Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)|
6 DECEMBER 2004
Q20 Andrew Bennett: In most instances
the monitoring officer is the chief executive.
Ms Lloyd-Jones: No. The monitoring
officer is not allowed to be the chief executive because of the
amendments in the 2000 Act.
Q21 Andrew Bennett: At what point should
the chief executive know?
Ms Lloyd-Jones: Assuming there
is a close working relationship between the monitoring officer,
the section 151 officer and the Head of Paid Service, it
would certainly be my experience that the monitoring officer would
want the Head of Paid Service to know, particularly if administrative
steps needed to be taken or, indeed, if there was a group investigation
on the same factswhich there often is. Then the Head of
Paid Service would be told, I am absolutely confident, by the
Q22 Andrew Bennett: It would be at the
discretion of the monitoring officer rather than a requirement
on the monitoring officer to tell the chief executive.
Mr Ahmad: I know where you are
coming from on that, which is that the correspondence from the
Standards Board for England makes it very clear that it is strictly
in confidence and private to the monitoring officer. I think the
issue there is: does it need to be? You are quite right to challenge
that. I would question and challenge that for the same reasons
Claer has exposed, primarily that the relationship to the monitoring
officer and the Head of Paid Service and the other statutory officer
has to be a very close one by its very nature, and if there are,
dare I say it, administrative or other quasi-political or judicial
aspects to be considered at a city council or borough council
level, then it is only right and proper that the monitoring officer
is not put in that position of breaching a confidential requirement.
Q23 Andrew Bennett: Mr Mussett, you were
concerned in your evidence about the problem of somebody complaining
about a councillor from within the authority on the question of
that somebody being bullied. Do you think it is easy to define
what bullying is?
Mr Mussett: Certainly in the cases
of which I am aware where clerks of parish councils have complained
about members, the evidence of bullying has been there for all
to see, both in the council chamber and without.
Q24 Andrew Bennett: It seems to me that
if you were an elected representative or a member of Parliament
there would be a lot of occasions when on behalf of your constituents
you would want to bring pressure on to officers to do various
things. It seems to me there is a very thin line between putting
legitimate pressure on and bullying.
Mr Mussett: As an officer, I very
often have to put pressure on officers of the borough and the
county council, and if I know the line between putting the pressure
on and bullying I expect members to know the line between putting
the pressure on and bullying. Putting the pressure on is asking
questions and expecting answers within a reasonable time scale;
it is not, as has happened in my experience, having countless
emails, countless public debate on the subject, all within a very
short time scale.
Mr Ahmad: Could I add that it
is probably the nature of the parish and the city council. Claer
and I both have in our local authorities what are called member/officer
relations' protocol. Bullying per se is not in the Code
of Conduct for elected members at the national level but bullying,
victimisation, harassment are all key things which I have included
with my standards committee as part of the member/officer relations'
protocol, so they are not in a sense breaching the Code of Conduct,
but if a member breaches any part of that protocol then they will
be up against a standards committee and will be held accountable.
Certainly over the last eight months I have had cause to do that.
It did not go into a code of conduct issue but the member was
brought up to speed in terms of what was acceptable behaviour
and what was not acceptable behaviour.
Q25 Andrew Bennett: Do you think there
is a standard that applies to everybody? My experience is that
when you are talking to council officialsand I would assume
this is the same for councillorsyou know that some are
fairly robust and will give as good as they get and others will
be a little unhappy at fairly strong exchanges with perhaps a
few expletives expressed on both sides.
Ms Lloyd-Jones: I think it is
possible to give guidance which reflects local conditions. For
example, in Hackney we have a member's inquiry protocol which
requires all inquiries in the first instance to go via the director,
precisely because the sort of scenario that you are talking about
had happened where councillors were putting pressure on quite
junior officers who were actually not robust enough to say anything
other than, "Okay, I'll fix it tomorrow," because having
a councillor coming at you when you are a fourth, fifth or sixth
tier officer is quite a frightening prospect. So you can give
advice like that which would avoid those situations arising.
Q26 Andrew Bennett: Is that not a very
democratic process? I work on the principle as a member of Parliament
that I will try to get hold of the person who might be able to
fix it and only when I have discovered that that person cannot
fix it do I start moving up the layers, possibly to insist that
there is a change of policy.
Mr Mussett: We tend to work from
the other way: we look for the person who can authorise it being
fixedbecause there is a world of difference between the
person who can fix it and the person who can authorise it being
fixed. If I had to put pressure on, the sort of pressure that
goes on goes on at the director/chief executive level of the borough
council. I might start talking to the cleansing superintendent,
but, if I felt there was an issue from there on in, I would leave
it and go up and work my way down the chain of command because
that is the way it goes. You also have to recognise what is reasonable
and what is unreasonable. Reasonable is expecting another authority
to comply with its own written standards and expectations; unreasonable
is expecting it to go beyond those remits, just because you want
that, as such.
Q27 Mr Betts: There has been criticism
that to begin with the Standards Board spent quite a lot of time
developing its own systems, putting on commercial events, producing
glossy brochures and all that sort of thing and not dealing with
the complaints it was getting.
Ms Lloyd-Jones: I think you probably
would have to ask the Standards Board about the initial time allocation,
but, from the outside, waiting for responses to complaints, the
first one that I am aware of took six months for us even to have
an acknowledgement that a complaint had been made. It did feel
as though attention was not necessarily being given to the basic
service delivery at the beginning. I think we would all acknowledge,
though, that things have improved and that the Standards Board
have very definitely improved the time scales of the more recent
complaints that have been made to them and are making inroads
into the backlog.
Q28 Mr Betts: Is that improvements since
last year? The figures I have for last year show that their target
was to deal with 90% of the cases referred for investigation within
six months and in fact they achieved 38%less than half
the target. That is pretty awful, is it not, when people are left
hanging around for that length of time?
Ms Lloyd-Jones: Yes.
Q29 Mr Betts: Do you think it has got
better since last year?
Ms Lloyd-Jones: Certainly the
most recent experience I have had of a complaint that was made
within the last two to three months is that I was notified straight
away about itwhich was a distinct improvementso
was the person complained about; and it has been referred for
investigation quite speedily. So my personal experience is that
things are better now than they were a year ago.
Mr Ahmad: There is a pragmatic
answer to thisand I am not seeking to defend the Standards
Board here: I am sure they will be able to defend themselves on
this. That pragmatic answer is one of logistics, in terms of getting
staff through the process and trained and developed. I know from
discussions with the Standards Board that things are improving
and that they have extra staff to turn that workload through.
I think, with fairness, it is also a recognition that the Standards
Board were starting from a zero base: it was a new creature and
clearly it had to set the procedures in place. But also I think
what seems to have scuppered some of the development is primarily
the magnitude of complaints from parish councils. I do not think
anyone pragmatically realised when they were creating the Standards
Board that that was going to be the scenario.
Q30 Andrew Bennett: Is it very unsatisfactory
that it takes this length of time.
Ms Lloyd-Jones: Yes, it is.
Q31 Andrew Bennett: If you are a shrewd
political manipulator, in March you announce to the local paper
that you are making a complaint against one of the candidates
in the election, do you not? You can more or less guarantee that
the election is over long before a small story possibly appears
in the paper saying that the allegation was totally unfounded.
Mr Mussett: Yes, I would echo
Q32 Andrew Bennett: So what do you think
the turnaround should be? Seven days?
Mr Mussett: I think it is impossible
to put a time limit on turnaround because you are looking at an
allegation which might be easily dismissed or which may actually
lead to major investigations.
Mr Ahmad: Birmingham City Council's
submission echoed that one of the reasons why there is a delay
factor is because of the centralised co-ordination and the nature
of complaints having to be filtered from a national body. I know
the regulations have come into effect now which will allow the
Standards Board to refer things down to the standards committee,
but my committee is very clear that there is a role for local
standards committees to be the first point of contact. I know
that not many authorities share my authority's view on that because
there are resource implications, but certainly the likes of Birmingham
would have no difficulty in dealing with matters very quickly,
promptly, to deal with allegations and things that just hang in
Q33 Mr Betts: One other issue has been
referred to usand one authority drew our attention to a
particular case: an allegation was made about a particular act
at local level and the individual making the allegation decided
that they at this stage were not going to refer it to the Standards
Board. Effectively, therefore, the matter is not dealt with and
could be raised at any time in the future. Should there be a cut-off
date, so that if a matter is not dealt with in a certain period
of time the case is deemed to have failed?
Mr Ahmad: The Standards Board,
I think, have a running rule: anything beyond three months is
unlikely to get the magnitude of seriousness that a complaint
if it is really genuine and serious would get if it came in straight
away. That is not to say that the law says three months; that
is a local requirement of the Standards Board for pragmatic and
realistic reasons have imposed. I think there is an argument to
say that maybe a recommendation along the lines of three months
is not a bad idea.
Mr Mussett: Certainly one of the
cases within my authority involved an ex-councillor who was no
longer a member of the authority when the allegation went in,
so I would certainly suggest that there ought to be some sort
of time limit after which no further allegations can be made about
the act in question.
Q34 Christine Russell: Earlier Mr Mussett
highlighted either the inability or the unwillingness of elected
members to take up training opportunities. What are your views
on whether the training for elected members should be compulsory,
particularly regarding planning matters?
Ms Lloyd-Jones: In the London
Borough of Hackney, we adopted a member training policy. I have
brought the annual report with me which I am happy to leave for
you to look at. Certain training is compulsory before members
are enabled to take up their roles. For example, with planning
and licensing, members in Hackney are not able to sit on those
committees without attending ethical framework training and minimum
training on the statutory framework within which they are operating,
given by both lawyers and planning officers within the authority.
The standards committee in Hackney in fact has oversight of the
member training programme for all training. It therefore takes
into account training which would have a compulsory element in
terms of good practice and good governance in decision making
Mr Ahmad: Where there is a quasi-judicial
type inquiry, which planning and licensing are, then members should
have no difficulty in attending and for that training to be made
compulsory. In fact the city council already insist in relation
to planning, and obviously in relation to licensing when it is
brought into effect in February, that there will be training given.
However, if you wish to extend the remit of that question to just
general training on ethical framework issues, then, yes, we certainly
do provide training for the members, newly elected membersthe
invite goes to all membersbut if you were to make that
compulsory I think you could find a lot of elected members saying,
"Well, I shall attend for five minutes and bugger off"sorry
for the non-parliamentary language. That is a scenario that may
happen. I do not think it should happen but I personally feel
that under that scenario it is more likely to be discretionary
that will achieve the result.
Q35 Christine Russell: Do you agree that
for those matters you have identified
Mr Ahmad: The quasi-judicial matters.
Q36 Christine Russell: Yesthat
it should be.
Mr Ahmad: Absolutely.
Q37 Christine Russell: Mr Mussett, I
know parish councils do not determine planning applications but
they are important consultees. What are your views on training,
particularly in planning law, for parish councils?
Mr Mussett: Certainly training
in planning matters is one of a number of courses which are offered
locally for councillors.
Q38 Christine Russell: Who organises
Mr Mussett: In Suffolk they are
organised by the Suffolk Association of Local Councils who are
a sub-branch of the National Association of Local Councils. But
it is a case of horses and water: you can put the courses on,
but, as to being able to encourage the members to go, we have
no stick with which to beat them to make sure they do go. In terms
of, for example, the quality town and parish council award, there
is a requirement that the clerk has reached a particular qualification
but there is no similar requirement for a percentage of members
to have attended training courses,
Q39 Chairman: Are you confident the Standards
Board understand the intricacies of planning decisions when they
are making judgments about things that have been referred to them
in that sort of circumstance?
Mr Mussett: It is difficult to
generalise. You will have seen in the submissions you have received
that it varies between the different standards of ethical standards
officers, so I think it is wrong for me to generalise.