Agenda item

To give the Committee a presentation and guidance update on decisions and actions taken nationally.


The Monitoring Officer presented a guidance update on conduct complaint decisions and actions taken nationally.


The Monitoring Officer’s external case review covered the following:-


Case 1 – Maldon District Councillor


·      6 complaints of bullying by the Councillor and his deliberately attempting to undermine the process had been upheld by the standards committee;

·      that Councillor had then deliberately disrupted a subsequent full Council meeting which had necessitated the Police to be called and the meeting abandoned. The Councillor had shown no remorse for his actions despite the impact of his behaviour on a number of staff and Councillors; and

·      that Member had subsequently been convicted earlier this year of breaching a non-molestation order in 2019. He had been given an eight month prison sentence (suspended) which had automatically disqualified him from the office of Councillor (Section 80 Local Government Act 1972). Therefore, he had lost his office due to an incident in his private life. 


Case 2 – Financial Costs of Investigating Handforth Parish Council (Jackie Weaver)


·      main problem was differing interpretations of Section 85 Local Government Act 1972 (disqualification of Councillor due to non-attendance at meetings);

·      arguments at online parish council meeting had gone ‘viral’ and had attracted huge media attention which had exacerbated existing problem and had increased the number of conduct complaints;

·      resulting report to Cheshire East Council’s Audit & Governance Committee had had external costs of £85,000 due to threats of a Judicial Review and need for independent advice;

·      other aggravating factors had included:-


          i.    three separate investigation reports involved six different councillors;

         ii.   reports had appendices in excess of 1,000 pages;

        iii.   breaches of Code had been found resulting in multiple recommendations;

        iv.   prolonged and repeated delay in the process;

         v.    Councillors had resigned;

        vi.   Monitoring Officer’s offer of help had merely generated more complaints;

       vii.   allegations of financial impropriety had necessitated involvement of the Police and auditors;

      viii.   external organisations employed to carry out the investigations had had to implement protocols for the protection of their staff;

        ix.   complaints continued to be submitted;

         x.    Information Commissioner’s Office was now also involved.


Case 3 – Borough Council forced to revise its Complaints Procedure


·      a Borough Council had had the practice of referring all complaints (unless obviously vexatious, frivolous or politically motivated) to a Member Assessment Panel even if the Monitoring Officer was intending to take no further action;

·      this had resulted in delays in the process and a detrimental impact on that Council’s limited resources;

·      that Council had now implemented revised arrangements; and

·      lesson to be learnt was the need to ensure that robust frameworks were in place and that Councillors should be regularly informed on how the Monitoring Officer delegated powers were being exercised.


Case 4 – Breach of Code of Conduct by a Member of a Council in Wales


·      Councillor in question had applied for planning permission to open a café but then proceeded to operate that café before the planning application had been determined;

·      Councillor had relied on defence of “limited and confused knowledge of planning matters” despite his being a member of the Planning Committee and having undertaken the necessary training;

·      Ombudsman had decided that the Councillor had brought both his office and the Council into disrepute;

·      Standards Committee then proceeded to suspend the Councillor for one month for this “Serious breach”; and

·      it was important to note that Wales had a different standards regime to England.


Case 5 – Deputy Monitoring Officer’s Decision quashed by the High Court


·      a Parish Council had accused one of its Members (Cllr R) of breaching its code of conduct (grounds were “not behaving during a meeting in a respectful way and acting in a way that could bring the Council into disrepute);

·      a second complaint relating to the Chairman of that same meeting (Cllr C) was also processed;

·      External solicitor had made an assessment of the two complaints and submitted thir recommendations;

·      the Deputy Monitoring Officer (DMO) had concluded that Cllr R had breached the Code but decided not to refer the complaint for further investigation. The DMO had further concluded that Cllr C’s actions had not breached the Code;

·      Cllr R had challenged the DMO’s decision in Court on the following grounds:-


Ground A – the DMO had failed to make any clear findings on what Cllr R had actually said in the meeting;


Grounds B & C – the DMO had not considered Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (right to freedom of expression); and


Ground D – the DMO had taken different approaches to dealing with the two complaints.


·      Mrs Justice Lang had upheld the challenge in the High Court and had quashed the DMO’s decision. In her judgement she had highlighted the following:-


Ground A – the DMO had failed significantly in her assessment and decision making process by not testing the inconsistencies that had been shown up in that assessment process;


Grounds B & C – the DMO’s interpretation and/or application of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (right to freedom of expression) had been flawed and she had failed to give effect to the enhanced right of political expression. Mrs Justice Lang had found:-


“In re-making the decision under Article 10(2), I conclude that the interference did not fulfil a pressing social need, and nor was it proportionate to the aim of protecting the reputation of the other councillors. As an elected councillor, taking part in a public meeting called by the parish council to discuss the Green Belt, the Claimant was entitled to the enhanced protection afforded to the expression of political opinions on matters of public interest, and the benefits of freedom of expression in a political context outweighed the need to protect the reputation of the other councillors against public criticism, notwithstanding that the criticism was found to be a misrepresentation, untruthful, and offensive.”


Ground D – Mrs Justice Lang had accepted that the two complaints could have had a different outcome due to their factual differences but that the DMO should have undertaken the same approach to both and that by failing to do so Cllr C had been more favourably treated than Cllr R.


The Monitoring Officer also reported that the Government, on 18 March 2022, had finally responded to the 26 recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s (CSPL) in its January 2019 report following its review of ethical standards in local government. She gave Members a brief precis of the Government’s response to the LGA and its Model Code and the issue of intimidation in public life and informed the Committee that she would be submitting a detailed report on this matter to its next meeting.


The Monitoring Officer also made Members aware that the CSPL would be undertaking a review of “Leadership” in looking to embed the Seven Principles of Public Life in public sector organisations.


The Committee thanked the Monitoring Officer for her presentation and duly noted the foregoing.

Supporting documents: