DISCIPLINARY cases against councillors should be held in public, the body that oversees standards on Monmouthshire County Council has said.
Richard Stow, the independent chair of the council’s standards committee, said he was surprised that four hearings held by the panel that has the power to suspend or disqualify people from becoming councillors were all dealt with administratively in the past year.
The Adjudication Panel for Wales is an independent tribunal that hears the most serious cases where councillors, or members of bodies such as national park authorities, are alleged to have broken the code of conduct.
Four such cases, from across Wales, were held in the year to March 2023 but Mr Stow said all four – which resulted in three disqualifications and one suspension – were “looked at on the papers”, meaning there was no public hearing and the panel only considered written submissions.
He said: “The best way of publicising them is making sure the adjudication panel is widely covered by the media so people see it in their local papers.”
During the past year there was only one code of conduct complaint made about any of the 46 Monmouthshire County Councillors and that was discontinued while of the 33 town and community councils there were just five complaints and the Public Service Ombudsman for Wales decided none required investigation.
Of the total 283 code of conduct complaints across Wales, including all councils, national park and fire authorities and police and crime panels, 61 per cent related to the “promotion of equality and respect”.
Mr Stow said that figure should be broken down into greater detail. He said: “It’s a huge spectrum of behaviour, it could be something, not quite trivial, but minor to something extremely serious.”
He also noted the panel closed only 66 per cent of code of conduct complaints last year within 12 months and said: “That could be something hanging over your head for well over a year.”
The committee also discussed changes to Welsh Government guidance on upholding standards, including new duties placed on the leaders of political groups on councils.
Mr Stow said political leaders now have a responsibility to ensure high standards and would have to be able to show how they have done that and work with the standards committee on upholding the code. The chair said this was a change with committee having previously worked at “arms length” and described the guidance as “prescriptive”.
Advice that committees should visit town and community councils was also queried by Mr Stow who said it had “come from Cardiff” where there are only a handful of volunteer councils.
“We’ve got 33. I think I was told in Cardiff they only have six,” said Mr Stow: “I also think how would town and community councils react if we turned up with a clipboard?”
He suggested it would be a mistake for the ombudsman to think there would never be any complaints against councils: “To try to get to zero, it will never happen, and should never happen. If it does it means your public engagement has disappeared.”
Michael John, of Caerwent Community council, who represents the local councils on the committee, warned against placing too great a requirement for training on volunteers.
Mr Stow said it would be better to provide training on the code of conduct to council clerks and their members would then have the confidence in them and their knowledge and advice.