To recieve a summary of recent Member Code of Conduct complaints and associated investigations involving elected members of Handforth Parish Council.
Page 16 of the report contains exempt information as defined in paragraphs 3 and 4 of Part 1 of Schedule 12A to the Local Government Act 1972. It may therefore be necessary for the Committee to exclude the press and public in order to consider this page.
Jonathan Goolden attended the meeting as an Independent Legal Advisor to the Committee. David Brown, Director of Governance and Compliance, and Monitoring Officer advised the Committee that he would remain in the room but was there to answer factual questions on the report only and that Jamie Hollis, Interim Head of Legal would add any detail.
The Interim Head of Legal advised the Committee that across the borough of Cheshire East, there were 108 parish councils comprising of over 1000 parish Councillors. The overwhelming majority had no interaction with the standards process at all.
A working group comprised of members from this Committee had been formed to reconsider the Cheshire East code of conduct and process. Sufficient and robust training and development would be offered to colleagues within Town and Parish Councils, to implement changes and be sufficiently adequate for councillor to challenge where appropriate and resolve local issues.
The Committee were advised that the council had received a number complaints about and between Handforth Parish Council, and this was the first practical application of the member complaints process in five years. The summary report was requested by the working group before the new year.
In total, between 2018-2020 a total of 21 formal complaints were received, and rose significantly after media attention in 2020/21.
The costs and resources to deal with these complaints were outlined within the report, and the Committee were advised that the time and proportionality were key to its deliberations on this matter.
Recommendation 2.1 b and c as outlined within the report had been amended after the papers had been published to reflect as follows:
2.1. That the Committee –
b) Request that the Audit & Governance Committee Working Group consider any consequential amendments to the Code of Conduct and associated process arising from this report;
c) [ Request publication of the investigation reports referred to in this report, following appropriate redaction, within 14 days of this meeting ]
The Committee challenged the amendment to the recommendations after publication of the agenda, Councillor David Marren gave reassurances to the Committee that it was normal practice to brief the Chair and Vice Chair of any changes post-publication, and the changes were due to the potential for confusion and lack of clarity on 2.1 b. The new wording made the recommendation clear, and the Chair was confident had these changes not been implemented now, the Committee would have had the same debate to change the wording.
The Committee were reminded that this was a forward looking review, to learn from and it would inform future process.
There was some discussion by the Committee that included:
· The acknowledgement that whilst it was appropriate to outsource this work, there was a substantial cost associated with this report;
· The adoption of the new process would help to mitigate anything like this happening in the future and the need to escalate complaints in a timely manner;
· The personal cost to those involved and the need to support the volunteers within the town and parish councils appropriately; and
· Any emails received by Members related to this matter tended to focus on looking backwards and addressed incidents already dealt with, if Members received such correspondence, they should be directed to the Monitoring Officer for him to deal with appropriately;
The Chair thanked the members of the Sub-Committee and the Committee for robust debate that demonstrated mutual respect. It was noted that this report had come at a financial cost of 25p to every resident of the borough. It was also noted that town and parish councillors work hard and were effective within the structure of democracy and governance, and the incidents at Handforth were exceptional.
The Committee had a substantial debate that noted the importance of impressing a positive working culture, behaviours and conduct for new councillors during their induction period. Where the services of the Monitoring Officer have not been employed by town and parish councillors, issues had been resolved internally by councillors supporting and challenging with mutual respect and tolerance. As part of the lessons learned, issues arose when there was a lack of cooperation by people to engage as part of the process, the Committee were advised that compliance with standard was an important aspect of ethical conduct. The council was working to ensure the resources were available to address issues at the appropriate time.
The Committee were in agreement with part a) and b) of the current recommendation and moved to c) to discuss further the question of publication.
The earlier comments from the public speakers in respect of redactions and redrafts were noted as part of a learning opportunity for code of conduct working group. The current code of conduct favoured confidentially over transparency.
The Independent Legal Advisor gave the Committee some context in relation to the legal position of confidential information vs that in the public domain. Breaches of the code of conduct were considered in light of councils arrangements, an assessment decision was taken with the assistance of independent persons and the outcome would be either: no action, some action or refer for investigation. Any unsubstantiated allegations would be deemed confidential as the privacy would exceed public interest in respect of transparency. However in the case law: Deadman vs Information Commissioner this instance saw that the balance had shifted person, the individual concerned was no longer a councillor, but could still stand and by then the balance had shifted to public interest and transparency.
Should the council receive any Freedom of Information (FOI) requests it would be at liberty to publish the reports in principle subject to redactions.
The Interim Head of Legal advised that the council could comply with legal deadlines for publication plus any redaction that needed to be done.
The Independent Legal Advisor added that in terms of publication of report vs report and schedule and precedent, his advice was to publish reports as this would be proportionate to balance transparency to avoid disclosure of personal data. This would not prejudice how the council drafted arrangements for the future- as this was an exceptional matter. Report publication would not set a binding precedent.
The Chair summarised the main points:
· thanks were extended to the public speakers, the points raised during public speaking time did inform the discussion today;
· The whole experience had been an exercise in learning and handling such a complex complaint. Town and parish councillors were volunteers and they were greatly valued what the work they undertook for the community;
· There were lessons to take away in terms of managing work load and resources;
· This Committee needed assurances in respect of the code of conduct training, and the points raised within the reports would inform continuing working group discussions; and
· Whilst the current process favoured not publishing the focus on the particular report was balanced on confidentiality vs public interest.
Finally the Independent Legal Advisor commended to the working group and Committee the Local Government code of conduct and guidance and process guidance for consideration.
The Committee thanked the public and the valuable experience and advice from the Independent Legal Advisor and officers who have carried the work load ahead of this item coming to Committee.
a) the report be received and noted;
b) any consequential amendments to the Code of Conduct and associated process arising from this report be considered by the Audit & Governance Committee Working Group;
c) following appropriate redaction, within 14 days of this meeting (25 March 2022), the investigation reports referred to in this report be published.