Agenda item

Review of Arrangements for Dealing with Complaints Through the Code of Conduct


Emma Jackman (Head of Legal Services) presented the Review of Arrangements for Dealing with Complaints through the Code of Conduct report and highlighted the following key points:



the new code of conduct was adopted in March 2022 based on the Local Government Association (LGA) model code of conduct. At the time it was explained to Members that arrangements would follow in terms of updating how standards complaints were dealt with. Different types of arrangements had been explored by the Monitoring Officer and a first draft had been produced for dealing with standards complaints;



the report attached to the agenda was an entirely new form of arrangements therefore track changes were not added to the document as it was not an amended document;



in terms of the legal position, the Council was required, under the Localism Act, to have arrangements in place for dealing with Councillor complaints. The legislation gave some detail as regards to what it must include but generally it was left to the discretion of each Council to determine how it would deal with standards complaints. One of the mandatory requirements was that any complaint must be in writing and must be considered in line with the arrangements. It was also mandatory that at the point of investigation, once an investigation had been conducted, the views of an independent person must be sought;



there had been a recent finding of the Social Care and Local Government Ombudsman in relation to the process for dealing with standards complaints. The Ombudsman didn’t ordinarily get involved with standards complaints but chose to review a particular complaint that was referred to it; in the conclusion of the Ombudsman it was confirmed that every local authority should have in place clear arrangements, that an investigation against a Councillor in terms of its conduct could not be instigated by the Monitoring Officer unless there was a written complaint on the matter submitted to it in line with the arrangements, and that standards complaints must make clear what the allegations have been made and why in reference to the code of conduct;



in Plymouth City Council there was a consistent year on year rise in complaints since 2020; in 2017 to 2020 there were at the lowest 3 complaints and at the highest 11 complaints; in 2021 there were 29 complaints, in 2022 there were 53 complaints, and at the time of writing the draft report there had been 29 complaints from the start of the year to date; there was a need for some clarity on the procedure as there were some areas within the arrangements where it was considered not clear what would happen. The volume of complaints had led to a bottleneck in terms of dealing with them. The current arrangements didn’t make clear the multi-stage approach or when an investigation commenced opposed to a fact find. If a decision could be made without a formal investigation then it would do so. Information was also provided on the role of the Standards Committee and the process for an informal resolution.


In response to questions raised it was reported that –



the list of sanctions at 11.1 in the report was not a statutory list; it was made up of what was included in the current arrangements as well as sanctions that were commonly used and referred to in the LGA guidance;



the independent person’s opinion would always be a matter of record for the complaint – in the arrangements it was only intended to publish those complaints where the Member was found in breach. The primary reason for this was the public wouldn’t necessarily know that a complaint had been made against a Member and it was general practice that where a Member was not found in breach then it wouldn’t be published as releasing it, in itself, could cause damage in terms of reputation;



the role of an independent person was a statutory requirement; there were restrictions on the post in terms of their employment, and them not being a member of a political group. That was reflected in the terms and conditions that they signed up to. A report was due to be submitted to Council referring to this matter; the two people proposed were both politically independent, were both independent people for other local authorities and were established in terms of their practice and experience;



The arrangements were drafted in such a way whereby the Monitoring Officer was not compelled to publish a complaint where there had been a finding of no breach, however if it was a matter of public record or if the Member proactively wanted the decision published when it wasn’t a bar to do that. Things would be considered on a case by case basis;



In terms of section 10.13 of the report, the new arrangements gave the Monitoring Officer less authority than she already currently had whereby the committee wasn’t the decision maker at all and there was only a Standards Advisory Group which expressed its views to the Monitoring Officer. It had been changed to a Standards Committee as it was considered that there did need to be a degree of control. There could be a situation where a complainant may want their complaint to go to committee but it may not be appropriate. Some authorities had all their complaints where they were likely to be found in breach or recommended for breach, go to committee and the difficulty with that was the high volume of complaints and the potential for the committee to meet frequently with a heavy workload and the committee itself would be politically proportionate. If the Member was of the political group in overall control it would be tried by Members of its own group as the majority on the committee;



in terms of section 10.13(2) in the report, the conflict of interest was in relation to the Monitoring Officer – this would be amended to make it clear that it didn’t link to the complaint;



approximately 4 months ago the proportion of complaints made from a member of the public against a Councillor, in comparison to a complaint made from a Councillor against another Councillor demonstrated an fairly equal split of 50/50; it was highlighted that some of the member of the public complaints were affiliated with Members of the Council.


The Chair made a suggestion that a meeting of the Constitutional Review Group was scheduled in order to consider a full review of the constitution in light of the issues discussed with regards to the code of conduct. The suggestion was also made in light of the following recommendations from the 22 February 2023 Performance, Finance and Customer Focus Overview and Scrutiny Panel (minute 57):


1. to mandate the Monitoring Officer to work in conjunction with the Audit and Governance Committee to establish a sub group to review the petitions process as contained within the Council’s Constitution in order to learn lessons moving forward;


2. to recommend to the Audit and Governance Committee, as part of their overall review of the Constitution, consider specifically the consultation and engagement approach and processes linked to petitions so that they were clearly defined and understood;


It was suggested that this process was undertaken in stages in that the Committee might consider approving the new arrangements now and considering this issue through the Constitutional Review Group after the May 2023 Election.


It was clarified by the Head of Governance, Performance and Risk that the Audit and Governance Committee did not have to wait until after the May election to establish a sub group as that provision was already a part of the Committee’s terms of reference; it was suggested that the Committee might wish to wait until after the election as the membership of the Council might be different.


The Committee agreed



to amend the document at section 10.13(2) with regards to the reference to conflict of interest to clarify that this was specifically in relation to the Monitoring Officer and not the Member involved in the complaint;



to approve the amended arrangements for dealing with standards complaints (to comply with Section 28 of the Localism Act);



to include the review of the Council’s Constitution to the Audit and Governance Committee’s work programme for 2023/ 24 and to refer this review to the Committee’s sub group for consideration. The review is to consider the code of conduct as part of this review.


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