Conservative leader’s ‘bat soup’ comments not a code of conduct breach
The leader of Adur District Council did not breach the Code of Conduct when he linked Covid-19 to ‘somebody eating uncooked bat soup in China’, a hearing has ruled.
Conservative Neil Parkin was accused of ‘casual racism’ by Sami Zeglam (Lab, St Mary’s) after making the comment during a live-streamed meeting of the council in May – an accusation he firmly denied.
His words, though, led to nine complaints – seven from Labour councillors – and prompted an investigation and hearing, which ended on Thursday (January 21).
A joint governance sub-committee made up of four Conservative councillors, one Labour and one Independent Alliance member, discussed accusations that he had breached the Code of Conduct when it came to leadership, high standards, equalities and respect – and found them not proven.
Mr Parkin did not attend the hearing
He was represented by Kevin Jenkins, as a private person rather than as a councillor, who told the meeting that the leader was suffering ‘ill health with Covid’.
While Mr Jenkins said there was no dispute that the words were spoken, it was the context which was in question.
He added: “There wasn’t at the time – and there never has been – the intent from Cllr Parkin to cause offence to any part of the community or utter words of a racist nature.”
Mr Parkin made his comment during a debate in which he was repeatedly asked why a strategy paper had been delayed.
As with business at councils all over the country, the delay had been caused by the pandemic.
Describing the comment as ‘off the cuff’, Mr Jenkins said: “It was not a rehearsed sentence, it was not a rehearsed statement, it was very much in the nature of Cllr Parkin that he always tries to contextualise something when he speaks.
“Obviously in hindsight there are times when we look back and think maybe those words could have been said differently or not said at all or delivered in a different format.”
The council appointed CH&I Associates to investigate the matter.
Director Alex Oram said there were concerns that Mr Parkin’s comment was ‘feeding into a narrative that China or the Chinese people should be blamed for the outbreak of the virus’.
This, though, had to be balanced against his right to freedom of speech.
Given the exact words and the context in which they were said, Mr Oram felt that finding Mr Parkin had committed a breach of the code would be a ‘disproportionate restriction’ of those freedoms.
The committee also heard from independent person Simon Norris-Jones, who felt there had been a breach, though it was marginal.
While acknowledging the right to free speech on sensitive and difficult subjects, Mr Norris-Jones added: “I struggle a bit more with the concept of free speech if it gives people the right to make casual, poorly thought-out comments which show lack of respect or cause offence to others.”
He did not think the Labour councillors were ‘politicking’ when making their complaints, saying they were ‘probably and justifiably made to hold the council leader to account’.
He did, though, raise concerns that the complaints from two members of the public had not been given enough weight during the investigation.
The committee discussed the matter in private for more than an hour before deciding by five votes to one that there had been no breach of the code.
The complaint was dismissed.