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Northumberland County Council (20 010 945)

Category : Other Categories > Councillor conduct and standards

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 10 Jun 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr B complains about the Council’s handling of his complaint against a councillor who he says breached the Members Code of Conduct. We will not investigate this complaint. While there was a delay in the Council’s response to the complaint it has apologised for this, and we consider this to be a suitable remedy to this part of the complaint. Further investigation of the process the Council followed is unlikely to lead to a different outcome. Finally, If Mr B can ask the courts to consider whether the Council has breached the Equalities Act.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, I shall call Mr B, complains the Council refuses to investigate his complaint that a Town Councillor breached the Code of Conduct.
  2. He says he has suffered considerable distress that his racial group has been maligned and says he should be compensated for the way he has been treated.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), as amended)
  2. We provide a free service but must use public money carefully. We may decide not to start or continue with an investigation if we believe it is unlikely further investigation will lead to a different outcome. (Local Government Act 1974, section 24A (6), as amended)
  3. The law says we cannot normally investigate a complaint when someone could take the matter to court. However, we may decide to investigate if we consider it would be unreasonable to expect the person to go to court. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(6)(c), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I considered the information provided by Mr B and the Council. I also considered the Council’s procedure for dealing with complaints about councillors and Mr B’s comments on the draft version of this decision.

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What I found

  1. In August Mr B complained to the Council’s Monitoring Officer that a Town Councillor had posted racist remarks on her personal Facebook page. A few weeks later the Council acknowledged his complaint.
  2. Mr B heard nothing further, so he complained to the Ombudsman.
  3. Following our initial enquiry, the Council apologised to Mr B for the delay in dealing with his complaint.
  4. In accordance with normal procedures, it sought the views of the Independent Person. Having done so the Council rejected the complaint. It explained the Councillor had been acting in her personal capacity, and not as a representative of the Council. Therefore, the Code of Conduct was not engaged.


  1. We have no jurisdiction to consider the actions of councillors where they are not acting in their capacity as representatives of the Council. We cannot, therefore, investigate Mr B’s complaint that the Councillor posted racist remarks on her personal Facebook page. We can consider how the Council responded to his concerns that there had been a breach of the Code of Conduct. But, if the Council has properly considered the issue, we cannot not question the merits of its final decision.
  2. In response to my enquiry about the delay in dealing with Mr B’s complaint, the Council confirms the complaint was originally sent to its Monitoring Officer who was unexpectedly away from work from October. It says the complaint was unfortunately overlooked. But as soon it became aware of the issue in January, it dealt with the complaint immediately. It also wrote to Mr B, apologising for the delay.
  3. It is regrettable the Council failed to respond to Mr B’s complaint promptly. However, the Council has explained how this happened and has apologised. I do not intend to investigate this issue further as I consider the apology a suitable remedy for the delay.
  4. Turning to the Council’s decision not to investigate Mr X’s complaint about the social media post. We do not offer a right of appeal against council decisions on member conduct. We can consider whether there was fault in the way a council considered the complaint. However, other than the delay addressed above, I have seen no evidence to suggest the Council failed to follow the correct procedure.
  5. I understand Mr B disagrees with the Council’s decision not to investigate his complaint. But it is not our role to review the merits of decisions properly taken by councils no matter how strongly a complainant may disagree with them.
  6. Finally, Mr B alleges the Council has breached the Equalities Act. Section 113 of the Act provides members of the pubic with recourse to the Court for damages claims, if they believe they have suffered unlawful discrimination.

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Final decision

  1. I will not investigate this complaint. This is because, other than the initial delay, I have seen no evidence to suggest the Council failed to follow its procedure for dealing with complaints about councillors. I consider its apology to be a suitable remedy for the delay in responding to Mr B. And we cannot determine whether to the Council breached the Equalities Act, nor can we award damages. These are matters for the courts.

Investigator’s decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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