Annual Report on Standards Arrangements (Agenda item 7)
Report of Vicky Thomson, Assistant Director of Democratic Services.
Vicky Thomson, the Assistant Director of Democratic Services and the Monitoring Officer presented the report that updated Members on the work undertaken on standards matters and complaints received against District, Town and Parish Councillors from 1 April 2013 to March 2014.
The arrangements for dealing with complaints against Members had been approved by Full Council on 5 July 2012 in line with the requirements of the Localism Act 2011. As part of the arrangements, it had been agreed that the role of monitoring standards issues should be delegated to the Audit Committee in the form of an annual report.
A total of 23 complaints had been received since the implementation of the new regime; 9 of those related to the period as mentioned above. There were three stages of dealing with complaints that were received:
Stage 1 – initial consideration of a complaint
Stage 2 – formal consideration of a complaint
Stage 3 – investigation.
Most of the complaints that had been received thus far had been resolved within stage one of the process. Out of the nine received for the year, seven had been found not to be a breach of the Code and one had been resolved under informal resolution and the complaint had been closed. The remaining complaint had been in relation to failing to declare a Disclosable Pecuniary Interest (DPI) and the Police had been informed in accordance with the Act. The Police had not acted on the matter and had referred the complaint back to Breckland Council where it was found not to be a failure and had since been resolved.
Opportunities had been provided throughout these arrangements to enable local resolution between the complainant and the subject member. Such informal resolution involved a copy of the complaint being given to the subject member where an apology could be offered.
Also, under the Localism Act 2011, all Town and Parish Councils had to advise their local authority whether they had adopted their own Code of Conduct or whether they had chosen to adopt Breckland’s. Most had adopted the latter; however, 34 had not notified the Council and their Code was unknown. In the meantime, if a complaint was made in relation to one of their Members an assumption was made that the Code of Conduct for Breckland Council had been adopted. Additionally, a number of Parish Councillors had not submitted their Disclosable Pecuniary Interest (DPI) forms; the ones that had been received had been published on the Council’s website.
The role of the Independent Person was explained; to date, no Members had had to consult with the Independent Person.
In general the new system had been working well and with the Elections coming up in 2015, the Monitoring Officer needed to ensure that Members were fully aware of their declaration duties.
Councillor Gilbert was in attendance to query the number of complaints received in relation to public access to meetings particularly in regard to Watton Town Council. He said that he would not be disclosing anything that was not already in the public domain. He was not asking for the decision to be changed as this had already been agreed at the Town Council, he just wanted to discuss the logical conclusion of that decision with the Audit Committee. He informed Members that he had been surprised by the total number of complaints in the Annual report as he had personally submitted 12. The reason he wanted to attend the Audit Committee meeting was to query the legalities of public access to meetings, he highlighted the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act and the Code of Conduct of both Watton Town Council and Breckland Council and pointed out that the press and the public had been excluded from a Watton Town Council meeting during their budget proposals as it had been suggested by some Councillors that it contained matters of commercial sensitivity. The document in question, did not, in his opinion, contain such information and he felt that Watton Town Council had breached the Code of Conduct. He also felt that a precedent had been set. The Chairman pointed out that the deficiency of the scheme was not the remit of the Audit Committee as it was an interpretation of the law. Councillor Gilbert explained that his intention was to contact the local ombudsman on this matter but what he really wanted to find out was why his complaints to Breckland Council had not been listed individually. The Monitoring Officer explained that complaints received from the same complainant were treated as one and arrangements were in place to deal with individual complaints. Councillor Nunn felt that the Town Council had abused the system. The Chairman said that Breckland Council could not take this matter further as it was national law and suggested that the deficiency should be flagged up with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles. The Vice-Chairman suggested that such a matter could be flagged up with the Town Council’s auditors as the correct minuting of decisions and the process would be part of the auditor’s remit. The Chairman felt that transparency and openness should be encouraged and supported the aforementioned suggestion that a proper argued case should be put to the Minister in question. Mr Ludlow asked the auditors present if they felt it to be worthy of comment. Rob Murray advised that it would and Councillor Gilbert had every right to flag this up with the Town Council’s auditors. The Monitoring Officer explained that all Town and Parish Councils should have their own complaints procedure.
Referring back to the Annual Report in relation to DPI forms, Councillor Canham asked if it was the duty of Breckland Council to ensure that these forms had been completed. The Monitoring Officer advised that it was the duty of Breckland Council to publish the forms and advise the Town and Parishes of their duty to submit the forms, not to chase. Councillor Canham also asked what would happen if a complaint was made against a Councillor and that person had not disclosed the necessary information. The Monitoring Officer explained that that complaint would be lodged with the Police which could mean that the Councillor in question could be fined up to £5k and be removed from Office for a period of five years. Councillor Kiddle-Morris said that the submission of DPIs was a grey area; however, after 2015 all Councillors would have to complete a DPI. Mr Ludlow asked if Breckland Council had written to the 34 Town and Parish Councils that had not adopted a Code of Conduct. In response, Members were informed that Breckland Council had to check what Code they had in place such as whether they had adopted the Nolan Principles; however, each Code could be subtlety different.
Councillor Gilbert thanked the Audit Committee for allowing him to speak at the meeting.
The content of the report was noted.