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‘Strong Argument’ for Publishing Outcomes of Complaints Against GBC Councillors, Says Committee Chair

Published on: 23 Mar, 2022
Updated on: 25 Mar, 2022

By Martin Giles

Of 14 complaints made against GBC councillors last year none reached a final outcome where the complaint was upheld.

Seven of the complaints failed the “initial jurisdiction test” where one of the council’s legal team assesses whether the complaint is one that should be considered under the council’s protocol and that it is not vexatious or frivolous.

But even if a complaint is upheld, details of the case are not published, unless there has been a rare public hearing. Only one is thought to have taken place in the last ten years.

Cllr George Potter

The chair of the GBC committee that oversees councillor misconduct complaints, Cllr George Potter (Lib Dem, Burpham) said today (Mar 23): “There is definitely a strong argument to be made for publishing the outcomes of complaints in some form.”

Justifying the current secrecy, a report due to be considered in tomorrow’s meeting of GBC’s Corporate Governance and Standards Committee states: “The identity of all councillors complained of has been anonymised. It is felt that such information should remain confidential unless and until any complaint results in an open hearing before the Hearings Sub-Committee.”

The report on the complaints received in 2021 states: “Throughout this period, there have been 14 complaint decisions in total. They were all complaints regarding borough councillors, and none were regarding parish councillors.

“Seven of the complaints failed the initial jurisdiction test, none proceeded to investigation; two were subject to no further action at initial assessment stage and five were subject to informal resolution. There are six ongoing complaints at the time of writing this report.”

Six of the seven that passed the initial jurisdiction test are, according to the report, “cases that remain ongoing”. But the report also breaks down the seven accepted cases as:

  • 3 where an informal resolution of an apology my a councillor has been proposed;
  • 2 where an informal resolution of an apology following consideration by an assessment sub-committee and;
  • 2 where no further action was deemed necessary at the initial assessment.

Where an apology is recommended ,to reach an informal resolution, the councillor subject of the complaint is not compelled to make one but if he or she does not the complaint may be subject to an independent investigation costing GBC several thousand pounds.

The report does not explain how six cases have been taken forward when two of the seven accepted required “no further action”, an apparent discrepancy acknowledged by the committee chair.

In a short interview, The Dragon posed three questions to Cllr Potter:

Do you think there is confidence in GBC’s complaints process?

Broadly speaking yes. Although I’m sure that there are people who are unsatisfied with the outcomes of specific complaints, overall the system appears to be functioning as intended without any significant issues; but this is not to say there’s not room for improvement.

Wouldn’t there be more confidence in the system at GBC, and other local authorities, if the complaints process was completely independent, ie operated by an outside or distinct body, as opposed to officers who are answerable to councillors and more senior officers within their council, some of whom might be the complainants or subjects of a complaint?

Yes. The experience of many organisations and institutions show that entirely independent complaints processes tend to be more trusted and more effective. However, the current system is specified for local government by law and therefore officers and councillors have to work within the framework which has been imposed upon us.

I can’t speak with authority about what happens at other councils, but at GBC my experience has been that officers handling complaints do not let the identity of the councillor impact on the way they handle a complaint. Everyone gets the same treatment. But that’s not to say that the system wouldn’t function better if it was entirely handled by a body set up and resourced specifically for that purpose.

Given that, “…justice needs to be seen to be done,” don’t you think accepted complaints, ie where a prima facie case has been established, should be made public?

This is an incredibly difficult question to answer, given that there is such a wide range of potential complaints which could be made. Complaints are not accepted when a prima facie case has been established, but simply when the complaint meets the initial jurisdiction test which in essence is when there has been a cursory initial judgement that there might be an issue which falls within the scope of the complaints procedure.

So an accepted complaint is not the same thing as an indication that a breach of the code of conduct has actually taken place. There is definitely a strong argument to be made for publishing the outcomes of complaints in some form, and potentially of those which proceed to a full investigation, but I think it would be excessive, and confusing, to publish every complaint which simply passes the very low initial bar necessary to not be thrown out at the initial jurisdiction stage.

David Reeve

David Reeve, a former GGG borough councillor, who was subject to a complaint from two fellow councillors that did proceed to a public hearing, said: “Hearings, although a good exercise in public scrutiny, are, from my experience, costly, time-consuming and not very satisfactory in arriving at a fair outcome.

“It is a sad reflection on the process, or on the participants in the process, that resolution cannot be achieved long before getting to that point.”

 

 


From GBC Report on Complaints in 2020

Throughout this period, there have been 17 complaints in total. Of these, 9
complaints were regarding borough councillors, and 8 were regarding parish
councillors.

Eight of the complaints failed the initial jurisdiction test, two proceeded to
investigation. Seven were subject to no further action. There are no outstanding
complaints at the time of writing this report.

 

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test 2 Responses to ‘Strong Argument’ for Publishing Outcomes of Complaints Against GBC Councillors, Says Committee Chair

  1. Jules Cranwell Reply

    March 24, 2022 at 7:11 am

    No complaint against a councillor from the public is likely to ever be upheld as long as those dealing with the complaint are beholden to the the very same councillors for their jobs. Valid complaints, with irrefutable evidence, about breaches of the councillors’ code of conduct are not even referred to the standards committee.

    This process needs to be entirely independent of the council.

    GBC could not even bring itself to get a former chair of the Planning Committee to make a public apology, as recommended by the appointed independent investigator, when she compared the public gallery at a planning meeting to a “bloody rabble”.

  2. Ben Paton Reply

    March 24, 2022 at 10:51 am

    The complaints system at GBC is a joke. Officers are about as likely to find fault as turkeys are to vote for Christmas.

    Back when Cllr Juneja was in charge of the Local Plan and masquerading as a qualified barrister the council and its appointed “investigator” exonerated her of any wrongdoing. How? By relying on Ms Juneja’s own false evidence and failing to carry out any proper investigation.

    Then, after she was convicted at the Old Bailey, the Standards Committee found that the council was not at fault [see: Council Report Accepts Juneja Case Has Caused ‘Reputational Damage’ and There Are Lessons To Learn From The Juneja Case – The Council Must Admit It].

    This was as deplorable as calling an invasion a “special military operation”.

    The reason there are so few complaints is that there is no confidence in the system: everyone knows what a futile exercise complaining is.

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