Those are the words of the leader of Southampton City Council after a report found that he had been “economical with the truth” in misleading the public over the resignation of a senior colleague.

Cllr Richard Williams today faces fresh calls to resign after the publication of the report, which was commissioned after a press release was sent out on his orders saying that Cllr Keith Morrell had been forced to step down from the city council’s ruling Cabinet “for health reasons”.

However, as revealed by the Daily Echo, Cllr Morrell was actually fighting fit and had resigned after disagreements on policy.

The council’s Conservative opposition has tabled a motion to depose the Labour leader, who now faces a vote of no confidence next Thursday.

An inquiry was launched by council monitoring officer Mark Heath on October 19 last year, after Cllr Morrell revealed to the Echo that the health story was a “fiction” agreed at Cllr Williams’ suggestion to avoid political embarrassment.

Richard Lingard, a former head of legal and democratic services at Guildford Borough Council, spoke to 15 councillors, officers and local Labour Party members in the course of the investigation, which lasted from November 13 to February 14.

As previously reported, a copy was handed in to Mr Heath on March 2, and copies were given to Cllrs Williams, Morrell and Labour deputy leader Jacqui Rayment three days later.

They were allowed to comment on the provisional findings on the grounds of “procedural fairness and natural justice”.

As well as reprimanding Cllr Williams, the independent report was critical of the way Cllr Morrell and Cllr Rayment had conducted themselves, saying that all three failed to comply with national guidelines on councillors’ conduct.

It found that the trio had, to varying degrees, failed to comply with the Nolan Principles of Public Life relating to openness, honesty and leadership.

Mr Lingard also said that Cllrs Williams and Rayment both broke the council’s protocol regarding mutual respect and courtesy between councillors and officers.

He concluded there was no evidence of injustice or maladministration, that any criminal offences had taken place, or that the council’s own code of conduct had been broken.

In his conclusions, Mr Lingard said of Cllr Williams: “I do not criticise Cllr Williams for approaching the difficult situation in which he found himself on the basis that he wanted to minimise reputational damage – persuasion and indeed instruction are both very much part of the role of any leader.

“However, when, by his own admission, the story that was published was not the whole story, he strayed into the murky territory of economy with the truth, albeit possibly with the best of intentions.

“By instructing [then-council senior communications director] Ben White to draft a release that was by his own (albeit later) admission not the whole story, Cllr Williams failed in my view to meet the standards of openness and honesty expected of an elected member and in doing so also failed to honour the spirit of the member-officer protocol.”

Mr Lingard also found that there had been discrepancies in Cllr Williams’ evidence about the press release – in one interview he was “adamant” that he did not ask Mr White to draft the release or ask for Cllr Rayment to clear the release before it was sent out.

However, he confirmed at a later date that he did ask Mr White to draft the release, and to run it past his deputy.

The report was also critical of the way Cllr Rayment handled the press release, saying that “once she became aware of the full circumstances, she did nothing to correct the erroneous impression that it had conveyed”.

In agreeing to Cllr Williams’ suggestion to cite ill health for his resignation, Mr Lingard said Cllr Morrell’s behaviour changed from being “possibly illogical to less than honest”, and that he had taken no steps to change the content of the release before it went out.

In response to the report, Cllr Williams said: “In advance of next Thursday’s council meeting I wish it to be known that I fully accept the recommendations in the report.

“Mistakes were made surrounding the issuance of the press release in my name as leader of the council last May.

“I take responsibility for them and I apologise, as leader, for them. I will be commenting further at the meeting itself.”

Cllr Morrell said that he had no comment to make at the moment, but that he would address the meeting next week.

Next Thursday, councillors will be asked to vote on whether Cllr Williams should remain as leader.

Conservative group leader Cllr Royston Smith said: “He is a liar and now a proven one. He is not fit to hold public office.

“How can he ever be trusted to tell the truth?

“If he had one shred of integrity he would do the decent thing and resign, if not for himself then for the good of politics, politicians and public service.

“We know from recent experience he won’t do that.”

Liberal Democrat group leader Cllr Adrian Vinson said: “It’s taken an absurd length of time for us to be finally told what we already knew.

“For the leadership of our council to be branded as dishonest and lacking in openness is bad news for the council, for the city and for politics in general.

“In addition to the issues of honesty covered in the investigation, this also brings sharply into question the leadership’s lack of judgement.

“Cllr Williams and Cllr Rayment should consider their positions.”

Mr Heath has said he is satisfied that the results of the investigation are “robust” and has recommended that the full council notes the report and refers it to the authority’s governance committee, which may decide to recommend changes to the way the council operates.

How the saga unfolded:

WHEN Labour swept into office on May 3 last year, Cllr Morrell was appointed as Cabinet member for efficiency and improvement.

But less than two weeks later, on May 22, he told a council officer he had been due to meet that he was resigning.

In an email to leader Cllr Williams, the Coxford councillor said that political and policy differences were behind the decision.

Cllr Williams tried to persuade him to rethink his decision, but after some discussion it was decided that Cllr Morrell should resign on the grounds of ill health.

Mr Lingard’s report states that in a conversation between Cllr Williams and his deputy, Cllr Rayment, on May 22, she told him that Cllr Morrell “may have some mental health issues”.

On May 23, the leader instructed then council senior communications director Ben White to prepare a statement saying that Cllr Morrell had resigned because of health issues, which was read and slightly amended by Cllr Rayment and sent out later that day.

But within days Cllr Morrell, who had to field a number of calls from concerned friends about his health, confirmed to the Daily Echo that the real reason behind his resignation was not ill health, but council policy.

Cllr Williams then forwarded Cllr Morrell’s resignation email to Cllr Rayment and party whip Cathie McEwing on June 10, before it was forwarded to the remaining 26 Labour councillors two days later.

An extraordinary meeting of the council was held on June 25, where Cllr Williams apologised for “communication errors” and Cllr Rayment apologised for failing to fully check the press release.

A motion of no confidence in Cllr Williams was defeated, but the investigation was launched after the Echo published Cllr Morrell’s real resignation email on October 19.

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