A COUNCILLOR who sparked outrage by branding soldiers “hired killers” on Armed Forces Day and offended the Muslim community on Twitter has been found in breach of his duties as a local authority representative.
Ben Duncan, who is a Brighton and Hove city councillor, claimed he was within his rights to make the comments under Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights which “allows free expression without interference by public authority, except in well-defined circumstance”, when he appeared before a Standards Panel at Hove Town Hall today.
He said that the council’s code of conduct, in accordance with the Localism Act 2011, should not take precedence over the guaranteed freedoms, which he claims neither tweet breached in the eyes of the law.
But the panel found that Mr Duncan, 43, had breached the council’s code of conduct by failing to treat others with respect and bringing his position and that of the council’s into disrepute.
He was told the breach would be announced at a full council meeting later this month and that a recommendation would be made that he be removed as deputy chairman of the council’s licensing committee.
The hearing was told that complaints had flooded in following a tweet on June 28, which said: “Armed Forces Day has certainly brought the hired killers on to the streets of Brighton today. Hard to explain to my son!”
Another tweet made by Mr Duncan two weeks earlier which caused offence to the Muslim community said: “Blasphemous 7yo wants ‘Islam book’ to press flowers in (it’s big and heavy). Should I stone her to death when I get home from work?”
Councillor David Horne, chairman of the panel, said had that tweet been made at any time it would have been “capable of being disrespectful and bringing the council into disrepute”.
He went on: “It was happening at a time when the police, the council and the Home Office were discussing how they could reduce the number of men and women travelling to Syria to fight.”
He claimed political expression attracted a higher degree of protection under Article 10 but under “personal or abusive terms” it did not.
“Politicians lay themselves open to close scrutiny and are expected to possess a thicker skin than ordinary members of the public,” he said.
Mr Horne said the panel noted that Mr Duncan’s apology in relation to the hired killers tweet had “restated his conviction that hired killers was an accurate description of the Armed Forces”.
The panel heard that the tweet was made while a Freedom of the City Parade by the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment was taking place in Brighton and Hove, part of a programme of events taking place across the country to commemorate the centenary of the First World War.
Monitoring officer Brian Foley said Mr Duncan issued an apology two days later for any offence caused and said he had not meant to be “insensitive to their loss”, but by then the council had received 60 complaints, including from Green MP Caroline Lucas, the highest number it had ever received in relation to this type of incident.
A petition was set up demanding Mr Duncan resign from his role of councillor, the panel heard.
Mr Duncan, who was removed from the Brighton and Hove Green Party following the slur, apologised to the panel and said he had “made a couple of jokes which offended some people”.
The tweet referring to the Muslim community prompted a complaint from Sunny Choudhury, president of the Brighton District Bangladeshi Shomity, who claimed he found the comment “deeply distasteful and hurtful to himself and other Muslims”.
He said the tweet was not befitting of a Brighton and Hove City Councillor and would “do more to divide our community than bring people together” and could “create hate and unrest” towards the Muslim community.
Mr Choudhury also claimed that there was no reference in Koran that a child should be stoned, and explained that in Islam a child is seen as a flower, and to press a flower between the pages of the Koran would “give rise to the suggestion that Islam wishes to suppress children and make life unbearable for them”, which he claimed was deeply hurtful.
Mr Duncan removed the tweet, closed his Twitter account and said he had not intended to offend or upset anyone, even less to “divide communities and create hate and unrest”, the panel was told.
He claimed he did not believe, and never had believed, that Islam was a violent religion and said his tweet was “aimed at a small minority of extreme adherents of Islam who practise violence in the name of their religious beliefs”.
Mr Duncan said he would be launching an appeal following the panel’s decision and referred to the council as a “private club” which should not place unnecessary restrictions on its members.
He claimed that any repercussions should either be sanctioned by the law of the land or the ballot box.
He said: “My strong advice for anyone who does not like my actions would be not to vote for me in the future.
“The law of the land does indeed suggest that there are certain things that are unacceptable to say that encourage crime and disorder and so on.”
He said if the council believed a crime had been committed he would “happily submit” himself to any prosecution.