Complaint Number: LA/Fi/1897
Date case started: 12 May 2016
Decision issued: 29 Sep 2016
Allegation against: Councillors John Beare and David Alexander
Complaint Category: 3.2
Nature of allegation
Breach of the provisions in the Councillors’ Code of Conduct set out in section 3 (General Conduct) of the Code.
Decision by Commissioner
Decision that Councillor John Beare and Councillor David Alexander have not contravened the Councillors’ Code of Conduct.
NOTE OF DECISION WEB VERSION
Complaint no. LA/Fi/1897 concerning an alleged contravention of the Councillors’ Code of Conduct by Councillors John Beare and David Alexander of Fife Council
1. Complaint number LA/Fi/1897 alleged a contravention of the Councillors’ Code of Conduct (“the Code”) by Councillors John Beare and David Alexander (“the respondents”).
2. It was alleged that the respondents hadcontravened the Code, in particular, paragraph 3.2 of the Code.
3. The person complaining (“the complainer”), Councillor Bill Brown, alleged that the respondents at meetings of Fife Council and the Glenrothes Area Committee of Fife Council showed disrespect to the respective chairs.
4. Councillor John Beare is a member of the Scottish National Party and was first elected to Fife Council on 29 September 2006 at a by-election. He is Chair of the Standards and Audit Committee and also the Fife Planning Review Body. He is also a member of the Central Area Planning Committee, the Education, Health and Social Care Scrutiny Committee, the Finance and Corporate Services Policy Advisory Group and the Glenrothes Area Committee.
5. Councillor David Alexander is also a member of the Scottish National Party and was first elected as a councillor for Kirkcaldy District Council in 1988 and to Fife Council in 1996. He is a member of Central Area Committee, the Council’s Executive Committee, the Finance and Corporate Services Policy Advisory Group and the Levenmouth Area Committee.
6. The complainer, Councillor Bill Brown, was elected to Fife Council in 2012 as a member of the Scottish National Party. He resigned from the Scottish National Party after the general election of 2015 and remained on the Council as an Independent.
7. Fife Council is made up of 33 Labour councillors, 26 Scottish National Party councillors, 10 Liberal Democrat councillors, 3 Conservative councillors and 10 Independents. The Council has a minority Labour administration.
8. The complainer has raised three separate incidents.
9. The first arose at the meeting of Fife Council on 18 February 2016. The complainer alleged that both respondents “raised their voices on a number of occasions and when the Provost, who was chairing the meeting, asked them to be quiet and sit down, they ignored him and continued.” In his view they showed “total disrespect” to the Council, the Chair and other councillors.
10. The second respondent, Councillor David Alexander, described the allegation as “bizarre”. He said that he had an excellent relationship with the Provost, whom he described as “the fairest Provost” he had worked with, and that there was a lot of good natured banter because of their mutual interest in Dunfermline Athletic Football Club. At the meeting on 18 February 2016, the second respondent was the SNP spokesperson for finance. At the commencement of his speech there were a number of points of order from the Labour benches which resulted in councillors standing up and sitting down and some confusion. There was however, no shouting or speaking over the Provost. The second respondent made the point that the Provost had not submitted a complaint - which he felt was significant. He also felt that the complaint was politically motivated.
11. The first respondent, Councillor John Beare, said that he had little or no recollection of the meeting or making interventions of any kind. He said his practice is to request to speak and to address the chamber from a standing position. He had no recollection of any Provost ever having to ask him to resume his seat. He also pointed out that the complainer had not chosen to make his complaint to the Chief Executive of the Council, which would have allowed the matters complained of to be resolved in-house.
12. The officers at the meeting had nothing in their notes about any significant incident and one said that she could not think of an instance where a request by the Provost to sit down had been repeatedly ignored by a councillor.
13. The second incident took place at the special budget meeting of Fife Council on 25 February 2016. The complainer said that the first respondent, Councillor John Beare, at one point waved a “No Thanks” mug high above his head when a member of the Labour Party was talking. The complainer felt that this must have been planned in advance. A Labour Councillor was rebuked for calling Councillor Beare a “clown”. Councillor Beare was asked why he was waving the mug and replied that it was a “poisoned chalice”. According to the complainer, he was asked to apologise and said that if it offended anyone he apologised. In the complainer’s view this was not an apology and did not excuse his behaviour.
14. According to Councillor Beare the incident with the mug was a spur of the moment thing. His office is close to the chamber and he decided to get it and use it in connection with a point about proposed cuts in the Council’s budget. He said that, contrary to the complainer’s version, he was not asked to apologise for bringing it in to the chamber but was asked by the Provost to put it away. His recollection is that he immediately acquiesced to the Provost’s request and apologised to the Provost if it had caused any offence and removed it from the chamber.
15. The officers noted that the incident with the mug had taken place. One officer recorded that it was at a point in the meeting when temperatures were high and that the Provost had intervened and asked all members to have regard to their behaviour.
16. The third incident took place at the meeting of the Glenrothes Area Committee on 9 March 2016. The complainer said that Councillor Beare continually raised “points of order” and talked over him as the Committee chair. He felt that these were deliberate attempts to disrupt the meeting. At one point he had to adjourn the meeting to discuss the situation with the Committee Services Manager. On re-convening, he asked Councillor Beare if he wished to challenge his ruling. According to the complainer he declined but continued to argue referring to another standing order.
17. In his response Councillor Beare said the complainer had, since being appointed convenor of the Committee, demonstrated an inability to chair meetings and a lack of knowledge about Standing Orders and meeting procedures. Councillor Beare could not recall why the complainer chose to suspend the meeting and seek advice from the Committee Services Manager. He did recall, on the resumption of the meeting, that the complainer invoked Standing Order 62 and when the complainer invited him to speak, Councillor Beare referred to the need to take into account Standing Order 61 which refers to the need to ensure that members have a fair hearing. He did not believe he was argumentative or disrespectful or spoke over the complainer. He also stated that it was his duty to hold the administration and officers up to appropriate scrutiny and he would be failing in his duty if he did not do so.
18. The minute of the meeting makes no mention of the suspension of proceedings. Two officers took handwritten notes. In only one of them was there mention of a point of order which was simply recorded as “point of order 61/62”.
19. The complainer alleged that Councillor John Beare and Councillor David Alexander contravened the Councillors’ Code of Conduct, as outlined in paragraphs 3, 8, 9, 13 and 16.
20. The complainer alleged in respect of both respondents that at a meeting of Fife Council on 18 February 2016 they raised their voices on a number of occasions and ignored the request of the Provost to be quiet and sit down. The complainer also alleges in respect of the first respondent, Councillor John Beare, that he also showed disrespect at two further meetings. The first was the Council meeting of 25 February 2016 and the second was on 9 March 2016 at a meeting of Glenrothes Area Committee chaired by the complainer.
21. A greater latitude requires to be given to political debate than other interchanges to allow democratic accountability to take place in the public interest. It would not be in the public interest to unduly inhibit that process. In terms of paragraph 3.2 of the Councillors’ Code of Conduct a balance therefore requires to be struck between the need to show respect and the need to allow the political process to take place.
22. In respect of the incident on 18 February 2016 the complainer said that the respondents raised their voices and failed to comply with a ruling from the Provost. Raised voices in political debate are not unusual and by itself would not amount to a breach of the Code. The fact that the Provost, according to the complainer, only intervened once implies that there was not any sustained disregard of his authority and arguably no disregard if no further intervention from him took place. Accordingly I found there was no breach of the Code in respect of this incident.
23. Similarly, with the incident at the meeting on 25 March 2016, however theatrical the gesture by the first respondent was, it appeared that he responded to the intervention from the Provost and gave some sort of apology which presumably was considered sufficient by the Provost as nothing further was reported to suggest otherwise. Again I concluded that no breach of the Code had taken place in respect of this incident.
24. Although the complainer complained about the first respondent “continually” raising points of order and speaking over him as chair at the meeting of 9 March, he only cites one incident and that is in respect of a single point of order. The officer’s notes referred to only one such challenge in the meeting in question. The ability to make points of order is a fundamental part of political debate, to allow participants to challenge the way proceedings are being conducted, and great caution requires to be exercised before reaching the conclusion that raising points of order could constitute a breach of paragraph 3.2 of the Code. It certainly could not be justified on the basis of the evidence of one such event. There was nothing in the description of the event by the complainer which suggested that the first respondent behaved in any extreme way and accordingly I concluded that there was no breach of the Code in respect of the final incident alleged by the complainer.
25. Having considered the information that arose from my investigation, I concluded that, Councillors John Beare and David Alexander had not contravened the Councillors’ Code of Conduct.
91 Haymarket Terrace
29 September 2016