Tuesday 28th May 2024,
North Yorks Enquirer

Accountability: NYC & WTC

Accountability: NYC & WTC

  • an “In My View” article by NIGEL WARD, reporting on the symptoms and causes of declining ethical standards in public life – in particular, amongst elected (and co-opted) Councillors at every level of local government. Plus – vindication of the elector’s Objections to WTC’s Annual Accounts and confirmation of a significant resignation (and consequent by-election opportunity).

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The Councillors’ Code of Conduct

It is widely-known – or should be – that  everyone in public life is duty-bound to comply with specified standards of probity and good conduct, as delineated in Lord NOLAN’s 7 Principles of Public Life.

Fundamental to these Principles is the over-arching tenet that all those wielding entrusted ‘power’ must not only act in accordance with these Principles, at all times, but must be seen to do so. Indeed, Transparency International defines “corruption” as “The abuse of entrusted power for personal gain”. Personal gain may take many forms – pecuniary, of course, but also self-aggrandisement, political kudos, force of influence, etc, including ego-massaging and hustling/coercing of others.

Everyone in public life, including all Councillors – i.e. including third-tier (Parish & Town), second-tier (Borough & District) and first-tier (County & Unitary) Councillors, must – as a matter of law – abide by a written Code of Conduct.

Principal Councils, such as North Yorkshire Council, have a statutory duty to investigate alleged breaches of the Code of Conduct by members, including alleged breaches by Town and Parish Councillors within in their respective areas.
This duty is specified under s.28(6)(a)(b) Localism Act 2011:
Principal Councils are also required to appoint at least one ‘Independent Person’:

s.28(1) sets out the Seven NOLAN Principles of Public Life which form a mandatory element of the Council’s Code of Conduct.

In the case of North Yorkshire Council, the public record shows that from its inception on 1st April 2023 until the Christmas break at the end of that year, no Independent Person ever took issue with the opinion of the Monitoring Officer (more usually, the Deputy Monitoring Officer) – with the implausible consequence that not a single one of a total of 111 Complaints against Town/Parish Councillors was UPHELD and not one single Councillor was sanctioned in any degree whatosover. (The maximum sanction, by the way, is a paltry 15 minutes ‘re-training session’ with the Monitoring Officer. A nice cup of tea and a ginger biscuit).

A concern arises over the genuine independence of these so-called ‘Independent Persons’ if they ALWAYS concur with the views of the Monitoring Officers at their respective Principal Councils.
I covered this in some detail in my article “NYC Standards? Anything Goes!”.
I obtained this information via a Freedom of Information request to NYC, the substance of the response to which is set out in the table below:
NYC’s response shows there were 111 Complaints for 9 months in 2023. The data also shows none were examined or adjudicated by the Standards Committee (despite rights conferred under Magna Carta to the effect that every accused person is entitled to judgement by her/his peers – in this case, fellow Councilllors).
Yet NONE were UPHELD and NONE reached the Standards Committee.
I believe that much of the persistent misconduct and serious maladministration at all too many of the smaller Councils in North Yorkshire (consider Thornton-le-Dale, Newby & Scalby, Potto, etc – I could go on) can be traced back to NYC’s utter failure properly to administrate Code of Conduct Complaints against members of nearly 600 small Councils in North Yorkshire.
It would appear, then, that Town & Parish Councillors are ‘untouchable’. Public life resembles the Wild West in rural North Yorkshire
Following the publication of my article “NYC Standards? Anything Goes!”, I soon noticed that a reader, perhaps inspired by my report, had submitted Freedom of Information requests on WhatDoTheyKnow.com to a couple of dozen of first-tier Councils across the UK for data on their Complaints record throughout 2023.
All responses are collated in the table below. It is disheartening to see that North Yorkshire Council has received by far the largest number of Complaints. More importantly, it is far and away the worst performer in terms of investigating and adjudicating Complaints, with not one of its 111 Compaints UPHELD. It is also disheartening to see that only 19 out of 470 Complaints nationwide were UPHELD (a pitiful 4%). Everyone else got off ‘Scot free’. And NYC’s figures, remember, relate to only nine months – the others are for the whole calendar or financial year. Thus, NYC’s 111 would extrapolate pro rata to 168 over a full twelve month cycle – more than double the second-worst Council in the country (Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole Council).
The best-behaving Councillors were at the North East Combined Authority – no Complaints at all. Am I wrong to aspire to having irreproachable Councillors in North Yorkshire?
Thus, Councillors of smaller Councils at every other Principle Council in the Country come out ‘cleaner’ than NYC – by a factor of at least two.
At the other extreme – and far more plausible – is the data from Cornwall Council, which shows that 5 out of 33 (15%) Complaints were UPHELD. Even this falls far short of a reasonable Complaints-handling regime in the commercial/corporate world, where Complaints are recognised as valid checks-and-balances (and come free of charge!) on the performance of employees. In commerce, 28% of Complaints are UPHELD.
The pie-chart below reflects commercial ‘expectations’. Why are our Councillors less accountable?
The vast majority of Councils have bound their Councillors to the terms of the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) Civility & Respect Pledge:
I leave it to readers’ own judgement as to whether or not the following excerpts from an email sent out at midnight to a member of the public (and twenty other recipients), by a Councillor well-known for a predilection to enjoy a ‘liquid brunch’ at ten in the morning, would be condoned by Lord NOLAN:

“Your number one puppet Councillor [REDACTED], would do exactly as you told him to. You really must groom a more reliable councillor!”

“You’re constant churlish cowardly comments are obviously a outcome of a lifetime of bullying and manipulation of weaker people.”
 
“This might be a good time to tell you that my No. 2 daughter is one of the top litigation barristers in the UK, and I am more than financially ready to respond to you or any of your backers in a court of law: I actually invite it!”
 
“You’re churlish & cowardly attacks no longer are acceptable!”
 
“Please leave us councillors alone to do what’s best, before a higher authority judges you; he might not be far away.”

“Civility” and “Respect”? Or “Abuse” and “Threats”? You decide. (Nothing from “No. 2 daughter”, by the way).

Yet NYC’s Deputy Monitoring Officer, propped up by the so-called ‘Independent Person’ (who would appear to be less than independent and always ready to toe the party line), chucked out two separate Formal Complaints (one from a fellow Councillor) over this disgraceful (if rather pitiful) rant without the Standards Committee or the Monitoring Officer ever having sight of it.
It is no wonder that the North Yorkshire Police are being called out to Town and Parish Council meetings, were electors are kicking off because they are sick and tired of arrogance, condescension and cover-ups.
WTC Annual Accounts 2022/23
The Whitby Town Council website has published the Audit Report of External Auditor, PKF LITTLEJOHN LLP, delayed by eight months during which an investigation has been conducted by the External Auditor into the truthfulness and validity of the 9 Assertions ticked ‘YES’ in the Council’s 2022/23 Annual Governance Statement (AGS). These Assertions relate to the Council’s claims to have complied with a wide range of legislation regulating its governance, compliance, management and accountability.
The Auditor has found that THREE of the 9 Assertions had been falsely ticked ‘YES’ but should have been ticked ‘NO’ with accompanying explanations as to why the Council had failed to comply with the law. (The Objector did not challenge all nine).
The Auditor identified:
(i) Precept-setting and accountancy ‘weaknesses’;
(ii) GDPR data privacy ‘weaknesses’, and;
(iii) ‘weaknesses’ in the Council’s accountancy returns to the Charity Commission, in respect of its duties as Sole Trustee of Pannett Park and the Pannett Art Gallery & Whitby Museum Charities.
The Auditor also identified ‘weaknesses’ in the functionality of the Council’s website.
“Weaknesses” is polite Auditor-speak for FAILURES.
For the avoidance of any doubt, the Objector identified ALL THREE of these ‘weaknesses’ – which were passed over without hesitation by a majority of Councillors and the Clerk/RFO and his staff, but CONFIRMED by the External Auditor.
 
And, for the avoidance of any remaining doubt, the External Auditor’s Report also confirms that there is scope for a 50% improvement (from 6 truthful Assertions to 9) in Whitby Town Council’s future governance and compliance returns (AGS).
One would hope that the Council, as a body corporate, will evince the common courtesy to Resolve to send a letter of gratitude and appreciation to the Objector, for services rendered . . .
Each December, Whitby Town Council, via its Finance Policy & General Purposes Committee, is duty-bound to scrutinise the Clerk/RFO’s preparation of the Annual Accounts before they come to Full Council in the following January. The ratification of the AGS and AGAR comes before Full Council at the end of May.  Last year, when the AGS came up for ratification in May, only five Councillors (ABBOTT, BARNETT, RIDDOLLS, SUMNER and TURNER) acted diligently and with conviction and voted AGAINST it.
Every other Councillor in attendance (including the Chair of the Finance, Policy & General Purposes Committee) gave the AGS her/his blessing and waved it on down the highway like ZZ Top in their iconic pop videos. Nothing to worry about here, folks – keep paying your Precept!
The Council’s failure properly to scrutinise the evidence prior to signing off on the accuracy of the Assertions in the AGS has cost the Precept-payers of Whitby a good deal of money (additional Audit Fees: 24.3 hours at £355 per hour – £8,262.50 + VAT) that would never have been squandered in this way had due diligence been applied. This dereliction of diligence is shameful and, in my view, these Councillors should be held to account.
Yet astonishingly, some ‘old guard’ Councillors remain determined to blame the Objector – the one diligent member of the public who raised the Objections – for this totally unnecessary waste of public money – whereas the real  ‘blame’ (or ‘responsibility’, if such is the better word) is directly attributable to:
(i) the preparation and ratification of the Annual Governance Statement by the Clerk/RFO;
(ii) the lack of diligence by the Finance, Policy & General Purposes Committee; and
(iii) those Councillors who voted in Full Council to ratify the AGS – apparently without contemplating the consequences of error (i.e. the potential costs of an Audit Investigation). There are none so blind as those who refuse to see . . .
However, Councillor Noreen WILSON – readers will recall that she is the one who told a media photographer to “shove his camera up his arse” (Formal Complaints about that were also chucked out by the then-SBC’s Standards regime) – has resigned from the Council (and thus from the position of Chair of the Finance, Policy & General Purposes Committee).
This may be an all-too-rare example of a public servant evincing the integrity and honourable good grace to ‘fall on her sword’ after such an appalling performance. The FP&GP, remember, also missed £40K‘s worth of water bills going down the drain.
Possibly, the censure inherent in the Audit Report was the last straw.
Hopefully, some more of the ‘dead-wood’ will follow Mrs WILSON’s example, to be replaced at an election by more diligent and competent people.
Causal Vacancy (Stakesby Ward)
Mrs WILSON’s resignation creates a casual vacancy in the Stakesby Ward. Under the terms of the Local Government Act 1972, any TEN ELECTORS of the Parish of Whitby have the right to call a by-election. I intend to be one of them. However, an election can take place ONLY if there are at least TWO nominated candidates. I know you are out there . . .
Town Assembly/Meeting
The WTC website also confirms that a sufficiency of electors has called another Town Assembly/Meeting, to be held in the Ballroom of the Royal Hotel, West Cliff, Whitby on Monday 22nd April 2024 at 6:00pm. The Agenda includes opportunities to discuss the Whitby Town Deal Projects (the Maritime Training Hub and the restoration of the Old Town Hall – also the Public Realm Enhancement offering.
Please come along and air your views.

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