LETTER: Cloak of secrecy over complaints

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Your readers may be interested to know that when a person is elected to Horsham District Council (HDC) he/she agrees to uphold a ‘Code of Conduct’ (found in Part 5A of the HDC Constitution). The Code requires certain standards of behaviour such as selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, leadership – with no bullying, intimidation nor compromising the integrity of those who work for or on behalf of the authority.

Earlier this year I raised a formal complaint against a senior member of the council. I was not satisfied with the outcome of the process which ensued, so I pressed my case with the council.

HDC rules will not allow me to name the councillor. However the Standards Committee findings are printed on the HDC web site (See LA/4, commencing p13 (to p14) http://www.horsham.gov.uk/files/Agenda_140611.pdf) along with two other complaints – none of which were upheld. Neither the names of the complainant nor the names of the councillors complained against are included in these reports).

I had no objection to my name being included in the report in pursuit of transparency.

At the time the council had a panel of seven councillors from where it could draw three to form a ‘Local Assessment Sub-Committee’. They were at the time Cllrs Coldwell (Bramber Con), Donnelly (Con Pulborough), Mathews (Ind Henfield), Baldwin (Con East Holbrook), Circus (Con Chanctonbury ), Newman (Lib Dem Forest) and Youtan (Con Slinfold/Warnham). The council also appoints an ‘Independent Person’.

Bizarrely, the Independent Person, the complainant and the person complained about are not allowed to attend an assessment meeting – the procedure is simply a paper exercise. During my working career I sat on and chaired disciplinary panels and we always allowed both parties in a dispute to separately meet the panel.

I had to ask for the name and qualifications of the Independent Person and which councillors were to sit on the assessment panel. I was not at all surprised to be told the result of the assessment was that ‘no action should be taken on the allegation’.

I appealed and another panel of three was formed (different members from the seven) and I was invited to submit further evidence. I was not told the names of the panel members nor the name of the Independent Person. The unnamed panel concluded that the original decision was reasonable ‘and reached in accordance with our procedures’.

There is no further right of appeal. The original complaint was lodged on 22nd February and this final decision reached on June 17th.

To an outsider, the decision appears far too ‘cosy’ – councillors being judge and jury for their complaints system. There is a cloak of secrecy over the process and its tediousness designed to put off the faint hearted.

Now the council has removed the right of appeal (council meeting May 2014) and in the future complainants will go to the Ombudsman if not happy with the first decision. But I understand that unless it is a financial issue (not in this case) the Ombudsman will not get involved leaving the High Court the only avenue of appeal.

In the context of what has been going on over the last 12 months at HDC, having a fair, open complaint system seems essential if we are to restore public trust in our local democracy.

Dr GEOFFREY RICHARDSON

Tennyson Close, Horsham