Scrutiny Programme Board meeting – Thursday 9th June 2011 – 6.15pm

Cllr Chris Blakeley has written about item 7 on the agenda the work programme for the Scrutiny Programme Board.

He is right to highlight the process and timetables for dealing with complaints about councillors is an area that needs looking at. Here’s the history so far.

A previous 23-page report to the Standards Committee for a new process for standards complaints was not agreed at the 2nd December 2010 meeting but deferred for a decision until the meeting on the 26th January.

On the 26th January this report was deferred again because councillors didn’t know what the implications of the future Localism Bill would be on it and asked for collaborative working with other councils to be looked into.

It was deferred to the next meeting on the 24th March. This meeting was then cancelled, with the next meeting being on the 4th July 2012.

So, from December 2011 to July 2012 so decision on improving the ways complaints about councillors are dealt with has been reached (other than to continue with the old policy). Personally I think eight months should be enough to agree and read a 23-page document and/or table any amendments to the policy is long enough!

Why should councillors be in a position to make a decision that affects how complaints against them are processed? Shouldn’t this be dealt with the independent members of the Standards Committee instead?

The system at the moment is unfair to those making a complaint, unfair to councillors, makes a lot of money for outside solicitors and takes so long from start to finish that in some cases people aren’t a councillor any more by the end!

As pointed out the worst that can happen is a councillor is suspended for a week (as Cllr Harry Smith was), which doesn’t seem much of a punishment. Breaches of the councillor’s code of conduct if they were proven guilty in the courts attract a large fine, yet at Wirral Council from making a complaint from someone talking to you about it can be three months. Complaints from start to finish can take a year or two.

With Wirral Council officers involved in the process they can be leant on by councillors to withhold information from complainants or the investigating legal expert. If councillors don’t want to run the risk of doing it themselves, they can get their friends to do so on their behalf.

Just read the Wirral Globe story of the 13th May entitled “Town hall blunder: Wrong paperwork sent to local government watchdog inquiry” for an example of that.

It isn’t the first time this has happened either. Both times the complaint was about the same councillor. However as the results of complaints aren’t published or discussed at a meeting that the public can go to how would the public know this?

The system for dealing with complaints about councillors is prescribed in law. Yet the institutional awareness by Wirral Council about the law regarding complaints about councillors is low.

That’s why details about complaints about councillors (eg confidential witness statements) are often by an officer to a councillor/s who are not involved.

This information is then used for party political gain. In fact everybody making a complaint who’s been through the process releases that confidentiality is not respected and that anything in a witness statement is about as public as writing a letter to the Wirral Globe. Sadly this inhibits what many complainants want to state especially when threats are made against them or their family.

Personally the way the complaints system is at Wirral Council at the moment, you would get fairer and quicker outcomes in the courts than you would relying on Wirral Council.

Obviously councillors wouldn’t relish having to go to court every time somebody made a complaint about them, but it would certainly be more open and transparent with legal safeguards!

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Author: John Brace

New media journalist from Birkenhead, England who writes about Wirral Council. Published and promoted by John Brace, 134 Boundary Road, Bidston, CH43 7PH. Printed by UK Webhosting Ltd t/a Tsohost, 113-114 Buckingham Avenue, Slough, Berkshire, England, SL1 4PF.