Standards Committee Minutes

Date:
Monday, 17th June, 2013
Time:
7.30pm
Place:
Council Chamber, Council Offices, Gernon Road, Letchworth Garden City
 
 

Attendance Details

Present:
District Councillors Mike Rice (Chairman), Alan Millard (Vice-Chairman), Judi Billing, Bill Davidson, Bernard Lovewell and M.R.M. Muir.
Mr Nicholas Moss (Independent Person) and Mr Peter Chapman (Reserve Independent Person) - non-voting advisory roles.
Parish Councillors Robert Logan and Peter Long (Co-opted non-voting Parish Council representatives).
In attendance:
Acting Corporate Legal Manager (Monitoring Officer) and Committee and Member Services Manager.
Item Description/Decision
PART I
1 APOLOGIES FOR ABSENCE
No apologies for absence were submitted.
2 MINUTES
RESOLVED: That the Minutes of the meeting of the Committee held on 26 February 2013 be approved as a true record of the proceedings and signed by the Chairman.
3 NOTIFICATION OF OTHER BUSINESS
No other items were presented for consideration.
4 CHAIRMAN'S ANNOUNCEMENTS
The Chairman reminded Members that, in line with the Code of Conduct, any Declarations of Interest should be declared immediately prior to the item in question.
5 PUBLIC PARTICIPATION
There was no public participation.
6 REVIEW OF THE MEMBER CODE OF CONDUCT
The Monitoring Officer presented a report in respect of a review of the Member Code of Conduct. The following appendices were submitted with the report:

Appendix A - Revised Member Code of Conduct; and
Appendix B - Existing Member Code of Conduct, adopted 12 July 2012.

The Monitoring Officer advised that he had endeavoured to clarify and simplify the Code of Conduct. Whilst the proposed new version was different in style and presentation to the existing Code, it was similar in the duties and responsibilities required to be followed by Members. The Monitoring Officer summarised the main changes to the Code, as set out in Section 8 of the report. One of the key changes was that the seven principles of public life set out in the Localism Act 2011 were now contained within the Code, rather than as a pre-amble to it.

The Committee considered the revised Code of Conduct and made the following amendments:

• Paragraph 2.4 - the Monitoring Officer undertook to further simplify the wording of this paragraph;

• Section 4 - Interests - the addition of an introductory paragraph to highlight to Members that there were criminal offences within the legislation for failure to comply with the declaration of Disclosable Pecuniary Interests; and

• The addition of a new Section (Section 8) in respect of dispensations.

The Committee was pleased to see the new Code now contained only two types of interests (Disclosable Pecuniary Interests and Declarable Interests). The Monitoring Officer advised that, once the new Code of Conduct had been approved by the Council, he would be revising and re-circulating the flowchart regarding declarations of interest.

RECOMMENDED TO COUNCIL: That the revised Member Code of Conduct, as set out at Appendix A to the report, as amended, be adopted.

REASON FOR DECISION: To improve the Code of Conduct to make it easier to follow for both Members and the public.
7 REVIEW OF THE MEMBER / OFFICER WORKING PROTOCOL
The Monitoring Officer presented a report in respect of a review of the Member / Officer Working Protocol. The following appendices were submitted with the report:

Appendix A - Amended Member/Officer Working Protocol with tracked changes; and
Appendix B - Extract from Overview and Scrutiny Committee Minutes, 19 March 2013.

The Monitoring Officer advised that one of the recommendation of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee’s Task and Finish Group on Communications and Consultation, which took place during 2011, was that the Member/Officer Working Protocol should be re-drafted to provide a clear statement of what Members and Officers should expect from each other, taking into account the recommendations of the Task and Finish Group. It was agreed that the Protocol should be reviewed rather than redrafted.

The Monitoring Officer stated that, under its terms of reference, Overview and Scrutiny Committee would not normally consider revisions to the Protocol, as this fell within the Standards Committee’s terms of reference for recommendation to Council. However, due to the findings of the Task and Finish Group, the Protocol was reported to the meeting of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee held on 19 March 2013, and a copy of the relevant minute was attached as Appendix B to the report. The revised Protocol attached at Appendix A to the report contained amendments made by both the Senior Management Team and Overview and Scrutiny Committee.

The considered the revised Member/Officer Working Protocol and made the following further amendments:

• Paragraph 2.2 - the words “involve themselves in” to be replaced by the word “determine”, and the whole sentence to be moved to form part of Paragraph 2.1;

• Paragraph 2.4 - the word “equally” in the first sentence to be replaced by the word “fairly;

• A new introductory paragraph to Section 3 - Expectations - to refer to the fact that it was right and proper that there might be occasions when Members and Officers would disagree about certain issues, but that even on these occasions it would be expected that the standards of behaviour set out in the Protocol would be followed;

• Paragraph 3.2(f) - the Monitoring Officer to make reference to the fact that, whilst Officers should not be subject to bullying or put under undue pressure by Members, the reverse situation should also not occur;

• Paragraph 5.1 - Officer advice to Party Groups - a cross reference should be made her to Paragraph 3.1(e) (“Members can expect from Officers….professional advice, not influenced by political views or preference, which does not compromise the political neutrality of officers”);

• Paragraph 5.7 - the type of elections stated in this paragraph should also include Police and Crime Commissioner Elections; and

• Paragraph 7.1 (and any consequential amendments) - Correspondence - the words “and other forms of electronic communication” to be added to the brackets in the second line of this paragraph.

RECOMMENDED TO COUNCIL: That the revised Protocol for Member/Officer Working Arrangements, as attached at Appendix A to the report, as amended, be adopted.

REASON FOR DECISION: To promote Member/Officer good working practices; to ensure good governance; to assist in transparency of decision-making; and to set appropriate expectations.
8 UPDATE ON MONITORING OFFICER WORK PROGRAMME
The Monitoring Officer presented a report providing an update on his Work Programme. The following appendices were submitted with the report:

Appendix A - Member’s Role Description; and
Appendix B - Guidelines for Members when using social media.

The Monitoring Officer advised that since the Committee last met on 26 February 2013, four complaints had been received, all relating to Parish Councils:

• One was dismissed by the Monitoring Officer as there was no case to answer, although follow up advice was provided to the Parish Council in respect of a potential Data Protection issue;
• One complaint was received, but a request for further information was not responded to despite a reminder being sent. The file had therefore been closed;
• Two complaints were ongoing and were currently being considered by the Monitoring Officer.

Following the consideration of the first complaint the Monitoring Officer, in consultation with the Independent Person, reviewed the complaints handling procedures and made minor amendments to them to ensure clarity, in particular as to when the Member concerned was first notified of the existence of a complaint. The Monitoring Officer was delegated this authorisation by Full Council on 12 July 2012 when the new standards regime was adopted.

The Monitoring Officer stated that Members would be aware that it was a requirement of the Localism Act 2011 that authorities appointed an Independent person (IP) for the purposes of their complaints handling processes. As a result of the consideration of the first complaint referred to above it became apparent that the Council would benefit from having a third IP as there may be rare occasions when both the Council’s IP and Reserve IP might be conflicted out of acting on the same matter. Coincidentally, at the same time that the above complaint was being considered, the Council was approached by Broxbourne Borough Council who were struggling to recruit to their IP post, although had subsequently been able to appoint to the position. Nicholas Moss and Peter Chapman had agreed to act as Reserve IPs for Broxbourne, and in return it had been suggested that NHDC appointed Broxbourne's IP as a third, unpaid, IP. This would be reported to Council on 18 July 2013 to confirm the appointment.

The Monitoring Officer reminded Members that a significant amount of work was being undertaken on the Council Constitution review. The aim is to report to Full Council on 18 July 2013 with the proposed new Constitution.

The Monitoring Officer explained that, as part of the work undertaken on the Constitution review, the Council had been provided with a Member Role Description, which was attached at Appendix A to the report. It was proposed that this role description be added to the new Member Welcome Pack and also be placed on the intranet (for clarity, it would not be in the revised constitution). The Committee was invited to comment on the draft role description.

In respect of Social Media Guidelines, the Monitoring Officer referred to Appendix B to the report, which set out some draft guidelines, in order to assist Members in how to responsibly use these methods of communication, which were growing in importance and popularity. It was not intended that the guidelines should limit or discourage the use of social media in any way, nor was it intended that there should be a separate policy, as the Member the Code of Conduct principles would apply. The Committee was invited to comment on the draft guidelines.

In respect of the Member Role Description, the Committee found this to be a very helpful document, both for new and existing Members. The Committee made the following amendments:

• Paragraph 1.1.1(b)(ix) - the words “subject to the requirements of the Member Code of Conduct” to be added to this section; and
• Paragraph 1.1.1(b)(xii) - this paragraph, requiring compliance with all relevant Codes of Conduct, to be removed and expanded into a completely new paragraph, to draw attention to the importance of standards matters.

In respect of the Draft Social Media Guidelines, the Committee made the following amendments:

• Second Tick - replacement of the words “for a long time” with “permanently” (or similar);
• Third Cross - addition of the word “Committee” between “during” and “meetings”;
• Making reference in the document to not using social media when under the influence of alcohol; and
• Clarifying that inappropriate use of social media could also constitute a criminal offence.

RESOLVED:

(1) That the contents of the report be noted;

(2) That the Member Role Description, as set out at Appendix A to the report, as amended, be approved; and

(3) That the Draft Social Media Guidelines for Members, as set out at Appendix B to the report, as amended, be approved; and

REASON FOR DECISION: To ensure good governance within the Council.
9 PROMOTING HIGH STANDARDS OF CONDUCT
The Monitoring Officer presented a report with regard to promoting high standards of conduct, as requested by the Committee at its meeting held on 26 February 2013. The following appendix was submitted with the report:

Appendix A - Extract from “Standards Matters” report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, January 2013.

The Monitoring Officer advised that the Committee on Standards in Public Life report referenced that low and declining levels of confidence in the integrity of public institutions should remain a matter of concern. It was important that the public and organisations in the District had confidence in local democracy, and in those in North Hertfordshire who had been elected or appointed to serve on its local councils. Councillors were expected to live up to high standards of behaviour and demonstrating that they did so underpinned that confidence in local democracy.

The Monitoring Officer stated that, attached at Appendix A to the report was an extract from the report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The extract highlighted the four conclusions of the Committee in its recent report, which were described as “some practical steps which organisations can take to help ensure that they establish and maintain high standards”. Whilst not all of the points raised within the extract were ones which the Standards Committee could control or influence, this was considered a good starting point for discussion. Points which the Standards Committee could influence (some of which it already did) included:

• actively review current practices as a matter of routine;
• ethical issues should feature regularly on agendas;
• actively monitor standards of behaviour of Members;
• by being more attentive to, and active in, addressing emerging issues; and
• consistently and reliably exemplifying high standards of ethical behaviour.

The Monitoring Officer commented that the Committee on Standards in Public Life report included the lines “The promotion of good behaviour can never be just about ticking boxes. It requires expected standards to be embedded throughout an organisation and its processes, with everyone taking ownership of high standards and regular monitoring of whether they are being met”. This was clearly where the Standards Committee, collectively and individually, could play a lead role by, for example:

Formulating Policy
• ensure that the Member Code of Conduct was fit for purpose;
• ensure that other policies which governed member conduct were fit for purpose; and
• identify any gaps in policy or guidance.

Acting as Standards Champions
• on other committees of the Council on which they served;
• across the District, including with any parishes within their ward;
• within their political groups;
• by leading by example; and
• by encouraging, challenging, mentoring or assisting other Members.

Identifying Training Needs
• identifying potential issues and making officers aware of training needs of Members;
• encouraging attendance at training by other Members;
• using the Councillor training budget; and
• identify alternative methods of delivery (eg) MIS bulletins.

The Committee discussed that, instead of a short session at the New Member Induction evening following the District Elections each year, the Monitoring Officer could consider an annual “event” to promote high standards of conduct to the newly-elected Councillors and to remind existing Councillors of the standards expected. The Committee felt that they could play a role in mentoring new Councillors on Standards matters. The Monitoring Officer requested that Standards Committee Members would engage with other Members of their Political Groups to ascertain exactly what type of standards training would be required in the future. The Committee requested that the Monitoring Officer report to a future meeting on proposed training for new and existing Councillors.

RESOLVED: That the Monitoring Officer report to a future meeting on proposed training for new and existing Councillors, including potential involvement of Standards Committee Members.

REASON FOR DECISION: To promote high standards of conduct.
Published on Thursday, 20th June, 2013
10.00pm