Toolkit for Change

Many of the characteristics that were apparent in Somerton Town Council are common to other Town and Parish Councils and its reasonable to conclude that those characteristics can be indicative of a Council's probity. How does your Parish or Town Council measure up and what are the tools which enact change?

However, if there is a specific issue to be addressed, such as Somerton Town Council's swapping of public land for an industrial shed, it is better to derail the decision beforehand, rather than to try and reverse it after the fact. Somerton has proved that, no matter how much evidence you might have which suggests the possibility of wrongdoing, undoing a deal is far harder than derailing it and far, far costlier. So attend those Council meetings and stay abreast of developments. If the community doesn't take part in the process then the initiative is handed to those best placed to exploit the situation.

How to recognise a dodgy Council.
Age of councillors - the higher the average age, the less likely are councillors to be in touch with current concerns and contemporary themes. Whilst age, in some cases, brings wisdom, it often brings entrenched views, inflexibility and, importantly, vested interest. The older the councillors, the more likely they are to have business or professional interests which may be affected by Council decisions.

Occupation or profession - Anyone involved with contracting, property or development, directly or through family, must be viewed with caution. Such individuals are the most likely to experience 'conflicts of interest' or have fiduciary interests likely to be affected by Council decisions.

Attitude - Is your council transparent in its activities or is it secretive?

Declaration of members interests - All councillors must make a declaration of interests e.g. personal or professional involvements which could be influential in or influenced by their decision making. A council where there are no 'declarations of interest' is probably 'too good to be true'.

Conduct of meetings - Is the public excluded from expressing views? Is there bullying or aggressive behaviour by Councillors? Is the council dominated by a small number of individuals?

'Confidential sessions' and 'in camera' sessions or meetings - these are mechanisms whereby Town Councils can keep their activities away from the public eye and should occur rarely. If they are a regular occurance this is a cause for concern.

Council record keeping - If you look through Council records (ie not Minutes), do they follow normal business record keeping? Is there a purchase ordering system? Is the ordering system chronological? Does the Town Council keep a business diary? Is there a tendering procedure? Can transactions be traced clearly and transparently? Is it clear who issued instructions to the Town Clerk? If the daily business of the Council cannot be reasonably scrutinised then there is cause for concern.

Planning matters - Do Councillors regularly have personal planning applications or declarations of personal interest? Any Councillor who is involved, directly or indirectly, in multiple applications should withdraw from any involvement (not just leaving the room for 5 minutes) although they are not required to do so by statute.

An ideal council should:
Display a balance of ages and gender.
The business of the council should be transparent.
The council should welcome the involvement of the wider community.
The council should consult with the community with regard to its activities and expenditure.

Your Council is YOUR Council, not theirs. Councillors may be volunteers but that doesn't mean that the ratepayer must accept a flawed and possibly biased prcess. Have a look at Peter Finch in 'Network' and open those windows!

Most Council documents are public in nature and the 'Toolkit for Change' is really only relevant to delinquent Councils such as that in Somerton up till October 2009. Any decently run Council should transact its business openly but many do not and the 'Toolkit' gives some guidance as to the levers available to the individual where a Council is behaving in a secretive or exclusive manner.

The Department for Communities and Local Government has confirmed that there is no body with jurisdiction over Town and Parish Councils. The Department proposes that 'codes of conduct' and 'standing orders' are sufficient regulatory mechanisms but fails to explain how breaches are to be prosecuted. The only regulatory body, Standards for England, has been abolished and regulatory responsibility for Local, District and County Councillors passed back to their own 'Standards Committees'.

Information about the structure and management of Town & Parish Councils is avaiable online here, here, here

The structure of your council.
The Town Clerk (the paid employee of the Town Council) is the 'responsible officer' and, as such, is responsible for ensuring that the Town Council conducts its business appropriately. The Town Clerk is also the 'Chief Financial Officer' which, again, makes the Town Clerk responsible for propriety in financial activities. The Town Clerk is answerable to the Town Council (their employer).

The Council members, your councillors, are elected representatives whose actions are constrained by the Council's 'Standing Orders' and 'Code of Conduct'. You must consider those documents to establish if there has been any wrongdoing. Councillors can obtain office by election or by co-option (where a vacancy exists on the Council and where the Council itself decides upon a suitable candidate). Co-option can bring Councils into disrepute as candidates can be seen as being 'placemen'.

Paul Clayden has written extensively on the subject of Town Councils, Councillors and Town Clerks and his books can be found on Amazon.

Complaints against Councillors.
If you have a complaint about a Local councillor, it will be dealt with by the Monitoring Officer who will be the official solicitor at District Council level. Complaints against District Councillors and County Councillors are dealt with at District or County levels respectively.

Complaints need to be substantial and substantiated and must be measured against the Code of Conduct or Standing Orders and the complaint needs to refer to a breach of those standards. A complaint needs to be documented and 'fact based'. A complaint based upon or driven by personal prejudice would, hopefully, be rejected.

Complaints against Councillors are usually heard and adjudicated by other Councillors who may know the Councillor who is the subject of the complaint. There is, therefore, an inherent bias within 'Standards Committees' (who finally adjudicate) to find in favour of the Councillor. This means that any complaint must be substantial and documented.

If the 'evidence' supporting a complaint is not strong enough, do not damage its credibility by pursuing a complaint. It is better to gather more evidence and bide your time.

Misconduct in Public Office
This is a serious offence which has been used rarely in recent years against Elected Representatives or Public Officials, yet it is a powerful tool. A brief explanation of the offence can be found at the Crown Prosecution Service website here.
The same cautions apply to MiPO as do to any other complaint procedure. You may believe that an offence has been committed but you need to prove it so actions must be measured against Codes of Conduct, Standing Orders and other relevant regulatory mechanisms or legislation.

The Freedom of Information Act
The Freedom of Information Act is widely misunderstood. 'Public Documents' did not become such with the advent of the FoIA and are defined in the Public Records Act 1958. The FoIA only offers the Public a lever to use against delinquent Public Bodies.

Your Council is subject to the terms of the Freedom of Information Act which makes ALL Council documents available to a member of the public. (There are exemptions but these are defined by the Freedom of Information Act. There are few documents which a Town Council can legitimately deny to public examination.)

The process to make a Freedom of Information enquiry is as follows:
1. Draft your enquiry but be careful to cover all aspects of the enquiry in order that information cannot be missed-out eg request all correspondence, emails, meeting notes, agendas, memos etc relating to .......(the subject of your enquiry)........
2. The Authority has 28 calendar days to respond to your enquiry at which time it must either provide the information or provide an explanation of why it is not being provided. That explanation must include a reference to that part of the Act upon which it leans for exemption or refusal.
3. If the Authority denies access you must immediately request an 'Internal Review' of the decision.
4. The Authority then has 28 days to respond to that request at which point it must either provide the information requested or deny the request.
5. At that point you then make a formal complaint in writing to the Office of the Information Commissioner. That complaint should include the details of the information requested, the details of the denials and the details of the Internal Review.
6. At this point the matter will be taken over by the ICO.

The Data Protection Act 1998
The Data Protection Act makes it possible for an individual to request full disclosure of any and all information being held by a body about that particular individual. This is referred to as a 'Subject Access Request' or SAR.

SAR's are exhaustive enquiries as the body which is subject to the enquiry has a legal obligation to provide copies of any and all information which the body is holding or processing about the individual who is making the enquiry. You can only make an SAR about yourself.

Objecting to the 'Audited Accounts'
Your Town Council is required by law to produce audited accounts and these must be placed on public display for 28 days after the end of the financial year. After that time, a member of the electorate can examine the accounts and, if so desired, lodge a formal objection to the audited accounts with the External Auditor who is (currently) answerable to the Audit Commission.

The Audit Commission publish guidance documents with regard to grounds for objection and these can be found on the Audit Commission website. The Audit Commission also publish 'Public Interest Reports' which are the outcome of objections to accounts. With the abolition of the Audit Commission, it is unclear how an objector will object to accounts and to whom.

The process of objecting to accounts is not to be taken lightly or to be abused because it will, inevitably, lead to a cost to the relevant Council. There is no doubt that the facility has been abused in the past and this has led to lobbying by interested parties in order to limit the ability of the elector to lodge an objection. But the ability to lodge an objection is one of the few real levers available to the concerned citizen and it is a lever which should be used sparingly and wisely as it can lead elected representatives being held to account for their actions. (Sadly, this was not the outcome in Somerton.)