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Apologies for Absence and Declarations of Interest
Apologies for absence were received from Councillors Jones, Knight, Light, Loughlin and Mrs Butcher. In Councillor Knight’s absence, the Vice-Chair, Councillor Artus, chaired the meeting
The minutes of the meeting held on 20 March 2017 were agreed as a correct record and signed by the Chairman.
The Interim Head of Legal Services presented his report on the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) consultation paper setting out the government’s proposals for updating the criteria disqualifying individuals from standing for, or holding office as, a local authority member, directly-elected mayor or member of the London Assembly. Members were asked to put forward their views so a response to the consultation could be drafted.
The current criteria prevented individuals from standing for, or holding office as a councillor if they had received a sentence of imprisonment, suspended or not, for a period of no less than three months. The consultation issued by the DCLG sought views on extending these criteria for disqualification, with particular regard to sexual offences and anti-social behaviour.
In relation to sexual offences, the consultation asked the following questions:
Q1. Do you agree that an individual who is subject to the notification
requirements set out in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (i.e. who is on the
sex offenders register) should be prohibited from standing for election,
or holding office, as a member of a local authority, mayor of a combined authority, member of the London Assembly or London Mayor?
Q2. Do you agree that an individual who is subject to a Sexual Risk
Order should not be prohibited from standing for election, or holding
office, as a member of a local authority, mayor of a combined authority,
member of the London Assembly or London Mayor?
The consultation proposed that anyone who was currently subject to sex offender notification requirements (otherwise known as on the ‘sex offenders register’) should be barred from standing for election, or holding office, as a councillor. However, the consultation did not propose extending disqualification to those subject to a Sexual Risk Order (SRO).
The Interim Head of Legal Services said there was an important distinction to be made between a sexual offence under the Sexual Offences Acts 2003 and a Sexual Risk Order (SRO). An individual charged with a sexual offence under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 would have been tried and found guilty of a criminal offence, whilst an SRO was a civil order against someone who was perceived as a threat to public safety, but was not dependent on a conviction.
Councillor Asker said public safety was paramount and suggested a similar approach to Licensing standards should be adopted. When drivers apply for a commercial license, checks are carried out to ensure they are not a risk to the public. The same should apply to those standing for elected office; if they are in receipt of an SRO they are a risk and therefore not fit to be a councillor.
Councillor Lees said an individual who had been given an SRO had not been convicted and therefore would be disbarred from standing for office on a suspicion. Councillor Dean agreed and said this should not be grounds for disqualification.
The Chairman said individuals with an SRO had been considered a risk for good reason and should ... view the full minutes text for item 3.
Strengthening sanctions available to the Standards Committee (Verbal)
The Interim Head of Legal Services presented a verbal report to members on the strengthening of sanctions available to the Standards Committee. He said the Committee on Standards in Public Life would be considering ethical standards in local in 2018 and members could write to the Committee urging it to recommend strengthening the sanctions available.
Mr Pearl said he had found a survey carried out by Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) in which 60% of respondents felt that the abolition of the Standards Board, and the lesser sanctions that could now be applied locally, had left them without the necessary tools to deal with breaches of conduct. The Chairman agreed and said the lack of sanctions available under the current regime had led to problems within a number of parish councils. He added that a Code of Conduct was toothless if rules could not be enforced.
In response to a question from the Chairman, the Interim Head of Legal Services said the main difference between the current system and the preceding one was the inability to suspend a councillor if the Code of Conduct had been breached. He added that it was just as important to promote a culture of standards whereby suspension would rarely be required.
The Chairman said there was a need to strengthen the sanctions available to the Standards Committee and to consider introducing a “right of recall” in respect of local councillors. The Interim Head of Legal Services said he would bring a report on this to the next meeting.
Update on the adoption of the Council's Code of Conduct by town and parish councils (Verbal)
The Interim Head of Legal Services updated members on the uptake of Uttlesford District Council’s Code of Conduct by town and parish councils. He said progress was being made, and that an item had been included on the agenda for the Local Councils’ Liaison Forum (LCLF) which had taken place in September. Stebbing Parish council had been the only parish to adopt the code and there was a need to promote it to councils across the district.
The Chairman said the uptake was disappointing and more needed to be done to encourage parish councils to adopt the code. Councillor Sell said not all parishes sent representatives to the LCLF and it would be a good idea to involve UDC members so they could encourage parishes within their ward to adopt the new code.
Feedback from Independent Persons about their role (Verbal)
The Interim Head of Legal Services said the Independent Persons who assisted the Standards Committee played a very valuable role, although the majority of their work was hidden from view. He asked Mr Pearl and Mrs Wellingbrook–Doswell to comment on their experience as Independent Persons.
Mrs Wellingbrook–Doswell said she had found the role interesting, although during her first year in the role the Standards Committee had been inundated with complaints. She said this was symptomatic of a wider problem where people found it easier to make a complaint rather than deal with local problems at source. She said she had been surprised by attitudes towards Standards hearings; rather than being seen as a serious and formal process to be used only as a last resort, it was often perceived as the first step in resolving a problem. She said there was a need to provide training to those who conducted the hearings as preparation would promote formalising the process. She added that the Interim Head of Legal Services had helped in dealing with cases in an appropriate way.
Mr Pearl said he agreed with Mrs Wellingbrook-Doswell, particularly with regard to formalising the hearing process. He said the adoption of the Code of Conduct hearings procedure would help in making hearings more consistent and fair. He said he would like to have stronger sanctions available when councillors breached the code; formal training for councillors on standards; and the development of a respectful culture where breaches of the code were not tolerated. He added that the system adopted in 2011 was not ideal and would prefer to see a similar system to the one implemented in Wales.
The Chairman thanked the Independent Persons for their hard work and said it would be a positive development if issues could be resolved at local level without the need for a formal Standards hearing.
In response to a question from Councillor Sell, the Interim Head of Legal Services said the majority of cases concerned disputes within parish councils. He said the majority of issues were concerned with a clash of personalities or local disputes. He mentioned an occasion on which Mrs Wellingbrook-Doswell had met a complainant and the other parties to try to resolve the complaint without resorting to a formal Standards investigation and hearing.
The meeting ended at 5.20pm.