Labour councillors ordered to apologise after WhatsApp conversations leaked

Labour has ordered several St Helens councillors to apologise
Labour has ordered several St Helens councillors to apologise
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Labour has ordered several councillors to apologise after an internal inquiry into allegations that private WhatsApp conversations were leaked, it can be revealed.

According to Labour sources, the North West arm of the party launched an inquiry in 2018 into the behaviour of St Helens councillors Barrie Grunewald, John Fulham, Paul Pritchard, Richard McCauley and Martin Bond.

It is understood the investigation centred on the content and alleged leaking of private WhatsApp conversations, which culminated in the resignation of Coun Grunewald as leader of the council last April.

Coun Grunewald’s resignation came as Merseyside Police launched an investigation into an allegation of a possible data breach involving St Helens councillors.

The allegations related to how screenshots from group WhatsApp conversations involving Labour councillors Pritchard, McCauley and Bond were obtained from a mobile phone and then distributed during the run-up to the local elections.

A number of divisions had formed within the Labour group in the months leading up to the incident, particularly among backbench councillors.

It is understood Coun Fulham obtained screenshots of the private WhatsApp group, which contained derogatory comments from backbench councillors about other Labour members, including the then leader of the council.

According to sources, Coun Fulham, who was a cabinet member at the time, passed these screenshots to Coun Grunewald, who then arranged for hard copies to be distributed to Labour councillors’ pigeon holes.

It is understood that Merseyside Police was then notified of a possible data breach by council chiefs.

During the police investigation, Coun Grunewald was also suspended from the Labour Party, although he remained a ward councillor for Rainhill.

In June, Coun Grunewald was informed by Merseyside Police that no charges would be brought against him, and his suspension was subsequently lifted by the Labour Party.

At the time Coun Grunewald said “spurious allegations” had been levelled against him. He said he felt people had a right to know what others had said about them.

However, the following month, deputy regional director Andy Smith told members at a group meeting that he had asked the party’s regional board to launch an internal inquiry into the behaviour of councillors.

Mr Smith said St Helens “probably” had the worst record in the region regarding complaints about councillors, adding that Labour receives complaints about councillors on a “regular basis”.

It is understood Labour’s investigation finally reached its conclusion last month, with Labour members ordered to write a letter of apology.

Coun Pritchard, Coun McCauley and Coun Bond’s involvement related to the remarks made on WhatsApp. The involvement of Coun Fulham and Coun Grunewald related to the screenshots.

There is no suggestion the councillors broke the law or breached the code of conduct for councillors.

However, it is understood Labour officials were unhappy with the behaviour, which has led to instructions that they issue apologies.

Coun Grunewald, Coun Fulham, Coun Pritchard, Coun McCauley and Coun Bond all declined to comment.

A spokesman for Labour North West said it “does not comment on internal matters”.