No sanctions please, we’re councillors

Scene:  A committee room in Exeter City Council’s Paris Street offices.

Cast:  Councillor Chris Musgrave (Green Party), Councillor Pete Edwards (Labour Leader of the Council), plus other members of the Corporate Services Scrutiny Committee, attendants, and a member of the public.

Cllr Musgrave (after having asked several questions stonewalled by the Leader):  What sanctions are available against Councillors who fail to act in line with the council’s constitution?

Cllr Edwards: None.

(Gasps of surprise, even from Labour members.  The Chair mutters something about committees – which is inaudible in the public seats = and moves onto next business. Later on, the curtain falls and everyone goes home.)

+++++

The story begins in May 2016 when Lewis Keen, then a student at Exeter University, was one of three Labour members elected for the St David’s ward.  After finishing his studies, Cllr Keen moved to London during 2018 and took up employment with Clarksons, a marine brokerage and shipping services conglomerate whose London HQ is in St Katherine’s Docks.  Not a Corbynite, then.  Emails to his Council address receive an auto-response referring the sender to the other ward councillors.  Since May 2018 he has attended 3 out of the 13 Council meetings where he was expected, and that non-attendance rate would have been much worse if the Labour group had not removed him from all Council committees in October 2018.  Keen has not claimed any allowances since July 2018, which may be honourable but is a clear admission that he was not doing the job he was elected to do.  Local media reported the story in November 2018

In that same month, Exeter Green Party made a formal complaint to the Council’s Monitoring Officer [1] about Keen’s continued absence.  The complaint argued that Cllr Keen had breached the City Council’s constitution, particularly Article 2.03 which sets out the responsibilities of councillors.  These are clear and specific, aimed at making sure councillors know what their jobs are and that they do them.  In brief, the Green Party argued it was impossible to comply with this part of the constitution if a councillor is living 200 miles away, returning to Exeter to attend the very occasional meeting and avoid disqualification.

The complaint also alleged that Cllr Keen, by his absence, breached the Members’ Code of Conduct.  The Code of Conduct is a less specific document, being primarily concerned with probity and with what councillors should not be doing.  This part of the complaint correspondingly tended towards matters of judgement rather than unarguable fact.

5 months later the Monitoring Officer responded to the complaint.  Cllr Keen was found not to have breached the Code of Conduct, which was no great surprise.  But, astonishingly, the complaints about breaches of Article 2 of the constitution were ruled out of order on the grounds that they were outside the scope of the complaints procedure.

The City Council’s complaints procedure relating to councillors states: “This procedure does not deal with complaints about matters that are not covered by the Members’ Code of Conduct.”  It seems to push hard at the limits of credibility that there is no procedure that comes into play when a councillor breaches other parts of the constitution, particularly Article 2.  Party discipline appears not to come into play here, since the Leader of the Council has said on another occasion that Cllr Keen’s conduct is nothing to do with him,

The Monitoring Officer stated the decision to the Green Party that “Cllr Keen’s failure to actively represent his constituents is not a matter regulated by the Code of Conduct. It is a matter to be determined at the ballot box.”  Which is a welcome recognition that Cllr Keen has indeed failed to represent his constituents, but it doesn’t help with solving the problem about what to do with a councillor, elected for a 4-year term, who decides not to do the job anymore but hang on as a councillor anyway (as in the Keen case).

Which was why Cllr Musgrave asked the question set out at the beginning of this post.

 

 

NOTES:

[1]  All local authorities are required to appoint a Monitoring Officer whose duties include handling complaints against councillors, in conjunction with an Independent Person or, where they still exist, a standards committee of the authority.

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