Record complaints made to Public Services Ombudsman Wales about the conduct of elected members
According to new figures published today, complaints made to the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales about the conduct of elected members in Welsh local authorities have soared.
The Public Services Ombudsman for Wales investigates complaints about public services and the conduct of elected members in public life to drive the systemic improvement of public services.
The Ombudsman’s role includes considering complaints that members of local authorities, community councils, fire and rescue authorities, national park authorities and police and crime panels in Wales have breached their authority’s statutory Code of Conduct.
These Codes of Conduct set out the recognised principles of behaviour that members should follow in public life.
The Ombudsman’s Annual Report and Accounts for 2020/21 reveal that complaints about local elected members increased by some 47% during the pandemic.
A record 535 new complaints were received, with 308 taken forward for a full investigation, rising from 231 full investigations in the previous year.
Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, Nick Bennett, said: “In a year where Handforth Parish Council became a social media viral phenomenon, it’s interesting to note the sharp rise in Code of Conduct complaints about local elected members that my office received during the pandemic.
“There were several high-profile cases, including substantial sanctions applied to individual members in Cardiff and Merthyr. But beyond the headline-grabbing cases, we have seen many examples of poor behaviour that would make Jackie Weaver’s hair curl.”
The Ombudsman referred to the infamous Handforth Parish Council Zoom meeting, which went viral in April 2021 after the chairman, Brian Tolver, told stand-in clerk Jackie Weaver that she had “no authority here”.
The meeting descended into chaos and racked up over a million YouTube views, with Mrs Weaver kicking three members out of the meeting after tempers flared.
Nick Bennett continued: “Many of the complaints we receive stem from comments made online and on social media. With more local authority meetings conducted online and with the public spending more time on social media, perhaps it’s no surprise that poor behaviour by elected members is capturing more public attention.”
“In line with this rise in complaints, my office has been directly involved in training town councils to make sure that they are fully aware of the expectations of the Code of Conduct and the need to maintain high standards in local public life.”
“We have also revised our Code of Conduct guidance to help local authorities reinforce to members what is expected of them in their public roles.”
“Only around 3% of such complaints pass our public interest test and go forward to the Adjudication Panel for Wales or local standards committees to decide whether any action needs to be taken. ”
“However, it is concerning that poor, offensive or disreputable behaviour seems to be an increasing feature of public life. Therefore, I would urge all elected members to familiarise themselves with the code of conduct of the authority they serve and ensure they are adhering to the principles of those codes.”
“The sanctions served on those found guilty of breaching the codes range from short-term suspension to lengthy disqualification, so it is in the best interest of all elected members to consider their conduct both online and offline and to err on the side of caution if in doubt.”
The Ombudsman received 2409 complaints in 2021/21, 16% fewer than in the previous year. The same period saw a 22% fall in new complaints about Health Boards, likely due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on health services. ”
“The Ombudsman intervened in around 20% of complaints about public bodies, which mirrors the figure for the previous year.
Nick Bennett concluded: “The coronavirus pandemic has presented all public bodies with new challenges, not least the massive challenges to health and care services, which of course are set to continue.
“My team has worked incredibly hard during a challenging period. They have continued to assess, investigate and close complaints, lowering our caseload in readiness for the post-pandemic increase in complaints that we are already experiencing.
“At the year-end, our caseload was lower than any time since 2017, and approximately 16% lower than this time last year. We also worked hard to reduce ageing cases, with only 12 cases over 12 months old – a massive achievement given the challenges faced by the office and bodies in our jurisdiction.
“We also made significant progress with our new proactive powers, with our first own-initiative investigation of homelessness services in Wales launched in January. ”
“I was delighted to launch the consultation with the support of Michael Sheen at the Chartered Institute of Housing Tai conference in September 2020. We also used my extended own initiative powers in a range of cases, including the prostate cancer treatment of 16 patients in North Wales.”
“Despite all the challenges of the past year, I genuinely feel that this annual report reflects well on the office and our people, and I hope that the following year brings greater ‘normality’ to all our lives.”
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