Decision Maker: Standards Hearing Panel
Decision status: Recommendations Approved
Is Key decision?: No
Is subject to call in?: No
The Hearing Panel of the Joint Standards Committee gave consideration to an allegation that a borough councillor had breached the Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council Code of Conduct. The Panel was asked to consider whether Councillor M Hood (the ‘Subject Member’) had breached the provisions of the Code of Conduct in relation to the following Member Obligation:
Paragraph 3 General obligations
(2) you must not:
…(d) disclose information given to you in confidence by anyone, or information acquired by you which you believe, or ought reasonably to be aware, is of a confidential nature, except where:
(i) you have the written consent of a person authorised to give it; or
(ii) you are required by law to do so; or
(iii) the disclosure is made to a third party for the purpose of obtaining professional advice provided that the third party agrees not to disclose the information to any other person; or
(iv) the disclosure is:
• reasonable and in the public interest; and
• made in good faith and in compliance with the reasonable requirements of the Authority
The Panel received the report of the external independent investigator (Investigating Officer), Mr R Lingard of Richard Lingard LLB, who had been appointed to carry out the investigation into the allegation. The report, dated 7 September 2023, contained details of the relevant legislation and protocols, evidence gathered and witness statements and was presented by Mr R Lingard. The Investigating Officer’s report found that, on the balance of probabilities, the Subject Member had breached paragraph 3 (2) (d) of the Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council Code of Conduct.
In addition to the Investigating Officer’s report, the Panel received and had regard to a written statement submitted by the Independent Person, Mr D Mercier, who concurred with paragraph 8.10 of the Investigating Officer's report, in particular his finding that the timing of a direction of confidentiality was irrelevant if it still occurred within a relevant meeting or event. In the view of the Independent Person, it was clear that, at least on some level, and by all accounts, Councillor M Boughton (the ‘Complainant’) provided such a direction or request during the workshop. Coupled with the wording of the briefing note, which the Subject Member received prior to the meeting, the Independent Person agreed that, on the balance of probabilities, the Subject Member had breached the Code by virtue of disclosing information that he was either aware or ought to have been reasonably aware was confidential.
The Panel had regard to all the evidence, including the Investigating Officer’s report and the evidence given by the Subject Member, and having taken into account the views of the Independent Person, concluded, on the balance of probabilities on the evidence presented to it, that in relation to paragraph 3 (2) (d):
(1) the nature of the consultant workshop in question was confidential; and
(2) the Subject Member had disclosed information acquired from the confidential workshop to the public on social media.
The Panel therefore found that the Subject Member had breached the Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council Code of Conduct.
Having found that there had been a breach of the Code of Conduct the adopted arrangements for dealing with complaints required that the Panel heard representations from the Monitoring Officer and the Independent Person on whether there should be any sanctions imposed.
The Panel received and had regard to a further written statement of the Independent Person in relation to sanctions. In coming to its conclusions on the sanctions the Panel again had regard to the legal advice provided and was mindful of the need to impose reasonable and proportionate sanctions. Additionally the Panel had regard to the following factors:
(1) the Subject Member had sought advice from the Monitoring Officer before disclosing the confidential information on social media. He was therefore aware that disclosure of the information would be likely to constitute a breach of the Code of Conduct;
(2) the Subject Member could not confirm that the incident would not be repeated in the future;
(3) no apology had been given by the Subject Member to any affected persons; and
(4) the Subject Member had not previously breached the Borough Council Code of Conduct.
The Hearing Panel therefore
RESOLVED: That the following sanction be imposed:
(1) the Panel’s Findings be reported to the Full Council at its next ordinary meeting.
The Panel further recommended that consideration be given to the format of the workshops/informal meetings of such nature in the future, with particular reference made to notes and guidance provided for Members.
Publication date: 12/02/2024
Date of decision: 08/12/2023
Decided at meeting: 08/12/2023 - Standards Hearing Panel