This guest blog by Philip Grant continues his attempt to ensure Brent Council displays high standards of conduct in public life.
In a blog article of 2 January 2016 LINK I referred to the Annual Report which Brent Council’s Monitoring Officer was presenting to its Standards Committee the following week, and some matters of concern which it raised. I was not able to attend the meeting, so was interested to read what the minutes of the committee meeting on 7 January would have to say about that Report. This is the text of the draft minute for that item, which appeared on the Council’s website last Friday:
‘5. Annual Report to the Standards Committee 2014 - 2015
The committee considered the circulated report of the Monitoring Officer which updated members on conduct issues and the work of the Standards Committee and the Monitoring Officer for the period December 2014 to December 2015.
The committee was informed that the process of recruiting Independent Persons would begin later in January. Councillor Warren enquired about the Council’s existing arrangements. He proposed that the Independent Person should be given a higher profile in order to give the role greater credibility by bringing forward their role in the process of considering complaints. Concern was expressed that this could potentially undermine the position of the Monitoring Officer and that such an arrangement was not followed in other boroughs.
(i) that the Monitoring Officer’s Annual report 2014/15 be noted;
(ii) that the procedure for dealing with complaints be considered at the next meeting of the Standards Committee.’
While I am glad to see that Standards Committee did more than simply ‘note’ the Annual Report, which is what the Monitoring Officer had recommended they should do, the brevity of this minute raises more questions than it gives answers to.
1. What was Cllr. Warren’s enquiry ‘about the Council’s existing arrangements’ (for Independent Persons?), and what was he told in reply to his enquiry?
2. Which other committee members raised enquiries on, or made comments about, the Annual Report; what points did they raise and what answers were they given?
3. Was Cllr.Warren’s proposal ‘that the Independent Person should be given a higher profile’ put as a formal motion, and what discussion (and vote?) took place on this proposal?
4. Who was it that expressed concern ‘that this could potentially undermine the position of the Monitoring Officer’, and what reasons were put forward in support of that concern?
5. Who put forward the resolution (not referred to in the Annual Report itself) ‘that the procedure for dealing with complaints be considered at the next meeting of Standards Committee’, and what views were expressed “for” or “against” this proposal?
The minutes of the meeting at which the previous Annual Report was presented (9 December 2014) give details of a number of questions raised and comments made by committee members; these are followed by a 17-line paragraph beginning: ‘In reply to the issues raised, Kathy Robinson advised that …’ which gives answers to the points raised. [For information: Kathy Robinson was the Council solicitor deputising for the then Monitoring Officer, Fiona Ledden.] Why was that precedent, and the good practice it showed of properly recording in the minutes what happened, not followed for the meeting on 7 January 2016? And how can the draft minute for item 5, quoted above, ‘be approved as an accurate record of the meeting’?
The purpose of Standards Committee, as set out on the Council’s website, is:
‘To promote high standards of conduct by councillors, to receive allegations that councillors may have failed to comply with the Council’s code of conduct and hold hearings into allegations of misconduct.’
At the heart of those high standards of conduct are the principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership (see footnote below for an explanation of what these principles should mean in practice), which all members must comply with whenever they are conducting any business of the Council.
I hope that the members of Standards Committee (to whom I am sending a copy of this blog article) will show openness and accountability, by amending the draft minutes for item 5, so that they record properly the actions of those who took part in the discussions on the Annual Report and the reasons given for those actions, so that the public can hold them to account. The amended minutes for the meeting on 7 January should then be posted on the Council’s website, in place of the draft minutes, as soon as possible after 21 March.
By amending the draft minutes, Standards Committee would demonstrate leadership, in promoting high standards of conduct. It would also avoid the integrity and honesty of committee members being called into question, which could be the case if it appeared that the minutes were deliberately being kept vague, as part of ‘a culture of covering up uncomfortable truths’. Failure to amend the draft minutes would provide further evidence for the criticisms I made about Brent Council in my open letter to its Chief Executive on 27 November 2015 LINK
So, please come on, Standards Committee, and set a good example over standards of conduct to other members, to encourage public confidence in Brent Council.
13 March 2016
13 March 2016
Brent’s Members’ Code of Conduct says:
‘You must maintain a high standard of conduct, and comply with the following general conduct principles:
The General Principles
Selflessness – you should serve only the public interest and should never improperly confer an advantage or disadvantage on any person.
Integrity – you should not place yourself in situations where your integrity may be questioned, should not behave improperly and should on all occasions avoid the appearance of such behaviour.
Objectivity – you should make decisions on merit, including when making appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards or benefits.
Accountability – you should be accountable to the public for your actions and the manner in which you carry out your responsibilities, and should co-operate fully and honestly with any scrutiny appropriate to your particular office.
Openness – you should be as open as possible about your actions and those of their authority, and should be prepared to give reasons for those actions.
Honesty – you should be truthful in your council work and avoid creating situations where your honesty may be called into question.
Leadership – you should promote and support these principles by leadership, and by example, and should act in a way that secures or preserves public confidence.