(Report by the Assistant Director – Governance and Monitoring Officer)
The Assistant Director – Governance and Monitoring Officer introduced a report presenting the Local Government Association (LGA) Model Code of Conduct and associated guidance for consideration and comment.
The report stated that in accordance with section 27(2) of the Localism Act 2011, every local authority was required to adopt a Code of Conduct which dealt with ‘the conduct that was expected of members and co-opted members of the authority when acting in that capacity.’
It was noted that in July 2012 the Council adopted its current Code of Conduct, subsequently amending and re-affirming in June 2013; and again in January 2019 when certain Council policies were linked to the Code of Conduct which made any breaches of those policies a breach of the Code of Conduct.
In January 2019 the House of Lords Committee on Standards in Public Life issued a report on Local Government Ethical Standards which made a number of recommendations in respect of the Code of Conduct. In particular, the Committee noted significant variance between the Codes adopted by different local authorities and recommended the creation of a Model Code of Conduct by the LGA. The Committee also noted some key matters were omitted from some local authority codes, such as social media use, bullying and harassment and recommended that they should be included in any Model Code.
In December 2020 the LGA published a Model Code of Conduct, attached at Appendix A to the report, and associated Guidance, attached at Appendix B to the report. The Model Code was subject to wide consultation with the local authority sector, including consultation with elected members and Monitoring Officers.
The LGA Model Code of Conduct was designed to protect the democratic role of members, encourage good conduct, and safeguard the public’s trust and confidence in the role of the councillor in local government. Whilst it could be adapted to local circumstances, a key benefit was in bringing consistency across the local government sector and this would be especially helpful where members served on different tiers of local authority.
The Model Code was relatively short and easy to read, and was therefore more accessible to members, officers and the public. The LGA would review the Model Code on an annual basis to ensure it reflected developing legislation and case law, and to ensure that it incorporated advances in technology and social media.
Boston Borough Council’s current Code of Conduct was very short, and largely restricted to the seven Nolan principles. It did not include a number of obligations that were present in the Model Code and provided no assistance or guidance in the use of modern technology and social media. Such a limited version of the Code of Conduct was not conducive to the aim of upholding good standards of ethical behaviour.
The Code of Conduct applied when a Councillor acted in that capacity and the New Model Code provided much more detail on that point than the current Code, supported by additional information within the Guidance including worked examples. Both the Model Code and the Guidance reflected current case law to assist in determining when a councillor acted in that capacity, as opposed to their personal capacity. It was noted that Boston’s current Code did not contain reference to misuse of position or giving the impression of acting as a councillor.
The Model Code of Conduct contained a number of key obligations which were summarised in the report under the headings:-
· Bullying, harassment and discrimination
· Impartiality of officers
· Confidentiality and Access to Information
· Use of Position
· Use of local authority resources and facilities
· Complying with the Code of Conduct
· Gifts and Hospitality
It was highlighted that many of the key obligations were not specifically referenced in the current Code of Conduct for Boston members.
In August/September 2021 the Council had commissioned the LGA to deliver two workshops on ethical behaviours and training sessions on the implications of the Model Code of Conduct. These workshops and training sessions had been open to all members to attend. Many strands of good ethical behaviour had been identified by members during the workshops, all of which were supported by the Model Code of Conduct.
The Monitoring Officer concluded that the Model Code represented a robust Code of Conduct which was more comprehensive than the current Boston Code of Conduct, was written in such a way as to be accessible and understandable to all, and supported all of the key points raised by members in the Ethical Behaviours Workshops. Taken together with the supporting Guidance, it was much easier for members, officers and the public to understand what was expected in terms of standards of member conduct.
It was considered that adoption of the Model Code of Conduct would negate the need to link to other policies such as the Protocol on Member and Employee Relations, as the Model Code was sufficiently robust and detailed. However, it was recommended that a review of the Protocol on Member and Employee Relations should be undertaken to ensure it was consistent with the Model Code.
The Model Code of Conduct had been considered by the Standards Sub-Committee on 9 March, the Audit and Governance Committee on 28 March, and Cabinet on 4 May 2022 with all forums supporting the recommendations for adoption.
During consideration by the Standards Sub Committee an additional recommendation had been proposed that a voluntary process should be introduced to encourage Members to sign up to the new Model Code given that the old Code was in force when members signed their declarations of acceptance of office.
Signing up voluntarily would help to demonstrate their understanding, acceptance and compliance with the Model Code of Conduct, and details of those signing up voluntarily could then be published on the Council’s website.
In response to comments regarding any subsequent amendments to the Member and Employee Relations Protocol, the Monitoring Officer confirmed that these would be reported to the Audit and Governance Committee and circulated to all Members.
Members welcomed the new Model Code particularly the provisions relating to respect and courtesy, and freedom of speech. It was confirmed that the Code would be binding on all Members irrespective of whether or not they chose to voluntarily sign a public declaration.
It was moved by Councillor Paul Skinner, seconded by Councillor Peter Watson and unanimously
1. That the Model Code of Conduct, as set out at Appendix A of the report, be adopted, without amendment, as this Council’s Code of Conduct (including those parts shown in square brackets and being relevant to the Cabinet model operated by this Council).
2. That delegated authority be granted to the Monitoring Officer to make amendments to the Protocol on Member and Employee Relations so far as is necessary to ensure consistency with the Model Code of Conduct.
3. That the Monitoring Officer be authorised to update the Council’s Constitution accordingly.
4. That the Council introduces a voluntary process for Members to sign up to the new Model Code of Conduct to demonstrate their understanding, acceptance and compliance with the Code, with signatory details published on the Council’s website.