05:00PM, Friday 13 September 2019
The Royal Borough’s ‘woolly’ code of conduct is to be reviewed following a rise in complaints.
Councillors discussed the issue at the employment and member standards panel held at the Town Hall in St Ives Road on Tuesday.
At the meeting, monitoring officer for the council, Mary Severin, said there has been ‘more complaints unfortunately in the last 18 months’.
One reason she gave for this was council candidates campaigning in the run-up to the May elections when ‘things become more political’.
The second is that there are a lot more new members ‘who are perhaps not quite aware of the parameters of social media’.
She said: “Not to say they’re doing anything wrong, but as I’ve said to individuals, if you just thought before you made social media comments and asked me for advice if necessary.”
The move to review the council's code of conduct was prompted by a report in January by the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
It suggests that each local authority compares its current arrangements against a list of best practice.
At the meeting, councillors agreed that changes should be made to the council’s code of conduct and complaints process in light of the recommendations.
Ms Severin said: “I think that the code of conduct itself could be refined to accommodate the recommendations in the standards report, I think also that the complaints process needs a little bit of tweaking.”
She added: “I feel that because things are a little bit woolly in the complaints process, and in the code of conduct, people can make unnecessary complaints.
“Also with better transparency, people can see exactly what they can complain about.”
Out of the 17 code of conduct complaints submitted from February 2018 which have a decision, only three were found to be in breach – which Ms Severin said is quite normal compared to other councils.
Ms Severin called the current eight code of conduct complaints ‘quite a mixed bag’.
She said they include three which are purely political, some which are long-standing problems between members and ones which are genuinely a code of conduct issue.
Two of the complaints against Datchet parish councillors have been amalgamated – six members are involved and Ms Severin said ‘it’s a real tangle’.
The result of a member being found in breach of the code of conduct is a decision notice on the web saying ‘this councillor has breached the code of conduct’.
She said: “Members tend not to do very bad things like take council money or misuse resources, any of those things which are clearly a standards issue.”
She added the complaints tend to be about bullying, intimidation, disrespect – the last being ‘hard to define’.
“I have one complaint at the moment where a member of the public on about six different occasions persisted, tying to get a response from a member and they were being pretty vile on social media about that member,” she said.
“And the member decided not to respond, and that was the source of the complaint, that he said he didn’t respond.”
Ms Severin said: “What people don’t realise is that when a member is complained about, it is very upsetting.”
Lead Member Finance and Ascot, Cllr David Hilton (Con, Ascot & Sunninghill) shared his experience of a complaint being made against him under the previous scheme.
He said: “It was six months before I knew exactly what the complaint was, it was a year before it was resolved and there were a number of hearings before I was exonerated.”
Chairman of the panel, deputy chairman of cabinet, culture, communities and Windsor, Cllr Samantha Rayner (Con, Eton and Castle) said: “That also shows that as well as protecting the complainer we have to protect the people who are complained about and that’s what this is doing.
“We’ve all gone into public life and you have to accept some consequences but we have to make sure we’re considered as well.”
Ms Severin said: “The sort of political issues that cause complaints – I’m not quite sure what to do about it.”
She added: “What do I do when they weaponise the code of conduct process for their political aims – there’s nothing that can be done.”
Leader of the opposition, Cllr Lynne Jones (Ind, Old Windsor Residents' Association) said that as head of a group she has attempted to stop complaints reaching the formal stage.
“The outcome should be that the council is seen in a better light, I think there’s stuff that groups can do within their own groups as well, to try and say ‘why bring a code of conduct, why not speak to the monitoring officer and see if there’s some way else of dealing with it’ “, she said.
Cllr Rayner added: “It’s a waste of public resources and it lets the whole council down, whatever party goes on social media.”
Cllr Hilton suggested that members have training on the use of social media which was given during the last administration.
He said: “It seems to me a reasonable thing to do so there is some guidance that members have as to what is and isn’t acceptable and that’s not a terrible complicated thing to do.”
There is a social media guide for members which is periodically promoted.
Also discussed at the meeting was the results of the 2019 Staff Survey Temperature Check.
Compared to the temperature check in 2017 and last year’s full staff survey, positive answers in each question are up between 5.85 and 10.87 per cent.
There are areas for improvement, but overall the results are positive.
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