Decision : Not upheld
Decision date : 14 Dec 2021
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Ms B complains that the Council has failed to investigate her complaint about the conduct of members of the local Town Council. The Ombudsman has found no fault in the way the Council considered the complaint, so we cannot question the merits of the Council’s decision not to investigate the complaint but to write to town councillors collectively.
- Ms B complains about the decision of the Council’s Monitoring Officer not to refer her complaint about the conduct of a town councillor (and subsequent complaint about the conduct of several town councillors) for investigation, but instead to write to all town councillors to express her concern that their collective action risks harming the good governance of the Town Council.
- She considers the decision not to investigate the councillors’ conduct to be unacceptable. She says this has caused her a great deal of distress and affected her mental health and sleep.
- She considers that the Council should investigate properly and force the town councillors to make a public apology.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- 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)
- We cannot investigate the actions of bodies such as town/parish councils or the actions of town/parish councillors but we can look at how a district council investigates a complaint about a town/parish councillor acting in their capacity as a councillor. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 25 and 34(1), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I have considered Ms B’s written complaint and discussed her complaint with her. I have obtained copies of the papers which the Monitoring Officer took into account in considering Ms B’s complaint, and her correspondence with Ms B. I have also sent Ms B and the Council a draft decision and invited their comments.
What I found
The current standards regime
- The system of regulation of standards of member conduct in England is governed by the Localism Act 2011. This system applies to county, district and unitary councils, London boroughs, the Greater London Authority, and parish and town councils. Local authorities must have a Code of Conduct for members, which must be consistent with the Nolan Committee’s principles of selflessness, honesty, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, and leadership.
- All local authorities (other than parish and town councils) must have procedures in place to deal with complaints about member conduct. It is for each authority to decide the details of those procedures, but they must appoint at least one Independent Person whose views are to be taken into account before making a decision on a complaint that they have decided to investigate.
- Complaints about the conduct of parish and town councillors are handled by the Principal Authority, which may be a county, district, unitary or borough council.
- Generally, the Monitoring Officer will first assess a complaint and decide whether it merits formal investigation. They may dismiss a complaint if, for example, there is no breach of the Code of Conduct, the councillor was not acting in an official capacity, the matter is trivial or it is not in the public interest to investigate. If they decide to carry out a formal investigation, this may involve the Monitoring Officer, another Investigating Officer and the Standards Committee or Hearings Panel and will include an Independent Person.
- The Ombudsman does not offer a right of appeal against a Council’s decision on complaints about member conduct and will not investigate the issues that prompted the complaint about member conduct. However, we can consider if there was fault in the way the Monitoring Officer or Standards Committee considered the complaint. If that is the case, we may ask the Council to review the way it has considered the complaint.
- Ms B lives in a town in the Council’s area. She runs a business and works from part of her home.
- In 2020, Ms B made two complaints to the Council about comments made on social media by a town councillor. The Monitoring Officer considered the complaints but decided to take no further action as she felt that the alleged conduct did not relate to the councillor acting in her official capacity as a councillor, and so the Code of Conduct would not be engaged.
- This year, Ms B made a further complaint to the Council about the same councillor. She was concerned about remarks published on social media about following a grant for her business which the Town Council had approved.
- The Monitoring Officer discussed Ms B’s complaint with the Council’s solicitor. They noted that a series of complaints had been received against town councillors. They also noted that a previous investigation had identified fault but had been ignored by the Town Council. They discussed responding to all the complaints by writing to all of the town councillors to encourage them to try to find a compromise and to act in the best interests of the constituents.
- Ms B then submitted a further complaint about the same matter, but also complained that several town councillors had not treated her fairly by either voting against or abstaining from the vote in respect of the grant for her business.
- The Monitoring Officer concluded matters by writing to all the town councillors to urge them to act in a civil manner towards each other and towards members of the public so that the Town Council may function more effectively in future.
- The Council considers complaints about member conduct under the Arrangements for dealing with standards allegations under the Localism Act 2011.
- The Council’s Arrangements state (my underlining):
“In appropriate cases, the Monitoring Officer may seek to resolve the complaint informally, without the need for a formal investigation. Such informal resolution may involve the member accepting that his/her conduct was unacceptable and offering an apology, or other remedial action by the authority...”
- In the event that the Council decides to pursue an investigation and finds a breach of the Code which it considers warrant sanctions, the Arrangements state:
“The relevant Town/Parish Council is responsible for the imposition of sanctions in relation to its Councillors. The Monitoring Officer, in consultation with the Independent Person, will recommend to the Town/Parish Council a sanction that is considered to be appropriate…”
- In the context of this complaint, I note that the Monitoring Officer was aware that:
- the Council had received complaints from several members of the public about the conduct of town councillors;
- both the previous and locum clerk had resigned due to the alleged conduct of town councillors and the Town Council was currently without a clerk;
- the Town Council had previously taken no action when the Council had made adverse findings in respect of a previous investigation;
- the Council has no power to compel the Town Council to take action, in the event that the Council does make recommendations.
- I have closed my investigation into Ms B’s complaint because I have found no fault in the way the Council reached its decision on what action to take in response to Ms B’s complaint.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman