratified by the council, was drawn up by officers amid concerns that continuing to handle unreasonable complaints can be too time consuming and wasteful of resources.
Yesterday Mrs Trevelyan, who reduced Sir Alan Beith’s majority from more than 8,600 to 2,690 in May, said: “It is deeply worrying if elected members are using their position of authority to develop policies designed to silence political opponents.
“Council policy should be a tool for delivering better services for local people, not for excluding voices with the temerity to criticise our political representatives. Before and since the general election, local people have contacted me for help, whether about the closure of adult day centres or provision for children with special educational needs. Where the Lib Dem administration have made mistakes, I have criticised them, and I will continue to do so when necessary.”
The proposed policy, which seeks to deal with the “repeated and/or obsessive pursuit of unreasonable complaints or outcomes”, is being scrutinised by county councillors following a formal challenge by the Labour group.