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Agenda item

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Complaint - Breach of Code of Conduct

The report of the Monitoring Officer.

Minutes:

The Sub-Committee received a report of the Monitoring Officer relating to two separate complaints made by two separate complainants of breaches of the Code of Conduct for Councillors made by Councillor William Stoodley.  The complaint had initially been considered by the Assessment Sub-Committee at its meeting held on 12 July 2010, which had decided that the complaints should be referred for investigation.  As a result the investigation had taken place on behalf of the Monitoring Officer by an Independent Investigation Officer.  The Hearing Sub-Committee was now tasked with considering the complaints and investigation report and to determine whether there had been breaches of the Code of Conduct.

 

Pre-discussion

In attendance was Councillor William Stoodley, Ms Frances Randle, (representative of Councillor Stoodley from Steel & Shamash) and Caraline Johnson (Investigating Officer from Bevan Brittan).  Also in attendance were Jessica Farmer (Deputy Monitoring Officer) and Vishal Seegoolam from Legal and Governance Services to provide advice and support to the Sub?Committee

 

At the outset of the Hearing, the Chairman asked Councillor Stoodley whether he had any objections to the meeting being held in public.  Councillor Stoodley confirmed that he had no objection.

 

AGREED:  That the meeting be held in public.

 

Evidence

The Investigating Officer represented that there were no disputes on the facts of the matter.  However there was a disagreement regarding the extent to which the complainants could be regarded as ‘normal’ members of the public, as Councillor Stoodley’s representative considered that the Complainants political backgrounds were significant.  Other evidence was agreed as contained in the bundle of documents put before the Sub-Committee.

 

Councillor Stoodley’s representative explained that he had now ceased his blog.  Evidence was also provided that his blog was amended immediately after the election in May 2010 to include the announcement “I am pleased to announce to readers that I have been elected Labour party in the ward of West Harrow, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who voted for me”.

 

Relevant Sections of the Code of Conduct

The Investigating Officer submitted that two relevant sections of the Code of Conduct had been breached.  These were:

 

·                     Section 3(1) treating others with respect; and

·                     Section 5 bringing the office of Councillor into disrepute.

 

Representations

 

Capacity

The parties made representations on whether the blogging activity fell within the remit of the Code of Conduct.  The parties accepted that paragraph 2 of the Code of Conduct was relevant which implied that Councillors had to abide by the Code of Conduct whenever they:

 

·                     conducted the business of your authority; or

 

·                     acting, claiming to act or giving the impression you they were acting as a representative of the authority.

 

The Investigating Officer concluded that the paragraphs at the top of the blog, were in such terms as to give the clear impression to anyone looking at the blog that he was acting in his capacity as a representative of the Council.  She stated that her reasoning was based on the cumulative effect of:

 

·                     the statement on the front page of the blog concerning his election as Councillor;

 

·                     the invitation in this statement to blog or email in respect of ‘comments, niggles or problems with Harrow Council’;

 

·                     providing his email contact as that of Harrow Labour party;

 

·                     his offer to look into any ‘comments, niggles or problems with Harrow Council’ directly after stating that he has been elected as a Harrow Councillor; and

 

·                     the additional statement that the purpose of the blog was for Harrow residents to air their views on the administration and to raise various issues which one might have with the Council such as cracked pavements, overhanging trees and graffiti.

 

She felt that the effect of the combined statements and invitations was more than sufficient to find, on the balance of probabilities, that he gave the impression of acting in his role of Councillor.

 

Representations were made on behalf of Councillor Stoodley that he was not covered by the Code at the time that he was posting his blog, as it was a personal political act.  Just because the blog had identified that he was a Councillor was not enough to indicate that he was conducting the business of the authority or acting as a representative of the authority.  The purpose of the blog was to enable people to air their views about the Council.  It was not a conduit for Council business.  The fact that the blog started before he was a Councillor and his length of term in office when the complaint was made were also relevant.

 

Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA), Article 10 - Freedom of Speech

Both parties made representations on the application of Article 10 of the HRA on the right of freedom to speech.

 

The parties agreed that the Committee as a body was subject to the HRA and needed to consider it.  The Investigating Officer explained that the right was constrained in that he was subject to the laws of the jurisdiction of the sovereign state in which the Article was being applied.  This meant that the Councillor was constrained in his exercise of Article 10 by the restrictions in the Local Government acts and the Code of Conduct.

 

The Investigating Officer noted that the courts and the tribunal had commented that the concept of treating others with respect was one that allowed the essential balance required by Article 10(2) to be performed, as did the phrase “bringing his office into disrepute” in paragraph 5 of the Code.  She submitted that Councillor Stoodley’s Article 10 right was not therefore disproportionately affected by the consideration of these complaints of breach.

 

Councillor Stoodley’s representative explained that the Sub-Committee needed to carefully consider Article 10 and 10(2) of the HRA.  Freedom of expression could only be interfered with where there were convincing and compelling reasons within Article 10(2) justifying the interference.  The blog was political banter which received a high level of protection under the HRA.

 

Paragraph 3(1) of the Code of Conduct:  Treating Others with Respect

In relation to the first complainant, representations were made by the Investigating Officer that the comments were public and personal in nature and implied improper conduct on the part of the relevant complainant.  It was obvious that this would cause upset. 

 

Representations were made on behalf of Councillor Stoodley that the comments were political banter and part of the cut and thrust of political life, which Standards for England guidance indicated that the Code of Conduct was not intended to stand in the way of lively debate.  She noted the political history and profile of the Complainant.

 

In relation to the second complainant, the Investigating Officer argued that the comments were public and personal in nature.  The tone, language and ridicule used caused upset to the relevant complainant and this constituted a failure to treat him with respect.

 

Representations were made on behalf of Councillor Stoodley that the comments were political banter and part of the cut and trust of political life.  She cited Standards for England guidance which indicated that the code was not intended to stand in the way of lively debate.  She noted the political history and profile of the relevant complainant.  There was evidence of ongoing political exchanges with the relevant complainant on the blog and the statement on the blog was in response to a letter published by the relevant complainant in the press.

 

Paragraph 5 of the Code:  Bringing the Office of Councillor or Authority into disrepute

Representations were made by the Investigating Officer that the failure to treat others with respect could bring the authority or the office of councillor into disrepute.  However in this case there was not sufficient connection between the blog and the wider council to bring the authority into disrepute.  There was however enough in the blog to bring the office of councillor into disrepute.

 

Councillor Stoodley’s representative argued that the comments were political banter and part of the cut and thrust of political life.  She noted the political history and profile of one of the complainants.  She cited examples of what type of behaviour could bring the councillor or the authority into disrepute from Standards for England guidance.  She argued that in these cases the high threshold had not been met.

 

Mitigation

 

Councillor Stoodley’s representative explained that these postings on the blog had occurred within a few weeks of Councillor Stoodley becoming a councillor, he may have been naive and he was sorry for the offence caused to the complainant.  She pointed out the political background of the complainants and that her client believed that one of the complainants in particular, had engaged in political banter with him on the blog.  Also Councillor Stoodley’s comments on the blog were a response to a letter containing political comment published in the Harrow Times which indicated part of his address.  Additionally Councillor Stoodley’s representative explained that he had apologised to one of the complainants within one hour of speaking to the Monitoring Officer and had amended his blog accordingly.

 

Having heard the submissions from all parties, the Sub–Committee adjourned the meeting to conduct its deliberations.

 

Findings of Fact

 

Capacity

The Sub-Committee had regard to Section 52 of the Local Government Act 2000 and paragraph 2 of the Code of Conduct.  The Sub-Committee noted that capacity could be covered by paragraph 2.1(a) or 2.1(b) or by any part of 2.1(b). 

 

The Sub-Committee was particularly influenced by the fact that Councillor Stoodley referred to himself as a Labour Councillor in his blog.  They also noted that he was using his blog for a surgery type of function which would indicate that he was acting in the capacity of a Councillor.  They noted that his blog dealt generally about niggles with Harrow Council and was not specific to a particular administration. 

 

They found that all of these factors taken together demonstrated that he was conducting the business of the authority or giving the impression that he was acting as a representative of the authority.

 

Human Rights

In considering whether Councillor Stoodley breached paragraphs 3(1) and 5 of the Code the Sub-Committee had regard to Article 10 of the Human Rights Act.  They agreed that they were a body which was covered by the act.

 

The Sub-Committee felt that their determinations were lawful as the restraints did not extend beyond what is necessary to maintain proper standards in public life.

 

Paragraph 3(1) of the Code of Conduct

In relation to the first complainant, the Sub-Committee found that the comments were personal in nature and clearly implied improper conduct.  They agreed with the Investigating Officer that these would cause upset to the relevant complainant.  They found a breach of the Code of Conduct.  The Sub?Committee found that the apology given was lacking and could have been more fullsome.  They acknowledged that the amended blog was not in breach and that if the blog had initially been in this form no breach would have been found.

 

In relation to the second complainant, the Sub-Committee found that there was technically a breach of the Code of Conduct.  They noted that it was within the context of an ongoing rigorous debate with a politically experienced individual.  In view of this the Sub-Committee considered that no action was needed, except for guidance from the Monitoring Officer.

 

Paragraph 5 – Bringing the Office of Councillor or Authority into disrepute

In relation to the first complainant, the Sub-Committee found that there was a breach of the Code of Conduct and that the comments brought the office of councillor and the authority into disrepute.  They felt that it could reasonably lead the public to believe that councillors were unduly influenced by developers and made planning decisions on improper grounds.

 

In relation to the second complainant, the Sub-Committee found that there had been no breach of the Code of Conduct.  The Sub-Committee felt that the blog could not reasonably lower the opinion of a member of public towards a Councillor or the authority because this was an ongoing debate that continued a matter of days into Councillor Stoodley’s term of office.  If it had gone on for a significantly longer period it could have brought the authority or the office of councillor into disrepute.

 

Sanctions

The Sub-Committee heard representations from the Investigating Officer and Councillor Stoodley’s representative on sanctions.  The Sub-Committee felt that the sanctions should be at the lower end of their powers as there was mitigation in this case including the lack of experience of the councillor.  They had regard to the Standards for England guidance on sanctions and relevant case law.

 

In relation to the first complainant, the Sub-Committee imposed suspension of Councillor Stoodley from 9 March 2011 for a period of one month unless a letter of apology is sent to the relevant complainant before that date, the form of which to be to the satisfaction of the Monitoring Officer.

 

In relation to the second complainant, the Sub-Committee imposed no sanctions as they considered it to technically be a breach.  They also took into account the political banter between Councillor Stoodley and the relevant complainant.

 

In reaching its decision the Sub-Committee had regard to relevant case law, legislation and Standards for England guidance.

 

Other Recommendations

The Sub-Committee recommended that the Member Development Panel should consider arranging training for all members on blogging and that Councillor Stoodley should attend such training.  The  Sub-Committee also recommended that the Standards Committee should consider developing a member protocol on blogging.

 

RESOLVED:  That Councillor William Stoodley

 

(1)               breached Section 3(1) of the Code of Conduct by failing to treat the complainants with respect;

 

(2)               breached Section 5 of the Code of Conduct in bringing the office of Councillor and the authority into disrepute in respect of one of the complaints.

 

(3)               be suspended from 9 March 2011 for a period of one month unless a letter of apology is sent to the relevant complainant before that date, the form of which to be to the satisfaction of the Monitoring Officer.