AN inquiry has concluded claims by a council’s leadership that senior, opposition councillors publicly bullied cabinet members at council meetings are unfounded.

Darlington Borough Council’s legal officer and an independent reviewer also said there was no basis to complaints lodged by the Conservative-run authority’s leader Councillor Heather Scott that its former leader and last year’s mayor, Labour councillors Stephen Harker and Nick Wallis, brought the local authority into disrepute at meetings.

The findings come almost two months after a council meeting which Cllr Scott described as the most ill-tempered during her 44 years on the authority and which saw the Mayor of Darlington Cllr Chris McEwan suspend proceedings in a bid to restore order.

Her complaint alleged the long-serving councillors had bullied and harassed stronger communities cabinet member Cllr Jonathan Dulston at the cabinet meeting on July 14 and health and housing cabinet member Cllr Kevin Nicholson at the full council meeting two days later.

The complaint stated: “This whole debacle has brought the reputation of the council into disrepute. We are promoting the town as a place to live, work and play. Any potential business will not be encouraged to come here if they assume that this behaviour is the norm.”

In an extensive report examining the complaint, in which statements made at the meeting are scrutinised, the council’s legal officer Luke Swinhoe concludes there was no potential breach of the code of conduct and the complaint did not merit a formal investigation.

The report states: “Democratic meetings are not just about decision making but also provide an opportunity for members to raise matters and to challenge and to hold other members to account.

“This will in particular apply to members of the ruling group and to cabinet members. Considerations of the public interest, the right to challenge and to hold to account are important aspects of the democratic process.

“This may be uncomfortable, challenging and stressful to those subject to questioning and challenge. But the democratic process requires there to be a wide margin of what is permissible in democratic meetings before allegations of bullying, failure to treat with respect or disrepute are made out from the exchanges that take place.”

The independent reviewer highlighted how politicians “lay themselves open to close scrutiny of their words and are expected to possess a thicker skin and greater tolerance than ordinary members of the public”.

Mr Swinhoe dismissed any suggestion Cllr Harker may not have treated people with respect, but in the case of Cllr Wallis found “there may be a marginal issue about failure to treat with respect, but in the context of a democratic meeting, on balance, I do not think that it crosses the line”.

Commenting last night, councillors Harker and Wallis said they were pleased but not surprised to have been judged as having no case to answer.

They said bullying, harassment, disrepute and a failure to treat with respect were “incredibly serious allegations to level” and the report made it clear they had been “simply doing our job of holding the ruling group to account”.

They said: “Democracy demands that those making decisions which affect our lives are subject to close scrutiny. Our questions were found to have been matters of public interest.

“A pattern is becoming clear. The Conservative/Independent leadership of Darlington Borough Council hates being questioned. In this case, they made spurious allegations of bullying and harassment to try and shut down debate. We also see cabinet members turning up to meetings ill-prepared and unable to provide replies to the most basic questions. When they promise us written replies, they often are never produced.

“It is astonishing that the council leader and two leading cabinet members, with the support of the town’s Conservative MP, can behave so irresponsibly.

“We are currently grappling with an unprecedented public health crisis which is showing no signs of disappearing any time soon.

“It saddens us that precious officer time, energy and resources have been wasted on these unfounded claims, taking them away from the first class response the council has made so far.

“Cllr Scott, on behalf of the cabinet and ruling group, should make a pledge to learn from this sorry episode and never use false allegations of bullying as a smokescreen to intimidate the opposition again.”

In response, Cllr Scott said she was “not happy” with the result of the inquiry, which had not benefitted from hearing the tone of the language that was used.

She said: “I am disappointed because I feel they have got to behave in a good manner and set a good standard.

“I do hope we have more respect for each other in future. We are politicians with opposing views, but we also have to be role models and set an example.”

Cllr Scott added she and other political group leaders had held constructive talks with the mayor about the conduct of future meetings.