Decision : Closed after initial enquiries
Decision date : 25 Sep 2018
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complains the Council breached the purdah rules when it issued a press release before a by-election. The Ombudsman does not intend to investigate this complaint as it is unlikely we can add to the investigation already carried out by the Council, we cannot achieve the outcome he is seeking. And the Secretary of State is best placed to consider whether the Council breached the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity.
- Mr X says the Council issued a press release that breached purdah rules in the run up to a by-election. He wants the Ombudsman to decide whether the Council breached pre-election rules. And whether the Council should consider rerunning the election.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- The Local Government Act 1974 sets out our powers but also imposes restrictions on what we can investigate.
- We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. 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 we could add to any previous investigation by the Council
- we cannot achieve the outcome someone wants
- there is another body better placed to consider this complaint
(Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I considered the information provided by Mr X. He commented on the draft version of this decision.
What I found
- The Council issued a press release from a member of the majority party on the Council. Mr X, who complains for another political party, says the press release contained information which was misleading and could sway voter intent.
- The Council accepts it breached the purdah rules when it issued the press release. When it was brought to its attention by Mr X’s group it did all it could to recall it. It then issued a new press release without a statement from the councillor.
- Mr X complains the Council has not considered the impact of issuing the statement and consideration should be given to rerunning the by-election.
- The Council accepts it breached the purdah period. However, following his investigation, the Monitoring Officer decided officers had not issued the press release with the intention of influencing the election.
- Mr X disagrees with this. He wants the Ombudsman to investigate the matter with a view to rerunning the by-election. This is not something the Ombudsman can achieve.
- The government issued its Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity. The Code says local authorities should pay particular regard to the legislation on publicity during the period of heightened sensitivity. The Local Government Ombudsman cannot direct local authorities to comply with the Code.
- In March 2014, the Secretary of State wrote to local authorities to say he was minded to exercise his powers to direct compliance with the Code.
- As the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has specific powers to direct compliance with the Code, he is best placed to consider the issue Mr X has raised.
- I will not investigate this complaint. This is because it is unlikely we can add to the Council’s investigation and we cannot achieve the outcome he is looking for. Also the Secretary of State for Housing Communities and Local Government has the power to direct compliance with the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity. He is better placed to consider Mr X’s complaint.
Investigator’s draft decision on behalf of the Ombudsman
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman