A LEADING Tory councillor was spotted by a Gazette reporter using his Blackberry for almost two hours during the most important council meeting of the year.

While Cumbria County Council decided to increase council tax by nearly two per cent, Cllr Eric Nicholson played solitaire, checked his online banking and perused his emails in clear view of the press bench.

The Cockermouth councillor was on his phone for a large part of the budget meeting at Kendal's County Hall, speaking only to mutter a 'hear, hear' approval at the decision to take a lunch break.

Despite putting his phone away after lunch, Cllr Nicholson was seen doodling on the agenda papers during the afternoon session.

Leader of the Conservative Group Cllr James Airey said he had seen members from all parties reading newspapers during parts of the debate and added: "We have got to sharpen our act up."

When approached by the Gazette, Cllr Nicholson accepted being on his phone for nearly two hours playing solitaire, checking online banking and looking at emails, and doodling at one stage, but added: "Trust me, I was concentrating. What you've got to understand is I get these papers a week before the meeting. I know them inside out. I don't think it truly affected anything I needed to concentrate on.

"I listened to the debate carefully. I'm the type of guy that gets terribly bored and I switch off. I can lose my focus. It sounds silly but I'm so used to working at 100mph. I know it gives a bad impression."

When asked whether he cared about the fact that Cumbrians are facing a hefty tax hike, Cllr Nicholson said: "I absolutely do."

However, Cllr Nicholson stopped short of apologising for his actions, choosing instead to say that his constituents knew the amount of work he did for them.

Cllr Nicholson's behaviour incensed Steven Atkinson from IsItFair Cumbria, a local government scrutiny group, who said: "It just shows the seriousness with which councillors take the debate. It's an absolute insult to the people who elected him and put him in that position. 

"He should apologise and attempt to explain himself to the electorate. 

"No wonder there is such apathy from voters."

Labour's Cllr Len Davies, Mayor of Allerdale and parish councillor for All Saints Cockermouth, also called for Cllr Nicholson to apologise.

He said: "I think this will go global. He has certainly let down those who trusted him to act on their behalf and an apology would be appropriate.

"To prevent this happening again there must be a clear message that councillors must focus on what's being discussed."

Cllr Airey said: "I'm surprised because Eric is a very hard working councillor who has helped me a lot in drawing up our business proposals.

"I spoke to Eric and he has apologised. He was aware of everything that went on in the budget debate and he has promised me that he won't do any personal work in important council debates again."

Rule four of the Councillors' Code of Conduct states: 'You must not bring your office or authority into disrepute'.

However, there are no clear rules against mobile phone use while undertaking council business.


The Gazette spoke to a cross-section of county councillors, all of whom said they only used technology in a meeting for work related matters, or never took their phone in at all.

Cllr Heidi Halliday, of Ambleside, said: "I don't take my phone in. I need to listen to people talking. I don't notice a lot of people on their phones but I'm busy concentrating on what's going on. If I was spotted playing games there would be a few upset people in Ambleside!"