THE High Court will decide next Friday whether or not Ealing Council acted unlawfully and infringed an Ealing councillor’s right to free speech.
At a hearing on Thursday morning, Cllr Benjamin Dennehy’s legal team made submissions to Mr Justice Mckenna to the effect that he should never have been ordered to apologise for controversial comments he made about Southall residents in a blog post.
In the post, written on March 6 of last year, Cllr Dennehy, a UKIP councillor representing Hanger Hill ward, said the Indian community in Southall "exploit their own people in squalid third world living conditions", that "criminality is endemic in Southall" and the high number of illegal immigrants in the area were a "constant on the public purse".
The comments led to a formal complaint being lodged by Liberal Democrat councillor Gary Malcolm, which then led to a finding of guilt for breaching the councillors' code of conduct, investigated by Ealing Council’s standards committee.
Cllr Dennehy’s legal team argued that his comments were an opinion he was entitled to express, that the council’s reasons for ordering him to apologise were inadequate and that the finding breached Cllr Dennehy’s right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act.
Cllr Dennehy’s barrister asserted that it was a characteristic of Britain “that we know what is right and wrong” and that these comments were “legitimate issues for debate. There would be very little to read in the newspapers of this country, otherwise.”
Ealing Council counter-argued that the comments should not be looked at in isolation, but should be assessed on the basis of whether Cllr Dennehy failed to treat residents with respect and brought his office and the council into disrepute.
Ealing also claimed that the comments constituted a sweeping statement and an unjustified attack on members of the public which seriously undermined trust in local government.
In a phone conversation last week, Cllr Dennehy, who was kicked out of the Conservative Party after the blog post, said no residents or Southall councillors had complained about the comments, other than Cllr Malcolm.
He also said he had spoken to Indian residents in Southall who were unhappy about social problems there but were too afraid to speak out about them.
“This has been a political show trial from start to finish,” he said.
“In a free country you can’t just punish someone for saying something simply because you don’t like it. Otherwise, we are no better than countries like China and Iran.”
Cllr Dennehy admitted he was not well acquainted with Southall but said he had been on several planning visits to the area, where he said so-called “sheds with beds” were highly prevalent and described the area as “almost like a modern-day shanty town.”
He said his comments were based on FOI requests to the council regarding the number of arrests for street-walking made in Southall.
He also used to sit on the licensing committee, where he heard non-stop “excessive drinking and gambling issues".
Conor Gearty, Professor of Human Rights Law at the London School of Economics, has been assisting Cllr Dennehy with his case.
He said: “The case clearly raises issues of free political speech. Democracy needs all views, including those with which many do not agree.”
Cllr Malcolm asserted that Cllr Dennehy “washed a whole community of about 100,000 as being criminals, prostitutes etc” and said he had received letters from community leaders angered by the comments.
Mr Justice Mckenna will decide next Friday whether to grant permission for a hearing of judicial review.
Cllr Dennehy has vowed to take the case to the Court of Appeal if he is unsuccessful, but stated: “It’s a good result because, otherwise, he could have just thrown it out.
"The fact that he’s reserved judgement means he thinks he has quite a bit to think about. I remain very hopeful.”
Cllr Dennehy was adamant that, if he is successful in his case, he has no desire to rejoin the Conservative Party even if he were invited.