Council leader faces second probe

A SENIOR Essex politician already under police investigation over his Parliamentary expenses is facing a second probe in connection with an alleged failure to declare his interests.

Roddy Ashworth

A SENIOR Essex politician already under police investigation over his Parliamentary expenses is facing a second probe in connection with an alleged failure to declare his interests.

But Lord Hanningfield, Tory leader of Essex County Council, yesterday claimed that both inquiries were the result of a “personal campaign” by Colchester MP Bob Russell to discredit both him and his policies for education in the town.

Standards for England, the local government watchdog, yesterday confirmed that it is conducting an investigation into allegations made by Lib Dem Mr Russell that Lord Hanningfield failed to declare his patronage of the Academies Enterprise Trust.

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The trust, which is a not-for-profit, publicly funded organisation, has taken over a number of weak comprehensive schools in Essex in preparation for their transformation into academies, in line with Government policy.

But Mr Russell said that in promoting the benefits of academies as leader of the council, Lord Hanningfield had failed to register his patronage of the trust at County Hall, which he should have done in accordance with the Local Government Act of 2000.

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He also said the Peer had not mentioned his position with regards to the Academies Enterprise Trust in the Register of Interests at the House of Lords.

Mr Russell, who opposes the county council's plans to close three schools in his constituency and create an academy in the town, said he learned of Lord Hanningfield's patronage of the trust after becoming “alarmed” at the way the Peer was driving forward plans for academies in Essex.

“I have no idea whether this is a voluntary position, but regardless of whether it is voluntary or not he clearly has a significant interest in the promotion of academies in Essex,” Mr Russell said.

“The rules are quite clear, both at Parliamentary level and in Local Government. Members and councillors must declare their interests.

“Lord Hanningfield has not done so in the Registers of Interests at both the House of Lords nor at Essex County Council.”

Yesterday Lord Hanningfield said he had joined the Government-backed trust as patron last year after being personally urged to promote an academies programme in Essex by the then education minister Lord Adonis.

He added: “I can confirm that Bob Russell, Liberal Democrat MP for Colchester, has referred me to the Standards Board for England.

“As part of Essex County Council's ambition to improve the quality of education and opportunities for every child in Essex it is proposing to close three schools in Colchester that Mr Russell has repeatedly and vehemently stated his opposition to, including to my own personal involvement.

“On this matter, I can confirm that the principal legal officer at Essex County Council was consulted and was entirely satisfied that the due processes were followed and adhered to.

“I can also confirm that I have no financial interest in the trust nor do I receive any fee.

“Academies are the law of the land and I am implementing government legislation.”

He described Mr Russell's complaint as part of a “personal campaign” being mounted against him.

“Nobody else has made any complaint, either in the Lords or at county level,” he said.

Last month, it was reported that Lord Hanningfield's parliamentary expenses were being investigated by Scotland Yard after Mr Russell raised queries about his with “various authorities”.

Police are allegedly examining claims the Peer may have claimed for overnight stays in London while returning to stay at his home near Chelmsford.

When pressed on allegations he was attempting to smear the Lord Hanningfield, Mr Russell said: “He's entitled to say what he wants.

“My job is to unearth the facts as I understand them and present them to the appropriate bodies to look at.”

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