Clare Hardy 05 November 2019

Preventing and tackling abuse of councillors

Most councillors will be used to working in situations where people disagree with them but they can usually expect their communication with other people to be polite. Sometimes though, councillors are the subject of verbal abuse and the variety of types of communication and their ability to reach large audiences means that such abuse can have a powerful impact.

Sometimes this can be sufficient to make councillors stand down from their positions as councillors or to deter new candidates from standing. Recently, the situation at Carrington Parish Council became so bad that all the councillors resigned because of the abuse that they had experienced and the parish council has been dissolved.

In these circumstances, the services provided by a parish council will continue, as functions can transfer to the district council which dissolves the parish council. If a parish council is not at the stage of needing to be dissolved but is short of councillors, action can be taken to fill casual vacancies or for the district council to appoint councillors.

However, the issue of abuse of councillors is of wider concern, as this could prove to be a widespread deterrent to people wanting to serve as councillors, leading to a shortage of councillors and a lack of diversity. Parish councils and local authorities generally should consider whether they have any problems and identify what action they could take to tackle and prevent abuse of councillors.

Abuse can vary in its nature and strength but in some cases it could amount to a criminal offence. In those circumstances, local authorities should encourage their members to report the abuse to the police and to co-operate with any action that the police take to investigate and respond to incidents. Even if communication stops short of involving criminal activity, it could have a significant effect on the ability of a councillor or a local authority to fulfil their responsibilities effectively, particularly if there is a sustained pattern of verbal abuse. A local authority could address that by requiring a person to restrict their communication to a specified contact at the local authority.

In other situations, councillors might have grounds to pursue claims against people who subject them to verbal abuse, seeking damages or injunctions to prevent future bad behaviour. Local authorities can encourage their members to make use of their rights and support them where possible. However, if members seek financial support, local authorities will need to be careful to act within their powers, in particular taking account of the prohibition on providing members with indemnities against the costs of making claims of defamation.

Sometimes inappropriate use of language might arise between members of a local authority or between members and officers. Local authorities should ensure that their codes of conduct are sufficiently strong to address such behaviour and that the local authorities themselves are robust in investigating and taking action over alleged breaches of those codes. They should also provide information and training to make clear to members and officers the standards of conduct that are expected of them and the action that could be taken against them if they fail to meet those standards.

If abuse towards councillors comes from members of the public, local authorities might find it useful to explore the reasons for this. There is no excuse for rudeness and personal attacks but occurrence of these might show dissatisfaction within local communities over particular actions or policies of local authorities. They will need to take immediate action to address the abuse but in the longer term they should also consider whether they think it is appropriate to make changes to address any general concerns that have been revealed.

Local authorities need to be strong and robust in addressing abuse against their councillors. By doing so, they will tackle any immediate concern caused by abuse and encourage people to consider becoming councillors in the future.

Clare Hardy is senior associate in Public Law at Geldards LLP

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