To consider the attached report.
Contact Officer: Maria.Damigos@buckinghamshiregov.uk
The Committee was informed that the Localism Act 2011 governed the arrangements for local authorities in respect of ethical standards. This included the Code of Conduct for Councillors, Registers of Interests and the handling of complaints. The Standards and General Purposes Committee was responsible for exercising the Council’s functions under the Localism Act 2011 in relation to ethical standards and had oversight and responsibility for the Code of Conduct and the Arrangements for Dealing with Standards Complaints.
As background, following the change to a unitary council there were currently 196 Buckinghamshire Councillors (reducing to 147 after the May 2021 elections) and over 1000 Town and Parish Councillors across the Buckinghamshire Council administrative area. The Monitoring Officer was responsible for dealing with complaints against councillors but it was expected that the majority of this work would be passed onto the Deputy Monitoring Officers. In the interests of fairness to both complainants and Members a consistent approach in both procedure and decision making was considered best practice. This could be achieved by having more detailed guidance for complaints and clarity on the role of the Independent Person.
The Councillor Code of Conduct applicable to the councillors of Buckinghamshire Council was set out in the Council’s Constitution at Part H Section 2. The Code of Conduct also included the requirements for registration of interests. Part H Section 3 contained the Arrangements for Dealing with Complaints against Councillors. The Code of Conduct had been drafted so it would be sufficiently high level to cover any relevant situation and also provide clarity in certain circumstances (e.g. in relation to interests). This Committee had oversight of the Code but as it was contained within the Constitution any changes had to be recommended to full Council.
Whilst there was an overview of the arrangements for dealing with complaints in the Constitution it was considered that as the practical application of the arrangements were an operational matter, they could be subject to circumstances at the time and technology or resources might change their operation, the detailed arrangements would be better dealt within a guidance document. As such, as the Guidance was not contained within the Constitution it did not need to be approved by the Council making its practical application easier to update where necessary.
The Localism Act provided that a Council must appoint at least one Independent Person (IP) whose views were to be sought and taken into account before the Council made a decision following the investigation of a complaint that a Member or a Town or Parish Councillor had failed to comply with their Code of Conduct. The Monitoring Officer could also consult an IP when making a decision on how to progress a complaint. Members who were the subject of a complaint also had the right to consult an IP if a complaint was made about them.
IPs could also be involved in other aspects of a complaint such as whether to agree to keep a complainant’s identity confidential. They could also be on a Panel considering the dismissal of a statutory officer and could be consulted about dispensations to be granted to our councillors. They provided an independent balance on decision making in this area. Due to the importance of the role of the IP and the Guidance on ethical standards it was considered appropriate to have both of these documents approved by the Committee.
The Committee report detailed further information on:
· The Code of Conduct – that was split into 3 parts, with a section on general / high level obligations, and 2 further Sections relating to interests, their effect on participation in Council business and registration and disclosure of interests.
· Appendix A to the Code of Conduct – which sets out disclosable pecuniary interests, and the requirements relating to the registration of gifts and hospitality.
· The arrangements for dealing with complaints against Councillors – the process was split into 4 parts, initial assessment on whether it was appropriate to progress the complaint, then 3 stages to deal with the complaint, namely:
o obtaining the Subject Member’s response to the complaint and checking if this is satisfactory to the complainant.
o If not, Stage 2 was formal consideration of the complaint by the Monitoring Officer or allocated Deputy Monitoring Officer to determine if to progress the complaint. Depending on the seriousness of the alleged behaviour this stage could involve consultation with the IP and/or the Chairman of the Standards and General Purposes Committee.
o The last stage was investigation and where appropriate a referral to the Sub-Committee who could decide that a formal hearing was necessary.
· Each complaint was considered on its own merits, however the Referral Criteria list the factors could be taken into account. These were detailed at paragraph 3.11 of the Arrangements.
The draft guidance on dealing with Member complaints was attached at Appendix 1 to the agenda, and contained guidance for complainants on how to make a complaint and included the practical aspects of how it would progress. The draft Guidance was being used as a basis to progress current complaints apart from the forms as detailed. The Guidance also sets out how a complaint would be dealt with as well as more detail on the process and procedures such as confidentiality and the procedures for investigations, hearings and committees.
Amendments to the Guidance were reserved to the Committee but the Chairman of the Hearings Sub-Committee could, following consultation with the IP, depart from the detailed procedures where appropriate. It was considered that the Guidance would supplement and explain the Arrangements detailed in the Constitution. The Committees views on the Guidance were sought and subject to those views it was recommended that the Guidance should be approved to ensure consistency of approach and fairness across the Council.
The Committee was informed that, as mentioned, IPs could be consulted by the Monitoring Officer, investigators or by Members subject to a complaint, and they could be asked to provide their view to the Committee or Sub-Committee if a complaint progressed. The Protocol on the role of the IP set out the roles in each of these scenarios as well as other matters which they might be involved in.
The Protocol also set out rights which were given to the IPs including addressing full Council with any concerns as well as rights of access to Council premises and information. The relationship between the IPs and this Committee was also clearly set out. Three IPs had been appointed. Two training sessions with the IPs had taken place and a third session dealing with procedures had been scheduled for 23 June.
The Protocol provided clarity to both the IPs and Subject Members on their role and their rights as an IP. Members sought further information on the draft guidance on dealing with Member complaints and on the Protocol on the role of the IP and were informed:-
(i) That where a complaint received was of a very minor nature, or was not actually a complaint, and did not progress to Stage 1, then it was not the intention for individual Members to be informed of this.
(ii) An explanation was provided on how the arrangements for dealing with Member complaints worked in relation to Members who might be subject to politically motivated or malicious complaints.
(iii) Stage 2 (No. 6) – it was requested that the Chairman and Vice Chairman be kept updated on all complaints, not just serious alleged behaviour, so that they were aware of any particular trends.
(iv) that in some instances it would be appropriate to involve the political Group Leaders as part of the resolution process.
(1) That the arrangements for dealing with complaints against Councillors be noted.
(2) That the draft Guidance on dealing with Member complaints, subject to the comment at (iii) above, be approved.
(3) That the draft Protocol on the Role of the Independent Person be approved.
(4) That a summary report on standards complaints be submitted to the next meeting in October 2020, and then at future meetings as considered appropriate by the Committee.
- Complaints and IP Protocol S&GP Report (02 07 20), item 4. PDF 194 KB
- Complaints and IP Protocol App 1, item 4. PDF 473 KB
- Complaints and IP Protocol App 2, item 4. PDF 102 KB