Questions about Sheffield Council cabinet member’s alleged misconduct remain unanswered
Sheffield Council’s response to a nine-month-old FOI Act enquiry into the conduct of suspended cabinet member Mazher Iqbal has been delayed again, with bosses saying that answering it would prejudice an ongoing investigation into the councillor’s behaviour.
The complainant who prompted an investigation into Coun Iqbal, and the person who submitted an FOI Act enquiry about his conduct, have accused the council of ‘playing the two off against each other’ in order to avoid answering either in a timely manner.
Last October, Mark Smith submitted an FOI Act enquiry to the council asking for reasons behind Coun Iqbal’s cancellation of a public consultation into the conservation area status of Castlegate after £10,000 was spent on consultation on the declaration, more than 50 letters were sent out and an exhibition was advertised.
In October 2020, and independently of the FOI Act enquiry, the council’s former head of regeneration Simon Ogden, submitted a complaint about the conduct of Coun Iqbal, alleging that he had met with property developers without officers present, offered thousands of pounds of council money without authority to do so and cancelled consultations at the last minute without explanation and at cost to the taxpayer.
Councillor Iqbal denies the allegations.
Mr Ogden’s complaint prompted the ongoing investigation. Nine months later, the council has failed to provide a response to the FOI Act enquiry or a conclusion to the investigation.
In its latest repsonse to Mr Smith’s request, supplied on July 20, Sheffield Council said: “The Council is currently investigating a complaint into Councillor Iqbal’s conduct.
“The Monitoring Officer and Independent Persons need some space to be able to investigate thoroughly to achieve a fair and correct outcome.
“The disclosure of this information has the potential to affect and hinder the investigation process. For this reason, we believe that the balance of the public interest favours withholding the information.”
Responding to questions put to them by The Star last month, the council confirmed it was waiting for Coun Iqbal – who was ‘stepped aside’ from his cabinet duties following The Star’s publication of details of the complaint against him on June 1 – to provide information to the FOI department as to why he cancelled the consultations before it could answer Mr Smith’s request.
However, the story published by The Star on June 1 reported that emails Coun Iqbal sent cancelling the consultation were already in the council’s possession, as Mr Ogden had provided them in his evidence bundle to the council in support of his complaint.
Mr Ogden said: “Playing off Mark Smith’s long overdue FOI against my equally long standing complaint, both quite independently submitted, just adds to the damage being self-inflicted by the council.
“I have seen no evidence of any further work on my complaint such as myself or relevant officers being interviewed and the substantive information for Mark’s FOI request was supplied by me to legal services back in October 2020 before I retired. This just looks like a further attempt to kick both issues into the long grass.
“Also the idea that the Head of Legal Services or other investigators would be unable to make a fair assessment of Councillor Iqbal’s conduct because they might have read about it in The Star just doesn’t stand up. They are not like a jury in a court, this is their professional role.”
Sheffield Council said that “the investigators’ report will be presented to elected members as a subcommittee of the Audit and Standards Committee for a decision, and the decision isn’t taken by the Monitoring Officer.”