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Bristol councillor misconduct cases in line for shake-up as zero complaints upheld for six years

Democracy campaigners say they have lost faith in how misconduct allegations against councillors are being dealt with, and are demanding drastic changes.

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Misconduct investigations into Bristol city councillors could be shaken up after it emerged not a single complaint has been upheld in at least six years.

It comes as the lawyer in charge of ensuring the authority acts legally denied it had broken the law, over the appointment of independent advisers to cases.

Democracy campaigners, including those whose complaints against elected members have been rejected, told a council meeting they had lost faith in how accusations were dealt with and demanded drastic changes.

Councillors on the values and ethics sub-committee also expressed concerns about the current “opaque” system, which they said left them unable to scrutinise decisions or how long they took, and agreed to look at rewriting the rules to improve transparency.

‘Something is badly wrong’

A Freedom of Information request by Keith Farley revealed zero breaches of the member code of conduct were found since at least 2017, the meeting was told.

Resident Lesley Powell said this showed a “systemic failure” and that “something is badly wrong here”.

An annual report to the sub-committee said 13 complaints against individual councillors were investigated since October 2022 but it contained no details or names.

Ms Powell said the lack of information made it impossible for members to ensure adequate procedures were in place.

Another resident, Sian Ellis-Thomas, told councillors on Monday, October 9, that there was “too much concentration of power” in the council’s monitoring officer Tim O’Gara, who conducts the investigations and is responsible for the authority complying with the law.

She claimed this made him “judge, jury and executioner” without any scrutiny because decisions were kept confidential.

Mr O’Gara said: “The responsibilities I have are codified in the council’s constitution.

“They clearly set out the responsibility I have to manage the complaints process and exercise my independent judgement in respect of the complaint that comes in.

“It’s the role of this committee to make sure there is an adequate process in place but not to get into the detail of individual complaints.”

Concerns over process

The monitoring officer is assisted by one of three “independent persons” from outside the council in considering complaints.

But resident Mike Oldreive claimed the law also required them to be appointed at a vote of full council.

The Localism Act, which sets out the rules, says: “A person may not be appointed… unless the person’s appointment has been approved by a majority of the members of the authority.”

Research by the Local Democracy Reporting Service indicates that many councils, including South Gloucestershire, make the appointments through a vote at meetings of full council, with some publishing on their websites that this is a legal “requirement”.

Mr Oldreive asked: “Can the monitoring officer confirm that all requirements of the Localism Act have been met in all independent person appointments since 2021?

“If not, has the independent person been appointed unlawfully?”

Mr O’Gara replied: “The process to appoint the independent members was carried out by myself and the head of legal services.

“We advertised those roles and undertook an interview process.

“There is no requirement in the legislation – and it would be a complete misreading of the legislation to think – that the appointment would need to be made by full council.”

He said other specific independent roles were appointed directly by officers rather than councillors, such as council-appointed directors and shareholders of the local authority’s companies and non-executive members of committees.

“So I’m satisfied that the processes to appoint the independent persons were lawful and robust,” Mr O’Gara said.

But Labour councillor Zoe Goodman (Filwood) said she was “not happy with the complaints process”.

Goodman said councillors should receive more information, including how long it took for a complaint to be assessed and decided.

She said changes were needed and that there were “some instances of councillor practice online” that did adhere to the code of conduct or agreed actions.

Andrew Brown, the Lib Dem councillor for Hengrove and Whitchurch Park, said he agreed. “I don’t feel there is enough information here to give us assurance that the system is working as it should,” Brown said.

“I appreciate it’s difficult because of the confidentiality concerns but the additional information would help provide that assurance to the committee and the broader public.”

Sub-committee chairman Adebola Adebayo said: “I think the procedures are good.

“That being said, I am one to take on feedback and seek continuous improvement.

“If what we are hearing is that things could be done better, we can take that away and revisit it.”

Members agreed to form a working group and meet officers in private to review the process, with a report to come back to sub-committee in public.

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