Monklands problem refuses to go away

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Labour hopes of drawing the line under persistent allegations of nepotism and corruption in Monklands council were dashed yesterday when Jim Brooks, the council leader, threatened to challenge the suspension of 15 councillors in the courts.

The party's National Executive Committee, meeting in London, decided to suspend the 15 from holding party office or chairing council committees. A spokesman said the decision - to reinforce disciplinary action taken last year - was taken because there had been "mismanagement" by the council. But last year a Scottish Office inquiry cleared the councillors of allegations of favouritism and reserving council jobs for friends and relatives.

Mr Brooks told the Independent: "As soon as I receive the formal notification of the NEC's decision, I will be seeking legal advice to try to overturn the decision. I have done nothing wrong."

The NEC barred council leader Jim Brooks and 14 colleagues from holding any council or Labour group post during the first session of the new North Lanarkshire council, which takes over from Monklands council in April.

George Robertson, the Shadow Scottish Secretary, and Helen Liddell, the MP for Monklands East, welcomed the ruling, which they said "drew a line" under the long-running "Monklandsgate" scandal. "This is time for new beginnings," Mrs Liddell said.

But last night Mr Brooks said he would not accept the decision, raising the spectre of more embarrassment for Labour north of the border. He said that at least 10 of the 15 Monklands councillors elected to the new council were also planning legal challenges. They argue that after an official government inquiry cleared them of the allegations, any disciplinary action by the Labour Party is unjustified and oppressive.

Tony Blair suspended the Labour group last year after a report commissioned by the party by Prof Robert Black QC alleged nepotism and sectarian discrimination. But a government inquiry, conducted by William Nimmo Smith QC found there had been no malpractice.

Among the allegations were claims that the mainly Catholic group of councillors operated a privileged channel for job applications, and had favoured the mainly Catholic town of Coatbridge over mainly Protestant Airdrie when it came to spending decisions.

Dennis Skinner, the left-wing MP and NEC member, said yesterday that he had always maintained that the allegations were false. It was not surprising in close communities that a "handful" of council workers, out of over 2,000 employees, were related to councillors.

The late John Smith, the Labour leader and Monklands East MP, faced accusations throughout his leadership that he had failed to act to clear up his own backyard, and the controversy dominated the by-election after his death. The party's Scottish leadership and Helen Liddell, who narrowly won the seat for Labour, questioned spending policies.

The issue has been ruthlessly exploited by the Conservatives, leading to Labour charges that Ian Lang, the former Secretary of State for Scotland, deliberately avoided carrying out an official inquiry because it suited Tory party interests.

Labour leaders were delighted when the Scottish Office's belated inquiry failed to turn up evidence of serious wrongdoing, and hoped that public opinion had turned when Dover MP David Shaw turning up at the inquiry to repeat well-known charges. But the threat of a legal challenge to the party's disciplinary action raises the spectre of the stream of unfavourable stories, which has lasted for three years, continuing up to the general election.