The ‘intimidating’ atmosphere at some Lancashire County Council meetings is deterring several members from even speaking, it has been claimed.
Julia Berry, who represents Chorley South on the authority, said that there needed to be a clampdown on the highly-charged environment that was stifling debate at gatherings of the full council.
The Labour opposition member told the authority’s audit, risk and governance committee that the actions of some councillors in the chamber at County Hall were preventing others from doing their jobs to the full.
“There is a lot of intimidation, name-calling and chanting – it’s appalling,” County Cllr Berry said.
“I want the freedom to be able to speak without having to worry about [it]. Often, I’ll sit there silent because of the cavalier behaviour.”
She was speaking after it emerged that more than half of the 14 complaints made under the authority’s code of conduct last year related to standards of personal behaviour by members – both inside and outside of official meetings.
Eight complainants raised concern over issues including threatening or bullying language and behaviour. Four of the complaints came from county councillors, with the remainder made by members of the public and, in one case, a member of staff.
The latter incident was one of two that investigations concluded had breached the code during 2019.
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, County Cllr Berry said that the problems stemmed from all corners of the chamber – and called for all the political groups collectively “to clean up their act”.
“When you’re speaking, people will sometimes physically turn themselves around to front you up. Mostly, it’s the men – they seem to think it’s some sort of theatrical event.
“But we’re dealing with serious issues – you don’t want it to be dominated by particular personalities.
“I want people who have been put off speaking – and I know several – to feel that they can have their say.
“To anybody looking in from the outside, perhaps thinking about becoming a councillor, it would be really off-putting – and we want to attract a broad range of people,” she added.
Responding to the concerns, Conservative council leader Geoff Driver accepted that the incidents described by County Cllr Berry “shouldn’t happen”.
“It’s absolutely vital that members treat one another with respect, but it’s almost inevitable that with the sensitivity of some of the issues discussed and the strength of feeling that some people have, they sometimes go over the top.
“But if, after the meeting, we can speak to one another and carry on being friendly – that’s the way it should be. We all know [these things] shouldn’t happen, but they do occasionally,” he said.
However, Labour opposition group leader Azhar Ali – who himself apologised last year after a remark at full council was picked up by a microphone which he thought was off – said female councillors were particular targets for vitriol during heated debates.
“When women stand up to speak, they get shouted down with offensive language that you wouldn’t be able to get away with in any other workplace.
“It’s going to come to a point where we’ll have a walkout of members, particularly with the way women are being treated by some men.
“It’s very personal and once it starts – there’s a domino effect and all of us should be doing everything we can to stop it. It only takes one comment to trigger [an exchange] and I can assure you that my group will not initiate any such activity.
“It’s time the political leadership of the county council dealt with this as a matter of urgency,” County Cllr Ali said.
Liberal Democrat group leader David Whipp condemned the “inappropriate” culture that had been allowed to develop.
“The yah-boo politics from opposing sides of the chamber is utterly unacceptable and shouldn’t play any part in modern-day decision-making. We should consign it to the nineteenth century where it belongs,” County Cllr Whipp said.
Meanwhile, the authority’s lone Green Party representative noted that there was usually a difference in tone between the cross-party committee meetings which scrutinise the county council’s work and the showpiece ‘full council’ at which all members convene every other month.
“It seems some councillors want to make an impression. What they don’t realise is that cockiness and one-upmanship gives absolutely the wrong example of good leadership.
“I know some members of the public who have attended our meetings are quite horrified by the disrespectful manner in which some speak to and about other councillors.
“There has to be an absolute commitment to clamp down quickly and harshly on anyone who tries to either put down, mimic or in any way insult another councillor,” County Cllr Dowding said.
The chairperson of the authority – a role which rotates to another county councillor every year – is responsible for keeping order in the chamber.
In a statement, Laura Sales, Lancashire County Council’s director of corporate services, said: “It is important that the council chamber is a place of debate where all members feel able to make their voice heard and equally it appeals to a wide range of potential councillors from the many diverse backgrounds that represent Lancashire.
“The Code of Conduct for Elected Members sets out standards of behaviour with which elected members are expected to abide and we will consider any further support members require as a result of the issue raised by Councillor Berry”.
WHO SETS THE STANDARD?
Since 2012, local authorities have devised and enforced their own codes of conduct for members. The rules must be based on the seven “standards in public life” drawn up in the 1990s – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.
The Lancashire County Council code requires members to “always treat people with respect, including the organisations and public you engage with and those you work alongside”.
But previous powers held by the Standards Board for England – to suspend a councillor for up to six months because of their conduct – were scrapped when that body was abolished and its responsibilities transferred to individual councils. Last year, the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended that the banning power be reinstated.
Currently, sanctions are limited to requesting that a member issues an apology or undergoes training – but it is up to the councillor whether or not they agree to it. Any apology does not necessarily have to be in public and the anonymised nature of most standards reports means the identities of individuals who have been the subject of complaints may never be revealed.
Complaints about councillors are dealt with by an authority’s monitoring officer. If an issue cannot be resolved informally and is brought before a standards committee of other members, specially-appointed “independent persons” will be involved in making the final decision.
Laura Sales, the monitoring officer at County Hall, last week committed to seeking the opinions of those individuals even if an informal resolution had been agreed to ensure that they were satisfied with how the matter had been handled.
She also told a meeting of the authority’s audit, risk and governance committee that county councillors “as a general rule conduct themselves in a way which is extremely good” and are “on the whole, willing to make an apology” when their behaviour has fallen below the standards expected of them.
Of the eight complaints made about Lancashire County Council members during 2019, two were resolved informally with either an apology or advice about future behaviour.
The remainder were not deemed not to have been a breach of the code for reasons including that they were not acting in an official capacity at the time – or because their conduct was “considered to be within expected norms of political debate”.
Lancashire County Council (2019) – 14 (two upheld)
Preston City Council (2018/19) – 5 (one upheld)
South Ribble Borough Council (Nov 2018-Dec 2019) – 7 (two upheld)
Chorley Council (2018/19) – zero
Note – borough councils also field complaints about parish councillors and the same incident can generate more than one complaint.