Abuse of council complaints system

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INDIVIDUALS and pressure groups are abusing council complaints procedures, often over frivolous matters, to waste time and money, it has been claimed.

As one example an unnamed individual in Whitby has made 41 separate complaints – over matters such as councillors not answering emails quickly enough and alleged code of conduct breaches – which if investigated fully could have cost up to £82,000.

The issue was highlighted at a recent meeting of Scarborough Council’s Audit Committee and the information was contained in a report prepared by Ian Anderson, the council’s head of legal services.

According to the report there were a total of 61 complaints, since May 2008, against councils including: Scarborough Council, Whitby Town Council, Muston Parish Council, Eastfield Parish Council, Goathland Parish Council, Seamer Parish Council and Hunmanby Parish Council.

Cllr Bill Chatt, the committee chairman, said that the person from Whitby had made 18 complaints about individual town councillors at one meeting. He added: “With complaints there is a lot of information required. How much does it cost to take forward?”

Ian Anderson, the council’s head of legal and support services, said that the cost of a full investigation and hearing would typically be between £1,500 and £2,000 – but if mediation was used to resolve the issue it was around £500.

He added: “We’ve had quite a few complaints and a very small number have been referred for investigation. We are well in line with it. With those that have been investigated there was little alternative. The process has been positive.”

Mr Anderson said the complaints initially went to a referral committee and it was rare that they went any further.

Cllr Chatt added: “I do know we’ve had more than 40 complaints from the northern area that haven’t gone any further. Members of the public are using these mechanisms to beat councillors down.”

He said that small pressure groups had used the complaints process on a regular basis and some had been as trivial as not answering an email quickly enough.

“There’s nothing wrong with good standards but where is the protection for members and officers? Because I hadn’t responded I was referred to standards. It makes you feel like you have your back against the wall,” he said.

“At the moment small groups are complaining about everything that goes wrong and the cost can be quite phenomenal. If somebody is doing something wrong they should be brought to book but we don’t want this cost getting out of hand. At the end of the day we are not paying for it, it is the local rate payers.”

Committee member Michael Goode said that integrity and reputation could be lost in an instant. He added: “It’s important that the public are trusting in what the council does. What price integrity? It’s something that you can’t put a value on really.”

Cllr Chatt said that councillors and officers had also been the target of allegations through social networking sites such as Facebook.

And Cllr Godfrey Allanson agreed it was easy to lose reputation when complaints were being made and there should be safeguards against people who made repeated frivolous complaints. He said: “We’ve got to watch the costs but if it means that justice is done then it is so important.“

Cllr Svetlana Rodgers said if a complaint was investigated, and it was found there was no case to answer, then the complainant should foot the bill.

Mr Anderson said the cost was currently the responsibility of the council it was not like a court case where there was a winner and a loser.