Concern as complaints against councillors continue to rise in South Tyneside

Complaints about the conduct of South Tyneside councillors are still on the rise, prompting concerns about the potential “exploitation” of council processes.

Thursday, 9th December 2021, 3:01 pm
South Shields Town Hall

This year, South Tyneside Council held three Standards Committee hearings linked to the alleged behaviour of elected members.

Although a small number of complaints reach this final stage, the majority are either withdrawn, informally resolved or thrown out entirely.

As part of an update to the council’s Standards Committee on December 6, it was revealed that complaints under the Elected Members Code of Conduct are still being received.

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Since the committee’s last meeting in September 2021, a total of 12 new complaints have been submitted – taking the overall number of complaints to 159 since recording started in January 2020.

Of this number, 116 complaints have been closed due to either being withdrawn by the complainant, rejected by the monitoring officer, closed after hearings or concluded through ‘informal resolutions.’

Over the past two years, more than half (55%) of complaints about councillors have come from members of the public, while 41% involved councillors making complaints against other councillors.

The latest figures record 43 complaints as ongoing, with 25 of this total under “formal investigation.”

At a meeting to discuss the figures this week, some members of the Standards Committee warned of the impact of making complaints in terms of resource pressures on council staff.

Councillor Alexander Donaldson raised concerns about some individuals making “vexatious” and “made up” complaints.

“I would say as a councillor, I would welcome genuine complaints and that’s the word, genuine,” he said.

“Council employees work for the council and the people of South Tyneside, if these officers are busy dealing with frivolous and vexatious complaints then they’re not doing something else in their job and that does affect the public.

“I think people should take note that some people, I know from past experience, do make complaints solely because they don’t get what they want.

“Or it may be something that they have just got a grudge going back years and something happened with their family.

“We should point out to this committee that while we welcome genuine things, we don’t welcome things that are just made up.

“The message should be that we don’t welcome malicious, vexatious complaints.”

Professor Grahame Wright, independent chair of the Standards Committee, said the current complaints process does allow for “frivolous” complaints to be dismissed.

But he added that the “exploitation” of the complaints process impacts on the workload of council officers, while also potentially causing delays in the system.

“We do know complaints are helpful,” Professor Wright told the meeting.

“We try to get things right all the time but if we’re not getting them right it’s helpful to have somebody pointing it out, even though we might be a bit frustrated and irritated when it happens.

“Unfortunately that also means that there’s a mechanism that somebody can exploit if they choose to do so and that exploitation is largely, I’m sorry to say, the workload of the monitoring office.

“When we talked earlier about delays, even to reject a complaint means somebody has to give consideration to it and it has to go through a formal process, so it all takes time.”

In his most recent annual report, Professor Wright said the findings of Standards Committee hearings in 2021, which are in the public domain, had “raised the issue of standards in public life to a higher level.”

His report goes on to say: “Knowledge of the code of conduct amongst councillors appears strong and there is greater awareness of the potential impact of ill-advised social media comments etc.

“The new induction programme for councillors is also helping to alert all members to the task of raising the standards of ethical behaviour in public life.

“But it is not just a task for councillors. Ultimately the ethical standards of South Tyneside Borough Council are dependent on our individual standards of behaviour and what we are willing to aspire to and that we are willing to tolerate.

“Whilst ‘the democratic process’ is necessarily confrontational, argumentative and possibly divisive; if our community is to advance, democracy requires civility in the relations between all participants and their supporters.”

The annual report can be found on South Tyneside Council’s website.

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