Decision : Closed after initial enquiries
Decision date : 29 Nov 2018
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Ombudsman should not investigate this complaint about a letter issued to residents during the pre-election period, because it is unlikely we would find fault.
- Ms P complains that the Council published information during the pre-election period which gave an unfair advantage to one candidate over the others.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’ relating to administrative functions of the Council. 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 would find fault. (Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I have considered the information Ms P provided with her complaint and discussed the complaint with her. I have given Ms P the opportunity to comment on my draft decision.
What I found
- Shortly before a local council election, the Council wrote to residents in part of the city to say it was introducing a residents’ parking scheme in the area for an experimental period. A candidate in the election then wrote to residents taking credit for this.
- We cannot consider what the candidate did, because the conduct of an election is a matter for the returning officer. Returning officers for local elections do not carry out administrative functions of the council. They carry out specified functions under Act of Parliament in a personal capacity, not on behalf of the council. So we cannot investigate what they do or matters which fall within their brief.
- The government has published a code of recommended practice for publicity which includes during pre-election periods. Councils must follow the code when considering publicity unless there is a good reason to depart from it. ‘Publicity’ is defined as any communication addressed to the public or a section of the public. So a letter issued to some of the Council’s residents during the pre-election period would need to comply with the code.
- The code says:
During the period between the notice of an election and the election itself, local authorities should not publish any publicity on controversial issues or report views or proposals in such a way that identifies them with any individual members or groups of members ... In general, local authorities should not issue any publicity which seeks to influence voters.
- The letter from the Council did not link the parking scheme to any particular candidate. So it is unlikely we could conclude it did not comply with the code or that we would find fault here.
- The Ombudsman should not investigate this complaint. This is because we are unlikely to find fault in that part of the complaint within our jurisdiction.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman