‘Unprecedented number’ of complaints against Arun district councillors received

Arun district councillors expressed concerns about how complaints are heard last week after an ‘unprecedented number’ were received.

Arun Civic Centre in Littlehampton. Pic by S Robards
Arun Civic Centre in Littlehampton. Pic by S Robards

ADC’s standards committee – which aims to promote and maintain high standards among district, town and parish councillors – met on Thursday (December 16) to decide whether a review of the code of conduct was needed.

The code sets out how councillors should behave when in office and during meetings.

A report shows that ‘unprecedented numbers’ of complaints were received which was partially attributed to meetings being live-streamed from the start of the pandemic.

The majority of complaints were not investigated further but leaders of the council’s various political groups did ask councillors to be ‘mindful of their behaviour at public meetings’.

Council officers say that the number of complaints has ‘settled recently’ with ‘very few’ formal complaints submitted.

Since September 16, seven complaints have been handled by the council’s monitoring officer.

Of these, two were found not to have breached code of conduct; one complaint was rejected; one complaint is ongoing with an apology issued; and three complaints are being assessed by the monitoring officer.

Review rejected

ADC adopted a new code of conduct in March 2021 so the standards committee decided that a review isn’t needed.

Paul English (Con, Felpham East) pointed out that a review had only just taken place and suggested that the code could be amended instead.

Seven councillors have still not signed the new code with some ‘resenting the idea’, according to officers.

David Edwards (Con, Felpham East) asked for clear definitions of personal, pecuniary and prejudicial interests rather than ‘reams and reams of description’.

This is so councillors know if they need to declare an interest when debating a topic or issue in case they may benefit financially from it or be biased in their decision making.

Meanwhile, council leader Shaun Gunner (Con, Rustington East) said ADC could take a leaf out of Bognor Regis Town Council’s book by adopting part of their code of conduct.

This would see councillors having to declare an interest if a ‘reasonable member of the public’ believes they could benefit disproportionately from a decision.

Concerns over how complaints are heard

The standards committee did want to see changes to the way hearings panels are run to ensure complaints are heard properly.

One complaint took more than twelve months to conclude, according to officers, and another had to be rescheduled three times due to a lack of trained councillors.

The council leader said an ‘awful lot of councillors’ had not been trained and there were calls to address this so complaints could be handled in a timely manner.

“Not many of us during a COVID lockdown can take additional time off work to come to a hearing,” Mr English said.

The standards committee decided that complaints panels do not need to reflect the political balance of the council.

This, said Mr English, is because hearing panels should be ‘apolitical’.

“I have never considered that somebody will be putting forward a party point of view at a hearing and getting away with it, because it’s not the name of the game for this,” he said.

The standards committee also agreed that councillors facing a complaint can continue to bring a friend for ‘moral support’.

However, this person should not be able to address the hearings panel or give their opinion – something councillors said had happened at a recent hearing.

“That should not have happened and certainly shouldn’t happen again,” Mr English added

The standards committee also agreed that conduct investigations should remain entirely separate from police investigations.