Agenda item

Review of Standards Committee: May 2008 - October 2009

Report of the Monitoring Officer.

Minutes:

The Solicitor and Standards Consultant presented the report which provided an overview of the work and achievements of the Committee over the last 18 months since the introduction of the new assessment procedures.

 

The main activities during the period were as set out in paragraph 3 of the report, which demonstrated that the standards function had been discharged satisfactorily.

 

With the recent changes to the Council’s structures and the appointment of the new Monitoring Officer, it was felt this was an appropriate time for the Committee to reassess its role and consider whether any changes in procedures or emphasis would be beneficial.

 

In reviewing its role, the Committee considered suggestions that it might wish to:

 

  • Seek a closer spirit of cooperation with the rest of the Council.
  • Consider that it has a valuable role to play in reporting to the Council how members of the public are likely to take what they are saying and doing.
  • Look for a better understanding by the Standards Committee of the pressures on individual members, both generally and in particular with respect to the Code of Conduct
  • Request Cabinet to give their views on this report.

 

The latest Standards for England (SFE) Review had been forwarded to members of the Committee and printed copies could be made available if wished.  One item of note from the statistics on complaints dealt with by committees was that the Review highlighted that there was a lower number of formal complaints in Breckland than might have been expected given the large number of parish councils in the District.

 

The Committee went on to discuss generally issues of public awareness of standards committees and how to bolster public confidence in the work of local councils.

 

In regard to the SFE Review, the view was put that there was a fundamental misunderstanding at the Government level about how district and parish councils worked.  It was felt the Government view was very much directed to the County and Unitary Council tiers of local government, and that some of the statements contained in the SFE Review reflected that lack of understanding of the relationship at the district and parish level of local government.

 

The Chief Executive felt that, nonetheless, there were some things that could be done to address issues of awareness and raising the profile of the standards function, together with fostering a greater spirit of cooperation and understanding, to the benefit of all concerned.

 

Suggested ways to achieve this were greater liaison with the Leader of the Council and senior management and use of articles in Breckland Voice and in the local press and other media, as well as through the work of the National Association of Local Councils (NALC).

 

A survey through the Citizens’ Panel was suggested as another option through which the level of public awareness and understanding of the work of the Standards Committee could be gauged.

 

Allied to this was the question of training at both district and parish council levels, which was an important element of ensuring a good understanding of the standards function generally and the individual responsibilities of elected members in that respect.  Training for parish clerks on standards was equally important.

 

Training on standards and the Code of Conduct had been offered on a number of occasions and in variety of ways over the years but not all parishes had fully participated to date.  It was felt to be a matter of time to achieve full participation but that the Council could continue to work towards this by offering one or two training sessions a year.

 

There had been some limited success in establishing parish clerks networking.  The level of training taken up by parish clerks both generally and in regards to standards and the Code of Conduct varied considerably and it was felt this was reflected in the general level of understanding of the Code and participation in training.

 

The Standards Officer advised that a very comprehensive and useful toolkit had been published by the SFE and was available on its website.  It was hoped to produce a copy of the guidance document to send to all parish clerks.

 

Suggestions to hold one or two training sessions a year and for the Standards Officer to meet with newly appointed parish clerks to offer an introduction to standards were supported.

 

Members also supported any efforts to enhance the Committee’s relations with elected members, and to help to uplift the understanding of the role and standing of the Committee within the Authority, recognising that there was a need for greater knowledge on all sides of their various roles.

 

Members also agreed that it would be very helpful to seek the Cabinet’s views on the report and the results of this Committee’s deliberations.

 

RESOLVED that

 

(1)         the suggested ways forward for promoting awareness and understanding of the standards committee, including training, as outlined above, be endorsed; and

(2)         the report, together with the views of this Committee, be submitted to Cabinet for its views on the suggested approach to enhancing the relations between the Committee and the Authority.

Supporting documents: