Were Tory councillors told not to sign Free Speech Charter?

Ray Dawe
Ray Dawe

Every time the County Times has referred to a Conservative Horsham District Council signing our innocent Free Speech Charter, we have described them as ‘brave’ or ‘principled’ or ‘courageous’.

That is because unlike the opposition parties of UKIP and the Lib Dems who have rushed to sign, the Conservative Party seems determined to oppose it.

It is a very simple statement – asking councillors to respect their party’s values; honour their pre-election promises; and speak, write and vote in their residents’ best interests without fear or favour of party discipline. This is a small council not the seat of national Government.

It was launched because of constant claims that the ruling Tory group conducted its real decision-making behind closed doors in secret group meetings or informal cabinet sessions; too many of its votes seemed whipped; and the leadership apparently insisted on vetting letters to this newspaper.

We believe councils should be open and transparent and that is the purpose behind the Charter. Councils exist to represent the people and to be seen to do so.

So we asked leader Ray Dawe if his members were advised not to sign. Here is the exchange of e-mails between Mr Dawe and Political Editor Joshua Powling.

Read them – and you judge.

l April 1, 2014. 15:52

Ray, Since the launch of the County Times Free Speech Charter more than a week ago have you instructed members of the Conservative group at Horsham District Council not to sign it? If so, why?

The Free Speech Charter is not a legal document but a local newspaper launching a statement of intent that we believe all elected representatives can get behind and support.

Regards, Joshua

l April 2, 2014. 10:16

Joshua, Please find below a statement about the Charter.

Thanks, Ray

“41 of 44 councillors on the District Council were elected as either Liberal Democrats or Conservatives. When standing on a party ticket they all agree to abide by their party’s rules which are strikingly similar. This is no coincidence since they will have been arrived at based on decades of history of the best way of getting things done in local government. So Councillors are there to represent their constituents but also to represent a political party, one that voters have chosen to support when they voted and elected council candidates. I believe that all councillors do their best to represent their residents but there will be political and other differences on the way to do this. I am sure that all council members support the right of a newspaper to take a particular viewpoint or to run any campaign it wishes. Equally, I would hope that the County Times respects the right of any member to choose to endorse or not endorse that viewpoint and campaign. Ultimately the judgement of any member will be by their electorate.”

l April 2, 2014. 10:58

Ray, I appreciate your response. To be absolutely fair to you in our coverage can you specifically answer these points:

1 Has any private group meeting of the Conservatives on Horsham District Council discussed our free speech charter and arrived at a conclusion not to sign it?

2 Have you written to your Conservative councillors advising them not to sign it?

3 Finally, what do you mean by: ‘I believe that all councillors do their best to represent their residents but there will be political and other differences on the way to do this.’

I would welcome an urgent reply.

My thanks, Joshua

l April 2, 2014. 13:17

Joshua, It would be odd, I would have thought, for any grouping of councillors of any party not to have talked about such a matter in a meeting or between each other and those are indeed private discussions and emails. You have though in the statement my view of the matter.

I would have thought the last point was self explanatory in that different groups have different ways of doing things as can be seen in national as well as local politics. Ray