With a new cohort of councillors set to join the ranks of Northern Ireland’s local authorities following May’s local government elections, agendaNi outlines the key considerations of the Code of Conduct for Councillors.
The move to reform of local government in Northern Ireland in 2014 brought about fundamental change, in the shape of the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 2014. A significant element of that change was the introduction of a new ethical standards framework for local government. A key element of the framework was a mandatory Code of Conduct for Councillors.
Where previously councillors in Northern Ireland were guided by the non-mandatory Northern Ireland Code of Local Government Conduct, the 2014 Act not only introduced a mandatory code but also imposed requirements for councillors to observe the code and established mechanisms for the investigation and adjudication of written complaints of failure to comply with the code.
The code applies to elected members of a council but also to those filling vacancies between elections and non-voting members of a committee, or sub committee, of a council. It also applies to members of an overview and scrutiny committee, or sub-committee of such a committee, of a council.
It applies to councillors who are conducting or present at council business; acting in the role of councillor; or representing the council. Importantly, the code applies not only to a person but also their written and verbal communications.
The code consists of 12 principles, intended to promote the highest possible standards of behaviour, and a number of rules, which are the practical application of these principles.
The 12 principles are: Public duty; selflessness; integrity; objectivity; accountability; openness; honesty; leadership; equality; promoting good relations; respect; and good working relationships.
Those under the code are obliged to act: lawfully; in accordance with the code; and in accordance with the standing orders of their council. In addition, councillors must not bring themselves or their council in to disrepute, a rule which applies at all times. Councillors are also expected to regularly review personal circumstances in relation to conflicts of interest and take steps to mitigate against those.
Other obligations include complying with Commissioner requests in relation to investigations, not making “vexatious, malicious or frivolous” complaints against other councillor/council staff and cooperating with the compiling of the council’s annual accounts.
The code places responsibility on councillors to be aware of their council’s equality legislation and the obligations set out in the council’s equality scheme.
While councillors are legally allowed to express political opinions, in doing so they should have regard for the Principles of Conduct and not express opinions in conflict with them.
Behaviour towards others
The code sets out that councillors must: show respect and considerations for others; not use bullying behaviour or harass any person; and not do anything which compromises, or which is likely to compromise, the impartiality of those who work for, or on behalf of, the council.
Disclosure of information and use of position
Councillors are bound not to disclose information of a confidential nature without consent or unless they are required to do so by law. At the same time, they must not use their position to secure an advantage, seek preferential treatment or avoid disadvantage.
Councillors are limited in their use of council resources and must also observe council rules governing expenses and allowances. In terms of the acceptance and registration of gifts and hospitality, councillor must provide written notification to the Chief Executive, within 28 days, of receipt and nature of a “gift, hospitality, material benefit or service”. Councillors must not accept these for themselves or any person if it places them under “improper obligation” and must discourage gifts and offers of hospitality to family members that might place them, or appear to place them, under an improper obligation.
For incoming councillors, the code stipulates that councillors must, within 28 days of election, register personal interests (both financial and otherwise) through written notification to the Chief Executive. The categories for interests include (see right).
On pecuniary interests (relating to or consisting of money), councillors must declare interests, direct or indirect, in any matter coming before a meeting of council. Councillors are banned from speaking or voting on these matters and if the matter is discussed a councillor must withdraw from the meeting during the discussion. Councillors must also declare any significant private or personal non-pecuniary interest in a matter arising at a council meeting. This includes the anticipation that a decision might reasonably be deemed to benefit or disadvantage the councillor to a greater extent than other council constituents.
Lobbying and access
The code outlines the need to encourage participation in the decision-making process but also to take account of the need to “ensure transparency and probity in the way in which the council conducts its business”. Councillors must make clear that they are not in a position to lend support for or against and direct representations to the appropriate council department if they are lobbied on matters such as applications made under regulatory powers or of a quasi-judicial nature. If asked to decide on such matters, councillors must not organise support for or against; lobby other councillors; or comply with political group decisions which differ from their own views.
Planning powers were devolved to local authorities under the local government reform and while parts one to eight of the code of conduct came into force on 28 May 2014, part nine (planning) didn’t come into force until 1 April 2015. The code is intended to assist councillors in balancing the interests of developers and interest groups with taking planning decisions, by applying their local knowledge and the advice and guidance of planning officers “in a fair, impartial and transparent way, for the benefit of the whole community”.
The code applies to councillors at all times when involved in the planning process, including decision-making meetings of the council and meetings with officer or the public. It applies equally to local plan development and planning enforcement as it does to planning.
Planning committee members who wish to make representation on behalf of constituents or other parties must not take part in the voting. Councillors must not apply “undue pressure” to planning officers on any planning decision and must not propose, second or support a decision contrary to a local development plan unless doing so “on the basis of sound planning considerations”.
If Councillors have substantial land, property or the other interests which would prevent them from voting on a regular basis, they must not sit on a decision-making committee that deals with planning applications.
The Department has produced separate guidance on how the code applies to councillors when dealing with planning matters.