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Cumbria County Council (20 012 965)

Category : Other Categories > Councillor conduct and standards

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 18 Oct 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mrs X complained the Council did not fully consider her complaint about the conduct of a councillor. She said the Council’s actions caused distress and negatively affected her mental health. We found no fault by the Council and have concluded our investigation.

The complaint

  1. Mrs X complained the Council did not fully consider her complaint about the conduct of a councillor. She says the Council did not consider all the issues raised in her complaint and did not provide an explanation for its decision.
  2. Mrs X says the Council’s actions caused her upset and distress and negatively affected her mental health.

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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. If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I have discussed the complaint with Mrs X and considered the information she provided.
  2. I have made enquiries to the Council and considered the information it provided.
  3. Mrs X and the Council have had the opportunity to comment on a draft of this decision. I have considered their comments before making a final decision.

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What I found

Law and guidance

  1. The Localism Act 2011 places a duty on relevant authorities (Councils) to handle cases about member conduct and standards.
  2. Under sections 28(6) and (7) of the Act, Councils must have in place “arrangements” for investigating allegations a council member or co-opted member has failed to comply with its code of conduct. It is for the Council to decide the details of its code of conduct and the arrangements for dealing with complaints about member conduct.
  3. The arrangements for dealing with complaints must include the appointment of at least one Independent Person (IP). The IP has an advisory role and must be consulted before the authority takes a decision on an allegation it has investigated.
  4. Complaints that a member has failed to comply with the code of conduct should be dealt with in accordance with the Council’s agreed procedure. The Monitoring Officer (MO) will usually carry out an initial assessment of complaints and decide whether it merits formal investigation.

The Council’s protocol for investigation of complaints – Standards Committee

  1. The Council’s policy says:
  • The MO will review every complaint and decide if it merits formal investigation.
  • The MO may vary the procedure, including timescales when they consider it desirable in the interests of justice, fairness or the effective conduct of the matter.
  • At Stage 1, the MO will reject complaints which are being, or have been, investigated and determined elsewhere.
  • If the complaint is rejected at Stage 1, the MO will inform the complainant of their decision and the reasons for it.
  • At Stage 2, the Council will make enquiries to decide if there is substance to the complaint, and if so, if an informal resolution is appropriate. Alternatively, the Council may refer the complaint to the Standards Committee for formal investigation.
  • At Stage 3, the complaint is normally passed to the relevant member for comments.
  • At Stage 4, the complaint will be closed if an informal resolution can be achieved. The MO will provide a written decision to the complainant.

What happened

  1. On 2 September 2020, Mrs X complained to the Council about the conduct of a councillor. Mrs X complained the councillor had not acted in the public interest, showed bias regarding planning applications, and had used their influence within the authority to benefit people known to them. Mrs X said she considered the councillor had breached the code of conduct for members and co-opted members and said this had caused her stress and anxiety.
  2. On 11 September 2020, Mrs X and the MO discussed the complaint in a telephone call.
  3. On 20 October 2020, Mrs X wrote to the Council again. She said the councillor had expressed concerns about her planning application but had not done so with other, similar applications. Mrs X said she considered the Council’s Highways department may have been influenced in respect of her proposed development and complained the councillor appeared to be biased against Mrs X and her family.
  4. The Council acknowledged receipt of Mrs X’s letter on 21 October 2020 and told Mrs X it would pass it to the MO.
  5. Later the same month, the MO contacted the councillor and asked them to provide information relating to Mrs X’s complaint. The councillor provided this information to the MO shortly after.
  6. The Council’s Highways department provided the MO with information relating to Mrs X’s complaint in November 2020.
  7. On 18 November 2020, the MO and the IP discussed Mrs X’s complaint and the findings of the MO’s investigation. They agreed the investigation found no evidence to support Mrs X’s allegations the councillor had breached the code of conduct.
  8. On 1 December 2020, the MO sent Mrs X a letter explaining its decision. The MO said they had considered Mrs X’s complaint and supporting documents. They also said they had spoken to various people and departments and considered their supporting evidence.
  9. The MO said they found no evidence the councillor had misled the Council and no evidence they had acted in the interests of a friend rather than the public. The MO also said they found no evidence the councillor had followed a personal agenda or had promoted their own personal relationships. The MO said the councillor’s role had no direct or specific link to the Highways department.
  10. The MO acknowledged Mrs X’s letter of 20 October 2020 and said they had considered and discussed it with the IP. However, the MO said they had not upheld any of Mrs X’s original complaints and would take no further action regarding the 20 October letter.
  11. Mrs X emailed the Council on 9 December 2020. She said the individuals contacted by the MO as part of their investigation had provided factually incorrect information. Mrs X asked the MO to revisit their conclusions. She also asked to whom she could refer her concerns as detailed in her letter of 20 October 2020.
  12. The MO responded and told Mrs X she could contact a neighbouring council regarding some of her concerns. They said Mrs X could raise a new complaint through the Council’s corporate complaints team regarding her other concerns.
  13. Mrs X remained dissatisfied with the Council’s response and brought her complaint to us.

Analysis

  1. We do not provide an appeal against the MO’s decision; we can only consider how the MO considered Mrs X’s complaint. Further, it is not our role to investigate or comment on the actions of the councillor Mrs X complained about.
  2. Mrs X says the MO did not fully consider all the issues of her complaint about the conduct of a councillor. In her letter of 2 September 2020, Mrs X complained the councillor showed bias, placed their personal interests and friendships ahead of the public interest, and misled the Council. Mrs X’s letter of 20 October 2020 provided additional detail about why she considered this.
  3. The Council’s response of 27 November 2020 (provided to Mrs X on 1 December 2020) addressed each of the above complaints individually. It said it did not uphold Mrs X’s complaint and explained its reasons why.
  4. Although the Council said it would not take any further action in respect of the 20 October 2020 letter, I do not find this to be fault. The Council’s complaint response summarised this letter as relating to concerns about the councillor allegedly showing bias and pursuing a personal agenda. These are substantively the same issues as stated in Mrs X’s letter of 2 September 2020.
  5. The Council has confirmed it did not consider the 20 October 2020 letter as a new complaint. I find no fault in this because as previously explained, the substantive issues in the letters are the same. As previously stated at paragraph 12, the Council’s complaints protocol says the MO will reject complaints which are being, or have been, investigated and determined elsewhere. As the matters raised in both letters relate to the same issue, the MO is not at fault for taking no further action regarding the 20 October 2020 letter as they had already investigated the complaints raised in Mrs X’s original letter.
  6. I acknowledge Mrs X disagrees with the MO and considers the Council did not fully consider her complaint. However, having reviewed the information provided, I am satisfied the MO considered Mrs X’s complaints, and the available evidence, consulted with the IP and reached a conclusion based on their professional judgement. I am also satisfied the MO provided an explanation of their decision to Mrs X. On this basis, I have found no fault by the Council.

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Final decision

  1. I have found no fault by the Council and have concluded my investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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