BLOG: Civility, equality, tolerance and the management of council meetings

Posted on 01/02/2024 by Ed Hammond.

It is a bit of a cliché to describe contemporary politics as “febrile”, but it is a convenient way in to a discussion about how positive – and negative – political behaviours and relationships can impact on the running of council meetings.

Formal, political spaces are places where political and personal disagreements – and animosities – can collide with unpredictable consequences. Councillors and officers will all be familiar with the sensations of discomfort and disquiet when ordinary political discourse goes beyond those grey, fuzzy, “acceptable” boundaries into something more insidious and unpleasant.

Being a councillor can be an isolating experience, and never more so than when you are on the receiving end of this kind of behaviour from your own peers. Sometimes this will happen outside meetings – often it will happen in them, and such behaviour is seen as part of the usual “rough and tumble” of politics.

Into this environment has come a new set of behaviours – sometimes brought by individuals and groups elected from outside the political mainstream, whether as independents or otherwise. Local opposition to a council’s actions and activities can result in people being elected to council who have an inherent mistrust of the authority – other members, and officers. It’s right that newcomers to elected membership bring with them challenge and robust scrutiny. However, we have noted in some cases that this attitude is rooted in conspiracy theorising about the council and its business, and a misapprehension even on election that behavioural standards that apply to others don’t apply to you. In short, it doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say that there is a small, but burgeoning, group of people who explicitly stand for election on a platform to “smash things up”.

In a world where we are trying to attract a wider range of people to stand for election we have to recognise that these behaviours can often be highly exclusionary. Council meetings can be alienating enough to those not familiar with the ins and outs of these odd, formal spaces, without having to come to terms with poor behaviour. A degree of tolerance is needed, on top of basic civility, reflecting the fact that people from different backgrounds and with different experiences will have different expectations about how debate and discussion should be conducted.

Part of this may involving shaking up the traditional way that this debate and discussion is managed in a “formal” setting. There is certainly a performative aspect to debate in committee (and especially at full Council) which encourages some to say and do things that they probably would not in a different environment.

Current arrangements to assure good conduct

Councils do have systems, and safeguards, for managing this behaviour – but they are limited in scope.

  • Matters can be dealt with through a political party’s disciplinary processes. This may range from forms of informal sanction and discipline to more serious action, which could include suspension or expulsion from the party in question;
  • Matters can be dealt with by the Monitoring Officer. Again, the MO’s actions can be informal – offering some words of advice to a councillor on their behaviour. Where a formal complaint is made, the matter will need to be formally investigated – by the MO or by an independent person. We understand that – in some councils – management of member behaviour and member complaints dominate MOs’ day to day activities.

People have touted two solutions to what feels like a burgeoning problem.

Firstly, a strengthening of the existing standards regime. Councillors are obliged to conform with local Codes of Conduct, with many councils now adopted the content of the LGA’s Model Code of Conduct, last updated in 2020. But the sanctions regime attached to the Code is weak, and many have suggested the re-establishment of a national body – something like the Standards Board for England, abolished in 2010 – which would be able to dole out more stringent punishments. Of course, we have to remember that one of the reasons for the Standards Board’s unpopularity was the tendency for tit-for-tat complaints between councillors to be escalated to the national level, resulting in lengthy, drawn-out and (according to some) unfair results.

The second approach is focused on cultural change and understanding. This is where exhortations of civility, and tolerance, come in. The LGA have – with partners in other UK jurisdictions – developed and promoted a “Civility in Public Life” campaign, using the slogan “Debate Not Hate”. But while a lot of material has been produced at national level to support improvement, it is only at local level that individual behaviours can change.

This puts a responsibility on individual councils – senior officers and councillors – to understand and manage things locally.

This can be a particular challenge because – as we know – all it can sometimes take is a single councillor with a poor sense of what is, and isn’t, acceptable to make life miserable for others. Conversely, it can be quite possible to use calls for “civility” as a cudgel to prevent people from fair, reasonable challenge – especially where that challenge may be made legitimately but robustly. Members and officers need a sophisticated degree of political acuity to be able to manage these dynamics.

Practically handling behaviour

It is in council meetings where poor conduct and behaviour is most obvious – particularly at full Council. There is a particular duty on Chairs to be able to manage and handle difficult behaviour within meetings – this relies particular skill and confidence to be able to do, because calling out and challenging certain behaviour can further enflame tensions.

Both in and outside meetings what is really needed is a meeting of minds – a collective understanding (held by most if not all councillors, and backed up by officers) around what the acceptable bounds of debate are. For this reason, meaningful debate on the content of the Code of Conduct, and on the formal and informal systems that underpin it, need to be part of meaningful member training on this issue. Rather than adopting the Model Code wholesale, councils might use it as a jumping-off point for conversations about what good conduct looks like locally.

This might include clarity on matters like:

  • Do we expect different standards of conduct in different “spaces”?
  • What does robust challenge and scrutiny look like in practice?
  • Do we accept that there are limits to the kinds of behaviours that are appropriate in exerting that challenge and scrutiny?
  • In particular, do we accept that garrulous, antagonistic or otherwise adversarial conduct can hinder effective scrutiny?
  • Given all of the above, how do we identify a common set of behaviours that we are all able to sign up – and hold each other to account on?

Other relationships

This blog has talked so far only about relationships between members – but there are two other components to this story as well.

The first is councillors’ relationship with the public. The immediacy of councillors’ presence in their local communities makes them uniquely vulnerable to harassment. Often, though, the assumption is that councillors should simply accept this as part of the “job”.

Very recently, in the Court of Appeal, in the case of R v Casserly [2024] EWCA Crim 25 the court considered an appeal against a conviction for an offence against the Malicious Communications Act, in respect of a member of the public who wrote a personally offensive e-mail to a member of a town council. Overturning the conviction, the Lady Chief Justice, Lady Carr, said,

“When people are expressing themselves in a political context the law expects those who receive the communications to have a thicker skin than those who are ordinary citizens […] It would only be possible for the communication to be grossly offensive if, in the jury’s judgment, it went well beyond robust scrutiny of an elected councillor in the performance of the role to which she was elected.”

Councils can place restrictions of members of the public’s ability to contact certain councillors directly, but judgments like this – which rested on assertions of Article 10 rights to free speech – challenge those approaches.

The second issue is councillors’ relationship with officers. Here councillors can be perpetrators of poor behaviour. Member-officer protocols are meant to provide for certainty in how relationships are managed, but inevitably they can’t provide for all circumstances. In some councils, the member-officer power dynamic means that speaking out to challenge poor behaviour can be difficult. Equally, members can be on the receiving end of unacceptable behaviour by officers – officers can and do belittle members, and can push back unreasonably and antagonistically at reasonable requests, and reasonable challenge. All of these behaviours can present themselves wherever officers and members interact – not just in formal meetings – which makes managing these dynamics a real challenge. Councils will not wish to unreasonably restrict the circumstances in which members and officers should interact – effective and productive interaction between members and officers being the way that authorities get their business done. 

All of these relationships – involving members, officers, and the public – and the behaviour that supports them are not something that a council’s constitution can easily legislate for. The most important thing here is to remember that personal behaviour is a personal choice, and it is possible to choose to behave differently. Your desire for a certain outcome does not dictate that a particular kind of behaviour is necessary to achieve that outcome – sometimes, challenging and oppositional behaviour might help in those ends, and often it won’t. On the councillor side, this will often come down to the political judgement of individuals. From the officer perspective, we have to ensure that councillors have the tools and reflective spaces available to make those judgements in an informed way.

This material has been produced with funding from HM Government

About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.