Local Government Officials: Bullying

– in the House of Commons at 4:51 pm on 9 May 2024.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mark Fletcher.)

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament 4:53, 9 May 2024

I rise to consider the potential merit of Government measures to tackle the bullying of local government officials. This short debate seeks to explore the Government’s plans properly to provide for enforcement of the codes of conduct applicable to parish and town councillors, given the amount of bullying and intimidation experienced by local council clerks.

Far too many town and parish council clerks face regular intimidation by a minority of councillors, and there are at present insufficient enforcement mechanisms and penalties to resolve the issue. Good people are resigning as a result. The turnover rate for clerks is far greater than the average for most comparable forms of employment. An article in the Telegraph online on 1 October 2022 stated that a preliminary academic survey of town and parish councils

“found that over half…had experienced behavioural issues from councillors, including bullying and disrespect towards other representatives or clerks”.

The findings also showed

“an imminent loss of expertise amid a shortage of younger clerks”.

There are at least three important organisations with strong views about this worrying situation: the Association of Local Council Clerks, the National Association of Local Councils and the Society of Local Council Clerks. They are not unanimous in their recommendations, but they all recognise the reality of the crisis. All three have had constructive conversations with my staff and me in recent months, for which I am very grateful. The SLCC has stated:

“15% of parish councils experience serious behaviour issues… 5% are effectively dysfunctional as a result of them.”

That figure obviously varies to a degree over time, but the ALCC has recently indicated that it considers the problem to be worsening rather than improving.

I have been provided with deeply disturbing first-hand testimony of inappropriate behaviour by a small percentage of council members. It may only be one or two individuals on any given council, but the effect of their behaviour on the clerks, other councillors and other staff can be unbearable. It can easily cause a breakdown in health and subsequent departure from a much-valued career. Clerks often feel that their job is at risk unless they carry out the wishes of individual councillors, even though the councillor in question may be trying to act outside the legislative requirements, thus forcing the clerk to act illegally. I am advised that many clerks fear for their jobs on a daily basis.

In my view, much of the problem arises from the lack of an independent body to oversee councillor behaviour and to impose sufficient penalties to discourage such behaviour when it occurs. Sufficient codes of conduct are in place for councillors. They are usually clear, unambiguous and based on the Nolan principles, but their enforcement and the imposition of appropriate penalties when their provisions are broken are sadly missing. The standards board was abolished in 2012, and the current system of local authority staff enforcement —via monitoring officers—does not work as effectively as would an independent system. In May 2023, it was confirmed that, nationally, there is an excessive turnover of monitoring officers. That is hardly surprising, given that they have to take action in a quasi-judicial role, sometimes against their own councillors, who are their employers at principal authority level, while those councillors also possibly sit on town or parish councils, too.

As I mentioned, it is not only staff but other councillors who find themselves being bullied. I shall not identify any specific councils or individuals in this speech, yet I know of one case where several councillors resigned during a three-year period because of bullying by the chairman of that council. In a separate case, two councillors were called upon to step down after their attempts to bully the council clerk out of her job were proven. A third council was plunged into disarray after eight members resigned amid claims of bullying, harassment and abuse, and the town clerk also resigned at the same time and for the same reason.

There are very many specific examples which could be cited, because such misconduct has become so common as almost to be routine on the part of a really small but poisonous minority of councillors. Of course, the vast majority of councillors neither accept nor condone such terrible behaviour, but they do not have the necessary means to deal effectively with the disruptors and the bullies.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mark Fletcher.)

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament 5:00, 9 May 2024

Here is one scenario posted on the internet by a despairing councillor:

“We have a Parish Councillor who continually harasses the Clerk out of hours, at home and by email, about pretty well everything the Clerk does. The Clerk is respectful, knowledgeable and more than capable;
but this individual said to the Chairman ‘I can question the Clerk because I am a Parish Councillor’. We have lost three Clerks in less than three years because of this dreadful man and I fear we are going to lose this one.”

Given findings such as the academic survey I mentioned earlier, this is clearly a situation that must not be allowed to continue. Apart from the impropriety aspect, the turnover of staff caused by bullying is economically damaging, leading to severe loss of efficiency in the affected parish and town councils. Then there are the additional recruitment and training costs for those councils which lose their clerks through resignation. Several councils have also been taken to court for constructive dismissal claims relating to harassment. Once again, this would be much less likely to arise if there were proper regulation and proper enforcement.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central

I am really grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for bringing forward this debate. I have a long-term interest in looking at workplace bullying across the piece and am bringing forward a private Member’s Bill on 7 June to ensure we have a legal definition for bullying, which we currently do not have in our suite of legislation. I hope he will be able to support the Bill. But beyond that, we must ensure there is a route to an employment tribunal so that people are protected at work. Would he be minded to work with me and support that, and to find the mechanisms to put positive behaviours into all workplaces?

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

This is the first I have heard about the hon. Lady’s initiative. It sounds absolutely admirable and I would be very interested in supporting her efforts. I particularly commend the idea of a clear and legal definition of bullying, because we all know that there are sometimes subjective approaches to the subject, where even a word of legitimate criticism is interpreted as that, unjustifiably, so she is definitely on the right track.

The SLCC states:

“Throughout the sector, there are growing concerns about the impact bullying, harassment and intimidation is having on Councils, Councillors and staff and the resulting effectiveness of those local councils”.

The three national associations are fully aware of the issues, but without Government intervention it is unlikely that they alone can solve this dreadful problem. The preferred approach of the NALC is to focus on certain recommendations, previously made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which have yet to be adopted. Indeed, the NALC assisted me in the drafting of early-day motion 611, tabled in November 2022 and supported by 27 hon. and right hon. Members, which specifically asked the Government to:

“re-visit its response to the Committee on Standards in Public Life report on local government ethical standards and introduce the report’s recommendations in full including tougher sanctions such as suspension for poorly behaving councillors.”

In addition to that, however, the SLCC and the ALCC have indicated their endorsement of an alternative option formulated by Mr Derek Biggs, the hugely experienced and highly respected former town clerk of Totton in my constituency, to whom I am indebted for his insights. This way forward, which I fully support, would be for the Minister to agree to set up a working party of experts in the area of town and parish councils to examine the issue in depth and recommend practical solutions to deal with it. The working party’s brief would be to ensure the design and establishment of an appropriate, independent enforcement body, and to propose legislation providing for penalties sufficient to act as a deterrent to transgressors. That would be one way of finally dealing with those who ignore the proper standards of behaviour that are rightly expected and approved by the Government. We really need to work together and end their sense of impunity in respect of unacceptable conduct in town and parish councils.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 5:05, 9 May 2024

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend Sir Julian Lewis for raising this important subject, and also to Rachael Maskell for her helpful intervention. I look forward to her Bill.

I have been urged to be brief. As a fellow Welshman, Mr Deputy Speaker, you will know that that can sometimes be quite tricky, but I understand from my hon. Friend Mark Fletcher, the Whip on duty, that he is keen to rush home to start making his cheese and pineapple hedgehogs in preparation for his Eurovision Song Contest party; we all look forward, of course, to his extended invitation. So I want to be serious but also to be as brief as I can, in respect for the House.

The debate is timely, because it comes just a week after elections to many of our town and parish councils up and down the land. I want to take the opportunity—as I have on previous occasions when I have met parish councillors—to put on record our sincere thanks for their service to their communities. They are always unpaid and usually unsung heroes, working to deliver change and improvements to the towns and villages in which they live and serve. I suppose I should declare a slight interest, having started my political career as a parish councillor before migrating to the district council, supposedly moving upwards to the county council, and then fetching up here. With the exception of membership of the other place, I have the full set of badges.

My right hon. Friend’s point is particularly important because the councillors elected last week are being welcomed to their new authorities and being inducted—for the first time, in some instances—into the rules and conventions of public life. We all know that vibrant local democracy flourishes where the reputation of the local authority is held in high regard. It is an honour and a privilege to serve as a community representative, and all those seeking and achieving public office should be holding themselves to the highest standards of conduct in recognition of the trust placed in them. The electorate have a right to expect councillors to behave well and respectfully in all their interactions—with each other, with members of staff, and with the public. Councillors’ decision making should be honest, demonstrably transparent, fair, objective, and in the best interests of all whom they serve. There is no place in our systems and structures of local government for bullying, intimidation or harassment.

My right hon. Friend’s remarks focused on bullying, intimidation and other inappropriate behaviour on the part of councillors. As he will know, there have been incidents where council clerks have effectively been charged with such offences, so it can go both ways. It is important to nip it in the bud and cut it out as quickly as possible—not just for the standards in public life set out by Nolan and reiterated this afternoon, but because it fundamentally sours the working environment of public service when people abuse their position, bully, cajole, intimidate and so forth in council meetings. As my right hon. Friend has noted, there are rules that apply.

I am concerned that we still occasionally think of our town councils, and especially our parish councils, as some sort of quaint, Edwardian and Vicar of Dibley-like institutions where people quibble about whose turn it is to do the biscuits or whatever. Instead, they are doing incredibly important work. As my right hon. Friend will know, there is no cap that we in central Government can place on the precepts of town and parish councils; we merely rely on their good common sense.

We know that many town and parish councils across the land have been asked to take up roles and responsibilities—the management of public loos, for example—on behalf of their upper-tier authorities, and they willingly do so. Those upper-tier authorities—be they borough, district or county councils—can be capped, and when there has been pressure on local government finances and close collaboration between the constituent parts of the local government family, some burdens have been passed on to lower-tier authorities.

My right hon. Friend is right to point out that there are some standards lacunae—I put it no more firmly than that. As he set out in some detail, there is a clear and growingly compelling case for having a look at this issue again. I would be more than happy to continue the conversations that I have had with NALC since I was appointed last November. I would include the ALCC and the SLCC, and I am more than happy to include my right hon. Friend in those discussions to try to find a common-sense route to go through.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

I shall seize on that potential opportunity to ask whether we could all come and see the Minister together. There are a lot of operators in this field, and to have him and representatives of the three organisations in the same room at the same time would be an extremely positive step.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I began my working day with an official visit to Croydon Council, followed by a visit to Slough Borough Council. Both were hugely enjoyable and rewarding, and the offer of being seized by my right hon. Friend during this Adjournment debate is an invitation I cannot resist. He makes a very important point, and I should have made that clear in my remarks. There is considerable and compelling merit to meeting the three bodies together. There is some overlap and some divergence of views, and different organisations will have different ways of seeing and identifying solutions to a problem. Let us have a roundtable, if one wants to call it that, or a meeting in the Department to try to identify the issues, and to try to deliver the simplest, easiest and most straight-forward solutions.

We would do so not to be unduly heavy-handed, or to impose the dead hand of Marsham Street on our vibrant town and parish councils, but because we hold dear, and view to be important and precious, those values of civility, transparency, decency, common sense and collegiality in all the fora in which elected or appointed people discharge public duties. That is an expectation that the public rightly place on all of us, and it is sometimes a challenge, but it is one to which we are all capable of rising. I look forward to furthering the discussion with my right hon. Friend.

I close by again thanking the hon. Member for York Central for her contribution, but I particularly thank my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East who, with his usual calm, methodical logic, put forward a compelling case that only a perverse Minister of the Crown could seek to resist.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.