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More oversight of parish councils needed?

+1 vote
I am really shocked by the number of questions on here about rogue parish councils or councillors bullying others and gaining advantage due to their position.  The replies generally agree that the only recourse is to the monitoring officer who will probably give a slap on the wrist.  While we do have the theoretical ability to elect new councilors, in practice there are often too few candidates to require an election.

I am mindful that a forum such as this is unlikely to reflect the good work that is done by many parish and town councils but I have also seen lots of social media posts from parishioners at their wits end due to the actions of their parish councilors.  There have been problems with my own parish council too that have been ongoing for 3 years now.  It seems to me that unless you do something criminal, you can get away with the most appalling behaviour.

Is there a need for a proper regulatory system and do we need to campaign for this?
asked by (150 points)

6 Answers

0 votes
This is a perennial problem, and you are right to say that many councils work well, and you see here the worst examples!

There used to be the English Standards Board, which was able to adjudicate on complaints against councillors. Theoretically, it had powers to remove councillors, but they were rarely used. The difficulty with this approach was that a good many of the complaints were rather trivial. Where there are real sanctions, it is necessary for the adjudication to be thorough and fair, and that is costly.

The Conservative government swept all that away. As you say, there are no real sanctions apart from criminal law, and the police are only likely to take an interest in the most egregious cases.

Personally, I would prefer to support giving greater powers to the monitoring officer, although I do not think that would be much more effective while principal authorities remain strapped for cash by virtue of government policy.

It may seem harsh, but one has to come back to the fact that the solution is in the hands of the citizens. The vast majority of town and parish councils are relatively small, and being a councillor is not particularly onerous. It is much less work than being a member of a principal authority. If citizens are unwilling to make the small effort involved, then they have only themselves to blame.

Although, on the basis of the bad examples, one might make a case for the abolition of town and parish councils, I think that would be wrong. Overall, local councils can do a lot of good and be far more in touch with local citizens than principal authorities, who have their own problems. It would be a matter of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Sorry I can't offer more in the way of solutions!
answered by (28.4k points)
+1 vote

As Counterpoint has said, oversight is costly and, in the current climite, probably unaffordable. Perhaps the solution lies in equipping councillors to be better at their role. A new approach to training, a wider remit for the local association and the establishment of mentoring schemes between councils could offer a more affordable solution.

I can only speak from my own experience in a single county and district, but my local association offers old-fashioned classroom-based training sessions at a venue miles away and a price that is off the scale compared with similar training opportunities. A modular online approach leading to a recognised quality standard, with a paper-based alternative for those unable to access online courses, would facilitate the gradual accumulation of knowledge at a pace and a price that offer the flexibility people need in today's hectic world.

Mentoring schemes between Clerks or Councils, either on a local level, or online, would encourage the sharing of knowledge and experience, as we see every day on Towncouncillor.com. Many inexperienced Clerks find themselves in a lonely and isolated position, especially where there is nobody on the Council with adequate knowledge, or the relationship between Clerk and Council is not strong. Mistakes are made, relationships deteriorate and careers are ruined. The average career length of a new Clerk in my District is around 20 months and most of the experienced Clerks will retire within the next five years.

As a model of how this could work, my local ACRE employs a Community Buildings Officer to advise over 200 village halls and community centres. Backed up by a library of best practice leaflets, she provides an online and telephone helpline, regular networking Coffee Mornings and an annual conference for Trustees of community buildings. She also has a county-wide network of Community Building Mentors; specialist Trustees with extensive knowledge of community builiding management, who volunteer their time in return for basic expenses, to advise a management committee in crisis, either locally in person or county-wide online on a particular issue in which they have specialist knowledge. The Mentors are also trained assessors for a national quality standard award scheme. Could each local association offer a similar approach?

Finally, you may be persona non grata elsewhere on t'internet, but you're very welcome here!!

answered by (17.4k points)
That sounds a very good approach.
I agree that training and mentoring are very valuable and I have seen in my own profession that they can be extremely effective for those who want to improve.  Unfortunately, in my own experience in the parish council, it is not a lack of skill or awareness that is the problem.  A few of the councilors are intent on using their position to cause problems for a particular family in the parish.  They publish lies about the family, spread rumours and make unfounded complaints to district and county councils.  They are using their position as councilors to give credibility to the lies and have made the family pariahs in the community.  They have been told that they are in breach of several aspects of the code of conduct but this makes little difference.  Ultimately, others in the parish are scared of being bullied in the same way and people are unwilling to stand up to them.  The good councilors are bullied out and they co-opt their mates.
Two things spring to mind immediately. Firstly the Clerk and the Chair must prevent this from happening (or the Clerk if the Chair is involved). Between them, they control every aspect of the meetings of the Council and there is no place for nonsense such as this. The disorderly conduct at meetings section of the standing orders covers members of the council as much as members of the public and gives the Chair the power to ask somebody to moderate or improve their conduct, then any member the power to propose a motion to silence them or remove them from the meeting.

Secondly, you must report this as a Code of Conduct offence to the Monitoring Ofiicer of your district council. Not just once, but every time it happens. Ignore those who tell you that this is a waste of time. It is not.

Finally, don't forget that good councillors can co-opt their mates too.
And don't forget that you can force an election when there is a vacancy, thereby preventing co-option. But that takes us back to needing people who are willing to stand. I can promise that it is possible to make changes if a group of citizens is determined to do it!
+1 vote
The model code of conduct is far too narrow as is, and all sorts of issues, often quoted here lie outside it's scope.  The worst that can happen to a Town/Parish Councillor from a Principal Authority Monitoring officer is "Censure", a glorified public. telling off.  The current government have consistently resisted calls for Town and Parish Councils to come under the remit of the Local Government Ombudsman.  I would suggest that somebody uses the petition Parliament site to try and get enough support to trigger a parliamentary debate to have the LGO remit extended.
answered by (11.9k points)
I have thought about the parliament petition route but I don't know how to get enough people interested.  I could probably rustle up about a hundred signatures but it needs 10 000!
0 votes

I feel this is an increasing problem and from my point of view, I feel the electorate, as members of the public, should be more inclusively involved with their Parishes (Parish Councils or Town Councils). Often members of the public will only pipe up when they have a personal matter to raise, or they realise they have missed their opportunity to have an input. Unfortunately a number, but hopefully a very small minority of Parishes Councils have seen little change in their makeup (Clerk included) and when an 'outsider' shows an interest, that person, after a short while is seen as a nuisance and a policy will hastily be approved to try and stop further scrutiny. This then becomes a greater challenge because invariably that same Council has little knowledge of the simple procedures i.e. Agenda/Summons & associated papers being available, Minutes available in a timely manner, codes and policies on the web site which would mean these wouldn't need to be asked for from the Clerk. It then can become a vicious circle. The new Code of Conduct doesn’t seem to do much more than the previous one.  The days of a Clerk being a minute taker are long gone and Councillors should be very much aware they are a corporate entity with a responsibility to the Parish as a whole .They should also realise that the Clerk is a paid employee and should be treated as such, especially as being paid from the public purse. Councillors should not be afraid to scrutinise their own employee to provide value for money for their Parish. I wonder whether national policies as a template might help with Parishes who struggle just to have minimum legislative requirements available. Asking important questions, is not hounding, its democracy!

answered by (1.1k points)
One of the problems is that parish councils have been slow to move with the times. Long gone are the days when they sat in isolation and with recent legislation being applied to them there is a vast gap between the professionalism orientated representative body dreamt of By premier Cameron (working for free) and what today's civil administrations require. Parish councils now have to follow every regulation sent down from above and every " representative" organisation "there to help" (for a fee) .Formal training for the position of councillor should be a priority and, tempting the wrath of councillors, mandatory for those elected
Our parish clerk is CiLCA qualified and has been for many years.  All the administrative work is completed very efficiently and advice is given to councilors about their responsibilities.  Unfortunately, the outsider being seen as a nuisance scenario outlined above has happened to me.  The parishioners have no interest in the parish council because of the appalling behaviour of some of the councilors.  I would like to see the council become a force for good in the community but I can't do this on my own.
0 votes
It seems we all agree something needs to be done.
Personally, the standards board appeals which I believe was abolished under the coalition government.
Regarding the costs, if we were to think  of all the reasons why good people  and employees leave Councils, it's usually because of a councillor issue . They hide behind "The Council".
If it helps balance the power, it's worthy of consideration.
If you think of all the taxpayers money on 'Payoffs', sickness, mediation etc it could be argued as being in the Public Interest to bring it back.
answered by (2.4k points)
0 votes
Such a good point!!

My partner is working with 12 parish councils across different parts of the UK currently to research what issues are shared and how Cllr’s can be better supported.

NALC have good info but rely upon the local associations to deliver the local message. I’m afraid our local association is appallingly archaic and not forward thinking in the slightest. The training is death by power point and delivers no substance whatsoever.

Clerks have a tough job and seem to be well supported (generally) by their own association and union. Cllr’s on the other hand get nothing.

I’d like then position of Cllr to that of a Magistrate (which I am also). I am an unpaid lay person in that role too yet I am trained well, given huge amounts of support and have a great association to rely on. I am expected to make some tough decision in line with the law. So why as Cllr’s are we allowed to simply ‘get on with it’ upon election or co-option. There should be mandatory training prior to being able to vote on issues, people will soon register for training then!

Personally I think the MO is the wrong person to deal with individual Cllr’s. They should oversee full council only. There should be an independent body like the HCPC, Ofsted, CQC, Ofcom etc that is given the central funding and support to look in to individual Cllr conduct.

An example would be:
1. Complaint received from a Cllr alleging bullying by a fellow Cllr.

2. Ombudsman checks if it has been investigated internally at the Parish Council and calls for documents. If it hasn’t been reported then it’s referred back to PC. If it has then it’s investigated against a set criteria.

3. Potential hearing
4. Action taken if necessary.

4.1 Where a Parish Council has been seen to fail in its investigation of the allegation then the Ombudsman will refer the full council to the MO for any further full council sanction.
The position of a cllr is a legal one like a Magistrate and as such it should be treated with the professional it deserves, both by Cllr’s and the government.

I don’t think there’s a risk like others have suggested that PC’s/TC’s will be eradicated, quite the opposite. More and more power will be devolved to us. If anything I think the County Council’s will be merged to create super councils.
There are so many amazing examples of work carried out by PC’s that get lost because of ‘Vicar of Dibley’ style management of PC’s by power mad egotists who see themselves as the Monarch of their locality.
answered by (3.7k points)
There is no easy answer to this problem. PCs exist because of Councillors who volunteer, Such volunteers are encouraged to apply for vacancies as they are given significant power to make decisions. The governments view is that because relatively small amounts of money are involved then any oversight must be regard as "light touch". This manifests itself it "limited assurance " auditing .  While this environment may encourage applicants it can also lead to abuse. dealing with that abuse can be difficult especially when Cllrs Close ranks. All  good fun though
Councillors are not volunteers but have placed themselves for election by the community they are to serve. Even those who are elected unopposed are not volunteers. Those who are co-opted volunteer their services but must still follow the requirements of an elected councillor and of course have to stand at the next election.
The definition of a Volunteer is.... “a person who voluntarily offers himself or herself for a service or undertaking.”

Agree with what Cllr’s do but we are volunteers.
I agree with Mentorman regarding the volunteer discussion.
Can I add comment to Openspaces reply "when Cllrs Close ranks" there lies a loophole that is exploited by those with experience, the latest ploy is to be declared as an Independent while belonging to a non political group. I have found it not a pleasant experience being the target of this groups wrath, but fighting for your corner will always come at a price.

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