Local authorities should be able to suspend councillors for up to six months says watchdog

Talk about reinventing the wheel! Before the system was changed local authorities were able to suspend councillors for the rest of the full council term, however long that might be or could ban them from office for years.

THIS government changed the rules now it wants to change them back – albeit
in a very, very lily-livered, watered-down way.

This lack if ability to censure councillors in any meaningful way is highlighted by the ongoing scandal of the disgraced ex-Mayor in Seaton, Councillor Peter Burrows. The rest of the council unanimously voted to urge his resignation from town and district posts but he has so far ignored all requests for him to go:

https://eastdevonwatch.org/2019/01/25/hat-gate-disgraced-seaton-ex-mayor-peter-burrows-scandal-update/

but it is unlikely the EDDC Monitoring Officer will conclude an investigation into his case before local elections on 2 May 2017, leaving voters in the dark as to any action to be taken.

“Local authorities should be given the power to suspend councillors without allowances for up to six months, the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) has recommended.

In a report, Local Government Ethical Standards, the CSPL said: “The current sanctions available to local authorities are insufficient. Party discipline, whilst it has an important role to play in maintaining high standards, lacks the necessary independence and transparency to play the central role in a standards system.

“The current lack of robust sanctions damages public confidence in the standards system and leaves local authorities with no means of enforcing lower level sanctions, nor of addressing serious or repeated misconduct.”

The Committee said councillors, including parish councillors, who are suspended should be given the right to appeal to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, who should be given the power to investigate allegations of code breaches on appeal. The decision of the Ombudsman would then be binding.

The CSPL meanwhile described the Monitoring Officer as “the lynchpin” of the current standards arrangements, but accepted that the role was “challenging and broad”, with a number of practical tensions and the potential for conflicts of interest. Local authorities should put in place arrangements to manage any potential conflicts, it said.

However, the Committee concluded that the role was not unique in its tensions and could be made coherent and manageable with the support of other statutory officers.

It called for employment protections for statutory officers to be extended, and for statutory officers to be supported through training on local authority governance.

Other key findings and recommendations in the report include:

There is considerable variation in the length, quality and clarity of codes of conduct. This created confusion among members of the public, and among councillors who represent more than one tier of local government.

Many codes of conduct failed to address adequately important areas of behaviour such as social media use and bullying and harassment.

An updated model code of conduct should therefore be available to local authorities in order to enhance the consistency and quality of local authority codes.

The updated model code should be voluntary and able to be adapted by local authorities. The scope of the code of conduct should also be widened, with a rebuttable presumption that a councillor’s public behaviour, including comments made on publicly accessible social media, was in their official capacity.

The current arrangements for declaring and managing interests are “unclear, too narrow and do not meet the expectations of councillors or the public”.

The current requirements for registering interests should be updated to include categories of non-pecuniary interests. The current rules on declaring and managing interests should be repealed and replaced with an objective test, in line with the devolved standards bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The current criminal offences relating to disclosable pecuniary interests are “disproportionate in principle and ineffective in practice, and should be abolished”.

Local authorities should maintain a standards committee. This committee may advise on standards issues, decide on alleged breaches and sanctions, or a combination of these. Independent members of decision-making standards committees should be able to vote.

The safeguard provided by the Independent Person should be strengthened and clarified: a local authority should only be able to suspend a councillor where the Independent Person agrees both that there has been a breach and that suspension is a proportionate sanction. Independent Persons should have fixed terms and legal protections. The view of the Independent Person in relation to a decision on which they are consulted should be published in any formal decision notice.

Parish councils should be required to adopt the code of their principal authority (or the new model code), and a principal authority’s decision on sanctions for a parish councillor should be binding.

Monitoring officers should be provided with adequate training, corporate support and resources to undertake their role in providing support on standards issues to parish councils, including in undertaking investigations and recommending sanctions. Clerks should also hold an appropriate qualification to support them to uphold governance within their parish council.

At a time of rapid change in local government, decision-making in local councils was getting more complex, with increased commercial activity and partnership working. “This complexity risks putting governance under strain.

Local authorities setting up separate bodies risk a governance ‘illusion’, and should take steps to prevent and manage potential conflicts of interest, particularly if councillors sit on these bodies. They should also ensure that these bodies are transparent and accountable to the council and to the public.”

An ethical culture required leadership. Given the multi-faceted nature of local government, leadership was needed from a range of individuals and groups: an authority’s standards committee, the chief executive, political group leaders, and the chair of the council.

Political groups have an important role to play in maintaining an ethical culture. “They should be seen as a semi-formal institution sitting between direct advice from officers and formal processes by the council, rather than a parallel system to the local authority’s standards processes. Political groups should set clear expectations of behaviour by their members, and senior officers should maintain effective relationships with political groups, working with them informally to resolve standards issues where appropriate.”

An ethical culture starts with tone. “Whilst there will always be robust disagreement in a political arena, the tone of engagement should be civil and constructive.” Expected standards of behaviour should be embedded through effective induction and ongoing training.

Political groups should require their members to attend code of conduct training provided by a local authority, and this should also be written into national party model group rules. “Maintaining an ethical culture day-to-day relies on an impartial, objective monitoring officer who has the confidence of all councillors and who is professionally supported by the chief executive.”

An ethical culture will be an open culture. “Local authorities should welcome and foster opportunities for scrutiny, and see it as a way to improve decision making. They should not rely unduly on commercial confidentiality provisions, or circumvent open decision-making processes. Whilst local press can play an important role in scrutinising local government, openness must be facilitated by authorities’ own processes and practices.”

In a letter to the Prime Minister, contained in the introduction to the report, Lord Evans of Weardale, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said: “It is clear that the vast majority of councillors and officers want to maintain the highest standards of conduct in their own authority. We have, however, identified some specific areas of concern. A minority of councillors engage in bullying or harassment, or other highly disruptive behaviour, and a small number of parish councils give rise to a disproportionate number of complaints about poor behaviour.

“We have also identified a number of risks in the sector: the current rules around conflicts of interest, gifts, and hospitality are inadequate; and the increased complexity of local government decision-making is putting governance under strain.”

The CSPL chair added: “The challenge is to maintain a system which serves the best instincts of councillors, whilst addressing unacceptable behaviour by a minority, and guarding against potential corporate standards risks.
“It is clear from the evidence we have received that the benefits of devolved arrangements should be retained, but that more robust safeguards are needed to strengthen a locally determined system. We are also clear that all local authorities need to develop and maintain an organisational culture which is supportive of high ethical standards. A system which is solely punitive is not desirable or effective; but in an environment with limited external regulation, councils need the appropriate mechanisms in place to address problems when they arise.”

Lord Evans said the Committee’s recommendations would enable councillors to be held to account effectively and would enhance the fairness and transparency of the standards process.

A number of the CSPL’s recommendations involve legislative change which it believed the government should implement. The Committee has also identified ‘best practice’ for local authorities, “which represents a benchmark for ethical practice which we expect that any authority can and should implement”. …

Source: Local Government Lawyer

Hat-Gate: disgraced Seaton ex-Mayor Peter Burrows scandal update

“Calls have been made for the former mayor of Seaton to immediately resign as a town and district councillor after he called for residents to avoid a local business on what purported to be a Tourist Information Centre Twitter account.

At Monday night’s full council meeting, Seaton town council unanimously voted for a motion calling for the immediate resignation of Cllr Peter Burrows as a Seaton town councillor and as an East Devon District Councillor, where he represents the Seaton ward.

Cllr Burrows had stepped down as Mayor at a town council meeting on January 7 as he brought the office into disrepute when he called for residents to avoid a local business on what purported to be a Tourist Information Centre Twitter account, but continued in his role as a councillor.

The Tweet, posted by Cllr Burrows, had said: ‘Here in Seaton, Devon, we have a local business who badmouths the Mayor. Please Avoid’.

It had followed a public argument about fox hunting on the Facebook page ‘Seaton Views’, to which Cllr Burrows took exception to being called a ‘very naughty word’.

The business that Cllr Burrows had then called on residents to avoid on Twitter, The Hat, was not involved in any way in the argument, other than the individual involved in the argument occasionally frequenting the pub.

Gary Millar, proprietor of The Hat, had not been involved in the altercation and was therefore an entirely innocent party.

Cllr Burrows did not attend the meeting and has not responded to requests from the Local Democracy Reporting Service for comment.

Speaking at Monday’s meeting, Mr Millar said that it was inexplicable of Mr Burrows to make a direct attack on him using his title of mayor, and it was a grossly stupid response from any public official and it still not clear why he chose to attach The Hat.

He added: “I have yet to receive a proper apology from Mr. Burrows. His statement of resignation last week did not make it clear that I was not the person who insulted him, then he justified his actions, and finally boorishly he ended with him giving himself a pat on the back for a job well done. Unfortunately, any apology at this time now sounds hollow.”

Mr Millar added: “On the afternoon of New Year’s Day, Mr. Burrows had a very public argument about fox hunting with a private individual on the Facebook page ‘Seaton Views’. This escalated to a robust exchange of views between the two protagonists and Mr Burrows, who is surely used to the rough and tumble of political debate, took exception to being called a very naughty word.

“His inexplicable reaction was to use his title of Seaton Mayor to make a direct attack on me, accusing me of being disparaging to the mayor, and to tell thousands of subscribers to a Twitter page called @SeatonTIC, to avoid my business. On the face of it this was the official Seaton Tourist Information Centre page. This is a grossly stupid response from any public official in any circumstances. You could not make it up.

“It is not at all clear why Mr Burrows chose The Hat as opposed to the many other local businesses that his detractor frequents. Surely, as a public official involved in my various applications, he would have known who I was?”

Mr Millar said that he does not use social media for anything other than professional reasons, and said that although both @SeatonTIC and Seaton Views are ostensibly neutral and exist for the benefit of the people of and visitors to Seaton, it is disturbing that they are administered by a public official without a clear declaration of interest.

He added: “For example, Mr Burrows selectively deleted his unsavoury exchange on Seaton Views and blocked his detractor from the site. Yet he also closed the @SeatonTIC page entirely, not at the request from the Council as reported, but unilaterally overnight on January 1 after legal action was threatened against the then unknown poster.

“This had two effects. First, we are unable to see how many people viewed his tweet to assess the damage caused. Secondly, imagine the impression given to thousands of potential holidaymakers following what they would reasonably have considered the formal Seaton Tourist Information Twitter page. A strange tweet from the town Mayor attacking a local small business, followed by an unexplained blackout. This cannot be good for either my business or the image of the town as a whole.

“I would argue that these actions were not a selfless act by Mr. Burrows, or in the interests of myself or Seaton, but a means of covering tracks.”

Mr Millar said that he views both the local and district councils legally culpable for his actions, regardless of these being rogue or not, and expects them both the local and district council to do their legal duty and mitigate any damage against him.

He added: “This includes a full and open investigation of Mr Burrows’ conduct in office, including on social media, and disciplinary or legal action wherever possible. This motion of no confidence, and the complaint to the East Devon Monitoring Officer is a positive response by the Seaton Town Council.”

Mr Millar, who opened The Hat last year, added: “Despite undoubted damage to my business, the support of my regulars, and other public support helps me believe that moving to Seaton to open up a new and innovative business was the right decision. My sincere thanks to you all and I hope to continue to serve you real ales, ciders and other fine beverages in a friendly environment for many years to come.”

A motion debated at the meeting, which was unanimously agreed, said: “This Council condemns the actions of Cllr Burrows, as behaviour not befitting someone holding public office, and calls for his immediate resignation as a Seaton Town Councillor and EDDC District Councillor.

“In a personal capacity he posted defamatory statements about a local business on social media, but used an account purported to be an official account and referring to himself in the capacity of Mayor. Cllr Burrows has admitted his actions were unacceptable and that the target of his comments was an entirely innocent party. He has shown he lacks the integrity to remain a Councillor and to represent the people of Seaton and East Devon.”

At the previous meeting, Cllr Burrows had unreservedly apologised for his remarks that he made after what he said were ‘disgusting personal comments’ that had been made against him and said that he deeply regretted writing the Tweet.

A town council spokesman had previously said: “Seaton town council wishes to make it clear that despite using the term “Mayor” and using what purported to be a Tourist Information Centre account, Cllr Burrows was not authorised to use his title for personal matters, nor was he authorised to represent the TIC.

“He was acting in a purely private capacity and the Council dissociates itself from his actions.”

The council has reported Cllr Burrows to the Monitoring Officer at East Devon District Council for breaching the code of conduct.

An East Devon District Council spokesman said they were unable to comment.”

https://www.devonlive.com/news/devon-news/former-mayor-should-resign-immediately-2470917

Party discipline? Not in our party’s backyard!

A little bird tells Owl that an East Devon resident is having trouble making a complaint about a local councillor who represents a mainstream political party in East Devon.

The councillor’s party seems to want to wash its hands of any involvement by saying that, as it has no whip (smirk) at a local level, so its hands are tied, and suggests waiting out a Monitoring Officer complaint before even thinking about action within its own party at a higher regional or national level.

But, as we all know, Monitoring Officers can take months and months to investigate complaints.

How convenient then that waiting several months for a Monitoring Officer report would allow any councillor who is the subject of a serious complaint to stand for their party in the next district election in May 2019 – with voters unaware that a such complaint is being investigated …

BREAKING NEWS:Seaton’s disgraced ex-Mayor fails to turn up to meeting about his behaviour

Seaton’s disgraced ex-Mayor Peter Burrows failed to turn up to a meeting this evening which called him to further account for his recent behaviour and to hear a statement from the businessman he (mistakenly) maligned on a Twitter account since deleted:

https://eastdevonwatch.org/2019/01/11/seaton-disgraced-ex-mayor-peter-burrows-town-council-responds-names-names/

The meeting confirmed councillor Ken Beer as mayor and Councillor Jack Rowlands as his deputy.

The person originally and erroneously maligned by former Mayor Burrows (Garry Miller of The Hat micropub) made a personal statement.

It is believed that the ten remaining councillors voted unanimously for a resolution calling on Burrows to stand down as both a town and District councillor for bringing both councils into disrepute.

Owl gathers that, as well as a complaint to the EDDC monitoring officer, there will also be a complaint made to the regional Liberal Party about Burrows’s behaviour within the next few days

Update on Seaton ex-Mayor Peter Burrows situation

As reported here:

https://eastdevonwatch.org/2019/01/07/breaking-news-seaton-mayor-peter-burrows-resigns-after-bringing-the-office-into-disrepute/

Owl hears that the aggrieved party has made a formal complaint to the EDDC Monitoring Officer and is taking legal advice on possible further action.

Owl is awaiting an official statement from Seaton Town Council, which would be usual in these circumstances.

“How to maintain high ethical standards in local government: a perspective on the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s review so far”

Professor Colin Copus is a specialist advisor to the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s review into local government ethical standards. He writes here in a personal capacity:

“As academic advisor to the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s review into ethical standards in local government, I’ve been reflecting on the evidence I’ve heard so far.

The aim of the review is to test the robustness of the current system for maintaining high standards of public behaviour in local government. It is not a hatchet-job on councillors or intended to identify a problem where there is not one. Rather, the review will assess evidence to enable a judgement to be made about what, if any, changes are required to the current regime to ensure the maintenance of the highest ethical standards in local government.

My impression so far is that there are two competing themes emerging that pose a challenge to anyone considering how best to create the environment for strong ethical behaviour in local government. Those themes result in the question: do we nationalise or do we localise ethical standards in local government?

The danger in any review in local government is for rose-coloured spectacles to temper one’s view of past systems. It is nowhere more the case than in the ethical standards debate.

The evidence received by the Committee so far has highlighted some difficulties with the effectiveness of localising standards that came with the abolition of the standards board and the past regime associated with the board by the Localism Act 2011.

Concern has also been expressed about placing control over the ethical regime (and code of conduct) with councils themselves and about the apparent weaknesses in the sanctions available to councils when dealing with ethical and behavioural issues.

Moreover, the review has heard that local codes of conduct can result in councillors who sit on county, district and parish councils at the same time potentially being subject to three different codes. We do not yet know how widespread this issue is or if it generates regular and intractable problems for councillors and officers.

But the review has also heard that there is a recognition that centralising and nationalising ethical standards can result in a system that is remote, anonymous, lacking in appreciation of local differences of culture, tradition and behaviour.

Nationalising the system also prevents flexibility and responsiveness to specific local issues and at worse can result in councillors feeling on ‘trial’ and subject to a remote and bureaucratic system, which in itself can damage local democracy.

The issue of sanctions also looms large as does the role of independent input or oversight of the local process of assessing standards issues.

Sanctions pose a particular problem, not least because under the current arrangements, a party in power may be tempted to misuse their majority when imposing sanctions, but also because there is a line between what is appropriate for councils to be able to require and impose as sanctions and what is appropriate that the electorate themselves have at their disposal.

The question of sanctions is closely tied to that of oversight: even the power to suspend councillors from committees, council meetings or council premises and restrict resources for a short while may be subject to misuse. Robust safeguards and rights of appeal must, therefore, be available to councillors whose behaviour is not the real problem – but instead find themselves the subject of a complaint when they are an effective and vocal opponent of the ruling administration.

We also do not yet know how widespread such a problem may be. It is clear that the issue of sanctions, the system by which they are imposed and independent oversight and involvement, will be a key theme of the Committee’s assessment of the evidence in this review.

The hazard with any ethical regime – local or national – is how the political parties in local government respond to that regime.

Given that over 90 per cent of all councillors in England are from the Conservative and Labour parties and the Liberal Democrats, the temptation to use a set of rules and regulations designed to control councillors’ behaviour for party political advantage or to silence councillors from other parties, is considerable.

Any ethical regime must not provide a system that can be misused for party advantage or by officers to restrain troublesome councillors as both can damage free speech within local democracy.

It must also be remembered that ethical standards in English local government are among the highest across Europe and that results in a commitment by the overwhelming majority of councillors to public service and the public wellbeing.

The Committee has a difficult tightrope to walk to make observations and recommendations that provide an opportunity for all local authorities and the central government to finesse and reform the current system, to ensure the highest standards of ethical behaviour are maintained and strengthened in local government. It is well worth the walk.”

http://www.democraticaudit.com/2018/07/10/how-to-maintain-high-ethical-standards-in-local-government-a-perspective-on-the-committee-on-standards-in-public-lifes-review-so-far/

The Great Public Asset Sale!

No mention of community hospital sales – many hospitals having been financed by the local population.

And it begs the question: if the community has no assets and is getting only statutory services which are funded out of general taxation – what are we paying (increased) council taxes for?

“Libraries, swimming pools, youth and community centres, town halls, parks and other open spaces were among more than 4,000 public assets sold by local councils to developers and other private buyers last year.

Sales appear to have risen since George Osborne, who was then the chancellor, changed the rules in 2016 to allow local authorities to use money from sales of publicly owned buildings and land to cover running costs. Campaigners say that authorities facing financial pressures are denying future generations access to many community assets.

Locality, a network of community organisations, submitted freedom of information requests to all 353 local authorities in England asking about asset sales, of which 240 responded. The results showed that councils sold 4,131 buildings or plots of land last year.

Tony Armstrong, the chief executive of Locality, said: “One of the concerns we have is that many local authorities are just selling these assets off, and until now we have not had a clear picture of the scale of this.” He called for more buildings and sites that councils could no longer operate to be transferred to community groups that could run them on a not-for-profit basis.

Richard Watts, of the Local Government Association, said: “With local government facing an overall funding gap in excess of £5 billion a year by 2020, councils face difficult decisions about how best to use their resources to support local services, day-to-day activities and to protect public assets. Before a decision is made to sell an asset, the cost of selling it versus the benefit it could bring is considered carefully.”

Source:Times (pay wall)

House of Commons Council (and LEP) scrutiny report – tough new measures recommended

Recall that East Devon Alliance submitted in March 2017 a wide-ranging report on the situation in East Devon, which was considered by this committee:

https://eastdevonwatch.org/2017/03/23/east-devon-alliance-provides-evidence-on-poor-scrutiny-at-eddc-to-parliamentary-inquiry-eddc-provides-woeful-response-ignoring-major-problems/

and

that this report calls for pilot projects of strengthened scrutiny arrangements. Wouldn’t East Devon District Council AND our LEP make wonderful pilots!

”The Government must encourage a culture change at local authorities to ensure overview and scrutiny is truly independent of the executive and can properly contribute to improving services for taxpayers, the Communities and Local Government Committee concludes.

“Lack of constructive challenge

The Committee’s report on overview and scrutiny in local government, warns that scrutiny is often not held in high enough esteem, leading to a lack of constructive challenge to improve services for residents.

It recommends measures to strengthen the independence of overview and scrutiny committees and for increased scrutiny of combined authorities, Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs) and arm’s length bodies.

Scrutiny marginalised at too many local authorities

Clive Betts, Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, said:

“Scrutiny is marginalised at too many local authorities, which in extreme cases can contribute to severe service failures, letting down council taxpayers and those that rely on services.

Scrutiny of those in power is a vital part of any democratic system and has huge benefits for all. We are calling on the Government to strengthen guidance to make overview and scrutiny committees truly independent of those they are charged with holding to account and to make sure the process is properly funded and respected.

Only by rebalancing the system and ensuring scrutiny is held in high esteem will we see better decisions and the outcomes that residents who pay for council services deserve.”

Report recommendations

That overview and scrutiny committees should report to an authority’s Full Council meeting rather than to the executive, mirroring the relationship between Select Committees and Parliament.

That scrutiny committees and the executive must be distinct and that executive councillors should not participate in scrutiny other than as witnesses, even if external partners are being scrutinised.

That councillors working on scrutiny committees should have access to financial and performance data held by an authority, and that this access should not be restricted for reasons of commercial sensitivity.

That scrutiny committees should be supported by officers that are able to operate with independence and offer impartial advice to committees. There should be a greater parity of esteem between scrutiny and the executive, and committees should have the same access to the expertise and time of senior officers and the chief executive as their cabinet counterparts.

That members of the public and service users have a fundamental role in the scrutiny process and that their participation should be encouraged and facilitated by councils.

That overview and scrutiny committees should be given full access to all financial and performance information, and have the right to call witnesses, not just from their local authorities, but from other public bodies and private council contractors. They should be able to follow and investigate the spending of the public pound.

That the DCLG works with the Local Government Association and the Centre for Public Scrutiny to identify councils to take part in a pilot scheme where the impact of elected chairs on scrutiny’s effectiveness can be monitored and its merits considered.

Local Economic Partnerships

The Report also recommends that the scrutiny committees of combined local authorities have a role in monitoring the performance of Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs) and that the Government commits more funding to the scrutiny of mayoral combined authorities.

The inquiry was set up to examine whether the overview and scrutiny model is meeting its objectives and how decision-makers can best be held to account.

Read the report summary:
https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmcomloc/369/36903.htm

Read the report conclusions and recommendations:
https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmcomloc/369/36913.htm

Read the report: Effectiveness of local authority overview and scrutiny committees:
https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmcomloc/369/36902.htm

Full report:

Click to access 369.pdf

Voting processes need tightening (and scrutiny) urgently

Why shouldn’t our council’s Scrutiny Committee check in its Electoral and Returning Officer’s procedures – even if the Monitoring Officer doesn’t like the idea because it MIGHT be considered political (by him)? A clean bill of health would reassure voters surely?

“The list of Brexit campaigners done for breaking the rules is getting lengthy.

Following the record £12,000 fine for breaches of spending rules, the pair of £1,000 fines for other offences, the company fined £50,000 for illegal text messages and the 11 anti-EU campaign groups struck off for breaking referendum rules, there’s now another £1,500 fine on a different Brexit campaigner:

The Electoral Commission has fined Mr Henry Meakin, a registered campaigner in the EU referendum, £1,500 for failing to submit his spending return on time. It is an offence not to deliver a spending return by the due date.

Though Mr Meakin reported spending of £37,000 in the campaign, the return was received more than 5 months late.”

https://www.markpack.org.uk/150816/henry-meakin-european-referendum-fine/

EDDC officer accuses East Devon Alliance chairman of “point scoring” over (second) postal vote cockup

Owl says: if the point IS scored, surely that speaks for itself! And anyone reading this supposedly “neutral” officer’s report is bound to wonder if it is, er, political!

“East Devon District Council’s monitoring officer has accused the chairman of the East Devon Alliance of political point-scoring after he raised concerns that the council’s scrutiny committee were not able to investigate a postal vote ‘cock-up’ ahead of the General Election.

Packs that were issued on May 25 contained voting slips that did not have an official security mark visible on the front of the ballot paper were issued to more than 9,000 voters in the constituency.

East Devon District Council who were responsible for printing the ballot papers but Mark Williams, the council’s returning officer, issued a statement reassuring voters that no postal votes had been affected as a result of the error.

The ‘cock-up’ has left Paul Arnott, chairman of the East Devon Alliance, furious, and said that he would have more confidence in a village raffle than in Mr Williams running the forthcoming election and asked the council’s scrutiny committee at their last meeting in June to interrogate the reasons why 9,000 unmarked Parliamentary ballot papers were issued to postal voters.

But in response, he was told that the current legal assessment is that the remit of the Scrutiny Committee does not extend to Parliamentary elections, which is the remit of the Electoral Commission.

Mr Arnott queried this advice with the Electoral Commission, and says he was told that there is nothing laid down about where electoral matters can or can’t be discussed within the framework of local authority governance, and ultimately it is up to the Council and its operation of its scrutiny function as to whether any or all elections or electoral related matters are included in that scrutiny.

He has written to the council, asking them to take on board this advice and for scrutiny to investigate the matter, but in response, Henry Gordon Lennox, the Strategic Lead (Governance and Licensing) and Monitoring Officer of East Devon District Council, said that Mr Arnott had misinterpreted the advice he had been given and said that his query was ‘politically driven’.

The scrutiny committee have recommended to the council’s ruling Cabinet that the Chief Executive’s pending report on the election does includes explanation of the postal vote issue of May 25 that did not have an official security mark visible on the front of the ballot paper.

Mr Gordon Lennox in a statement said: “In my view, Mr Arnott has misinterpreted the advice from the Electoral Commission, who said that there were no legislative provisions dealing with the role of Scrutiny and elections and therefore it is down to the rules of each authority that will dictate whether or not there is a role for Scrutiny.

“Mr Arnott has taken this to say that the Council’s Scrutiny Committee should be reviewing the conduct of elections. However, what they aresaying, and it is my view too, is that effectively it is the Council’s Constitution and the Terms of Reference of the Scrutiny Committee that determine whether they can consider elections or electoral related matters.

“In general terms the role of Scrutiny is to review the actions relating to the various functions of the Council (in whatever form that takes). The role of Returning Officer is not part of the Council, save for the elections relating to towns and parishes and the district. It is for this reason that the Scrutiny Committee do not have the authority to consider the actions and conduct of the Acting Returning Officer / Deputy Returning Officer in the Parliamentary / County elections respectively.

“I think it important to also address the political side of this. I note that Mr Arnott says this is not political. However, Mr Arnott refers to the East Devon Alliance (EDA) report submitted to East Devon District Council following the May 2015 elections.

“Mr Arnott was at the time the Chair of the EDA and therefore a part of the Executive Committee who produced and submitted the report. At the County elections, Mr Arnott was an appointed election agent for the EDA.

“In the correspondence arising out of the postal vote issue during the Parliamentary election, Mr Arnott, when officially signing off his emails, referred to himself as the Chairman and Nominating Officer of the EDA.

“So my perception, notwithstanding what Mr Arnott says, is that his query is politically driven. To that end, the role of Scrutiny is supposed to be apolitical and I would be concerned that even if it were permissible for Scrutiny to be considering this matter, that the purpose for them so doing would be questionable.

“I have explained this matter in some detail in order to ensure that the correct context is understood and to give clarity on the issue. I would further confirm that, despite the above, it is my understanding that the Returning Officer will be presenting a report to Scrutiny at its next meeting on the key priorities he is working on, following what will now be the standard practice of a review process taking place after each election.”

The scrutiny committee have recommended to the council’s ruling Cabinet that the Chief Executive’s pending report on the election does includes explanation of the postal vote issue of May 25 that did not have an official security mark visible on the front of the ballot paper.

East Devon District Council’s Cabinet committee will consider the recommendation on Thursday, July 13.”

http://www.devonlive.com/east-devon-alliance-chairman-accused-of-politically-driven-query-over-postal-vote-scrutiny-request/story-30434940-detail/story.html

What a busy chap the EDDC Monitoring Officer must be!

Criminal investigations in Colyton and Honiton, both needing the intervention of the EDDC Monitoring Officer and both being played out in the local press on a weekly basis.

What is the world coming to?

Probably overdue a meeting of the Standards Committee!

Exmouth seafront extended planning documents – EDA Independent Councillor Megan Armstrong responds

Below is the response of Independent Exmouth councillor Megan Armstrong to the extended planning permission submission for Exmouth seafront by EDDC:

queens-drive-comment-to-press-release-5r

“Tribunal tells district to publish report into conduct of former parish council chair”

Floodgates opened … ? As it, presumably, also applies to former district councillors too, there may be some sleepless nights here for some of them!

A tribunal has ordered North Norfolk District Council to publish a draft report into the conduct of the former chair of a parish council.

The district had argued that disclosure of the report would have been unfair as it related to the chair’s personal data.

A dispute among residents had broken out in the parish of Hickling in 2014 over whether the Hickling Playing Field or Recreational Ground Charity needed to change its constitution to increase the degree of protection from development given to a historic barn.

‘C’, then chair of Hickling Parish Council, was quoted in a local newspaper as saying the charity had shown no desire to negotiate a new constitution and “they don’t want to make changes to the constitution to protect the village asset and it’s very sad”.

A resident then complained to North Norfolk’s monitoring officer that C had made factually inaccurate comments and deliberately misled readers, amounting to a breach or breaches of the Councillors’ Code of Conduct.

North Norfolk’s monitoring officer appointed an external solicitor to investigate the complaint. She submitted a draft final report for North Norfolk’s standards committee after C had ceased to be a councillor, the chair having lost her seat in the election of May 2015.

The monitoring officer decided that there was “no public benefit” in taking the matter further because C was no longer a serving councillor.

When another resident requested a copy of the draft report, North Norfolk refused – relying on s. 40(2) FOIA – on the grounds that the draft contained personal data about C who no longer held a public position.

The dispute then reached the Information Commissioner’s Office, which accepted C would have had a legitimate expectation that the details of the investigation would remain confidential, North Norfolk’s policy was that draft standards investigation reports were not shared with persons who were not parties to the complaint, and the prejudice to C’s interests outweighed any legitimate public interest in disclosure.

The complainant then appealed to the Information Rights Tribunal, which said in Janet Dedman v IC EA/2016/0142 that there was no doubt that the report contained the personal data of C and that there was no practical possibility of editing it so as to avoid the disclosure of such data.

However, the tribunal added: “There is plainly a strong public interest in the disclosure of findings as to the conduct of the chair of a parish council when performing her public duties.

“That is especially the case where a complaint has been made that she misled a newspaper and its readers, including her local parishioners, as to important matters relating to a controversial local issue. There is a danger that the withholding of a report may encourage the suspicion that its findings are adverse to the subject, whether or not that is, in fact, the case.”

It was hard to see how or in what substantial respects, the report’s findings of fact or its final conclusions could properly have been altered by the standards committee, had it been submitted to them, the tribunal said.

The tribunal said the Information Commissioner’s decision notice had treated a draft report, ipso facto, as a quite different creature from a final report without apparent consideration of the practical differences that might have existed in this case.

“Of course, if the draft awaited further assessment by a fact finder or a senior solicitor, the difference might be substantial. Here, we assess that it would have been minimal. Given that there never will be a final report that is a significant finding.”

It meanwhile suggested that the public interest in disclosure was “affected minimally, if at all,” by C losing her seat.

The public is entitled to know whether a serious complaint as to the conduct of an elected representative was found to be justified, regardless of her status when the report is disclosed,” the tribunal said.

“Such transparency is essential to the maintenance of proper standards in public life, whether or not the subject of the complaint remains in office.”
It pointed out that were this not so “a delinquent public officer, faced with a draft report containing serious criticism of his/her conduct, could simply prevent disclosure by timely resignation”.

The tribunal said there was a realistic possibility that C would again seek election to the parish council or another public authority in the future.

“That being so, the electorate should be apprised of the findings of the draft report, whether favourable or adverse to C. In seeking election in the future, she should neither be prejudiced by unjustified suspicions as to her past conduct nor, as the case may be, protected from disclosure of a past breach or breaches of the Code of Conduct.”

The tribunal found that the public, especially the local community, had a powerful legitimate interest in disclosure of the requested information and that C could have no reasonable expectation that it would not be disclosed in the circumstances that arose.

“That it was a draft report and marked “confidential” when received was no obstacle to disclosure nor was the fact that C was no longer in office. For the purposes of Condition 6(1) of DPA Schedule 2, Mrs. Dedman had a legitimate interest in knowing the findings of the draft report which could only be satisfied by its disclosure,” the tribunal said.

“For the reasons already discussed, disclosure was not unwarranted by reason of prejudice to C’s rights, freedoms or legitimate interests. If there was such prejudice, it was clearly justified in this case, given the public role undertaken by C and what she might reasonably expect as to publicity for the findings of such a report.”

The tribunal concluded that accordingly disclosure was not unfair and North Norfok was not entitled to rely on the s.40(2) exemption.

North Norfolk had no comment on the ruling.

http://localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=29706%3Atribunal-tells-district-to-publish-report-into-conduct-of-former-parish-council-chair&catid=59&Itemid=27

“Creative group” or “group of creatives” – what’s the difference!

Recall that Councillor Skinner has said that he has never met “The Ecmouth Creative Group”, then read this Freedom of Information response:

“Thank you for your request for information. Please find the response to your query below.

What criteria does the Exmouth Regeneration Board (ERB) use when selecting potential community groups to communicate with?
The ERB does not formally communicate with community groups and does not therefore apply any specific criteria. The notes of ERB meetings are published and the various members of the ERB including both District and Town Councils communicate with a wide range of Exmouth community groups as required.

[BUT THIS IS CONTRADICTED FURTHER IN THIS RESPONSE!]

Why was the Exmouth Creative Group assigned a brief to design a vision for Exmouth?
Cllr Skinner met in December with some Exmouth local businesses in his capacity as Chair of the Exmouth Regeneration Board and Portfolio Holder for Economy. It was an informal meeting to talk about Exmouth matters and to share views with a group of local businesses who would describe themselves as ‘creative’.

When was the decision made to as the Exmouth Creative Group to design a vision for Exmouth, who was involved in making this decision and whose idea was it in the first instance?
This decision was not taken by the ERB or by any representative of EDDC and no information is held in relation to this question.

How did EDDC and the Exmouth Regeneration Board in particular approach the Exmouth Community Group and who did this?
As above, Cllr Skinner met with some local businesses.

Given that the Exmouth Creative Group is unknown within Exmouth, please explain why the many well known community groups have been overlooked in favour of the Exmouth Creative Group for this task?
The Council engages with all manner of local groups in Exmouth and elsewhere in a variety of ways.

Please provide the names of those in attendance and dates of any meetings between any officers or councillors of EDDC with the Exmouth Creative Group or any representative of the Exmouth Creative Group.
The meeting was an informal one and the Council does not have an attendance list.

I hope this information is helpful but if you feel dissatisfied with the way we have responded, please contact our Monitoring Officer, Henry Gordon Lennox, to request an internal review at [email address]

You may also approach the Information Commissioner for advice at http://www.ico.org.uk”

https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/east_devon_district_council_and?nocache=incoming-922717#incoming-922717

High Court backs approach taken by East Devon District Council in standards case

“A decision taken by East Devon District Council as principal authority over a code of conduct breach by a town councillor and the sanctions it recommended – including a requirement for training – was lawful, a High Court judge has ruled.

However, in Taylor v Honiton Town Council & Anor [2016] EWHC 3307 Mr Justice Edis quashed additional sanctions imposed by Honiton on the claimant, Cllr John Taylor, over and above those recommended by the district.

The case arose after Cllr Taylor, a member of the town council since 2007, became concerned about the funding of a major project in Honiton, the building of the ‘Beehive Community Centre’.

The councillor published a letter in January 2015 about the town council’s extension of borrowing from the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) by £98,000 to cover a shortfall. It included an allegation of impropriety and a request for a police investigation.

Honiton’s town clerk complained that she had been slandered in the letter, details of which had appeared in a local paper, and her professional reputation had been affected.

Attempts by East Devon’s monitoring officer to resolve the complaint informally were unsuccessful as Cllr Taylor refused to make an unreserved apology. East Devon therefore asked Tim Darsley to investigate.

Mr Darsley concluded on the facts that statements made by the councillor had been inaccurate and given a misleading account of what the town clerk had said at the meeting about the PWLB loan extension. His findings also included that there was no evidence that the loan application was in any way illegal and was used for an improper purpose.

In his report Mr Darsley also found that Cllr Taylor had publicly made claims of illegality and impropriety associated with the town clerk and that, in the absence of any reasonable justification for his claims, this constituted a failure to treat her with respect.

The standards hearings sub-committee at East Devon subsequently found Cllr Taylor to have breached a paragraph of the code of conduct because he had not treated the town clerk with respect in that he had publicly accused her of criminal behaviour, namely conspiracy to obtain a loan by deception in that its true purpose was misstated on the application.

On advice from its officers, the sub-committee recommended that the town council:

censure Cllr Taylor for his breach of the code of conduct;
publish the findings of the hearing sub-committee. (East Devon would anyway publish the findings on its own website as a matter of procedure).
instruct East Devon’s monitoring officer to arrange training for Cllr Taylor in respect of the code of conduct and councillor conduct – such training by the end of the current financial year (“the training requirement”).

Honiton went on to impose the sanctions recommended by East Devon and also applied a new policy on code of conduct sanctions it had adopted in October 2015.

These additional measures – to remain in place until Cllr Taylor had complied with the training requirement – involved:

(i) A restriction preventing the claimant/Cllr Taylor from speaking at any meeting including the council meeting.
(ii) The removal of Cllr Tayor from the five committees and working groups on which he served.
(iii) A restriction preventing him from attending any meeting as a member of the public together with a restriction from speaking as a member of the public at any meeting.
(iv) A restriction preventing Cllr Taylor from attending at the council offices unless accompanied by the mayor of the council.

Cllr Taylor brought judicial review proceedings on the following grounds: illegality; the sanctions not being imposed on a proper basis in the light of East Devon’s conclusions on the investigation; and the hearing before the standards sub-committee being procedurally unfair.

Honiton subsequently withdrew all sanctions imposed on Cllr Taylor but said it would consider the issue of sanctions again after any fresh decision by East Devon, and/or the outcome of the judicial review proceedings against the district.

In the end the proceedings were issued against the town council. (East Devon becoming an interested party because it wanted to establish that imposing a requirement for training on Cllr Taylor was lawful).

Honiton expressed the hope that the claim would be withdrawn because, amongst other things, it agreed that its decision of 14 December 2015 should be treated as never having been made. It also agreed that it would not seek to re-impose all of the sanctions that were imposed.

Mr Justice Edis decided, given Honiton’s approach, he would address two questions:

whether Honiton was bound by the findings of East Devon as to the facts and as to whether there was a breach of the code.

“This is because the Decision actually involves two stages: breach and sanction. Honiton has certainly withdrawn the second, but says that it is still bound by the first. The point is not academic to the Decision and to the order which should be made.

Whatever the outcome of this issue, I will quash the Decision. This does not mean that the route to that result is irrelevant. If the claimant is right I will quash the finding that there was a breach of the Code because no such finding was made by Honiton which wrongly simply adopted East Devon’s decision. If Honiton and East Devon are right I will quash the Decision because Honiton has conceded that it wrongly included sanctions which are beyond its powers.”

Mr Justice Edis decided that the effect of provisions in the Localism Act 2011 was to place the duty of investigation and decision of allegations against members of Honiton on East Devon as principal authority.

“The arrangements for decision making must involve independent persons and it would frustrate that important safeguard to hold that a parish council had a duty to reconsider the principal authority’s decision and substitute its own if it chose to do so,” he said.

The judge noted that in this case East Devon had decided the issue of breach but made recommendations to Honiton about what action it should take consequent on that finding. Honiton then took the decision on sanctions.

“The challenge in these proceedings is based on the proposition that East Devon’s role was limited to that of investigator and adviser on both questions and contends that Honiton was the ultimate decision maker on both issues. This appears to me to be clearly wrong….,” Mr Justice Edis said.
“A natural reading of the Act gives decision making power to the principal authority and requires it to have arrangements for the exercise of that power in place. It would make a nonsense of that scheme if the parish council were able to take its own decision without having any of those arrangements in place.”

The judge added: “The whole point of the scheme is to remove decision making powers and duties from very small authorities which do not have the resources to manage them effectively and who may be so small that any real independence is unattainable. I therefore reject the challenge.”

Mr Justice Edis added that in doing so, he declined to decide that the Act required the splitting of the decisions as between breach and sanction between the two relevant authorities in the way in which this happened in Cllr Taylor’s case.

On the imposition of a training requirement, Mr Justice Edis said Honiton was under a statutory duty to maintain high standards of conduct under s.27(1) of the Localism Act 2011 in relation to its members. Section 27(2) required it to have a code of its own or to adopt that of East Devon.
The judge said: “The existence of a code of conduct is regarded by Parliament as an important aspect of the maintenance of standards. It appears to me to be proportionate to a significant breach of it for a relevant authority to require the person in breach to be trained in its meaning and application.

“There is no point in having a code of conduct if members of the authority are not aware of its meaning and effect and where a member has demonstrated by his conduct that this is the case, a reasonable amount of training appears to be a sensible measure. A local authority should be able to require its members to undertake training which is designed to enable them to fulfil their public functions safely and effectively.”

Mr Justice Edis said it had been reasonably open to the decision maker to conclude that there had been a serious breach of the code.

He added: “There is no finding as to the claimant’s motives and it may be that he acted in good faith, believing that his statement about the town clerk was justified. However, it was not. He accused her of criminal conduct when there was not the slightest justification for doing so. This was a very serious error of judgement. Therefore, a requirement of training was proportionate.”

The judge noted that if such a requirement was made but the member refused to comply, the only sanction was publicity.

“Such conduct may reduce the confidence of the electorate in the member so that he or she is not re-elected. Equally, it may not,” he said. “That is a matter for the electorate to decide which it can do only if it has the relevant information. For these reasons I consider that it is open to a relevant authority exercising its power as contemplated by s.28(11) to take action following a failure to comply with a code of conduct to require the member to undertake training. That decision will usually be published and it will be open to the authority to publish what happens as a result of the requirement.”

http://localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=29497%3Ahigh-court-backs-approach-taken-by-district-council-in-standards-case&catid=59&Itemid=27

Exmouth/ EDDC: more of our money down the drain

“A report has highlighted that costs for Exmouth’s Queen’s Drive project have now more than doubled – from £1.5 million to £3.1 million.

The figures come as East Devon District Council (EDDC) continue looking for “fresh ideas” for the biggest chunk of the nine-acre development site – after sacking the previous developer, Moirai, over the summer.

They say they will be consulting with residents, businesses and tourists for this ‘third phase’ of the Queen’s Drive site in Exmouth.

http://www.exeterexpressandecho.co.uk/costs-double-for-exmouth-s-in-limbo-queens-drive-development/story-29858563-detail/story.html

Whose standards?

In the list of complaints received about councillors published recently by the Standards Committee is this one:

Town Councillor

Complaint regarding not declaring a personal interest
Passed to MO for assessment

The subject member is a member of Axminster Lodge of Honour & Virtue and participated in and voted upon an approved payment for Axminster Freemasons.

Click to access 190416standardscttecombinedagenda.pdf

page 15

“Independent Person” needed for EDDC Standards Committee

Fancy dealing with what EDDC decides are its naughtiest parish, town and district councillors and being involved in the process of ever-so-lightly rapping their knuckles and/or sending them on rehabilitative training (since no other sanctions exist)?

EDDC is seeking to recruit what they call an “Independent Person” to join its Standards Committee. However, not so independent that they can over-ride the Monitoring Officer or even vote about the outcome of cases – just be there as an “independent” observer.

Advertisements appear in this week’s local press and the closing date for applications is 19 February 2016.

The process for dealing with recruitment of this very, very special person was shrouded in mystery – however, a Freedom of information request in 2011 threw light on the process:

https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/independent_person_appointment

Unfortunately, the vacancy does not appear in EDDC’s online list of current vacancies. Interested parties are told they can contact Monitoring Officer Henry Gordon-Lennox 01395 517408 for more information.

You must not be a relative or close friend of an officer or member of EDDC and you must not have served as an officer of any local authority in the last 5 years. Previous applicants are told they cannot apply.

Owl has been thinking of filling in an application form …

One thought: it says that the person must not be a close relative or friend of any officer or member of EDDC. However, there is now so much close working with Exeter City Council, Teignbridge and the like, could there not be conflicts of interest from even wider circles these days.

What if a member of the Local Enterprise Partnership were to apply, for example!

Does Councillor Stuart Hughes understand what “confidential” means?

Leader Diviani made it clear that the draft Local Plan is confidential until EDDC has formally responded to Mr Thickett and until facts have been checked and he disclosed nothing except that it allows for 17,000 new homes.

So, how come in today’s Sidmouth Herald (page 5), Councillor Stuart Hughes announced that Mr Thickett has decided that employment land at Sidford will not be included?

Will Councillor Hughes be reported to the Monitoring Officer?

If it had been an Independent Councillor making the announcement in the press, would he or she have engendered the ire of Councillor Twiss?