Philip Grant has decided that he cannot continue his personal campaigning against what he sees as wrongs at Brent Council, because of the strain it has put on him and his family. In a final guest blog on the subject, he gives some thoughts on a report which will be going before Brent’s Standards Committee at its meeting on Thursday 7 January 2016.
High Standards of Conduct at Brent Council?
A press release issued by the Council on 11 December 2015 stated: ‘Brent Council is committed to the highest ethical standards in the work of its elected councillors and co-opted members, embodying the principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.’ But how true is this in practice?
In her Annual Report for 2015 to Brent’s Standards Committee LINK the Monitoring Officer says that she received SIXTEEN complaints against councillors for breaches of the Members’ Code of Conduct during the year (nine from members of the public, two from Council employees and five from other councillors). One of the main purposes of the Standards Committee is to ‘hear allegations of misconduct against members’, but NONE of these complaints were actually referred to the committee in 2015, so that it could consider whether they should be investigated.
I was one of the local residents who made a complaint during the year against a leading councillor, which alleged multiple breaches (covering all seven of the conduct principles) of the Code which members are supposed to follow. My complaint must be among the EIGHT which the report claims ‘did not disclose a potential breach of the code’, as the reason why it was not brought to the attention of the Standards Committee. The Monitoring Officer has the authority not to consider a complaint, but only if it is not against a named member and/or is not ‘in relation to an alleged breach of the Code of Conduct’.
As anyone who has read my open letter of 27 November 2015 to Brent’s Chief Executive, Carolyn Downs LINK , will know, the allegations in my complaint to the Monitoring Officer against Cllr. Muhammed Butt disclosed a number of potential breaches of the Members’ Code of Conduct, which should have been referred to Standards Committee. How can Brent’s people have confidence that high standards of conduct are being maintained by the Council, when genuine complaints of misconduct are covered up in this way?
In explaining how complaints about members are dealt with, the Annual Report says (at 3.7):
‘There are clear parameters for this and these are set out in the procedure LINK that was adopted by this Committee in January 2013’.
If the complaint is one which should be considered, the procedure states (at 4.5):
‘The Monitoring Officer will consult with the Independent Person to determine the course of action to be taken. This decision will normally be taken within 14 days of receipt of the complaint.’
It was only after I challenged the Monitoring Officer’s decision, made three months after my complaint had been received, not to refer my complaint to Standards Committee that a possible review by ‘the Independent Person under the Localism Act 2011’ was suggested.
Who is that Independent Person? According to the Monitoring Officer’s Annual Report (at 3.3):
‘The Council is in the process of recruiting Independent Persons to fulfil the requirements of the Localism Act 2011 …. The recruitment process will start in January 2016.’ *
The Council did appoint two Independent Persons under the Act’s transitional provisions, John Mann and Sola Afuape (who had both been independent members of Standards Committee under its old format). Those appointments ended in May 2014, and these two persons were not eligible to act as Independent Persons thereafter. Minutes of Council meetings show that there have been “vacancies” for Independent Persons for Standards purposes since then, and that NO ONE has been properly appointed to fill that role. It would appear that, for more than eighteen months, Brent Council has not had “an Independent Person under the Localism Act 2011”. In that case, how can Brent’s Standards procedures have been properly applied?
Standards Committee meets at the Civic Centre on Thursday 7 January to consider the Annual Report. The meeting starts at 7pm, and is open to the public. I hope that the committee members will ask the Monitoring Officer to explain why she is not allowing them to carry out the important work of hearing ‘allegations of misconduct against members’ which they were elected to do. Unless there is openness and accountability over standards, Brent, like Rotherham in an Inspector’s report last February, will show itself to be a council which ‘goes to some length to cover up information and to silence whistle-blowers.’
Wembley Matters readers may like to consider whether they could help to improve standards of conduct at Brent Council by applying to be an Independent Person. The role should be advertised later this month, but from a previous “candidate pack” (issued by the then Monitoring Officer, Fiona Ledden, in April 2014) the main requirements are:
· to be committed to the need for high standards in public life and be aware of the views of the local community in relation to standards;
· to have the ability to be objective, independent and impartial;
· to have a demonstrable interest in local issues and desire to serve the local community and uphold democracy; and,
· to be of good standing in the community.
There is one main bar to appointment as an Independent Person:
‘A person cannot be appointed as an Independent Person if they have been a member of any political party within the last five years or are actively engaged in party political activity.’