The Tories and Tesco: was it really a police matter?


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The Independent Online

Three local councillors who became embroiled in a ferocious debate over plans for a Tesco store in Margate have been told they will not be prosecuted over allegedly harassing a campaigner via Facebook and social media.

One of the councillors was questioned about comments made by other people on his blog, while another was interviewed after clicking “like” on his Facebook page about an article critical of a hotelier who was leading the fight against the new store.

The Thanet councillors, all Conservatives, were told this week they would not face prosecution after a five-month investigation that the local MP described as a waste of police time and money.

Even the woman who made the original complaint – who told The Independent that she had been scared to leave her home because of anonymous comments on Twitter, blogs and Facebook, described the police investigation as “overblown” and said it was not her decision to question the three men under caution. One of the councillors, Dr Simon Moores, said that he and another of his accused colleagues would not be running again as councillors because of the potential damage to their business reputations.

“Why would a professional person like myself expose himself to criminal complaints by individuals with a political or personal agenda?” he said. “They kept us sitting there for five months. I’d like an apology from the police but I won’t get one.”

The row raises questions about political influence over the police after it emerged that the police and crime commissioner for Kent, Ann Barnes, wrote to the head of the force about the case.

She has denied interfering in operational police matters, but one of the councillors has demanded to see contents of documents that she passed to the force.

“She has repeatedly made it clear to all those concerned, when an issue like this is raised it is passed to Kent police,” said her spokeswoman.

“Kent police makes the decision whether a matter should be looked at again. By law she can’t tell police what to investigate.”

The case followed another incident earlier this month when Cambridge police visited the home of a blogger who was asked to delete some of his tweets that were critical of Ukip. It followed a complaint from one of the party’s own councillors that the blogger was “misrepresenting” the party through a faked poster that lampooned its policies.

The Margate dispute centred on images of the Tesco store used by the rival sides during the campaign. The Tesco plan was passed by the council but was challenged by Louise Oldfield, the hotelier, and other businesses.

The councillors complained that she used a mocked up artistic impression of the store that did not give a fair reflection of its visual impact on the seafront. That spat was the source of articles critical of Ms Oldfield, that she said extended to more than derogatory comments on social media.

She said that it “may seem petty to an outsider but the effect of anonymous posters backed up by the real world ganging up can have a detrimental effect”.