Bid to strip ex-councillor of honour for 'abusive and offensive' tweets fails
A BID to strip an ex-councillor of his honorary title for an alleged “tirade of hate” against an MP and other Tory politicians has failed amid a row over free speech.
Alan Lawrance was accused of subjecting Thornbury & Yate MP Luke Hall to a “sustained campaign” of online abuse and “extensive and targeted harassment” via Twitter and email.
The former Liberal Democrat member and Yate town councillor allegedly shared tweets comparing the Home Secretary to a convicted serial killer and portraying the leader of the House of Commons as Adolf Hitler.
South Gloucestershire Council's Conservative leader Toby Savage (pictured above at the meeting) recommended removing his title of honorary alderman, awarded for 24 years of "eminent" service in 2015, for "demonstrating behaviours inconsistent with the role and likely to bring the council into disrepute".
But a vote at a meeting of the council on September 22 failed to reach the two-thirds majority required, following concerns the ruling Tory group was holding a “kangaroo court” and that Mr Lawrance had not been given a fair hearing.
In exempt papers obtained by the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Mr Lawrance branded the attempt to revoke his status as “political bullying” and insisted some of the tweets cited had been taken out of context or misinterpreted.
He said he was known to be “outspoken and challenging” but that Twitter had not considered any of his posts as harassment or removed them and that the social media giant had not warned or suspended him.
However, Cllr Savage told the meeting at Yate leisure centre: “Alderman Lawrance has been sending clearly inappropriate, abusive and offensive content to members of this council, myself included, the local MP and many other people, with an ongoing tirade of hate that is unbecoming of an alderman and brings this council into disrepute.
“This is not about party politics, it’s a fact that aldermen represent this council as a whole, and their behaviour reflects on each and every member.
“I fully expect the repetitive and disrespectful behaviour of Alderman Lawrance to be condemned by every member in this room, regardless of any rosette he may have worn.
“To date Alderman Lawrance has not apologised or shown any regret or remorse.
“This behaviour is totally unacceptable. The evidence is overwhelming.”
He said Mr Lawrance had breached a protocol agreed unanimously by full council last year on aldermen’s standards of behaviour.
But Lib Dem group leader Claire Young said: “At a time when we face major challenges, it’s a sad indictment on this administration and our MP that they felt this was an issue worthy of this council’s time.
“While I do not condone some of the ways Alderman Lawrance has chosen to express himself, I defend his right to criticise politicians and the Government publicly, like any other citizen in a democracy.
“He does not advertise his alderman status or mention South Glos Council in his Twitter profile, so he is clearly not acting as an alderman.”
She said Mr Lawrance gave long service to the local authority, including being voted in as chairman by all parties.
“To remove this honorary title given in recognition of that for an issue that isn’t even directly related to the council is heavy-handed,” Cllr Young said.
“It is not proper in any complaint like this to make a decision without proper investigation.
“If a current councillor is accused of misconduct, officers will investigate and present a finding of facts to a non-political standards committee.
“Here the complaint is being taken straight to council, which is party political, without investigation
“This looks like a kangaroo court, an abuse of the power of this council for party political reasons.”
She said it was “chilling” that a recent government minister was “seeking to restrict our right to protest”.
Labour group deputy leader Ian Boulton said: “We have not seen any evidence of bringing this council into disrepute.
“It is clear no due process has been followed.
“As a private citizen, Mr Lawrance is entitled to have freedom of speech, including lobbying and criticising his local MP.
“To remove Mr Lawrance as an honorary alderman for expressing his opinion sets a dangerous precedent.”
Conservative cabinet member Rachael Hunt, who was the subject of one of the tweets, said: “As someone who has not met Alderman Lawrance, his comments, from an older gentleman in an honoured position of our council to myself as a young woman, were inappropriate and uncomfortable.
“These comments about myself are not about criticism or protest. This is misogyny.”
The vote went along party lines, with the 28 Tories voting to revoke the title, 14 Lib Dems against and 10 Labour abstentions, which left the motion short of the 35 votes required from the 52 councillors in attendance.
Mr Lawrance chose not to attend the meeting.
By Adam Postans, Local Democracy Reporting Service