Scribe Academy recently welcomed Guest Speaker Fiona Anthony, Solicitor and Professional & Practice Development Manager at nplaw.
With over 45 attendees, Fiona shared her advice on managing conflicts, what constitutes a breach of the Model Councillor Code of Conduct and how to approach this.
When looking at approaching conflict and breaches, Fiona suggests using the 4 "P's" which we have outlined below.
An informal discussion is ideally where you want to start when a conflict arises. This can of course be difficult, especially if you have been affected and are feeling upset or angry. But direct conversations can help, especially as the other person may not be aware of how they've made you feel.
So, how should you approach this?
We all know that you should never say something when you're angry, as you may later regret it! Give yourself time to process your feelings before taking someone aside for a discussion.
It's important to remain respectful during the conversation, you don't want this to negatively impact your relationship with the individual or others. Try to understand the others view points and gently explain where your issues lie. You may agree to disagree, but the main aim is to diffuse the situation.
It also helps to have good pre-existing relationships with your council. This may be particularly tricky if you are joining an established group, but there are method to fostering relationships. Is there something you can do to create a community feel? Perhaps some joint training with the council, where you can understand others viewpoints and gain insight into one another's values.
Sometimes it may be that an informal chat is not the way forward, or has not diffused the situation. So what next? This is where the second "P" comes in.👇
😖 Peer Pressure
The idea here is thinking that although someone might not listen to you, is there someone else that person may listen to?
Would the be able to influence them or help them understand the fuller picture?
Sometimes this could be the Chair of the Council, depending on where the conflict is coming from, but can be useful to ask somebody else to step in and help.
👀 Political Parties
In a smaller Parish Council you may not have political parties, but larger Town Councils may become quite politicised.
Political parties can be quite powerful and they do not want to taint their own reputation. They are also very aware that they are elected on their party rather than their name.
Therefore they may be willing to step in if they feel that someone is stepping out of line, so you could ask them to have discussions with the person (or people) causing problems.
Whilst political parties aren't decision makers, they can be a legitimate part of this process.
But what if talking fails?
It's then time to move onto a more formalised approach...
Town & Parish Council complains will be dealt with by the Monitoring Officer of the local Principle or District Council.
It's worth having an ongoing dialogue and relationship with the MO - perhaps invite them to one of your council meetings and have them talk to the council about the importance of complaints and the arrangements of dealing with these.
Best practice tip: Formal standards complaints about the conduct of a Parish Councillor towards a Clerk should be made by the Chair or by the Parish Council as a whole, rather than the Clerk, in all but exceptional circumstances.
It is the responsibility of the principle authority to undertake investigations of Code of Conduct breaches by Councillors. Each authority will have different mechanisms, however the Local Government Association have produced guidance on complaints handing (linked below), so well worth a read in order to understand how your authority may approach this.
Once a complaint has been made, the MO will identify whether it constitutes a breach of the Code of Conduct. This must be done fairly as follows:
- Complaints investigated & precise allegations identified
- Evidence clearly identified & disclosed
- Accused given opportunity to respond
- Response to complaint should be proportionate to the behaviour that has been complained of
An investigation report may be produced the the MO or an independent investigator. The report will set out the evidence, the witnesses who have been spoken to, and the subject members side of the story. A conclusion will be reached and recommendation given as to whether a code has been breached.
It is likely no further action will be taken if the conclusion is no breach.
If the conclusion is a breach, the MO may refer this to the principle authority for a hearing or resolve it using an alternative solution (e.g. an apology - if acceptable & proportionate).
🎤 Guest Speaker
*Fiona cannot give advice to individual people but can only act for public bodies. nplaw can undertake standards investigations on behalf of the Monitoring Officer and can also offer bespoke training in any aspect of standards.
⏯️ Replay - Watch the session recording below
💻 Slides - View the slides below
🔗 Useful links
Local Government Ethical Standards - Committee on Standards in Public Life, 2019 Report
Local Government Association - Guidance on Member Model Code of Conduct Complaints Handling
Q: Is the MO required to provide training around the Code of Conduct?
A: No, the MO is not required to provide training.
Q: How can we find out who are independent person is?
A: You should contact your MO to find out this information if unavailable online.
Q: Is the complainant allowed to talk to the independent person as well as the person being complained about?
A: It will depend on the stance of the independent person. The Localism Act is very clear that the person who is complained about can have access to the independent person, however, it is completely silent as to whether the complainant can talk to them. Some principal authorities don't want the independent person to speak with the complainant, whereas some of them are happy to allow that to happen. Some independent persons may also be unhappy to talk to both, because it can compromise independence.
Q: How do you deal with conflict with members of the public? We have an ex-councillor causing disruption in meetings and being disrespectful.
A: It's important that local decision-making is open & transparent, but if someone is disrupting that you may want to think about options available. Consider whether it would be appropriate for a discussion to take place with the complainant and perhaps the MO to identify what the root of the problem is.