A Thanet council meeting was shut down tonight (October 11) as furious supporters shouted from the public gallery in protest at an authority decision to disqualify Labour councillor Ian Venables.
Margate Central ward councillor Ian Venables, who was elected in 2017, has been disqualified by the authority from serving the ward after taking a role with new homelessness team RISE.
Thanet council says that means he is now indirectly employed by the authority but Mr Venables’ lawyers have argued that he remains with his current employer the Forward Trust at the isle’s drug and alcohol service.
Tonight councillors were due to pass a vote to declare the Margate Central ward vacant but anger in the public gallery at the circumstances of the disqualification, and claims that it was incorrect, forced chairman Cllr David Saunders to first threaten to have the public gallery cleared and then, when supporters refused to leave, to adjourn the meeting until Monday.
Thanet council says Mr Venables has been disqualified under section 80(1)(a) of the Local Government Act 1972 with effect from 1 August 2018.
The council says: “Under the Act a councillor is disqualified from holding office as councillor, if they hold ‘paid office or employment or an appointment’ which is made or confirmed by the council.”
But the decision is being challenged by Labour Party lawyers who say Mr Venables is an employee of the Forward Trust and not the council.
He was put forward by the Trust and a council officer for a place of the RISE multi-agency group that will work with those sleeping rough on issues including rehousing, mental health and addiction.
The secondment was due to Mr Venables expertise from 25 years with the drug and alcohol service.
Angry Labour colleague Iris Johnston told the meeting: “This is the first time in my 24 years as a councillor that I have seen a vacancy announced at a council meeting in this way.
“This item should be withdrawn. We are walking up a very dangerous path. I’m proposing this item is withdrawn as lawyers are locked in battle on this.”
Cllr Johnston reiterated that Ian Venables is an employee of the Forward Trust and said the report to councillors was inaccurate and ‘misleading.’ She demanded a recorded vote, adding: “I do not want my name tarnished with this decision.”
Her call was backed by fellow councillors Karen Constantine, Peter Campbell and Michelle Fenner who all argued an announcement should not be voted on while there was legal dispute over the disqualification.
Thanet Independent Councillors group leader Stuart Piper said it should go on record that Mr Venables “had not misbehaved in any way” and that the situation left “a very very bad taste in the mouth.”
The council’s legal officer told the meeting the vote was to declare the ward vacant and that: “the council has no choice in the matter, it has to declare the vacancy,” and Mr Venables could challenge his disqualification “in the courts.”
Shouts of “there is no vacancy” from the gallery drowned out Tory councillor Bill Hayton as he spoke in favour of the vote.
Cllr Johnston said the council particularly recommended Mr Venables and that the Trust had asked whether this would affect his councillor role.
She added: “Ian Venables has been disqualified because this council got it wrong.”
The vote on the announcement was abandoned with the chairman declaring the meeting over.
County councillor Barry Lewis said the Labour Party wants to see the legal advice given to Thanet council.
Thanet Labour Party spokesman John Gibson said: “Cllr Venables has been a victim of a series of poor advice from TDC. He should be reinstated on the council, so that he can carry out the duties he was elected for by Margate residents. I have full confidence in Cllr Ian Venables, and he has the support of the local Labour party.”