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Police investigating after member of public claims assault at Chorley Council meeting

Posted on - 29th February, 2024 - 1:47pm | Author - | Posted in - Crime, Lancashire Police, Politics, Preston News
A still from the video of the incident at Chorley Council
A still from the video of the incident at Chorley Council

Police are investigating after a member of the public claimed she was assaulted during a Chorley Council meeting – by an elected councillor.

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The authority’s annual budget debate had already been adjourned after a group of people observing the proceedings staged a protest over the council’s response to the war in Gaza.

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Chorley resident Jenny Hurley demanded to know why the ruling Labour group had not tabled a motion at Tuesday evening’s town hall meeting calling for a ceasefire in the conflict.

Read more: Lancashire awarded largest share of transport fund from scrapped HS2 money

“Why has that not happened?” she asked.

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At that point, Conservative opposition member Craige Southern shouted: “Because it’s Chorley, not bloody Gaza.”

He is then seen on video that was captured by one of the demonstrators walking towards Ms Hurley saying:  “Get out, go on” – before appearing to move her towards the door of the council chamber.

Cllr Southern said in a statement issued on Tuesday that he “did not attack anyone” – and insisted he had been protecting himself and fellow councillors, whom he claimed had been subject to the actions of “a baying mob”.   He has not been arrested.

However, Jenny Hurley told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that it was “an utterly appalling and completely unnecessary” response to what had been an entirely peaceful protest by the Chorley for Palestine group.

She said that in all her adult life as a campaigner for various causes – including when she was on anti-apartheid demonstrations as a student and, more recently, during the seven-year battle for a 24-hour A&E to be reinstated at Chorley Hospital – she had never experienced anything like it.

“[Cllr Southern] first of all pushed me, then he grabbed my coat and tried to force me out of the room [and] tried to push me back – as I was going through the door, one of the ushers had to stop me from falling backwards,” Ms. Hurley alleged.

Moments after council officers intervened, police also entered the council chamber.  The LDRS understands that officers from a neighbourhood policing team were already stationed outside the town hall because of a pre-planned protest.

In response, Cllr Southern said:  “This baying mob was so threatening the meeting was suspended and the mayor had to be taken to safety. Some councillors were in tears.

“I had Jenny Hurley constantly talking behind me during the meeting,” he said, alleging that he heard her threaten Labour cabinet member Terry Howarth.

“Shortly afterwards, as she began shouting, she made a move towards the councillors in the chamber and I put my arms out and stopped her from doing so and said: ‘Get out.’ I felt threatened, everyone was scared and I feared she would attack Cllr Howarth or others,” Cllr Southern added.

Speaking to the LDRS, Jenny Hurley categorically denied making any threat against Cllr Howarth, whom she said had been a friend for eight years and could regularly be found with her on the weekly Saturday morning demonstrations held outside Chorley Hospital over the A&E issue.

She added: “[Cllr Southern] crossed the floor to me – it’s in the video.”

Ms. Hurley also contrasted recent concern about the threat to the safety of MPs’ over their various stances on the situation in Gaza with what she experienced in Chorley Town Hall.

“There shouldn’t be a threat to MPs…but now we go into a council meeting and we’re attacked by the elected representatives. So who is going to protect the public from [them]?” she asked, adding that the various Chorley campaign groups with which she is involved have only ever acted “peacefully”.

However, Cllr Southern – who represents the Croston, Mawdesley and Euxton South ward – said he would “do the same thing again”.

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“Democracy is important to me and I will do all I can to protect it from mob rule.   The [police] officer accepted my version of events and left. I will happily co-operate with any further investigation,” he added.

A Lancashire Police spokesperson told the LDRS:  “We have received a complaint of an assault at an event in Chorley [on Tuesday evening] and an investigation is underway. No arrests have been made at this stage and enquiries are ongoing.”

What happened when?

The incident occurred near the start of the full council meeting during a section dedicated to public questions.  Jenny Hurley had submitted a written enquiry about affordable housing, which was answered by Cllr Terry Howarth in his role as the relevant cabinet member.

When Ms. Hurley was given the standard opportunity to pose a follow-up question on the same subject, she swerved onto the issue of Gaza. Chorley Council chief executive Chris Sinnott attempted to interrupt a speech she was reading from her phone and – as borough mayor Tommy Gray banged his gavel –  warned that she would have to leave the meeting if she did not stop speaking.

Other Chorley for Palestine protestors in the chamber raised signs reading: ‘Silent on genocide’.

A few seconds later, Mr Sinnott suspended the meeting and advised councillors they could leave the chamber via the mayor’s parlour if they wished – although most appeared to stay put.

It was early during that 20-minute adjournment – at which point the public webcast was switched off – that the incident involving Cllr Southern occurred.  Prior to that – and also shown in a video captured by one of the protestors – the sound of someone chanting “la la la” appeared to emanate from the Labour backbenches in an attempt to drown out Ms. Hurley’s ongoing speech.

One demonstrator was heard to ask: “Is that the response to genocide?”

The number of Palestinians killed in Gaza in the past four-and-a-half months is approaching 30,000, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in the territory.  The war began after around 1,200 Israelis were killed – and more than 200 kidnapped – in the October 7th terror attacks launched by Hamas on the Jewish state.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, Labour council leader Alistair Bradley said:  “We absolutely support and promote the free speech of all in our community along with peaceful demonstrations and protest.”

“Council meetings are – and quite rightly – public forums and any member of the public is able to attend to observe proceedings or ask questions.

“The Chorley for Palestine Group has attended our council meetings in the past and they have of course been welcomed, provided that they adhere to the rules surrounding public attendance and public questions.

 “The council meeting on 27th February was temporarily suspended because the protocol around public questions was broken and in an attempt to diffuse what could become an unsafe situation for the public, staff and councillors.

 “We are aware that a police complaint has been raised in relation to an incident that took place at the meeting.”

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Conservative group leader Alan Cullens said it would not appropriate to comment in detail while a police investigation is ongoing “other than to say the feeling in the room amongst councillors was one of intimidation”.

“Whilst people have the right of protest, they do not have the right to hijack democracy,” Cllr Cullens added.

What was the issue?

In the speech which prompted the suspension of the meeting, Jenny Hurley accused the ruling Labour group of failing to follow up “with any public action” a local party statement in which it had backed calls for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

As the gathering was adjourned, she continued: “History has shown us atrocities where we look back and ask, ‘Why didn’t someone stand up and say something?’ Here, in this chamber today, we are now experiencing those people staying silent in the face of historic atrocities.

“We ask that those of you with a conscience in the Labour group stand up and put forward a motion for a ceasefire in an extraordinary council meeting – before more people are murdered while you look on in silence and shame.”

However, speaking to the LDRS after the meeting, Labour group and council leader Alistair Bradley said the council itself was not the appropriate forum through which to raise issues relating to the conflict.

He said:  “Chorley Labour group has previously made a clear statement calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza in line with national Labour Party policy.

“As members of a political party, we have views on local, national and international issues and rightly wanted to express these in relation to the Middle East.  However, the role of Chorley Council is to provide services to the residents of the borough and the council has no function or agency in issues relating [to] Gaza – therefore, a council motion on this matter would not be appropriate.

“Our views on Gaza have therefore been made through the Labour Party, not the council chamber.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Chorley Green Party – which does not have any elected representatives on Chorley Council, but fielded candidates in all but one of its wards at last year’s local elections – said the group was “concerned by the scenes” in the town hall chamber on Tuesday.

“The Green Party is committed to councillors who are the voice of concerned Chorley residents in the council and bring[ing] kindness to politics,” they said.

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