The Committee considered a report of the Head of Legal and Democratic Services and Monitoring Officer which informed the Committee of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) ‘Debate Not Hate: The Impact of Abuse on Local Democracy” (the Report) (for copy see file of Minutes).
The campaign aimed to raise public awareness of the role of councillors in their communities, encourage healthy debate and improve the responses and support for local politicians facing abuse and intimidation.
The Report was informed by the findings from the national LGA survey ‘The LGA’s Call for Evidence on Abuse and Intimidation of Councillors’. The key findings were included in paragraph 10 of the report, together with seven recommendations made by the LGA as a result.
Locally the Head of Legal and Democratic Services had noticed an increase in requests for disclosable pecuniary interests to be treated as sensitive, and advice in relation to abuse and intimidation experienced by councillors online and in person.
The report provided details of measures the Council had put in place to assist it’s Councillors, which included:
· advice in relation to personal security;
· the development of the Social Media Toolkit, which advised Councillors on how to stay safe online and what to do if they are subject to abuse and intimidation;
· the reporting of all incidents of abuse and intimidation by Councillors to Members Support and the Police;
· risk assessments undertaken with the Health and Safety Team;
· access to the health and well-being support available under the Council’s Employee Assistance Scheme;
· legal action to protect Councillors, where appropriate.
The LGA had now published a toolkit to assist Councils in supporting their members in relation to abuse and intimidation, as part of the launch of it’s Debate Not Hate Campaign. If agreed by the Committee a report would be submitted to Council, which would include details of the support available for Members, details of the Debate Not Hate Campaign, the toolkit and a recommendation that the Council signs the Debate Not Hate Public Statement.
The Committee was also asked to consider adding the Debate Not Hate Campaign to it’s work programme.
The Committee discussed the report. Councillors Atkinson and Stubbs asked about the procedure for logging incidents of abuse and intimidation. Individuals had different levels of resilience and what one councillor might consider to be abuse or intimidation, another may not. The Councillors asked how this was approached.
The Head of Legal and Democratic Services emphasised the importance of logging all incidents with Members Support and the Police so that a record could be kept. Even if the conduct complained of did not reach a threshold for immediate action, it may become part of a pattern of behaviour. Members were assured that all incidents were seriously considered.
Following a further question from Councillor Atkinson the Head of Legal and Democratic Services confirmed that Durham Police were responsive to reports of abuse and intimidation towards councillors.
Councillor Stubbs noted the successful legal action taken against two individuals, as discussed in the report. He suggested that these and any other cases where legal proceedings had been brought against an individual should be highlighted. This would send a message that the abuse and intimidation of councillors was not tolerated. The Head of Legal and Democratic Services advised that each case would need to be carefully considered in order to ensure that reporting the matter would not antagonise further abusive behaviour towards the councillor.
(a) that the report be noted;
(b) the Debate Not Hate Campaign be added to the Committee’s work programme so that it is kept up to date with progress and developments;
(c) the report be presented to a meeting of full Council with a recommendation that Durham County Council signs the Debate Not Hate Public Statement.