Sheffield city councillor Mazher Iqbal found not to have breached codes of conduct after investigation
A year-long internal investigation into alleged breaches of Sheffield City Council’s code of conduct by executive member Mazher Iqbal has ruled in favour of the councillor.
Last October, a formal complaint was submitted to the council about the alleged behaviour of Councillor Mazher Iqbal, then cabinet member for business and investment, by Simon Ogden, former head of city regeneration, who worked for the local authority for 36 years.
An internal investigation was launched, and in June 2021, following The Star’s publication of the complaint, Coun Iqbal was ‘stepped aside’ from his executive duties for the remainder of its duration.
The allegations, which Coun Iqbal ‘robustly denied’, covered actions of the councillor between 2017 and 2020. He was accused of ‘openly associating with and supporting the interests of certain private commercial parties’; organising meetings with developers without planning officers present, which is explicitly prohibited, and wasting thousands of pounds of taxpayer money by commissioning planning consultations only to cancel them at the last minute.
Now, more than a year after the investigation was launched, the SCC sub-committee tasked with considering an internal review into Coun Iqbal’s behaviour agreed to take no action, concluding at a meeting on Tuesday, October 26 that “there was no evidence to suggest that breaches of the Members’ Code of Conduct had occurred.”
However, Coun Iqbal’s critics have accused the council of being ‘amateurish’ in its handling of the investigation.
Responding to the report, Coun Iqbal said: “This is incredibly welcome news, and I am delighted to be completely exonerated by the council’s investigation.
“It’s been a great disappointment to have had this hanging over me for so long, and I’m looking forward to getting back on with the serious and important business of representing local people, improving lives and putting Sheffield first – making it a great place to live and do business.
“It’s been a trying period, but I’m now looking forward to moving on and to getting stuck into the job at hand.”
Giving its report on the investigation at a ‘meeting of consideration’, the audit and standards sub-committee concluded “that the subject member was acting in an official capacity in regard to the complaints considered as part of the investigation report and therefore the Members’ Code of Conduct did apply”.
It’s report continued: “The sub-committee gave careful consideration to the full and final investigators report and decided that the conduct of the subject Member did not constitute a breach of the Members’ Code of Conduct and decided to take no action in regard to the matters investigated.
“The sub-committee accepted the finding of the report and concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that breaches of the Members’ code of conduct had occurred.
“The sub-committee expressed regret at the amount of time passed since the initial complaint was received by the council. They also expressed regret that this resulted in the complainant going to the media, breaching the confidentiality of the case and enabling public speculation.
“The sub-committee also concluded that whilst in agreement that the behaviours under investigation were not tantamount to a breach of the code of conduct, they were deeply concerned about the seeming acceptability of the day-to-day behaviours of senior officers and Members illustrated by the complaint.
“The sub-committee considered that the issues arising from the complaint should have been dealt with sooner and that the constitution provided a Member/Officer protocol that was intended to deal with this exact point.
“In the sub-committee’s view, the subject Member did not always model the behaviours expected of a senior Member of the Council and this type of behaviour should not have gone unchecked.”
Labour leader Coun Terry Fox said: “The independent recommendations completely exonerate Councillor Iqbal - drawing a firm line under this matter.
“People have tried to use this situation for political gain, and sadly the accusations were leaked and weaponised in a bid to disrupt the running of the council and smear a hardworking councillor. But they failed.
“It’s greatly disappointing how long it has taken to come to this decision. The complaints process needs to be robust and thorough, but it’s not fair on those complaining or complained against for matters to take so long to be resolved, so we’ll need to see what can be done to improve the process.
“There are lessons that need to be learnt and we will undertake action to prevent this situation arising again. The independent process found nothing to support the allegations and the Audit and Standards committee decided to take no further action towards him regarding the matters investigated.”
Criticising the report, Mr Ogden said: “The report has arrived over 12 months after my complaint was first lodged with no explanation of why it has taken so long. The council’s own protocol for such investigations states a maximum of 12 weeks from the commissioning of the investigation to delivery of the report.
“Councillor Mazher Iqbal was interviewed in July, over five months into the process.
“Despite this lengthy delay this draft was delivered in a paper form only on Tuesday, October 19 at around 4pm with a deadline for me to respond by the following day, Wednesday 20, for a Consideration Committee on 26. I have done my best to meet this deadline but how is this fair?
“The investigation has been carried out by persons who may be expert in the law or crime but are clearly not particularly familiar with the workings of local government and planning or regeneration in particular. My interview was conducted by a retired police officer who admitted he had absolutely no knowledge of how these things worked.
“Several key direct witnesses to events were only interviewed many months into the investigation and only after I made representations.
“The evidence is presented in a highly confusing and illogical order which will make it a very difficult read for the committee. My original complaint, which sets out my concerns most clearly and chronologically, is buried at page 83.”
Mr Ogden said that ‘only two’ of the items raised in his complaint are considered properly in the report, namely ‘postponement of the Castle Site consultation’ and ‘putting pressure on planning officers over a number of applications’.
He says others – allegations that Coun Iqbal ‘openly associated with private developers in a way that gave rise to suspicion of favouritism and improper behaviour’ and ‘wasted council resources by commissioning planning consultations regarding the City Centre Plan and Castlegate conservation area status, only to cancel them at the last minute’ – were passed on to the Labour group itself to consider rather than SCC.
He explained: “According to an email from Gillian Duckworth the other matters were acknowledged as of concern but referred to the Labour Party whips for action. I have had no communication about them from this source since other than an acknowledgement of receipt.
“The failure to consider and investigate the whole complaint and evidence as I presented it has served to obscure the repeated pattern of public consultations being agreed and then cancelled or buried when they appeared to conflict with the interests of particular developers and the patent incompetence of Coun Iqbal to fulfill his role.”