Members' Code of Conduct (Agenda Item 7)
As requested at the last meeting, the Standards Consultant will give a briefing on the provisions of the Code of Conduct for the benefit of new Members of the Committee.
The Standards Consultant gave a brief overview of the Code of Conduct using a PowerPoint presentation.
He explained that the consequences of abuse of the Code ranged from ‘No Action’ to disqualification for five years.
The powers of the Committee had been extended to allow them to suspend a Member for up to six months.
The Code applied to Members acting in their official capacity – or giving that impression. There was a booklet available which explained the terms used in the Code.
The Code defined the behaviour expected of Members and it was up to the individual to interpret its requirements. The underlying theme of the code was the need to act with appropriate standards. Members were advised to consider the ‘spirit’ of the Code rather than individual statements within it.
Flowcharts were passed to Members to assist in the decision making process on when a member had an interest and whether it was a personal or a personal and prejudicial interest. It was pointed out that Members could not have a prejudicial interest without first having a personal interest.
Members declaring a personal interest should clearly state the nature of that interest. They could then stay in the meeting and take part in any vote.
Personal interests related to things covered by the Register of Interests, to a Member’s wellbeing or financial position or to the wellbeing or financial position of a relevant person (including extended family members, friends and acquaintances and anyone that a member of the public might think that a Member would favour).
The Code was more restrictive than the previous Code in relation to prejudicial interests and defined them as anything relating to a financial interest or to matters where approval / permission was granted where a member of the public would consider that a Member’s interest would affect their judgement.
Members declaring a personal and prejudicial interest should leave the room and take no part in any discussion or vote. It was not enough to withdraw from the discussion but to remain in the room. Their very presence could influence what others said, or did not say.
Discussion then followed on the anomaly that if a meeting was open to speaking by members of the public, a Member had a constitutional right to remain in the meeting and speak even if they had declared a personal and prejudicial interest. They could choose to be the final speaker and only had to leave the room once they had spoken. This meant that they could be in the room and hear everything said up until the time that they spoke.
Members then referred to the procedure at many Town and Parish Council meetings where it was the practice to ‘suspend’ the meeting to enable members of the public to speak. The Chairman confirmed that the National Association of Local Councils advised its members to do this. It was acknowledged that members of the public attended meetings because they wanted information or had questions. Members at the meetings wanted to be able to answer questions, but felt constrained if they had an interest and were unsure of the position in relation to the Code about speaking whilst the meeting was suspended. The Monitoring Officer suggested that a change to Standing Orders for the Town/Parish Council could allow the public to participate during the meeting, without having to suspend proceedings, thus avoiding confusion.
The Standards Consultant then explained that there were occasions when dispensations could be sought, for instance when more than 50% of a council were unable to take part in a vote due to prejudicial interest.
The Register of Interest had to be filled out by every Councillor and failure to do so was a breach of the Code. A separate Register had to be completed for each position held, so a Parish Councillor who was also a District Councillor and a County Councillor would need to fill in three Registers of Interest.
Finally it was mentioned that 10 Principles of Public Life had been included in the Code at the request of the Standards Board for England. These principles were a guide and non-compliance did not constitute a breach of the code.