HUMAN RESOURCES

Victims in the line of fire

Local government monitoring officers are increasingly being caught in power struggles between senior officers and are becoming targets for politicians. How should the problem be tackled? Martin Ford reports

There is no doubt local government has more than its fair share of high-pressure roles in the upper echelons of authorities across the country.

A decade of austerity has highlighted the importance of those holding the purse strings. Mounting demand for care is being encountered by adult and children's service chiefs and chief executives must get to grips with a sector undergoing monumental change.

But what about monitoring officers?

From the smallest of parish councils to the largest of metropolitan authorities, officers have spoken of cases in which colleagues have been caught in power struggles between senior officers, or fallen victim to the increasingly raucous behaviour of elected members.

However, the issue is gradually being recognised within the sector. A campaign has been launched to raise awareness of the issues monitoring officers are facing and reports have been published calling for tougher sanctions.

Nevertheless, there is agreement among lawyers in the local government sector that it is a problem that is only becoming more widespread.

Mark Greenburgh, a solicitor specialising in ethical governance and employment law, said it was ‘less unusual' than a decade ago.

He saw it as a symptom of budget pressures and cost-cutting among local authorities, which have seen the statutory post slip down the council hierarchy.

‘If the posts are graded below chief officer level, that does diminish their authority in the council,' Mr Greenburgh said.

‘Within councils, they need to be taken more seriously. It should be a requirement that the monitoring officer is a chief officer on the corporate management team. That would do a lot to restore balance and change the mood music around it.

‘If people feel safe in reporting issues early, that helps our colleagues, chief executives and Section 151 officers, in tackling issues up-front.

‘It's about ensuring monitoring officers are involved very early in strategic decisions. If they feel supported they are able to raise issues within the authority that will improve good governance.

‘What always features is a failure of governance, a failure to speak up at the right time.'

Chief executive officer of Lawyers in Local Government (LLG), Deborah Evans, agrees. She said: ‘These issues have been going on for a while, particularly in parish councils – it's a minority, but it needs to be tackled.

‘Monitoring officers are being pushed down the management tiers in local authorities. They need to be at the top tier so they know about all projects and can feed in at the earliest opportunity.

‘That's when they are seen as blockers. If the officers aren't respected and listened to, that's a sign of a local authority that is not doing things properly.

‘There are examples where monitoring officers who are doing their jobs properly – holding a person to account, being impartial, calling out poor behaviour, upholding standards – and they are being victimised for doing that.'

LLG has launched a campaign focusing on what it terms the ‘golden triangle' – the statutory local authority roles of the Section 151 officer, chief executive and monitoring officer.

Ms Evans said: ‘These three need to work together to ensure a council is properly run. There should be some healthy tensions in that triangle, with people challenging each other, saying "is that right", suggesting other ways things can be done.'

Others have attributed the recent rise to a souring of relations with members. One former monitoring officer said: ‘Local politicians get their lead from national politics. On both sides of the Atlantic we have a political culture in which bullying gets its way.

‘They get ticked off by the standards committee, but what sanctions can you impose on a member now? Statutory protection is not worth the paper it's written on.'

Ms Evans was also critical of the behaviour of those in central Government. She said: ‘It becomes a normalisation of poor conduct. We would hate to see that permeating down to local authorities.'

In a recent high-profile case, the monitoring officer at Birmingham City Council, Kate Charlton, was embroiled in a row over the running of a boisterous council meeting.

In an open letter, Lady Mayoress Bushra Bi suggested another officer should be in Ms Charlton's place advising the Lord Mayor on the technicalities of chairing the meeting.

She later wrote to Ms Charlton to ‘apologise wholeheartedly', saying the letter had been ‘a response based on emotion and from a position of misunderstanding'.

However, last month Ms Charlton resigned from the position she had held for 11 years to pursue new career opportunities.

LLG president Phillip Horsfield said: ‘There's been a need to provide protection to the monitoring officer for a considerable period of time.

‘Attacks on the rule of law is a feature of life presently, and monitoring officers play an essential part in that.'

He cited the recent case in which an unnamed Downing Street source claimed through the national press that the Greater London Assembly (GLA) monitoring officer was ‘politically motivated' in referring Boris Johnson to the Independent Office for Police Conduct over his relationship with businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri while Mayor of London.

‘Who spoke up for the monitoring officer at that point?' Mr Horsfield said. ‘That's a prime example of how monitoring officers can come under very public attack for carrying out their role in upholding the law.

‘The work monitoring officers do in ensuring good governance often goes unrecognised. The silence in relation to the GLA officer was deafening.'

In January, the Committee on Standards in Public Life published its report on local government ethical standards. Among its recommendations were powers to suspend councillors without allowances for up to six months.

Despite a warm reception it has yet to receive an official response from the Government, with many The MJ spoke to in the sector fearing it has become another casualty of the Brexit impasse stealing oxygen from other priorities.

Ms Evans is adamant that a new code of conduct and standards, enforced with sanctions, is needed to replace the current regime.

‘It's got no teeth,' she said. ‘Sanctions would make a huge difference in local government.'

She added: ‘We are awaiting the response from the Government and whether it is bringing forward legislation.'

Ms Evans dismissed the suggestion that communities should hold the ultimate sanction on elected members through the ballot box at local elections.

She said: ‘I don't think it's an appropriate way of dealing with poor behaviour. It assumes every voter is fully informed, which generally won't be the case. The behaviour is not clearly seen.'

Ms Evans fears for the future of the monitoring officer role as a result of these pressures. She said: ‘These roles are really important in upholding standards of governance.

‘If monitoring officers are pilloried in the press for doing their jobs properly, it means people won't want to step into those roles.

‘We have seen a high turnover rate of monitoring officers because they can fall out of favour if they stand in the way of things.'

As a result, LLG has been working to support monitoring officers through wellbeing and coaching, and the development of a network offering mutual support.

They have also been working on creating a guide to good practice as a means of tackling the issue through positive action.

She said: ‘Our approach is not to work out a list of the bad, but to proactively look at the good.'

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