Making a complaint

Under the Local Government Parliamentary Act 6th August 2014, the public have the right to film and digitally report all public meetings of local government bodies.

According to CPALC, complaints against Parish Councils, Councillors and Clerks are among the most frequently posted or searched questions on their website. The reasons behind this upsurge in complaints is unclear. Yet what is known, is the lack of understanding by both councils and residents.

Residents are quick to blame councillors, distrustful of their sincerity or integrity. They feel that councils have no interest in resolving problems that affect them. Councillors appear to take a cynical view that implies that residents are motivated purely by self-interest – nimbys. What these two groups often fail in, is ‘communication’ – talking to each other.

It would be unfair to say all councils treat complaints simply as an irritation and do their level best to ignore them. There are plenty of councils that have their own ‘complaints procedures’ set in place to ensure that both they and their residents are protected.

However, the complaints procedure will have been produced by the council and the procedure overseen by councillors. (See the Model Complaints Procedure) as a guide on how some councils may look at complaints. If residents feel they unlikely to get a fair hearing they should request an independent enquiry. Obviously this is it the council discretion, but a good council should give it consideration.

Contact your council

In the first instance, check with your council to see if a complaints procedure is available. If not, any serious complaints should be sent by letter or email to the Parish Clerk marked Confidential – Formal Complaint. Do not send it through individual councillors. The Clerk should acknowledge receipt of the complaint and inform the Chairman of the council. Should this involve the Chairman it must be referred to the Vice Chairman.

Sending an anonymous complaint will almost certainly be ignored.

Sending a letter as a matter of correspondence for the next full council meeting will ensure the matter is recorded and all councillors are made aware of the concerns a resident has. The Clerk is obliged to acknowledge receipt of the correspondence and its subject matter, within a reasonable time. Note, all letters of correspondence are a matter of public record and must be retained and made available to all residents at any time.

The code of conduct

Complaints against individual councillors that involve a breach of their code of conduct should be made to the Monitoring Officer of the District or Borough Council. The Monitoring Officer can only deal with Code of Conduct complaints. They will not deal with complaints outside of their remit. You will need to check your councils code of conduct before proceeding.

Council meetings

Although residents cannot speak at a council meeting whilst normal business (standing orders) is being conducted, nearly all councils allow some time during the meeting, usually around 15 minutes when standing orders are suspended. At which point the public are invited to address the council on any issues that concern them.

Some councils will only allow you to speak on subjects that relate to items on the agenda. Others are more open and generous and are happy to allow residents to bring any important parish issues to their attention.

However, this suspension of ‘standing orders’ is at the discretion of the Chairman of the council and he/she is not obliged to offer this time. The Chair also has the right to reintroduce standing orders at any time during the suspension and prevent any further discussion.

Speaking out against the council or a councillor may lead to the Chairman stepping in. Your time is short, so be brief and concise. You need your point to be minuted clearly.

Depending on the subject matter, a letter to the local newspaper can kick start a discussion at council meetings. However, for most newspapers, the subject needs to be something that is likely to interest a good number of its readership.

Whichever route you take, you must make any complaint in a clear and precise way.

Calling a Parish Council Meeting

Convening a Parish Meeting is not just the prerogative of the Chairman of the Parish Council or two councillors. A Parish Meeting can be called by six residents of a parish who have the right to vote at an election. Obtaining answers where the agenda is set by residents and not the council can be a way to address problems that many in the parish are concerned about. See Parish Meetings and Parish Polls.

The Local Government Ombudsman

Unfortunately, the name Local Government Ombudsman is a bit of a misnomer as they are unable to deal with complaints against the first tier of Local Government – Parish and Town councils. The Local Government Act prevents the authority investigating any issues that relate to these councils, unless it has an indirect link. They may consider a complaint about a parish or town council only if it is acting on behalf of another council, such as the District or County council.

In March 2015 (for one month), the government held a consultation known as ‘Strengthening parish and town council accountability’. “The Department for Communities and Local Government is consulting on proposals to extend the redress available to the public when they are let down by their local authority; by extending the jurisdiction of the Local Government Ombudsman to larger parish and town councils responsible for substantial sums of public money and whose decisions affect a large number of people.”

The aim, was to extend the remit of the Local Government Ombudsman to larger parish and town councils. See Extending the remit website for more information.

Freedom of information

If you require information that the council hold and refuse to make public, send a formal written request either by post or email to the Clerk and allow them a reasonable time to respond. If you don’t receive a response or they refuse to supply the information, you should make a further request, at which point you could state that under the Freedom of information Act, they have 20 working days in which to respond. If they again refuse to supply the document, they must give their reasons why they are unable or unwilling to do so. If their response is unsatisfactory or you do not receive any communication, you can approach the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for guidance.

The council’s responsibility
As well as responding to requests for information, local councils must publish information proactively. The Freedom of Information Act requires every public authority to have a publication scheme, approved by the ICO, and to publish information covered by the scheme. For more details on the Freedom of Information, click here.