On Tuesday 14 Feb 2023 TDC help an extraordinary council meeting to discuss the recent ombudsman report : https://www.lgo.org.uk/decisions/other-categories/councillor-conduct-and-standards/21-004-645?chapter=2 which is highly critical of Teignbridge’s handling of a standards complaint. It raises 7 explicit failings about the handling of the case and this extraordinary meeting was called to consider it.
Alan Connett, leader of the council, apologised fully for the failings the ombudsman has identified and confirmed that we in our group fully accept the findings. He proposed that we reject the three recommendations suggested by officers, in favour of a much stronger set of 10 recommendations which fully implement the recommendations made by the ombudsman and put in place checks to ensure that the recommendations are carried out.
The ombudsman comments on the process that was followed, and not the actions leading to the investigation. It seems clear to me that the case was badly handled and that there have been significant failings at Teignbridge which was given bad legal advice by the monitoring officer at the time. One of these failings is that the actions of Cllr Richard Daws were conflated with actions of his colleague Cllr X. We must learn from this and be clear about what has actually been said and done. It was wrong that Cllr Daws’ standards hearing included issues related to the behaviour of Cllr X. Teignbridge must fully understand and accept the findings of the ombudsman. That means reading carefully what they have actually said, and not conflating it with what we would like them to have said. We must not dismiss the findings as unimportant, nor take the findings as justification for anything that they are not.
In today’s meeting it was suggested that Cllr Daws’ Human rights have been breached by the council. It was implied that the ombudsman confirmed this, but they did not. Human rights are very important. On a previous occasion when Daws’ group claimed this, I sought legal advice from the new monitoring officer, and had a comprehensive response, which is largely repeated by the ombudsman in Paragraph 21 of the report.
Elected politicians have an enhanced right to free expression but this is a qualified right. It must be weighed against the council’s very real legal duty to protect employees from bullying, harassment and intimidation, and the chair’s duty to ensure that the council is able to conduct its business in a fair transparent and effective manner. This is what we found after the last time we paused to consider Daws’ claim his rights were breached, and it is what the ombudsman has confirmed.
The ombudsman found as a failing, that during the standards procedure there was not explicit consideration given to this balance. The report specifically states in paragraph 19 that it does not comment on whether the Human Rights act has been breached.
The report mentions misfeasance, and in the meeting some Cllrs used this word linking it with malfeasance, maladministration, criminal offence, and imprisonment. The word misfeasance, however, refers to an accidental wrongdoing, these other phrases, refer to a deliberate wrongdoing and do not appear in the report. It is important to read the details, and not make up findings.
It was suggested that the apology recommended by the ombudsman and unreservedly given by the leader of the council should be extended to Cllr X. An amendment was tabled for this, and also that all standards findings for the last several years should be overturned. Equivalent to concluding that having identified one mistaken decision we should throw open the prison doors and overturn every decision. Neither of these actions were recommended by the ombudsman. It is important we accept the findings in full, as they are, and do not make up our own. I voted against this amendment.
Teignbridge faces challenges in dealing with deliberately disruptive behaviour. In my experience people do not like disruption if it means that essential services are not performing well. Teignbridge needs to do better at finding effective ways to keep services functioning well for our community.
We must start by actioning the recommendations of the ombudsman, and continue to make sure our procedures, and the constitution are robust, effective and followed.