Standards Committee Minutes

Date:
Thursday, 31st March, 2016
Time:
7.30pm
Place:
Committee Room 1, Council Offices, Gernon Road, Letchworth Garden City
 
 

Attendance Details

Present:
Councillor Mike Rice (Chairman), Councillor Judi Billing, Councillor Steve Hemingway, Councillor Bernard Lovewell and Councillor M.R.M. Muir (from 7.45pm).
Parish Councillors Nicola Gregory and Robert Logan (Co-opted non-voting Parish Council Representatives).
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 (Deputy Monitoring Officer) and Committee and Member Services Manager.
Item Description/Decision
PART I
8 APOLOGIES FOR ABSENCE
Apologies for absence were submitted on behalf of District Councillors Bill Davidson, Alan Millard (Vice-Chairman) and Frank Radcliffe.
9 MINUTES
RESOLVED: That, subject to the insertion of the word “site” between “on” and “visits” in the second line of the sixth paragraph of the preamble to Minute 6 - Proposed New Planning Code of Good Practice, the Minutes of the meeting of the Committee held on 12 August 2015 be approved as a true record of the proceedings and signed by the Chairman.
10 NOTIFICATION OF OTHER BUSINESS
No other items were presented for consideration.
11 CHAIRMAN'S ANNOUNCEMENTS
(1) 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; and

(2) The Chairman welcomed Parish Councillor Helena Gregory, who was attending her first meeting of the Committee following her appointment to the vacancy of Parish Council representative.
12 PUBLIC PARTICIPATION
There was no public participation.
13 STANDARDS MATTERS
The Acting Monitoring Officer presented a report in respect of standards issues generally. The following appendices were submitted with the report:

Appendix A - Guidance on Ethical Standards for Providers of Public Services; and
Appendix B - Planning Code of Good Practice.

Sub-Committee Hearing

The Acting Monitoring Officer advised that Members would be aware that a Standards Sub-Committee had met in late February 2016 for a three day hearing and had found that a NHDC Councillor had breached the Council’s Code of Conduct. The Committee noted that the councillor in question had submitted an appeal against this decision, and that a Sub-Committee comprising Members different to those who had served on the first Sub-Committee would need to be convened, with the Reserve Independent Person providing advice.

The Acting Monitoring Officer commented that, in the run up to the first Sub-Committee meeting, it had proved difficult to obtain Members who were able to be available for three consecutive days, partly due to the relatively small size of the Committee and partly due Members’ work and other commitments.

In order to provide greater flexibility for the Sub-Committee in future, the Chairman therefore proposed that the Acting Monitoring Officer be asked to explore the possibility of increasing the size of the Standards Committee for 2016/17 onwards. It was acknowledged that this may achieve a greater cross-party representation on the Committee. The Committee supported the proposal for a potential increase in its size for 2016/17.

Complaints Handling Procedures

The Acting Monitoring Officer stated that Members would be aware that the aforementioned Sub-Committee was the first one held since the introduction of the current standards regime brought about in July 2012 by the Localism Act. Members would also be aware that it had always been intended to review the complaints handling procedures after they were first used, in order to ensure they worked as intended. The Chairman of the Standards Committee, the Independent Person, the Monitoring Officer and the Deputy Monitoring Officer would be arranging to meet to review the procedures, with any proposed changes being reported to the next meeting of the Committee.

Committee on Standards in Public Life Report (CSPL)

The Acting Monitoring Officer stated that attached at Appendix A to the report was the CSPL guidance on Ethical Standards for Providers of Public Services. It provided some interesting examples of different approaches which the Council might like to consider. Some of the points made were included within the Council’s procurement and contract processes. The following quote was also more applicable to Standards more widely:

“Whilst many of the requirements for high standards require action at an organisational level, high standards also require individuals to take personal responsibility - by observing high standards themselves, by demonstrating high standards to others through their own behaviour and by challenging inadequate standards when they see them.”

The Committee considered that, whilst the new standards regime was much improved from the original regime, in that it provided more flexibility for Monitoring Officers to resolve issues or “weed out” frivolous or vexatious issues before they came before Members, the sanctions available to Sub-Committees under the new regime were not as strong as those under the original scheme.

The Reserve Independent Person commented that one of the pleasing things he had noticed since becoming involved in Standards work at NHDC was that councillors had never allowed Party Politics to infringe on their consideration of Standards issues. The Chairman thanked the Reserve Independent Person for his comment and advised that he would be including a statement to this effect in his annual report to Council.

Planning Code of Good Practice

The Acting Monitoring Officer reminded Members that during the debate upon the Planning Code of Good Practice at the Council meeting held on 3 September 2015, the following comments were made by Members:

• Amendments should be made to reflect the positive contributions that Members made in dealing with planning issues (including the possible reversal of some of the “Do’s and Don’t’s contained in the document); and
• A possible reference to a section on the mediation role provided by Members, especially in dealing with neighbour disputes on planning applications.

The Council subsequently resolved that the proposed new Planning Code of Good Practice, be adopted, but at the next meeting of the Standards Committee the contributions and comments made by the Council be reviewed and incorporated into the Code.

The Acting Monitoring Officer explained that the current Code of Good Practice had only been in force for six months. It was therefore difficult to draw any conclusions as to its effectiveness. Anecdotally, there appeared to still be some confusion between location visits and site visits, although this could simply be a question of Members using the wrong terminology.

In view of the above situation, the Committee agreed to postpone the review of the Code to its next meeting in August 2016, so that further time had passed before its effectiveness could be more thoroughly evaluated. The suggestions made by the Independent Person regarding bias and adding wording to reflect Members’ positive contributions would be considered as part of the review of the Code in August 2016. The Acting Monitoring Officer pointed out that bias and predetermination were covered in Paragraph 3 of the Planning Code, but that this could be discussed in August when it was reviewed.

Complaints Update

The Acting Monitoring Officer reported that the following complaints had been received since the last Committee meeting:

• A complaint about a District Councillor regarding comments made in a Committee meeting was currently being considered; and
• A potential complaint about a District Councillor’s behaviour was not pursued after the complainant had decided not to pursue the matter.

Current Issues

The Acting Monitoring Officer stated that he was currently working with one of the Parish Councils in North Hertfordshire to try to resolve some ongoing issues at that Council.

The Acting Monitoring Officer advised that the review of the conflicts of interest policies had resulted in minor amendments to the (renamed) Personal Conflicts of Interest Policy and the adoption of a new policy entitled Managing Organisational Conflicts in Council Roles and Duties. The Whistleblowing Policy and Anti-Bribery Policy had been considered by Finance Audit and Risk at its meeting held on 23 March 2016 and subsequently by Cabinet on 30 March 2016. None of these policies were required to come to the Standards Committee under the Committee’s terms of reference (as they were governance-related and were therefore within the remit of the Finance, Audit and Risk Committee/Cabinet).

The Acting Monitoring Officer explained that a recent audit of community halls had concluded:

“It is recommended that the wider issue of Members acting in additional outside roles be reviewed by the Council and further guidance be produced to limit the impact of potential conflicts.”

It was noted that this had been agreed, with guidance to be produced, and distributed after the Annual Council meeting on 19 May 2016, when nominations were made to outside bodies.

RESOLVED:

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

(2) That the Planning Code of Good Practice be reviewed at the next meeting of the Committee in August 2016; and

(3) That the Acting Monitoring Officer be asked to explore the possibility of increasing the size of the Standards Committee for 2016/17 onwards, in order to provide greater flexibility for the Standards Sub-Committee.

REASON FOR DECISION: To ensure good governance within the Council.
14 CODE OF CONDUCT SECENARIOS DISCUSSION
The Acting Monitoring Officer introduced this item by stating that the following three Code of Conduct scenarios were take from and Independent Person Workshop run by Hoey Ainscough Associates Ltd on 1 December 2015. All three scenarios were based on real-life incidents. He invited the Committee to provide its views on each scenario, in the context of how it would you approach the issues under the Council’s Member Code of Conduct and other Council policies which governed behaviour.

Scenario 1 - Road Rage

“A Councillor was on his way to a Council meeting when he got stuck in a traffic jam. The jam was caused by a road survey that led Highways Agency workers to close one lane of the dual carriageway. The Councillor pulled over and challenged a highways worker over the lane closure, complaining that he was going to be late for an important Council meeting. A policeman, who was with the highways staff, walked over to investigate and an argument broke out. The Councillor was then cautioned and as he walked away called the policeman a f****** idiot.

He was arrested and fined £80 for a public order offence. A complaint about his conduct was subsequently made by the highways worker to the Council’s Monitoring Officer.”

Comments made by the Committee included:

• It seemed clear that the Councillor was acting in his official capacity;
• The matter would potentially be more serious if the councillor was part of an Authority which had responsibility for highway matters, as he appeared to be bullying the highways worker and was clearly disrespectful to the policeman; and
• It would seem clear that the councillor was potentially bringing his office and the Council into disrepute.

In terms of actual outcome, the Acting Monitoring Officer advised that the councillor was no longer a councillor. He happened to be a barrister by profession, and remained so. It was uncertain what became of the standards complaint, although it may explain why he was no longer a councillor. Both the now ex-councillor and the Council received a considerable amount of adverse publicity in the local press.

Scenario 2 - Twitter

“Following the suicide of a local huntsman which was widely reported, a Councillor re-tweeted a link to the story with the comment “the best use of a gun I can think of”. He then tweeted “If you choose to own a gun and kill for pleasure, then it’s best you kill yourself”.

A number of members of the public complain to the Monitoring Officer and the story is reported in the national papers.”

Comments made by the Committee included:

• The comments were offensive regardless of whether the councillor considered he was acting in his private or official capacity - in either event, it was doubtful that someone with those views was fit to hold public office;
• The issue would similarly apply to re-tweeting;
• The Monitoring Officer would be expected to contact the councillor and instruct him to take down/remove the tweet;
• Each Council’s social media guidelines should be explicit about the use of twitter - appropriate training should be provided for Members.

The Acting Monitoring Officer stated that the outcome was that the tweeter was a Liberal Party District and Town Councillor, who subsequently lost his seat six months later at the next elections. No standards procedures were therefore invoked, although it subsequently became clear through local and national press coverage that the former councillor was sympathetic to anti-hunt/hunt saboteur organisations.

Scenario 3 - Neighbours

“There is a contentious development of 40 houses happening in a ward. One of the Councillors lives adjacent to the area for development. At the meeting to discuss the planning application the Chairman says that the Councillor should not take part in the discussion because he has a Disclosable Pecuniary Interest. The councillor says he is speaking on behalf of the community and has a right to take part, so although he declares a personal interest, takes part in the debate and votes against the application.

The Chairman complains to the Monitoring Officer that the Councillor failed to declare a Disclosable Pecuniary Interest.”

The Acting Monitoring Officer advised that the councillor was a Parish Councillor.

Comments made by the Committee included:

• Even though the Parish Council was not making a decision on the planning application, it was likely that he was affected by that Council’s Code of Conduct;
• It would seem that he probably had a Disclosable Pecuniary Interest or at least a Declarable Interest that was so significant that he should have removed himself from the meeting when it discussed that particular planning application;
• The likelihood of bias/pre-determination was prevalent in this case; and
• He could have applied to the Monitoring Officer for a dispensation to participate in the debate;

The Acting Monitoring Officer commented that the outcome was that the Parish Councillor was reported to the Police for a particular breach of the Localism Act for not acting as he should have done with a Disclosable Pecuniary Interest. The Police interviewed him and decided to take no further action. He was then brought before the District Council’s Standards Committee, who found a breach of the Code of Conduct, but then found that he had been acting solely in the public interest (rather than for personal gain). No sanctions were imposed, but all of the Parish Councillors of that particular Parish were instructed to attend training on the Code of Conduct, specifically in relation to Planning matters.
Published on Wednesday, 13th April, 2016
9.02pm