Council investigation into member’s conduct flawed, says Ombudsman

Standards investigations by councils into the actions of councillors need to be conducted fairly and properly, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has said.

The warning comes after the Ombudsman was asked to look at the way Teignbridge District Council investigated the actions of a councillor, Cllr Daws, after the council alleged he had acted contrary to its Code of Conduct.

The Ombudsman found fault with a number of aspects of the council’s investigation. It found the investigation was not prompted by a formal written complaint, contrary to the law. The council also did not give the councillor enough information about his alleged breaches of its Code.

The council introduced new allegations during the process, but the independent investigator appointed to look at the case did not make it clear to Cllr Daws whether these were part of the investigation.

The Ombudsman also found that the inquiry into Cllr Daws’ conduct was conflated with accusations levelled at another councillor who was also being investigated at the same time.

The council failed to reflect on the investigation and consider whether due process had been followed after Cllr Daws raised legitimate concerns about the way the investigation was being carried out. It also failed to consider Cllr Daws’ enhanced right to free speech as an elected representative, which was relevant when the council considered his justification for certain comments he acknowledged making or posted on social media.

The Ombudsman has made a number of recommendations to improve the council’s processes following the investigation, but the council has not yet agreed to accept these.

Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said:

“Local councillors have a key role in scrutinising their authorities’ actions, and have an enhanced right of free speech to ask what might at times appear to be uncomfortable questions. Councils need to bear this in mind when deciding what constitutes a breach of their Code of Conduct.

“While both officers and members have a right to be treated with dignity and respect at work, and councils’ desire to do more to protect them from poor treatment is to be encouraged, they still need to carry out investigations into councillor standards fairly and properly.

“I look forward to the council considering my report at a senior decision-making level and hope it accepts the recommendations I have made to improve its processes and procedures.”

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman’s role is to remedy injustice and share learning from investigations to help improve public, and adult social care, services. In this case the council should apologise to Cllr Daws and rescind its decision notice upholding the complaint the councillor breached the Code of Conduct and ensure this is no longer available on its website. It should be replaced with a statement saying the notice has been withdrawn.

The Ombudsman has the power to make recommendations to improve processes for the wider public. In this case the council should ensure it has a written procedure for officers and independent investigators asked to consider standards complaints.

The Ombudsman can investigate complaints from locally elected councillors where they allege they have suffered a personal injustice because of actions taken by a body in the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction. This is because where a councillor makes a complaint of this type, they are not doing so on behalf of the council or another public body, but in their own personal capacity. They are also not an employee, governed by a personnel relationship with a council, where there are legal limits on what the Ombudsman can investigate.

Article date: 19 January 2023

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