Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Code of Conduct Briefing Note (From Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Association of Local Councils (CAPALC))

Bar Hill Parish Council Offices

The following a briefing note circulated to Parish Councillors in relation to the new Members Code of Conduct. It's worth noting that for Parish Councillors the Code of Conduct is being managed by the District Councils - For Bar Hill that's South Cambridgeshire District Council

The CPALC website is available here, and here's the briefing note as circulated;

Adopting the new Code of Conduct There is a requirement from 1st July 2012 for all parish councils to adopt a new code of conduct. The legislation clearly states that a parish council may assume that a code of conduct produced by its' principal authority is consistent with the core principles of a code of conduct and ensures the provisions for registering councillors interests. Localism Act 2012 c7 s27(3)(b)

There are a number of codes in circulation but for the reason given above in the first instance CAPALC recommends all parish councils in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough adopt the code of conduct produced by the district council or principal authority.

This approach should provide consistency and minimise costs of parish councils developing alternative codes that may be expensive to maintain and police.

All councillors are covered by the new code whether they have been elected at an ordinary election or co-opted in-order to fill a casual vacancy.

Timescales for implementation have slipped and the expected date is likely to be end July 2012. District councils and unitary authorities will advise parishes once the code is finalised.

Within the new legislation and embodied in the new code of conduct are a set of values that councillors are expected to observe that are summarised as selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. Localism Act 2012 c7 s28(1)

The code applies to all parish councils and parish councillors will have to declare interests at a parish council, committee and sub committee meetings Localism Act 2012 c7 s27(4) and as previously best practice is to have this as an agenda item at each meeting to ensure that councillors have the opportunity to declare.

Register of Interests 
Parish councillors have to register their interests under the new code of conduct irrespective of whether they have done so at the May annual council meeting.

Under the Localism Act 2012 the requirements are different and declarations of interest will need to be submitted again with copies provided to the principal authority monitoring officer.

In addition the Localism Act requires that where a parish council has a website the members’ register of interests is published on the parish web site and the principal authority must help in providing the data for publication.

Pecuniary Interests Under the new code new disclosable pecuniary interests have been introduced.

A pecuniary interest is an interest that involves not only money but assets, land, tenancies, sponsorship, contracts, investments, local businesses of the councillor. It can apply to the councillor themselves, the councillor’s spouse or civil partner, a person with whom the councillor is living as spouse, a person with whom the councillor is living as if they were a civil partner and where the councillor is aware that that other person has an interest. Localism Act 2012 c7 s30(3)

Whether the member is elected or co-opted all pecuniary interests must be registered within 28 days of becoming a councillor. Localism Act 2012 c7 s30(1)

Complaints under the code Under the new code of conduct complaints about a parish councillor need to be via the Monitoring Officer at the District Council or Unitary authority. Localism Act 2012 c7 s28(9)(b)

However where possible and before a complaint is sent to the Monitoring Officer the complainant should dialogue with the parish council Chairman to see if the matter can be resolved without escalation beyond a local issue. If this is not possible then any complaint to the Monitoring Officer should be in writing. Localism Act 2012 c7 s28(9).

Policing the Code of Conduct As before, the Monitoring Officer does not deal with complaints concerning the parish Clerk. This is a matter for the parish council Chairman and any complaint of this nature should be addressed to the Chairman and marked Private and Confidential.

Most complaints about councillors will be handled by the Monitoring Officer however if a member fails to disclose a pecuniary interest this is a criminal matter which should be referred to the police.

Sanctions under the new code Assuming the parish council has adopted the code of the district or principal authority then it would be expected that any councillor found in breach of the code would be expected to abide by the findings, decisions and recommendations of any hearing held under that authorities code, however the Localism Act appears not to contain any specific powers or sanctions that a district council or principal authority Monitoring Officer can use.

Speaking and the new code Under the new code of conduct a parish councillor cannot speak if they have a pecuniary interest and they cannot participate in any debate or cast a vote on the matter in which they have a pecuniary interest. Localism Act 2012 c7 s31(4)(a)(b) There is no longer any facility for a councillor to join with the public and speak as a member of the public. There also appears to be no specific legal requirement for a councillor with a pecuniary interest, who has declared that interest to leave the room but common sense may suggest this to be a wise format for councils to follow as the Localism Act states that councils may include in their standing orders a requirement that a conflicted member may be excluded whilst the discussion and vote is undertaken. Localism Act 2012 c7 s31(10)

Who pays if a complaint is made? The legislation requires that District Councils or Principal authorities provide arrangements under which allegations can be investigated and decisions made. On that basis these authorities are charged with maintaining the code and unless challenged in the courts will have to bear the manpower, facilities and cost burden Localism Act 2012 c7 s28(6)(a)(b)

However it must be noted that a parish councillor might incur costs in their defence that are not the responsibility of the district council or unitary authority.

Advertising the new code 
There does not appear to be any specific method required in the Localism Act on how a parish council might publicise adoption other than stating that the parish council must publicise its adoption and sufficient to advise residents of the changes. Localism Act 2012 c7 s28 (12)

There is no mention of publicising in the press and therefore a notice on the parish notice board and on the parish website should be sufficient.

Action by the parish council The need or not for the parish council to be involved in any complaint is summarised in the localism Act where it refers to… “A relevant authority other than a parish council must have in place - (a) arrangements under which allegations can be investigated, and (b) arrangements under which decisions on allegations can be made.” Localism Act 2012 c7 s28(6)(a)(b) This does not mean that the parish council are prohibited from trying to resolve issues locally by seeking a simple apology to close on a matter rather than escalate the issue to the monitoring officer and an investigation procedure.

Ian Dewar
Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Association of Local Councils