By Tony Earnshaw- LDRS
Kirklees Council received 60 complaints about councillors’ behaviour in the six months from March 11 this year. Most were from members of the public, and many related to councillors’ use of social media.
But there is growing frustration from legal officers over whether their powers of sanction offer any real deterrent to members of parish, town or district councils who are accused of breaching the Code of Conduct.
One said the formal process of investigation was time consuming and that “appropriate” sanctions applied as an enforcement are not always observed.
The council’s monitoring officer, Julie Muscroft said: “In terms of the outcome and whether people comply with those outcomes or not, sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.”
She added: “Unfortunately the current standards process does not have a great deal of teeth or sanctions available to myself or others in the process in relation to members.
“I think it’s fairly clear that the sanctions are insufficient at the moment in relation to dealing with poor behaviour by members.”
Since March 11 the council has received 60 complaints relating to alleged breaches of the Code of Conduct with multiple complaints relating to four councillors. All are anonymised.
More than half – 32 of 60 – relate to 13 named Kirklees councillors, with 28 relating to parish councillors, thus representing roughly a 50-50 split.
Half of the total complaints relate to social media posts, which officers said was “a prominent feature” of the public’s response.
The vast majority of complaints received about councillors by the council came from members of the public. The number jumped from 18 in the same period last year.
One parish councillor received 24 complaints, which was considered to be “a cause for concern”.
Speaking at a virtual meeting of Standards Committee (Sept 29) the council’s legal officer, David Stickley, said: “We have had a massive spike in two months and those were down to large numbers of complaints about effectively the same incident relating to the same members.”
He described it as “a significant jump” that skewed the figures.
Mr Stickley suggested recording multiple complaints on the same issue against the same councillor as one complaint “to give a more accurate comparison in terms of what’s causing problems and where trends are going.”
Committee chairman Cllr Paul Davies (Lab, Holme Valley South) said members of the public found the weakness of current sanctions “inexplicable”.
He added: “It’s crucial that we continue to have the confidence of the public. People cannot understand why there isn’t this ability to sanction. They find it quite unbelievable.”
As “principal council” Kirklees bears the cost of investigating complaints against parish and town councillors as well as its own 69 district councillors.
But it has limited powers to chastise or punish elected members even if they are found to have breached the council’s Code of Conduct.
It has no power to suspend individuals for poor behaviour.
Instead it can make use of “suggested actions” such as making an apology, removal of information on the internet, attending training, the removal of facilities, and mediation.
Speaking after the meeting Cllr Martyn Bolt (Con, Mirfield), said it was time for parish and town councils to pay their fair share of the cost involved in investigating complaints.
He said: “They are getting a free service and it’s costing the rate-payers of Kirklees. That’s public money and it could be used for other things.
“The council has to do this by law. There’s no facility for them to say they won’t do it because it’s a waste of time. They don’t have the right or the opportunity to decline.
“But they’re hamstrung by the level of sanctions they can impose. In that respect the law is an ass.”