Agenda item


To receive the Monitoring Officer’s Annual Report which summarises the key matters arising from the Monitoring Officer’s work for the District Council from 1 April 2018 to 31 March 2019 and comments on other current issues.


The Monitoring Officer introduced the Report and informed Members that the role came with a number of statutory functions outlined in the Constitution designed to ensure satisfactory governance of the Council. As a requirement of the annual audit process, the Report had been completed to provide an overview of these functions from April 2018 to March 2019.


Questions and Discussion


The Monitoring Officer informed Members that the Code of Corporate Governance was the key framework to which the organisation must adhere, that would ensure that the Council met specific ethical and governance standards. The Monitoring Officer stated that she was obliged to report unlawfulness to the Council, and could postpone any potentially unlawful decisions.


A recent change in procedure to improve the Council’s governance arrangements was explained that involved reports from business planning meetings being reviewed by CLT, after which officers could provide appropriate advice. Members were informed that this process helped to produce legally defensible decisions, and identify when  delegated authority was required.


The Monitoring Officer reported that there had been no unlawfulness in the year covered by the Report, and no Section 5 Reports completed as a result. In addition, there had been no incidents of maladministration, and no complaints regarding breaches of the Code of Conduct.


It was reported that the Council maintained the register of interests for Parish and Town Councils, though the Council’s themselves had responsibility for submitting and updating the registers. Members were informed that the Council also reviewed any standards complaints made at Parish or Town level, with 23 of 24 complaints received in the 2018/19 year at Parish level. It was reported that these complaints often pertained to Parish meeting procedure, in which case NNDC offered advice for improvements.


Members were informed that there had been no breaches of the Council’s protocols, and that the Member-Officer Protocol had been updated in the Constitution. Furthermore, there had been no complaints of fraud or impropriety with regards to the whistleblowing process.


The Monitoring Officer referred to the advice on vires issues, maladministration, financial impropriety, probity and policy, and informed Members that discussions had taken place around improving the Council’s governance framework. She added that the issues raised were being addressed in a number of ways, including the creation of a Corporate Delivery Unit that would provide a governance framework for individual projects and processes. It was stated that work was also underway to improve the role of the O&S and GRAC Committees, to offer a more robust assessment of new proposals, with monitoring, reviews and outcome setting given considerable attention for improvement.


On exemptions under standing orders, which covered issues such as tender levels and when to tender, the Monitoring Officer stated that exemptions were permitted under special circumstances, for instance the continued use of specialist contractors. In these cases, exemptions could be justified and agreed by the Section 151 and Monitoring Officer.


Members were informed that no litigation cases had taken place in 2018/19, though it was possible that one case could be expected this year, which was currently at the discovery stage.


The Monitoring Officer stated that the key controls had been adequate for 2018/19, though it was apparent that some improvements were needed that would take time to implement.


The Monitoring Officer commented on the period of no overall political control, and suggested that processes had become an important means of ensuring balance, though once the political situation stabilised, there was a diminution in the number of complaints received.


The Chairman thanked the Monitoring Officer for the detailed report and welcomed questions from Members. Cllr N Dixon referred to the number of complaints outlined on page 3 of the agenda, and asked whether these could be further defined. The Monitoring Officer agreed to the request and stated that decision notices could also be shared with Committee Members to provide extra detail.


Cllr N Dixon referred to the exemptions identified on page 6 of the agenda, and asked how they had been authorised. The Monitoring Officer replied that some had gone to Full Council for a decision, though in cases of emergency, they would generally go to Cabinet. She added that on amounts of £5-10k, three quotes were required, though as previously noted, in situations of exemption these could be justified and agreed by the S151 and Monitoring Officer.


Cllr L Shires referred to the complaints identified on page 3, and noted that she had attended Parish meetings where unnecessary information had been disclosed. Subsequently, she asked what could be done to avoid potential bias in these situations, to which the Monitoring Officer replied that such information should remain confidential until the point that guilt is found. She added that Members could be excused from Committee meetings if hearings took place regarding their parishes. Cllr L Shires stated that the complaints process appeared to suggest that a reply should be received within fifteen days of complaint, though it was apparent that Parish Councils did not adhere to these times. The Monitoring Officer replied that Parish Council’s had no statutory role in the complaints process and that all actions should be deferred to the District Council.


Cllr J Rest asked for clarification on whether the first priority in dealing with a complaint was to protect the reputation of the Council. The Monitoring Officer replied that the first priority was to ensure good governance, and significant efforts were to made to this effect. Cllr J Rest then asked if most complaints were Member to Member, to which the Monitoring Officer replied that this was not necessarily the case, with some complaints made by members of the public or officers. She added that complaints from Parish Councils were frequently the result of arguments between Members, where robust debate was expected and often permissible.


Cllr J Rest raised the significant increase in Freedom of Information Requests (FOIR) on councillors, and asked whether Members were notified of these requests. The Monitoring Officer replied that FOIRs did not cover personal data, so requests on individual Members were often rejected. Some exceptions, such as payment of Council Tax were upheld, as Members were not permitted to vote on budget setting if in Council Tax arrears. Transcripts of conversations were discussed as a subject of FOIR, and it was explained that the requests were often rejected as a result of GDPR legislation. It was confirmed, following a question from Cllr J Rest, that follow-up notifications should be given to Members once FOIR information had been released.


Cllr N Dixon asked whether there was any indication that FOIRs were being used inappropriately. The Monitoring Officer replied that this had occurred, and that often requests were submitted in an attempt to gather more information than required. She added that Members were granted access to information on a need to know basis, whilst the O&S and GRAC Committees were granted additional access to carry-out their role. Members were reminded that maintaining the balance between protecting privacy vs the public interest, meant that all FOIRs had to be given careful consideration. Cllr Dixon asked what could be done to limit any unnecessary FOIRs being submitted, and whether training on access to information could be offered. The Monitoring Officer replied that there had been recent cases to suggest that training could be beneficial, taking into account that FOIRs gave an open right for information to be used by the press and public. Cllr N Dixon proposed that the Committee make a recommendation for training to improve Members’ knowledge of the FOIR process.


The Chairman referred to unclear governance procedures as a common cause of complaints, and asked for clarification on the consequences of incorrect decision making at parish level as a result of bad process. The Monitoring Officer replied that in the case of Parish Councils, where administratively incorrect decisions were made, the District Council had few powers to take action, but would offer advice for improvement.


Cllr L Shires asked whether NNDC officers were confident in rejecting unnecessary requests for information from Members. The Monitoring Officer replied that officers had to be able to carry-out their roles without being pressured to provide unnecessary information, and that whilst more officers were seeking advice on this issue, information relating to policy proposals presented a difficult position. It was suggested that maintaining a good relationship between Committee Chairman and Cabinet allowed for a more constructive approach to policy development that overcame the causes of suspicion that led to such requests.


Cllr J Rest suggested that there was an issue with Members attendance, and it was unfortunate that important meetings were being missed. Cllr N Dixon stated that the concerns were more significant for Standards Committee as it met less often. The Chairman suggested that the opportunity should be taken to improve meeting attendance. Cllr L Shires suggested that a recommendation be made to Council to reminded Members of their obligation to attend meetings, send apologies and arrange substitutes.


It was proposed by Cllr N Dixon that recommendations be made to the Members Development Group for training to be offered on access to information, and that a recommendation be made to Council to remind Members of their obligation to attend meetings, give apologies and arrange substitutes. Cllr J Rest seconded the proposals.




1.    To note the Monitoring Officer’s Annual Report.


2.    To recommend to the Members Development Group that training on access to information be offered to Members.


3.    To recommend to Council that Members be reminded of their obligation to attend meetings, give apologies and arrange substitutes.

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