Should councillors be forced to apologise in public if they are found to have fallen short?

Councils like South Ribble have limited powers to sanction councillors found to have breached standards
Councils like South Ribble have limited powers to sanction councillors found to have breached standards
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Councillors in South Ribble who are told to apologise for poor behaviour should be made to do so in public, one of their number has said.

Councillors in South Ribble who are told to apologise for poor behaviour should be made to do so in public, one of their number has said.

Liberal Democrat group leader David Howarth made the call at a meeting of the full council which heard that apologies had been requested from seven members in the past twelve months. Six had so far complied, but the identities of all were kept secret, because hearings of the standards committee usually take place in private.

The subject of the seventh complaint had instead been given a letter of sanction.

“I’ve no idea who has been asked to apologise - therefore, not only are they holding the council in contempt by not doing so, but we’re not even aware of who they are,” Cllr Howarth said.

“Would it not be a more appropriate measure for the mayor to ask those members who have been told to apologise to [address] the council? At least then we know who they are and they can accept or refuse that request in front of us all - and the public,” he added.

A total of 23 complaints were made about elected members in the year to November 2018. Seventeen have so far been resolved, with no action being taken in ten cases. The figures may include multiple complaints about the same incident.

Minutes show that one initial hearing during the year was about an allegation against three councillors of bullying and homophobia, which was denied. It was not progressed because of a lack of evidence.

The council officer responsible for overseeing standards, Dave Whelan, said an overhaul of the system across the country was “long overdue”.

“Last week, the committee on standards in public life published a report recommending the introduction of a power for councils to suspend councillors for up to six months. It can only come into force with government legislation, but it may ultimately lead to a toughening up of the standards regime,” Mr. Whelan said.

Since 2012, that regime has been limited to censure, the removal of a member from a council committee, a mutual agreement for the individual to undergo training or take some other action or an unenforceable request for an apology. Previously, standards were upheld by an England-wide committee for all councils, which had the power suspended for up to six months and even restrict access to council premises.

Cabinet member for regeneration, Phil Smith, said he had long called for tougher action against anybody found to be in breach of the council’s code of conduct.

“Unfortunately, the legal advice we got at the time was that it was something we couldn't do,” Cllr Smith said.

“But if all members of this council stand up and [support a change], then that’s sovereign - let’s make our own decisions. And if a body outside of the council wants to take legal action, let them prove it in court and let the government do something about it.,” he added.

Labour opposition group leader, Paul Foster, said he would “absolutely” support stronger sanctions.

“Standards in public life have dropped to a level where we have never experienced it so bad. It’s just not acceptable for elected individuals to behave in the way that they have done,” Cllr Foster said.