Local government lawyers do not feel sufficiently protected to call out bad behaviour by councillors due to a ‘toothless’ sanctions regime, according to a landmark report on monitoring officers.
The monitoring officer is a statutory officer responsible for the council’s legal governance, whose role includes informally advising on and investigating allegations of misconduct. The post is often held by solicitors.
Research carried out by the Local Democracy Research Centre, practitioner group Lawyers in Local Government and law firm Browne Jacobson found that monitoring officers do not feel sufficiently protected to fulfil their governance function without fear of reprisal.
Their findings, unveiled at a Lawyers in Local Government conference last Friday, say: ‘The regime of standards and sanctions is widely seen as lacking teeth. Several of our interviewees told us that this is an area in serious need of reform as it leaves them with very little recourse even when dealing with proven cases of rule breaking. These include even serious, harmful and criminal actions by councillors or staff.’
One interviewee said a monitoring officer was referred to the Solicitors Regulation Authority following a ‘fractious’ encounter with their council. Another said: ‘If I was to make a code of conduct complaint against one of my councillors, that would end my career.’
In a foreword to the report, LLG president Rachel McKoy said the monitoring officer role is pivotal to the effective governance and lawful decision making in every local authority.
McKoy said: ‘Within England, for some time now, LLG has become increasingly concerned and frustrated about the difficult position monitoring officers have found themselves in whilst attempting to uphold ethical governance. Downgraded status, a lack of understanding about the role and the erosion of ethical standards have frequently featured in discussion with members. A lack of effective statutory protection for monitoring officers, the absence of meaningful sanctions, tensions with commercial objectives and a lack of seat at the top table have obfuscated speaking truth to power.’
The report calls for the sanctions regime to be strengthened and monitoring officers to sit higher within the council’s governance structure.