Existing sanctions and those proposed under the Local Government Association’s draft Model Code of Conduct fall below the expectations of complainants, LLG has said.
“Sanctions are the single most important issue for LLG to give effect to the code of conduct,” LLG explained in its submission to the LGA's consultation on the draft code.
The organisation added that it and its membership strongly supported the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) recommendation for a 6-month suspension.
“Without effective sanctions, there is no deterrent and no confidence by those affected to pursue complaints,” LLG said.
“Further, LLG strongly supports the need to be able to prevent councillors from attending council officers (for the most prolific or serious offenders) and to withdraw facilities which have been misused in breach of the code (i.e. council technology) which could be addressed in policy.”
The LLG response said it advocated strongly for mandatory adoption of the code across authorities “otherwise it could simply be ignored and there would be no parity or consensus across local authorities leaving inhabitants subject to a lottery dependent upon the locality in which they live”.
The absence of mandatory adoption would also mean that those authorities not adopting or adopting in part would not (in some cases) benefit from the best practice and contemporary provisions (such as those pertaining to social media/bullying & harassment) contained within the final code.
“Mandatory adoption is also necessary to address the issue of councillors working across tiers who currently may have to juggle a variety of applicable codes depending on which position they are performing at the time,” LLG said, arguing that this would enable clarity and reduce confusion for councillors, staff and members of the public as well as making it easier for councillors operating across County, District, Parish and Town councils.
However, it added that mandatory adoption was only supported where ‘civility’ was replaced with ‘respect’ in the code.
LLG argued that the code needed to go beyond civility. “The code is much more than formal politeness and courtesy in behaviour or speech. It needs to be grounded in the acceptance that culture and upbringing may produce differences in acceptable conduct. To really acknowledge that some individuals will interpret bullying and harassment as robust debate. The recognition that a councillor’s own views on acceptable conduct might differ from others both within the council and those within the community and the constituents whom they serve. This is about being self-aware and making reasonable adjustments which distinguishes between the variances between interacting with a member of the public and the mutual respect and duty of care required for members of staff.”
In its submission LLG also said amongst other things that:
- It should be explicitly highlighted in the code that specific obligations attach to statutory officers which go beyond impartiality when they are acting on a board such as a company, arms-length organisation or well-being board for example. Highlighting this would enable councillors to be clear as to this distinction.
- It needed to be explicit that any breach of councillor impartiality would have a presumption of seriousness at the investigation stage.
- LLG supported the CSPL recommendation that section 31 of the Localism Act 2011 should be repealed, and replaced with a requirement that councils include in their code of conduct that a councillor must not participate in a discussion or vote in a matter to be considered at a meeting if they have any interest, whether registered or not, “if a member of the public, with knowledge of the relevant facts, would reasonably regard the interest as so significant that it is likely to prejudice your consideration or decision-making in relation to that matter”. LLG said this mirrored the old prejudicial interests test - which in LLG’s view worked well - and was voluntarily adopted by many councils who still utilise it.
- LLG in principle supported the recommendation of the CSPL for the role of the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman as an appeal authority where robust and effective sanctions are in place. “At present, without effective sanctions there is no role for the Ombudsman and LLG does not advocate the inclusion of a role until such time when the recommendations of the CSPL in respect of sanctions are adopted.”
- LLG agreed strongly that social media should be included explicitly within the code (98% of its membership agreed).
LLG also took the opportunity to comment on matters that would require amending legislation. These related to protection for statutory officers, and disqualification sanctions for sexual offences and anti-social behaviour.
On protection for statutory officers, it said: “Where a Monitoring Officer, a Chief Executive or Section 151 Officer does not feel comfortable to speak truth to power without facing serious ramifications leading to potential career limiting consequences the whole governance system and ability to challenge wrongdoing simply falls away.
“The protection of these statutory officers in all forms of disciplinary action affords greater confidence to address misconduct and governance failings which has a direct consequence upon the viability of the council, the legal framework within which it must operate and the trust and engagement engendered with its constituents. LLG robustly supports the CSLP recommendation that That the Local Authorities (Standing Orders) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 should be amended to provide that disciplinary protections for statutory officers extend to all disciplinary action, not just dismissal.”
The LGA consultation ran until 17 August.