Councillors complain that standards regime ‘lacks teeth’

Councillors want more teeth for the “standards” regime – which handles complaints about the conduct of councillors – after learning that at least one member had been not responding to questions.

They were debating a report to Brighton and Hove City Council’s Audit and Standards Committee which cited five outstanding complaints where the councillor involved had not provided any responses.

At a meeting at Hove Town Hall yesterday (Tuesday 29 November), Conservative councillor Anne Meadows said that she was concerned about the regime’s “lack of teeth”.

She said: “What’s the point of a standards panel looking at these issues if there’s no sanction? You can’t turn around and say, ‘you can’t operate any more, councillor, because you’re outside of the principles we’re supposed to abide by.’”

Lawyer Victoria Simpson said that the law required the council to have a standards regime for dealing with complaints.

She said: “It doesn’t have strong teeth, visible teeth. It doesn’t have teeth that feel they’re making a difference, that would make people sit up and take notice and respond when the complaints are received.

“Most councillors do respond. Some don’t. There is recourse in the regime. Censure – the publicity surrounding the process – and the power of the council to not appoint a member to public bodies.”

A number of complaints about councillors’ conduct related to exchanges on social media – and more training had been given to members in recent weeks.

Labour councillor Daniel Yates suggested barring members from representing the council on “outside bodies” that have their own standards regime if they did not comply with the council’s own code of conduct.

He said: “If they had perhaps demonstrated that they weren’t willing to engage in the complaints process and the standards process as we’ve established it, then we make sure that they don’t get more money from the public purse elsewhere and potentially cause damage to another public body and the reputation of this public body for sending them there.”

Green councillor Sue Shanks suggested publicly naming councillors who did not engage with the process because currently they were named only when a standards panel met to consider a complaint.

Ms Simpson said that she was not aware of any councils that published names next to complaints before they went before a panel – in part because of the risk of malicious politically motivated complaints.

An annual report about standards complaints is due to go before the committee when it meets in January.

Green councillor Pete West asked how much it cost to investigate each complaint, including “officer time”.

Councillor Yates asked the report to include a breakdown of how many times councillors had not responded to complaints.

The Audit and Standards Committee is next due to meet on Tuesday 25 January 2023.

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