Who will monitor the Monitoring Officers?
Bob Neill MP secured an interesting Westminster Hall debate recently on the Standards regime for local councillors. The thrust of the case was that while legislation has been changed to give councillors greater freedom of speech at local level there is still some overzealous interpretation by council bureaucrats - either due to ignorance or a desire to keep councillors in their place.
Another problem is when opposition and administration councillors are busy making complaints against each other - some vexatious, some genuine - and the Monitoring Officer also works close with the administration.
Mr Neill reported on Tower Hamlets:
That authority has a directly elected mayor. He is an independent, but it is well known that he has close connections with the Respect party. The mayor is supported by sufficient independent members to ensure that he has the blocking third to get the necessary budgets and mayoral policies through. However, throughout his time, there has been a history of vexatious complaints against members of the opposition Conservative and Labour parties—Labour is actually the largest party—made by members of the mayor’s cabinet. Councillors appointed by the mayor to his cabinet have made complaints particularly against the leaders of the Labour and Conservative groups. Sometimes the complaints have not come to fruition; in other circumstances, they have. That causes real concern.
The monitoring officer of Tower Hamlets, Isabella Freeman, is also the assistant chief executive for legal services, and the monitoring officer is also the person who advises the mayor. There is now a situation in which the monitoring officer, who advises the mayor and polices the regime, regularly investigates complaints by a member of the mayor’s cabinet.
On the other hand, complaints against members of the group who support the mayor have not been taken forward for investigation, which inevitably raises concerns as to who monitors the monitoring officers in such cases. In that case, the monitoring officer is herself in dispute with her employer —the authority—and there is apparently an industrial tribunal case ongoing, but the monitoring officer still sits in and carries out her functions, even though they involve councillors who may be witnesses to those proceedings.
Tower Hamlets has reached the extraordinary stage of members from several parties passing a motion to have certain disciplinary steps taken in relation to the monitoring officer. We might have thought that the monitoring officer would have withdrawn from the meeting at that point; instead, she insisted on remaining, and noted what was said by every member, which hardly gives the impression of an unbiased, open and transparent approach.
Freedom of information requests in relation to only two of the complaints have revealed that some £6,000 of public money was spent on investigating a complaint against the leader of the Conservative group and that some £12,000 was spent in relation to a complaint alleged against the leader of the Labour group. No such complaints have been taken forward in the same way against the group that supports the mayor.
That may be a particularly egregious example. At the same time, however, members raised complaints with the monitoring officer about a highly partisan publication, East End Life, which is the subject of great controversy, and the monitoring officer responded that everything that the mayor had put in that publication was in order.
The same monitoring officer gave advice that the mayor was not obliged to answer certain questions from members in the council in relation to the exercise of his functions because that might infringe his human rights. That, frankly, brings the standards regime, which we all want properly and proportionately exercised, into serious disrepute. That is not in anyone’s interests.
The matter that has arisen in relation to Tower Hamlets seems, on the face of it, to be frankly scandalous. It involves one important case that comes back to the whistleblower point. An opposition councillor raised an issue concerning an applicant for a senior post in the council, and it was demonstrated that that applicant’s CV was inaccurate in an important and material respect. The applicant had been obliged to resign from a previous employment, and that was not placed on their CV. That achieved a degree of national and regional publicity, not surprisingly.
The result was a complaint by the same member of the mayor’s cabinet, who was a frequent source of the complaints, against that member. That was investigated and the member set out in considerable detail their side of the matter. The hearing took place within weeks of the abolition of the Standards Board regime, and the member was not present.
The upshot—I have to be careful what I say—was that within days of the regime being swept away, rightly, by the will of Parliament, the standards committee, which, I understand, consisted predominantly of members who supported the mayor, referred the matter to the first-tier tribunal, where it remains. The purported view of that seems to be that in relation to a complaint that was some two and a half to three years old—never mind its the merits—there was a desire, frankly, to invoke suspension of a leading critic of the mayor. That was why it was being taken to the first-tier tribunal, which refused to entertain it. Now, I gather, there may be attempts to appeal that.
The rules have been streamlined. It is quite wrong for councils spend time and money on complaints which are clearly unreasonable and should dismissed out of hand.