Senior councillor Dominic Boeck found to have breached West Berkshire Council’s code of conduct
Special Meeting, Governance and Ethics Committee, West Berkshire Council, 8th August 2018
Today we attended West Berkshire Council’s governance and ethics committee meeting. This followed our formal complaint to council some weeks ago, when social media posts by (Councillor) Mr Boeck were brought to our attention by a member of the public. See coverage here in the Newbury Weekly News. Today’s meeting was the final stage in the council’s investigation process.
The meeting link above takes you to the agenda and to all the reports and arguments made by the independent solicitor, by ourselves as complainants and by Mr Boeck, as well as explaining the Council’s processes for investigating complaints against councillors. We will not rehearse our own case here but would direct you to pages 51 – 56 of the full papers, which explain why, among other things, we felt so strongly that Mr Boeck’s recent appointment to lead the portfolio for public health and wellbeing was inappropriate. We recommend Ms Howlett’s summary of the legal framework encompassing the use of social media, on pages 42 – 45, which is very informative. After hearing the evidence today, the specially-convened panel of parish, town and district councillors decided that Mr Boeck’s use of twitter was in breach of the code of conduct for councillors and recommended sanctions. More of those in subsequent posts.
This blog is our way of sharing with our members some initial thoughts about the experience of complaining about a senior sitting councillor, who is also a member of the majority ruling Conservative group and executive team.
Our early responses to the ethics and governance meeting
We learned today that Mr Boeck has recently resigned from his public health and wellbeing portfolio role and has been reassigned to “corporate services”. While this might be seen as a pragmatic move, it is worth noting that many professional associations – such as the BMA – do not allow members to resign part way through an investigation of their conduct. It means too that Mr Boeck will be beginning his third executive portfolio in as many months. These hasty moves reflect poorly: on Mr Boeck’s judgement in accepting the health portfolio mid-investigation, and on the somewhat hubristic approach of the council leader and ruling group (or whoever made the decision) who clearly did not make the connection between the nature of the complaint, and the council’s own priority area of mental health. Or maybe they simply didn’t think it mattered.
We were impressed with the thoroughness of the council’s processes when a councillor faces investigation, and with the professionalism of the monitoring team and administrators. This should encourage us all to hold elected officials to account when necessary, with confidence. However, we found the language used during the meeting to be arcane – a sort of formal/pseudo-legalistic language – and at times we simply had to say: “I’m sorry, what do you mean?” Everyday language was then used to explain so we wondered why it was not used in the first instance. Fortunately, we both felt confident to ask for more straightforward terms to be used but we consider the verbosity to be very off-putting and suggest plain English is adopted in all council meetings.
From a minority of panel members, we inferred some confusion – dare we say, even some cynicism – around our reasons for bringing the complaint. Of course, as a local political party we want to scrutinise the behaviours of those in power and to hold individuals to account when they fall short of the standards they themselves promote. But even more importantly, we want to encourage a higher standard of political debate locally (and nationally). Ours may be a very minor contribution towards this goal, but in our view it is an important one. We did not miss the irony of one of today’s contributors who compared the apparent insignificance of Mr Boeck’s tweets with the much higher profile racist comments by Boris Johnson, and the disparity of the actions taken as a result. While we were not afforded the opportunity ourselves to explore this dubious line of reasoning, two panel members did so very eloquently and successfully – and we hope their insightful comments will be reported elsewhere.
Social media clearly offers opportunities for local political parties to engage with people who will never attend council or political meetings. Yet it demands a real skill and nous if it is not to be misused and cause harm. It was painfully evident today that some of the most diligent panel members at today’s meeting had absolutely no idea what Twitter is, and we felt for them as they struggled to explain to each other (wrongly: no, Twitter is nothing like email, and your Twitter account is not called “your tweet”, as in “how many tweets do you have?”). We would ask, how can anyone be expected to appreciate the nuances of communications made on a medium they are unable even to visualise? Does this say something about the very narrow demographic profile of our West Berkshire councillors?
This does not mean we are suggesting all councillors ought to start using social media, indeed we think many in all political parties would do better to avoid it altogether. Our complaint today was about basic respect and decency, not about social media as a platform. Indeed, many of the most sensible comments came from panel members who simply used the clapham omnibus test to make an assessment. But we’d like to suggest to our councillors: if you are going to use social media, or determine how others use it, then at the very least please recognise you have a responsibility to understand it properly and to use it wisely. Don’t try to combine promoting your official party position with your private, so-called ‘humorous/offensive’ posts. Do one or the other, or have separate accounts, or be entirely professional and above board in a single account. And Mr Boeck, we note you continue to follow @BrexitTory – why not unfollow this nasty account, just in case your thumb slips again?
To finish where the meeting started, we were pleased the panel agreed with the independent solicitor’s and our own assertion that the code of conduct applied, even though Mr Boeck did not consider himself to be tweeting in his formal capacity as councillor. To try to wriggle out of the charge by parsing the term ‘capacity’ was a flawed manoeuvre and looked bad. Better to simply have said sorry, I was wrong, and I will not do it again. We noted we were not thanked by the Chair for bringing the complaint – highly recommended, a gracious move – even though we may have helped bring about a more fit-for-purpose code of conduct. We can live with that and would like to say some thank yous of our own: to the monitoring team and administrators, to the independent solicitor Ms Howlett, to panel members who voted to uphold the complaint, and to all our members, and members of the public, who have shown appreciation for what we are trying to do. We will keep members posted on future developments.
Tom Tunney – Vice Chair Membership & Julie Wintrup – Treasurer, on behalf of the executive committee