The Committee considered the following report:
“1.0 Purpose of Report or Summary of Main Issues
1.1 The purpose of this report is to update the Committee on the development of draft Terms of Reference for a new Standards Committee
2.1 The Committee is recommended to:
(i) note the attached report; and
(ii) approve, in principle, the attached draft terms of reference for the Standards Committee
3.0 Main Report
At its meeting on 18th September, the Committee agreed to introduce additional arrangements to ensure that the Council, its officers and Elected Members maintain the highest standards of conduct in all that they do. Such arrangements included the establishment of a new Standards Committee, the designation of a ‘Monitoring Officer’ responsible for all issues in relation to standards, and the introduction of a number of new governance arrangements aimed at promoting and maintaining high standards of conduct by Councillors and officers.
3.2 Standards Committee Terms of Reference
It is proposed that the Council establish a Standards Committee whose main functions would be to promote, sustain and safeguard the conduct of Councillors within the Council and the probity of all the Council’s proceedings.
The Terms of Reference for the Committee could include the promotion and maintenance of high standards of conduct by Members and officers, a commitment to joint working across political groups and between officer and Members, oversight of any training required on all matters relating to standards and conduct, advising the Council on the Code of Conduct for Councillors and oversight of the Members’ Register and Declaration of Interests and associated procedures. The committee will have a role in managing and maintaining the officer/member interface and relations. It will promote a shared understanding of roles and look at how we work collectively in a political environment.
A copy of the draft terms of reference is attached. These are draft Terms of Reference which will be updated based on the detail of the processes to be developed. Any updates will be brought back to Members for approval.
3.3 Complaints raised by an Officer about a Member
Complaints raised by an officer about a Member are already dealt with under the existing Local Government Employee and Councillor Working Relationship Protocol (issued by the Local Government Staff Commission).
Paragraph 5.9 of that Protocol provides that if an issue cannot be resolved informally and is sufficiently serious, that a formal meeting between the dispute parties, the relevant party group leader and a senior HR representative should take place. The Protocol advises that the minutes of any such meeting be presented to the relevant governance committee in the Council which in this case will be the Standards Committee.
Low level disputes between Members
It is proposed that the Standards Committee will be notified of the outcome of any ‘low level disputes’ between Members which have been dealt with under a voluntary proposed Local Resolution Protocol which will facilitate mediation of such disputes. Low level disputes are defined as those relating to alleged breaches in respect of the following paragraphs of the Code of Conduct:
- Code para 4.7 - You must not make vexatious, malicious or frivolous complaints against other councillors or anyone who works for, or on behalf of, your council.
- Code para 4.13(a) - You must show respect and consideration for others.
In such cases, the Committee will be advised as to the outcome of the mediation process – for example if no action was taken or if the issue was resolved successfully. The Committee will note that participation in the Local Resolution Protocol is entirely voluntary and any individual councillor is free to make a complaint to the Commissioner for Standards at any time.
Members will note that the introduction of a Local Resolution Protocol to deal with ‘low level disputes’ will be subject to discussions with both the Department for Communities and the Office of the Northern Ireland Local Government Commissioner for Standards.
Serious Potential Breaches of the Code of Conduct
It is proposed that, on occasion, it will be possible for the Standards Committee itself to refer a Member to the Local Government Commissioner for Standards if the Committee feels that the Member might have breached the Code of Conduct for Councillors. This may be particularly relevant with regards to issues which are not categorised as low level disputes between Members but which are serious enough to damage the reputation of the Council.
In such a scenario the Monitoring Officer may identify or be notified of a potential breach of the Code of Conduct. After carrying out any necessary initial inquiries the Monitoring Officer will bring a report to the Standards Committee with a recommendation that either no further action is taken or that the Member be referred to the Commissioner for Standards.
There would however be some element of flexibility in matters of urgency or potential criminal matters where a referral may need to be made directly by the Chief Executive or the Monitoring Officer. The Chief Executive and the Monitoring Officer will therefore retain a residual right to refer any Member to the Local Government Commissioner for Standards regardless of whether the Committee has endorsed a recommendation to do so.
3.4 Corporate Ethics / Procurement
It is also suggested that the Standards Committee has an oversight role on consideration of issues in relation to corporate ethics including ethical standards, procurement, trading and investment in line with the developing corporate procurement strategy which is being brought to Members in the coming months.
3.5 Financial and Resource Implications
There will be minor financial implications associated with introducing a new Standing Committee. If the Standards Committee is to meet quarterly then it will require an associated Special Responsibility Allowance be allocated to the Chair and Deputy Chair positions of responsibility and funded from the reallocation of the existing Special Responsibility Allowance fund.
The committee will be serviced by existing resources within Governance and Compliance; and Democratic Services. A budget will be required to cover any associated training and external mediation services.
3.6 Equality or Good Relations Implications/Rural Needs Assessment
Any equality, good relations and rural needs assessments implications will be subject to the usual screening processes.
DRAFT TERMS OF REFERENCE
These are draft Terms of Reference which will be updated based on the detail of the processes to be developed. Any updates will be brought back to Members for approval.
The draft Terms of Reference for the Standards Committee may include some or all of the following functions:
- promoting and maintaining high standards of conduct by Elected Members and officers
- a commitment to encourage positive joint working across political groups and between officers and Members and to uphold the high standards of values and behaviours in a relationship of mutual trust
- advising the Council on the Code of Conduct for Councillors including any revisions to the Code
- oversight of any training required to train Members and relevant officers on all matters relating to standards and the promotion of the 12 Principles of Conduct in public life, including the Local Government Code of Conduct for Councillors and any associated training identified by the Committee
- oversight of the Members’ Register and Declaration of Interests
- to develop, monitor and review any local protocols required to support the standards regime within the Council
- to keep under review the Local Government Employee and Councillor Working Relationship Protocol
- to consider any minutes of a formal meeting held under Section 5.9 of the Local Government Employee and Councillor Working Relationship Protocol
- oversight of the Local Resolution Protocol which will deal with “low level disputes” alleging breaches of the Code of Conduct for Councillors and is designed to restore positive working relationships through mediation
- consideration of any recommendation by the Monitoring Officer to refer any Councillor to the Local Government Commissioner for Standards in respect of any potential breach of the Code of Conduct for Councillors, particularly where the alleged breach relates to a matter which would potentially have a reputational consequence for the Council
- the Monitoring Officer will retain a residual right to refer any matter to the Commissioner for Standards regardless of whether the Standards Committee has endorsed a recommendation from the Monitoring Officer to do so
- oversight of any mediation process required to restore internal relationships between political parties, Members and/or officers
- consideration of update reports into investigations carried out by the Public Services Ombudsman / Commissioner for Standards
- oversight of the implementation of recommendations made by the Public Services Ombudsman / Commissioner for Standards
- providing recommendations to the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee in respect of any amendments which need to be made to the Council Constitution in relation to the standards regime within the Council
- consideration of issues in relation to corporate ethics including ethical standards, procurement, trading and investment.
The Committee approved the draft Terms of Reference for the new Standards Committee.
 The Local Resolution Protocol will only deal with minor complaints about councillors made by other councillors. The Protocol will not consider complaints made by officers, members of the public or other third parties. The Protocol will not consider complaints made about officers.