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Greens condemn councillor's censure over ASCO

John Freeman
Green Party councillors have hit out at a City Council Standards Committee case against Coun Jon Barry dating back to earlier this year, which has only just been heard and resulted in his censure.

Coun Barry has been unable to say anything about the case since he was reported to the Standards Board in the spring of this year by a Conservative councillor after mentioning the name of controversial retailer ASCO in a press release on 2nd March (see related news story).

ASCO, which has since gone into administration, were the company the Council had lined up to take over Lancaster Market as a single occupier, a plan subsequently rejected by Full Council after massive public protest (see news story).

Coun Barry was found guilty of breaking the councillor’s code of conduct because he mentioned the name ASCO, which was considered by the Council to be confidential information. The complaint was made against the councillor and pursued by the Standards Committee even though the name of the retailer was already widely known after a council staff member named them at a Market Traders meeting.

virtual-lancaster had also named it in various reports before the Green Party press release was issued and the Lancaster Guardian had published a story alluding to ASCO as the potential retailer.

One day after the Green Party release, the Morecambe Visitor published a front page story naming ASCO, using visuals supplied by the company. (It seems the Council may have considered the proposed deal confidential, but ASCO did not).

Despite ASCO being widely-known as the proposed retailer, the Standards Committee, which heard evidence that included witness statements from virtual-lancaster's John Freeman and Market Trader Peter Corker, argued Coun Barry could not have known about the Morecambe Visitor story when he issued the Green Party release. Therefore, he had released confidential information. Previous news reports had only 'suggested' ASCO was the proposed trader.

Coun Barry, who has been censured by the Standards sub-committee, clearly finds the whole case bizarre. The Green Party describes it as a gross waste of public time and resources.

“My view is and was that the name ASCO was already in the public domain when I mentioned the name," says Jon. "ASCO had been in the front page story of the Lancaster Guardian the week before and was widely being talked about by market traders and a number of news websites such as virtual-lancaster.”

“ASCO had confirmed they were the company to the Morecambe Visitor several days before my press release went out. Everyone and their dog was talking about ASCO.”

“I think that to go through all of this procedure was a very bad use of the Council officers’ time," added Jon. "The authority is faced with £2.4 million of cuts in the coming financial year and the last thing it should be doing is prosecuting councillors over trivial matters that were already well known to the public.”

“I think that the sub-committee recognised that my ‘crime’ was of very little practical consequence. The censure I received seems to be the legal equivalent of being slapped round the face with a wet haddock.”

“I'm very glad that ASCO did get into the public domain," commented Coun Chris Coates. "If the Council had had its way and kept the whole thing secret then it would never had been revealed what a huge risk ASCO would have been. The company was founded last year by a man who had already been involved in a string of failed ventures including a football club and newspaper in Darwen. He has since been disqualified from being a company director.

"ASCO already had several county court judgements against it and the lowest possible credit rating when officers proposed the deal over the market. Lancaster City Council voted to reject in the deal in March, and ASCO went bust because of debts from its only existing supermarket in Warrington in May.”

The Council has been questioned in detail about the whole matter of the way the ASCO deal was reached but despite the huge amount of publicly available information about ASCO's director Ted Ward before the Council's Cabinet agreed to push forward with the deal back in February, the conduct of the officers involved still seems to remain impossible to call into question.