Standards Committee Minutes

Date:
Tuesday, 24th February, 2015
Time:
7.30pm
Place:
Council Chamber, Council Offices, Gernon Road, Letchworth Garden City
 
 

Attendance Details

Present:
District Councillor Mike Rice (Chairman), District Councillor Alan Millard (Vice-Chairman), District Councillor Judi Billing, District Councillor Bill Davidson, District Councillor S.K. Jarvis (substitute), District Councillor David Kearns, District Councillor Bernard Lovewell and District Councillor M.R.M. Muir.

Mr Nicholas Moss (Independent Person) and Mr Peter Chapman (Reserve Independent Person) - non-voting advisory roles.
In attendance:
Acting Corporate Legal Manager (Acting Monitoring Officer), Acting Senior Lawyer and Committee and Member Services Manager.
Also Present:
District Councillor Ben Lewis.
Item Description/Decision
PART I
7 APOLOGIES FOR ABSENCE
Apologies for absence were submitted on behalf of District Councillor Paul Clark and Parish Councillor Robert Logan. Councillor S.K. Jarvis was substituting for Councillor Clark.
8 MINUTES
RESOLVED: That the Minutes of the meeting of the Committee held on 22 July 2014 be approved as a true record of the proceedings and signed by the Chairman.
9 NOTIFICATION OF OTHER BUSINESS
No other items were presented for consideration.
10 CHAIRMAN'S ANNOUNCEMENTS
(1) The Chairman had the sad duty to announce that Parish Councillor Peter Long (one of the co-opted Parish Council representatives on the Committee) had recently passed away. He undertook to ensure that the Committee’s condolences were passed on to Parish Councillor Long’s family.

(2) 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.
11 PUBLIC PARTICIPATION
There was no public participation.
12 PROPOSED MINOR REVISIONS TO THE COMPLAINTS HANDLING PROCEDURE
The Acting Monitoring Officer presented a report in respect of proposed revisions to the Complaints Handling Procedure. The following appendices were submitted with the report:

Appendix A - Independent Person Role Description;
Appendix B - Complaints Procedure; and
Appendix C - Proposed new Complaints Procedure Flowchart.

The Acting Monitoring Officer advised that it was proposed to amend the Independent Person (IP) Role Description, as shown in track changes at Appendix A to the report. The changes were proposed in order to emphasise the wider role the IP could play in promoting standards and to better explain the stages in the complaints process into which the IP could provide input.

The Acting Monitoring Officer explained that, further to the review of the IP Role Description, some minor amendments were proposed to the Complaints Procedure, as shown in track changes at Appendix B to the report. The amendments were intended to clarify the role of the Independent Person and Reserve Independent Persons and proposed to append the amended IP Role Description to the procedure. Additionally, it was proposed to move one section to a more logical position within the procedure.

The Acting Monitoring Officer stated that the Complaints Procedure had a number of documents appended to it. The first was a flowchart showing the process. Appendix B to the report contained the current flowchart. Attached at Appendix C to the report was a proposed replacement flowchart, following feedback from the discussion with the IP, Reserve IP and Chairman of the Standards Committee. The proposed new flowchart was simpler, with less information included, in order to be clearer to the reader. One suggestion made was to include the relevant paragraph numbers of the Procedure in the relevant box on the flowchart, but for reasons of space that suggestion was not incorporated.

The Acting Monitoring Officer commented that the second appendix to the Complaints Procedure detailed the Assessment Criteria. It was proposed to change the example given of what did not constitute a breach of the Code of Conduct to “failure to respond to correspondence”, given that this was the most frequent example of the type of complaint ruled out in the initial assessment by the Monitoring Officer. Additionally, the example currently used reflected the 2012 Code of Conduct, not the Code adopted by Full Council in 2013, which slightly broadened the circumstances in which conduct in a Councillor’s private life might constitute a breach of the Code.

The Monitoring Officer reminded Members that, in consultation with the Independent Person, he had been delegated the authority to make minor amendments to the Council’s adopted Procedure and the views of the Committee were sought on the proposed changes.

The Committee considered the report, and made the following suggestions to the Acting Monitoring Officer regarding amendments to the various appendices:

• Appendix B - Paragraph 1.3 - replace the words “shall be investigated” with “to investigate”;
• Appendix B - Paragraph 6.1 - additional wording to explicitly state that all complaints would be acknowledged;
• Appendix B - Paragraph 6.4 - additional wording to explicitly state that the Independent Person may be consulted at this stage;
• Appendix B - Paragraph 9.1.2 - additional wording to clarify that the normal rules for the conduct of committee/sub-committee meeting will apply for hearings;
• Appendix B - Paragraph 10.1 - reference to be made to “the available sanctions” open to the Sub-Committee;
• Appendix B - Paragraph 13.3 - additional wording to clarify that, as well as a different set of Committee Members being involved in any appeal, a different Independent Person would also be involved;
• Appendix 3 to Appendix B - replacement of the word “should” with “must” in the first line; replacement of the word “was” with “may have been” in the fourth line; and replacement of the term “facts not agreed” with “disputed facts” in the penultimate box in the flowchart (and similar replacement of these words in other parts of the document);
• Appendix 4 to Appendix B - Paragraph 1.2 - addition of the word “also” to clarify that a non-voting Parish Member of the Committee may also be present at a hearing;
• Appendix 4 to Appendix B - Paragraph 5.1 - replacement of the word “will” with “must”;
• Appendix 4 to Appendix B - Paragraph 7.7 - replacement of the word “findings” with “minutes”; and
• Appendix C - clarification in the third bullet point in the central white box in the flowchart so that the Investigation report would include a conclusion whether or not, on the face of it, there is evidence of a potential failure to comply with the Code of Conduct.

RESOLVED: That the minor revisions to the Complaints Handling Procedure, including the further amendments suggested by the Committee detailed above, be taken on board by the Acting Monitoring Officer in amending the Procedure.

REASON FOR DECISION: To ensure good governance within the Council.
13 STANDARDS MATTERS
The Acting Monitoring Officer presented a report in respect of standards issues generally, and seeking the views of the Committee on various proposals. The following appendices were submitted with the report:

Appendix A - Extract from Annual report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, September 2014;
Appendix B - Draft Hertfordshire County Council Guidance on Pre-Election Period; and
Appendix C - Tendring District Council Pre-Election Publicity Guidance.

Proposed changes to the Constitution

The Acting Monitoring Officer advised that, as Members would be aware, the Council currently reviewed its Constitution on an annual basis and the current review was underway. The Monitoring Officer had two proposals for inclusion in the review that related to the Standards Committee. The first relevant paragraph of the Constitution, in its current format, was:

“7.3 Number of Meetings

There shall be three regular meetings of the Committee in each year. In addition, extraordinary meetings may be called from time to time, as and when appropriate. An extraordinary meeting may be called by the Chairman of the Committee or by the Proper Officer if he/she considers it is necessary or appropriate.”

The Acting Monitoring Officer stated that Members were aware that there were three regular meetings of the Standards Committee scheduled each Civic Year. However, there had not been enough business for all of these meetings to be effective and therefore a number had been cancelled. The dates of the last 8 meetings of the Committee were set out in the report and Members noted that, for the past four years, only two meeting per year had taken place.

The Acting Monitoring Officer therefore proposed to reduce the number of regular meetings to two (noting that extraordinary meetings could be called as and when appropriate, as Paragraph 7.3 of the Constitution made clear). It was suggested that these meetings were held in late February and September, once a suitable gap in the meeting schedule was identified.

The second relevant paragraph of the Constitution, in its current format, was:

“7.6 Work Programme

The Monitoring Officer will prepare a work programme, which will be reviewed and approved at each Committee meeting. It will cover the business to be transacted at future meetings of the Committee.”

The Acting Monitoring Officer also proposed to either delete or amend Paragraph 7.6 of the Constitution, as the current drafting did not reflect the amount of business being conducted (it was therefore difficult to create a meaningful work programme to inform the Committee).An alternative approach to simply deleting it would be to reword it as follows:

“7.6 Standards Matters

The Monitoring Officer will present a general report on standards matters at each Committee meeting, updating the Committee on the workload of the Monitoring Officer and current standards issues.”

The Committee supported the proposal to reduce the number of scheduled meetings to two per Civic Year, and opted for the revised wording for Paragraph 7.6 of the Constitution, as set out above, rather than outright deletion of this paragraph.

Committee on Standards in Public Life Report

The Acting Monitoring Officer referred to Appendix A to the report, which was the section on Local Government standards from the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) Annual Report, published in September 2014. The concerns expressed about the post-Localism Act 2011 standards regime were be familiar to Members, as these potential issues were raised by officers at the time the new approach was implemented. Also noted was the importance placed on the training of new Councillors. The Council did offer sessions covering a range of issues, including standards, but unfortunately the 2014 sessions were poorly attended. Officers were currently considering the approach to take with training any new Councillors elected in 2015.

The Committee asked the Monitoring Officer to develop some ideas for the training of new councillors. Any suggestions from Committee Members would be welcomed.

The Acting Monitoring Officer stated that there were other sections in the CSPL Annual Report that might be of interest to Members, particularly the Public Perceptions Survey. The survey looked across different sectors, but there were interesting points to note from the Council’s perspective, including that the public felt the best governance models included both ‘compliance-based’ and ‘integrity-based’ approaches: that was, between good behaviour resulting from a well-designed and systematically enforced external set of rules, and good behaviour that was internally driven and the result of strong ethical character. The survey also noted that there was very wide agreement in all segments of the British general public about the ways in which probity in both the public and the private sector could be promoted. In that shared view, the ways seen as most important were the promotion of a culture in which people were not afraid to report wrongdoing, the use of codes of proper conduct in which office holders and staff were trained, and the setting of a good example by senior managers or office holders.

Complaints Update

The Acting Monitoring Officer advised that, since the last meeting of the Standards Committee held on 22 July 2014, there had been three complaints received about District Councillors regarding failure to respond to correspondence, which had all been ruled out as not constituting a breach the Code of Conduct. This issue was also reported to the Committee at its last meeting and Members recalled that a Members’ Information Service (MIS) note on this subject had been issued on 10 October 2014 as part of Customer Services Week. A complaint was dismissed as it referred to an ex-Councillor and concerned a County Council function. A complaint was received shortly before the writing of the report and was currently being considered.

Current Issues

The Acting Monitoring Officer stated that, as Members were aware, the Council had recently been consulting on the Preferred Options for the North Hertfordshire Local Plan. Ahead of the Full Council meeting on 27 November 2014, advice was provided as to interests and pre-determination. Given the high profile nature of this issue and the scrutiny being placed on it by the public, all Members should ensure they complied with their responsibilities under the Council’s Code of Conduct.

The Acting Monitoring Officer reminded Members of the pre-election period, which applied in the run up to the May 2015 elections. However, he felt that there was sometimes confusion as to what this actually meant. The key principle was that the Council’s resources were not used to promote any political party during this period, for example, through press releases or Outlook magazine. The pre-election period did not prevent individual Councillors writing to the local newspaper, an issue which had been queried in the past. Attached at Appendices B and C to the report were two briefing notes prepared by other authorities - Hertfordshire County Council (currently in draft) and Tendring District Council, respectively. The Acting Monitoring Officer asked the Committee to consider whether such a briefing note would be of benefit and, if so, whether they had a particular preference for either note, which would then be tailored to NHDC.

The Committee expressed a preference for Appendix B (the Hertfordshire County Council draft), and the Acting Monitoring Officer undertook to circulate this versions to Members and Officers once it was finalised.

Forthcoming Policy Reviews

The Acting Monitoring Officer was currently reviewing the following policies:

• Conflicts of Interest;
• Planning Code of Good Practice; and
• Confidential Reporting Code (Whistleblowing).

The Acting Monitoring Officer commented that, where required by the Committee’s terms of reference, these will be submitted to a future meeting(s).

Parish Council Representative

The Acting Monitoring Officer advised that the Standards Committee’s membership included “A maximum of two Parish Councillors co-opted as non-voting members.” On 12 November 2014, the Council received the sad news that Councillor Peter Long of Ashwell Parish Council had died. Parish Councillor Long was co-opted to the Standards Committee. It was therefore necessary to seek a new Parish Councillor to be co-opted to the Committee and this process would commence following the May 2015 Elections.

RECOMMENDED TO COUNCIL: That the following amendments be made to Section 7 (The Standards Committee) of the Council’s Constitution:

(1) Paragraph 7.3 - Number of Meetings - to now read:

There shall be two regular meetings of the Committee in each year. In addition, extraordinary meetings may be called from time to time, as and when appropriate. An extraordinary meeting may be called by the Chairman of the Committee or by the Proper Officer if he/she considers it is necessary or appropriate; and

(2) Paragraph 7.6 to be re-named “Standards Matters” - and to now read:

The Monitoring Officer will present a general report on standards matters at each Committee meeting, updating the Committee on the workload of the Monitoring Officer and current standards issues.

RESOLVED:

(1) That the report be noted;

(2) That the Acting Monitoring Officer be requested to develop some ideas for the training of new councillors, incorporating any helpful suggestions from Members of the Committee

(3) That, once finalised, the Acting Monitoring Officer be requested to circulate to Members and Officers the briefing note prepared by Hertfordshire County Council in respect of guidance of what can and cannot be done during the Pre-Election Period.

REASON FOR DECISION: To ensure good governance within the Council.
Published on Tuesday, 3rd March, 2015
8.50pm