The Vale officers recently proposed a new Code of Conduct, which is fine, and a new process by which complaints regarding it will be handled, which in my opinion is not fine.
Here is the speech I delivered at Council on Wednesday 16th May 2012:
Managing Complaints: The Process
If there was a consultation for members on this proposal, I missed it. If there wasn’t a consultation, then a decision to accept this solution should be deferred until such a consultation has been held.
The New Solution:
- One senior officer and one non-elected appointed person decide initially about all complaints. There is no provision for any elected members to participate, except when the Monitoring Officer decides they should. While I understand the appeal of making the process more streamlined, I don’t see how this solution meets an expectation for public accountability.
- The process of Managing Complaints should be clearly defined and publicly viewable, and should include at each step what the possible decisions are, who makes them, and how they can be appealed. This paper is mute on that subject.
- With a single person as the arbiter of all complaints received, too much depends on the ability of the person in that role to be impartial and to handle their own conflicting commitments. For example, when the Vale’s commitment to cost control meets their commitment to zero tolerance for bullying, it’s left to a single human being to provide a fair decision as to what should be done in any particular instance of bullying. How can one person resolve such a case of conflicting commitments?
- Item 15 argues for abandoning the standards committee approach. This paper points out that the standards committee met infrequently and claims that it had a light workload. Given that many Code of Conduct complaints in the last year took much longer to be resolved than the advertised 3 weeks, it would appear there are some problems with workload, or at least, problems with throughput. It’s not clear how the proposed solution will improve service delivery.
- The independent person with whom the monitoring officer will consult is an unelected volunteer. I see a danger that this relationship and their decisions might lead to claims of secrecy or lack of fairness and openness in how we make decisions.
- If the monitoring officer is accountable to the electorate, the process for scrutiny isn’t defined. And how would we ensure the appointed independent person is accountable and by what means of scrutiny or oversight?
- In item 16, there were some details promised before tonight’s meeting, which I haven’t received.
It seems to me that this proposal, though not wrong, is certainly incomplete. I’d like to see it taken back, consulted on, and defined more thoroughly before council considers it. If recent developments in planning have taught us one thing, it’s that we should be sure to get all the information from all relevant sources before crafting our solution to complex problems. If we ask, ‘What could possibly go wrong?’, and try to mitigate, we’ll have a stronger council.
The main points are that having a single officer, the Monitoring Officer, and an appointed volunteer as the arbiters of all Code of Conduct complaints can lead to claims of unfairness, lack or transparencey and non-accountability. When Cllr Bob Johsnton asked about what rememdies were available to the Monitoring Officer for councillors found to have breached the Code of Conduct, he was told, ‘Beyond censure, not much.’
Clearly, the Localism Act has taken away what few teeth were left in the process for enforcement of standards of conduc. For those who think local councils need to face up to the unacceptable behaviour of elected councillors, this latest move from the Government is a disappointment.