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.
Good luck in your continuing quest, Philip, but I wonder whether it might ultimately be more effective to press the Standards Committee to officially abandon the 'General Principles' altogether, in recognition of the fact that an examination of council members' continuing behaviour would seem to indicate that selflessness, integrity, honesty etc are unrealistic and unachievable standards and continual failure to come anywhere near achieving them can only have such a demoralising effect on council members that their effectiveness will be compromised.
FOR THE RECORD:
I said in my guest blog above that I would send a copy of it to the members of Standards Committee. Here is the text of the covering email I sent to them, just before 5pm today. I have already received confirmation that a copy of this email has been forwarded to Sheila Darr (the independent member of the committee, whose email address is not publicly available).
'Dear Councillors Dixon, Kabir, Collier, Sheth and Warren, and Ms Reid (to forward to Sheila Darr, please, and for information),
I am attaching a document with the text of an article I have written about the recently published draft minutes of the Standards Committee meeting on 7 January 2016. You can also read this article (and any comments made about it) online at the "Wembley Matters" blog website:[Link to this blog].
The concerns I have raised in this article are about the draft minute for item 5 (Annual Report), which is brief, but contains enough information to show that there is more which the minute should contain if it is to be approved as an accurate record of your Committee's meeting on 7 January. My reasons for this, and the extra details required, are set out in the article.
What I have written is not intended as a criticism of any individual officer or member involved, as I realise that the preparation of draft minutes requires a collective effort. However, it is the responsibility of Standards Committee to ensure that the finally approved minutes of the meeting do provide an accurate record, including questions raised, answers given to them and the reasons given at the meeting for and/or against any decisions taken. That is why I am calling on you to amend the draft minutes for this item, to remedy the shortcomings in them, before they are finally approved at your meeting on 21 March 2016.
As my article makes clear, this is a "Standards" issue, where you as Standards Committee members need to be seen to act in accordance with the general conduct principles in the way that you handle this matter, which I have now brought to your attention. I am copying this email to Brent's Monitoring Officer and Chief Executive, for their information.
I hope that you will set a good example to your colleagues in the Council. Thank you. Best wishes,
I still don't know whether Standards Committee will amend the minutes of their 7 January meeting tomorrow, but I have heard from a couple of the people who were at the meeting, in response to my guest blog above.
Cllr. John Warren has told me that the Committee was aware of the failures in appointing independent persons. He said:
'Everyone was aware of the vacuum in respect of independent persons.The difference was degree of concern!' He says that he was more concerned than others.
I have replied to him today as follows:
"You say that 'everyone was aware of the vacuum in respect of independent persons'. Everyone on Standards Committee may have been aware of it, but Brent Council has been covering it up!
The home page for Standards Committee on the Brent Council website states:
'In accordance with the Localism Act 2011, the Council has appointed two Independent Persons. An Independent Person is consulted upon receiving a complaint and is also consulted by the Standards Committee at the conclusion of an investigation in deciding how to proceed.'
Since May 2014, that statement has been untrue. Worse still, Fiona Alderman, as Monitoring Officer and the Council's supposed "guardian" of Standards, has claimed to have consulted the Independent Person in respect of my complaint (about alleged breaches of the Members' Code of Conduct by Cllr. Butt) and at least one other complaint that I am aware of, when there was no properly appointed Independent Person under the Localism Act who she could have consulted.
How can Brent residents have confidence that Standards at the Council are being upheld when they have been mislead in this way?"
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