To consider any questions under Standing Order 27.
The Chair advised that he had received notification of one public question under Standing Order 27 and he invited the questioner, Mr Peter Lilley, to ask the question.
1. Question to the Chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Commission from Peter Lilley
It’s now been 2.5 years since I first asked the scrutiny committee to review the way Harrogate Council’s legal department deals with complaints. Nothing’s happened.
In my view, far too much influence is wielded by the Monitoring Officer (Jennifer Norton) who has the power to decide whether complaints are even heard. She’s then under no obligation to explain her decision or answer questions about it. And there is no right of appeal.
There would also appear to be an inconsistency in which complaints she forwards to a standards panel and which complaints are decided by Ms Norton alone. It’s true that she has an obligation to consult the Council’s so-called Independent Person but I would argue the term Independent Person is something of a misnomer.
The Independent Person is briefed by Ms Norton, reports back to Ms Norton; is banned, it seems, from having any communication with complainants. And, in the end, Ms Norton is under no obligation to accept the Independent Person’s advice.
I believe the shortcomings in the complaints system have steadily got worse so that you now have a situation where senior officers are allowed to “investigate” complaints against other senior officers; and it’s curious how often they find each other entirely blameless.
Just in the last two months Ms Norton has rejected a Code of Conduct complaint against a Cabinet member – even though she had been personally involved in one of the matters being complained about. How can that decision possibly be regarded as impartial?
I think this is a completely unacceptable state of affairs. It makes a mockery of the complaints system and means councillors & officers are potentially unaccountable.
I believe the time for excuses is over and that the scrutiny committee should now review the way HBC’s legal department deals with complaints as a matter of urgency.
The Chair thanked Mr Lilley for his question and gave the following response:
Regarding your initial preamble into those making input into the answer you are about to receive, I can confirm that I have consulted with council officers regarding my answer - indeed it would be remiss of me not to do so. However, the answer is my answer and I am happy to stand by it. You will receive a written copy in due course, together with other documentation relating to it.
So thank you for the Question and just to confirm that the issues you mention involve two different processes, complaints against Members and the corporate complaints process.
The process for complaints against Members is detailed within the Council’s Constitution at Section 5, including how these complaints will be investigated, the process, as set out, complies with the Localism Act 2011.
The Monitoring Officer, as referred to in your question, is a statutory appointment, under Section 5 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 as amended by paragraph 24 of Schedule 5 Local Government Act 2000, the statutory functions of this role are set out under legislation. You are correct in that there is no right of appeal (as set out in the procedure), although the process does state that if you feel that the authority has failed to deal with your complaint properly then you should make a complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman. In this, the process complies with both legislation and best practice and I understand that the vast majority of Councils up and down the country follow the same or similar process – Harrogate Borough Council is not doing anything different to anyone else.
The corporate complaints process can also be found on the Council’s website. The Monitoring Officer does not have anything to do with the corporate complaints process, at this initial stage anyway. This sits within the Finance service and is administered at Stage 1 through the Customer Services team and if a complaint reaches Stage 2, these are allocated to a Director or Head of Service by the Chief Executive’s Office, not by the Monitoring Officer. The corporate complaints process gives a right to appeal to the Local Government Ombudsman, or the Housing Ombudsman (if a Housing issue) and if you are not satisfied with the Stage 2 response the complaints process advises you contact one of these Ombudsman. Again, I would stress that the process has been written in line with best practice and I am assured, is followed by the vast majority of Local Authorities in the Country.
So, in a nutshell, both complaints processes comply with legislation and best practice and offer an alternative, if the complainant remains dissatisfied with the Council’s approach – which is the Local Government Ombudsman.
I will make sure that full copies of the processes – I am sure that you are aware of them anyway Peter - but we will send them to you again, along with the written copy of this answer.
It is some time since we had a question from a member of the public - I believe that you were the last, some 16 months ago. Whist we always welcome them, it would be remiss of me not to point out that requests for items of work for the Commission should ideally be discussed with the scrutiny support team, so that appropriate information can be prepared for the Commission to consider. Requests are not most effective through public questions, or by addressing the Commission without prior contact, because simply there is no mechanism for debate or discussion and relies on some further decision/action by the Commission to seek information that could have been provided initially.
However, tonight is a good time to ask your question, as our main agenda item this evening is our work programme for the coming year. We held an informal meeting recently and we will be looking at the results of that meeting tonight. The HBC complaints procedure was raised at our informal meeting as a possible future work item, so if you are staying around you will be able to see any discussion under agenda item seven this evening.
(5.34 pm – 5.44 pm)