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)