(A verbal update from Michelle Sacks, Monitoring Officer, on conference)
The Monitoring Officer gave Members a verbal update on the conference, which had taken place since the publication of the agenda pack.
The Monitoring Officer reported that the Local Government Association’s emerging new Code Of Conduct had been discussed at the conference and the final version was likely to be published in early December following the summer consultation exercise. A detailed report would be submitted to the Committee following the code’s publication.
The Monitoring Officer then detailed the key points made at the conference. The code had received all-party and all-sector support and was considered a very strong code, designed to improve ethics and probity in local government.
The Monitoring Officer then went through the main sections of the code.
The word respect would be in contained in the code. This related to respect for the role as well as the individual to protect against bullying and harassment. This was especially important for parishes where, in some instances, relations between parish councillors and clerks had deteriorated.
Reference to equality duty was essential and would be included, and there would be further distinction between bullying and harassment.
It was essential for a new code to cover social media, which was not as prevalent when the last code was published in 2011, as well as conduct in virtual meetings.
Acting as a Councillor
This related to the distinction between acting as a Councillor as opposed to acting as a private individual.
Members had to make clear when they were not working as a Councillor at the time of an issue, e.g. “I am not working at the moment”. Then, if there was a complaint, it would be clear that a boundary had been set. If, during a discussion, a Member declared “I am a Councillor” then that would invoke “acting as a Councillor” and the code of conduct would be engaged.
The code would give a clear explanation of the meaning of disrepute and it was expected that this would cover instances where, for example, a Councillor had in the past been convicted of benefit fraud against their own authority, but were still allowed to continue to serve as Councillors.
Another situation related to Article 10 of the Freedom of Speech. The new code would include reference to respect, and a case would be considered as to whether it amounted to personal abuse or political comment. If it was personal abuse, it would be disrespect. For political comment there would be some protection, though it had to be proportionate and reasonable.
The new code would make provision for local informal resolution, which would include informal discussion with the Monitoring Officer or appropriate senior officer; discussion with affected parties; written apology; mediation; peer support; and training. For more serious cases, it would involve non-attendance at meetings or contact with affected officer etc.
There would be a series of training sessions for Members on each individual section of the new code of conduct before the code’s adoption and this would involve the Local Government Association, as the changes were quite significant. This would be discussed with the Councillor Development Group at its next meeting.
The Chairman welcomed the new code of conduct; it had broad support and it would be beneficial to having various different versions of a code.
Mr Pickering expressed satisfaction that the new code would soon to be published and hoped it would be nationally accepted.