This fact sheet is aimed primarily at anyone who is unhappy with the conduct of a council member (councillor) and is considering making a complaint to the Ombudsman.
What is the Ombudsman's role in complaints about member conduct?
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 the 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. Case law, R (Harvey) v Ledbury Town Council, has found that such complaints must be investigated under the standards procedures and not through other processes such as staff grievance procedures.
Complaints may be about a councillor’s conduct through their Monitoring Officer and Standards Committees. Such complaints may be about councillors’ actions relating to a council function such as:
- giving incorrect advice or information
- involvement in decision-making
- conduct, such as comments about a complainant on a social media site or behaviour in a council meeting, and
- a breach of the Code of Conduct, such as a failure to disclose a non-pecuniary interest.
The Ombudsman does not offer a right of appeal against a council's decision on member conduct complaints, but we can consider if there was fault in the way the council considered the complaint. We will only investigate complaints if there is sufficient injustice to warrant our involvement or we consider it in the public interest to do so.
We may also be able to investigate complaints about the way the council has investigated the complaint about parish or town councillors. But we would need to consider what we could ultimately achieve as we could not investigate the actions of the town or parish council itself.
There are some matters we cannot investigate:
- complaints made by people in their capacity as councillors (against other councillors) as they are not complaining as members of the public, and
- complaints about a failure to disclose a disclosable pecuniary interest, because this could be a criminal matter which would be for the police to investigate – that said, councils should have protocols with their local police as to how to deal with such complaints.
We would also not normally investigate a complaint if a separate appeal right exists, such as a planning applicant complaining about a councillor’s involvement in voting against their planning application.
How do I complain?
If you consider that a councillor has failed to comply with the Code of Conduct, you should complain to the council first. Councils have their own procedures for such complaints.
Councils must have a Monitoring Officer to ensure that the authority, its officers and its members maintain the highest standards of conduct and make decisions lawfully and fairly. Monitoring Officers are also responsible for maintaining a Register of Members’ Interests. The Monitoring Officer will assess a complaint, normally with an Independent Person, and decide whether it merits formal investigation. They may dismiss a complaint if, for example, there is no breach of the Code, the councillor was not acting in an official capacity, or the matter is trivial and it is not in the public interest to investigate. If they decide to carry out a formal investigation, this will include an Independent Person and may involve the Monitoring Officer, another Investigating Officer and a Standards Committee or Hearings Panel.
- If you are unhappy with the final outcome, or the council is taking too long to look into the matter – we think 12 weeks is reasonable – you can complain to us.
- You should normally make your complaint to us within 12 months of realising the council has done something wrong.
If you can consider my complaint what will the Ombudsman look for?
We can consider whether the council has done something wrong in the way it dealt with your complaint. Some of the issues we can look at are if:
- there has been an unreasonable delay in taking action
- the council has failed to take into account relevant information in reaching its decision, and
- the council has followed the proper procedure in investigating the complaint, or whether it has proper procedures in place.
What happens if the Ombudsman finds that the council was at fault?
If we find that something has gone wrong in the way the council dealt with your complaint, we can ask it to:
- carry out its investigation into your complaint, if there has been delay
- re-investigate the complaint, if the investigation has not been carried out correctly in accordance with the council’s own procedures
- make changes where we find fault with the council’s procedures, so that the same problem does not occur again in the future, and/or
- make a payment, depending on how you have been affected by what has gone wrong.
Examples of some complaints we have considered
Mr B complained that the council did not properly deal with his complaint that a councillor made slanderous comments about him at a council meeting, and about the behaviour of two other councillors towards him after the meeting.
Three months after receiving Mr B’s complaint, the Monitoring Officer, who had been present at the meeting, decided with the Independent Person that the first councillor had not breached the code. They also decided that his complaint about the other two councillors’ behaviour did not merit the cost of an external investigation, but that the Monitoring Officer should make further enquiries. The council should have sent Mr B a decision explaining if it was conducting a formal investigation. It should also have told the councillors about the complaints.
In the event, the Monitoring Officer investigated the complaint, but did not appoint an investigating officer as set out in the council’s policy. The Monitoring Officer did not speak to the second councillor until almost a year after the incident and kept no notes of the discussion. The Monitoring Officer did not speak to the third councillor but relied on an email she had sent about the incident before Mr B had complained.
The Ombudsman found that the fourteen-month delay and inadequate investigation meant that Mr B could not know whether the council would have upheld his complaint had it investigated properly. The council agreed to pay Mr B £150 as a remedy for his frustration, apologise to him and review its procedures so as to deal with member conduct complaints in a timely manner
Mrs B complained that the Chairman of the council’s planning committee was rude and interrupted her when she objected to her neighbour’s planning application. She found this intimidating and it made it more difficult for her to raise her concerns at the meeting.
The council’s Monitoring Officer decided not to investigate Mrs B’s complaint because she did not complain until eight months after the meeting, in part because any investigation would rely on the memories of those present.
We found the Monitoring Officer should have consulted an Independent Person before deciding not to investigate, as required by its policy. The council agreed to apologise to Mrs B, obtain the Independent’s Person views and reach a new decision on whether to investigate.
Mr X complained, on behalf of a company, that the council had did not investigate his complaint about the conduct of two councillors at a licensing sub-committee meeting. He says the council’s decision to refuse a licence caused the company significant financial loss.
We did not investigate Mr X’s complaint about the councillors’ conduct because this is not clearly separable from the sub-committee’s decision on the licence – we cannot investigate that decision because the company had appealed to the Magistrates Court.
Other sources of information
Councils provide information on their websites about:
- their procedures for making complaints about Member Conduct, and the form to be used
- the Code of Conduct for Members, which is part of the council’s Constitution
- the Planning Code of Conduct, which would apply to members of a council’s Planning Committee, and
- the Register of Members’ interests.
The Government has also provided guidance for councillors on Openness and transparency on personal interests.
Our fact sheets give some general information about the most common type of complaints we receive but they cannot cover every situation. If you are not sure whether we can look into your complaint, please phone 0300 061 0614.