Complaints about Standards and Member Conduct

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.

We cannot investigate 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.
  • Usually, you should complain to us within 12 months of when you first knew about the problem. If you leave it any later, we may not be able to help.

For more information on how to complain, please read our step by step process to making a complaint

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

A councillor complained to us about the way the council had investigated a complaint that he had breached the code of conduct.
We found the investigation was not prompted by a formal written complaint, contrary to the law. The council did not give the councillor enough information about his alleged breaches of its Code and did not properly deal with new allegations raised during the process.
We also found that the inquiry was conflated with accusations levelled at another councillor and that the council failed to consider the councillor’s enhanced right to free speech as an elected representative.
We issued a report of our findings. The council agreed to apologise to the councillor, rescind its standards committee decision, run training for all councillors and the senior management team and amend its procedures for processing standards complaints.

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.

We provide a free, independent and impartial service. We consider complaints about the administrative actions of councils and some other authorities. We cannot question what a council has done simply because someone does not agree with it. If we find something has gone wrong, such as poor service, service failure, delay or bad advice and that a person has suffered as a result we aim to get it put right by recommending a suitable remedy.

June 2023

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