LETTER: Process to deal with complaints

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In reference to the recent letter from Dr Geoffrey Richardson (‘Cloak of secrecy over complaints’ – County Times Thursday 24 July) I write to clarify the process Horsham District Council has for dealing with complaints about district and parish councillors.

Like all councils in England Horsham District Council is required by law to adopt a process for dealing with complaints against councillors under the Localism Act 2011.

The process under the Localism Act replaced the previous Standards regime operated by the Standards Board for England. The previous Standards regime was viewed as being heavily bureaucratic and in practice many of the complaints processed under the system, often at great cost, were inconsequential. The Act sought to replace the Standards regime with a much lighter touch regime of which there were two main components.

Firstly the Act requires that all councils in England must have a Code of Conduct for councillors. Horsham District Council’s Code of Conduct can be found on the council’s website at the following link http://www.horsham.gov.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/5211/Part_5A-Code-of-Conduct-Issue-39-July-2014.pdf

Secondly the Act requires all councils to have a set of procedures for dealing with complaints that a councillor has breached its Code of Conduct.

Under those procedures it is necessary that both the details of the councillor and the person making the complaint are kept confidential to ensure compliance with the Data Protection Act.

In order to make the process transparent, but remain within the law, where a complaint has been considered by a panel the anonymised minutes are publicly available on the council’s website and in addition the person who made the complaint is sent a detailed decision notice that sets out the decision and reasons for that decision.

Any decisions that a council makes must be made by councillors (often as a committee) or decisions can be delegated by councillors to officers. All councils in England have chosen a system where the process for dealing with complaints is overseen by a committee of councillors as there is not any practical alternative under the legislation.

At Horsham District Council it is the Standards Committee (via its sub-committees and delegations to the monitoring officer) that is responsible for dealing with complaints that are made against councillors. The Standards Committee is politically balanced meaning it comprises councillors from different political parties roughly in proportion to their representation on the council.

In compliance with the legislation and to ensure there is an independent element in the process the committee also comprises two Independent Persons. Under the law the Independent Persons have no vote but they must be consulted before a decision is made in respect of any complaint.

Finally the committee also includes two parish councillors. The reason for representation from the parishes is because Horsham District Council is responsible for dealing with any complaints received about the conduct of any parish councillor in the area. The parish councillors also have no vote under the law but act in an advisory capacity. Again the council’s website contains full details about the Standards Committee and the members who belong to the committee at the following link http://www.horsham.gov.uk/councilanddemocracy/councillors/standards/standards-committee-members

The council has recently concluded an efficiency and effectiveness review of its system for dealing with complaints against councillors. In common with about 80 per cent of other councils in the South East, Horsham District Council has now decided to remove the internal right of review. However a person who remains dissatisfied can still refer the matter to the Local Government Ombudsman’ In addition the process can be challenged in the Courts.

PAUL CUMMINS

Monitoring officer, Horsham District Council, North Street, Horsham