Telford & Wrekin Council’s standards committee has discussed a model rulebook, drafted by the Local Government Association to be considered for adoption by local autghorities.
Anthea Lowe, the monitoring officer in charge of handling disciplinary complaints, said the borough’s existing code covers occasions when councillors are consciously acting or speaking in their roles, but the proposed rules widen the scope to include times “reasonable members of the public” might think they were.
She said this extension was “a source of some of the disquiet” among her opposite numbers elsewhere, and committee member Peter Scott sought reassurance he would still be entitled to express “private opinions” publicly.
The Committee for Standards in Public Life published a report on ethics in local government in 2019.
The LGA responded by producing a model code of conduct in December 2020. Telford & Wrekin’s current members’ code was last updated in 2015.
Ms Lowe quoted a section of the LGA code that said it “applies when a councillor is acting in the position of councillor and when the actions of the councillor give the impression, to a reasonable member of the public who knows all of the facts, that they are acting as a councillor”.
She added: “When you’re acting in your position you are subject to the code of conduct, no different to now, but the second part of that sentence does extend it to an extent into your private life or your personal life.
“It applies to all forms of interactions and communications.”
Councillor Scott, an independent member who represents Newport North and West, said he has social media accounts clearly labelled as “Councillor Peter Scott” where he talks about “things I think pertain to the role” and personal ones where he speaks his mind “about anything and anybody”.
“As long as I am not violently rude and offensive, I would be concerned that an extension would allow people to silence me, in a sense,” he said.
Ms Lowe said: “I have these complaints now where people say ‘It was their personal page but they’re clearly a councillor, I know they’re a councillor, so this should be looked at’.
“If you were to say on your personal account, ‘As Councillor Peter Scott, I am saying X, Y or Z’, the code would bite. It would now.
“I think there is a risk as it is drafted at the minute that it would open the floodgates for complaints. It then puts me or any monitoring officer in a difficult position, having to navigate whether the code applies in each circumstance.”
Councillor Scott asked: “If I, on my personal page, making it clear they are my personal views and not those as a councillor, say ‘I think this decision by the government is an absolute disgrace’, have I contravened any rules?”
Ms Lowe said this was allowed, but might cross the line “if you referenced your position and did something that breached the code”.
She said: “If you added some expletives and also said you were a councillor, the code of conduct would bite, and it would now, I would say.”
Ms Lowe will present an amended code based on the LGA version to the committee in April.