Becoming a Councillor can feel a daunting task. Once elected you have so much to learn in such a short space of time. From finding out how your Council operates to learning how to process casework and fulfil your role as a ward councillor – there is a lot of information you need to take in.
You can always access helpful tips and answer any questions using your ALDC membership – and with the help of your whole team you can make a real difference to the lives of people in your ward and across your council area.
This toolkit provides a number of helpful articles on various aspects of your role as a Councillor.
Once you are first elected you will be bombarded with new information and new responsibilities. Take a breath, step back and prioritise your time to get to grips with the most important of your new responsibilities first – and you should start with establishing yourself in your ward.
Getting to know your ward is vital to your success. Make sure you have walked every street during the day and in the evening to see what problems their might be. Even if you have lived locally for years you will likely find new places you didn’t know about! Use publicly available data like the census to understand more about the different communities that live in your ward.
The articles below will help you become a community champion to the people you represent.
Being a Local Champion and Local Campaigner in your Ward
The most fundamental part of a councillors job is to represent residents in your ward. You are the conduit linking residents with the Council services they need and rely on. If people in your ward come to you in need of help and support it is your responsibility to respond and take action.
Always be the people’s voice to the Council, not the Council’s voice to the people.
More widely it is your responsibility to make sure residents in your ward are informed of upcoming issues that could affect them – which could be anything from road closures and planning applicationsto public transport changes – and to campaign for the changes and improvements that they want to see.
As a local councillor you need to know and understand your ward. What are the issues that concern people most? What issues are coming down the pipeline? Do local residents know that you are the person who can help them with their concerns and issues?
These are important questions – if you are on top of the local issues in your area, fighting for the things people care about and if people see you as the go-to person to tackle local problems then you can say that you have established yourself as the ‘local champion’ for your ward.
Securing this reputation requires hard work and organisation. But it is not difficult to achieve. It just requires doing the things that we do best as Liberal Democrats. If you have fought a hard campaign to get elected you are likely to be well on your way to being a well-known local champion already.
Below are some of the key ways we keep in touch with people as Lib Dems
Door-Knocking and Phoning The simplest way to build relationships and trust with the people you represent is to talk to them. Through knocking on doors and running phone banks all year round – asking people what their local priorities are and following up any casework you receive – you will soon find that people recognise you as a hard-working local campaigner who gets things done.
‘Knock & Drop’ surveys are a good way to find what people’s local priorities and problems are (and people are generally very amenable to completing these).
You should aim to knock on each door in your ward at least once every year as part of your local Lib Dem team. When you have elections the following year aim to do this by February then concentrate your resources on key voters during March, April and May. You can work out exactly how many doors you need to knock on each week by dividing the number of doors in your ward by the weeks in the year. For example in a 5000 house ward you will need to knock on about 100 doors each week – which will only take a couple of hours as a team.
Building Relationships with Community Groups You might have a number of Resident’s Associations, ‘Friends Of’ groups, Neighbourhood Networks or Neighbourhood Watch groups in your ward. Some might just cover a small area such as a single park or a street. Some will cover the whole ward and beyond. Some of these groups may only exist online and on social media. Some may regularly meet in person. You should introduce yourself to the key people behind each group, let them know you are there to help and try to attend a reasonable number of meetings.
Don’t be shy about starting your own community groups too if you sense there is a demand for it. For instance many councillors set up local litter-picking groups, or ‘Friends Of’ groups for local parks. As a councillor you are likely to have contacts and access to services to help get such groups off the ground. Once the group is established you can always take a step back and hand over the running to someone else.
You may also have Churches, Temples or Mosques in your ward. There is probably at least one school with a parent group. Do you have any local sport teams? Are there societies such as running groups or bike groups in your ward? Are there local shops and charities? You will probably be in a position to support all such groups in one way or another and taking the time to introduce yourself and build relations with them will establish you as a key figure in the community.
Try to make sure you hit every corner of your ward even if the community groups are mostly focused on one part.
Surgeries and Street Stalls You can also hold regular drop-in surgeries for residents to raise issues with you. These can be physical meetings or they can done online over zoom or even as live Facebook events. Many councillors also hold street surgeries and street stalls (for instance in areas of high footfall outside school gates or by local parades of shops).
An ALDC advice article on how to organise street stalls can be found here.
Leaflets and Newsletters FOCUS newsletters are part of the basic foundation of being a Liberal Democrat ward councillor. They are how we communicate the work we are doing and they give residents the opportunity to get in touch and give feedback. Remember people will not know how hard you work unless you tell them.
You should work to a year-round campaign plan in your ward. This should set out when you will be delivering your regular Focus Leaflets and other items such as Annual Reports, Surveys, Christmas cards etc. It is only by campaigning in this volume, all year round, that you will be able to demonstrate to residents how hard you work as their local councillor.
Sometimes single issues will come up that might require a street letter or an ‘area special’ focus leaflet. These are newsletters targeted to just a specific part of the ward on an issue that just affects certain streets. Sometimes the story will be significant enough that you may include it in your ward wide literature. Other times you may feel it more appropriate to just inform the residents directly affected.
ALDC has a vast library of leaflets that you can adapt for you area that is regularly updated with new templates. We also have a model plan to follow for your year round campaigning between elections. You can find them in our ‘Templates and Bulk Buys’ section here.
The Lib Dems use two main programmes to produce leaflets – Affinity Publisher and ALDC Artworker. ALDC’s templates are compatible with both.
Affinity Publisher is a desktop design program that can be purchased here.
A training webinar from ALDC on how to put together a basic leaflet can be found here. There is also a Lib Dem Facebook group for Affinity Publisher support (including a training video section) that can be accessed here.
ALDC Artworker is free for ALDC members and is a web-based design programme that can be accessed (alongside a number of training videos) here. It is more straight-forward than Affinity Publisher and allows you to drop content into pre-made templates.
Issues will regularly come up in your ward that require not just action – but also campaigning.
You will be alerted to problems on an almost daily basis. Some will be small such as an overflowing bin. Some may be large such as a proposed leisure centre closure. In all cases you should think about how you communicate the actions you are taking with residents in your ward. It may just be a tweet or a Facebook post. It may be an email or a focus article. It may be an area special leaflet or a petition. It may be all of those things or none. But you should always be thinking about how you can make people aware of what you are doing to improve the area.
People won’t know how hard you are working behind the scenes – you have to tell them!
Campaigning is also a way to engage local people and build relationships. Residents may want to join you to campaign on a local particular issue they care about. Involving them in the campaign (by helping you deliver leaflets or knocking on doors with you for example) will empower them to take greater ownership over their area and become community activists themselves. They may also become Lib Dem activists too!
All of the methods described above in the Local Champion section can be used to run campaigns on single issues. Successful campaigns usually involve a variety of different campaign methods including leaflets, petitions, canvassing, emails, social media and press releases.
Don’t forget that as a Councillor you will have access to the Council’s decision-making process. If the campaign you are running requires Council action or a change of Council policy you can table a Council Motion, a question to a Portfolio Holder and ask for a scrutiny report on the issue. ALDC has a library of template Council Motions on a huge range of topics available here.
Single Issue Campaign Packs
ALDC produces regular Single Issue Campaign Packs that can be adapted for use in your local campaigning.
These include a number of resources such as leaflet drop-ins, social media graphics, press releases, council motions and more.
You need to think about the demographics in your ward and which issues (local and national) will have the most resonance for local people. If you have a diverse ward different issues may be important to voters in different parts of the ward.
ALDC’s Campaign Packs are updated regularly and can be accessed here
Remember to keep communicating – even if your campaign is not successful
Some campaigns may take many months, or even longer, to be resolved. It is important to provide regular updates to residents as your campaign progresses. Try to stick to the basic rule that you should tell people what you are going to do, tell people that you are doing it, and then tell people that you have done it.
Not all campaigns are going to be successful. You may fight to save a community centre from closure or for a planning application to be refused, but ultimately your campaign may not succeed. In these cases it is just as important to continue communicating with people as it would be if the campaign was successful. Success or not, people will appreciate the hard work you have put into the campaign and you should not be afraid to share disappointing news – just make sure you do it in a way that puts you on the side of the community.
Making the most of Community Rights
The Localism Act 2011 and the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 gave new powers to Councils and local people. These new powers are additional tools for us to use as community campaigners to help empower people to create change.
It may only be on very rare occasions that we need to consider using them – but it is always worth remembering they exist as a means to protect local assets and transfer power to local communities.
You can find a brief outline of these powers and what they can be used for on the below link.
Casework is how we deal with local issues or problems. These could affect just one individual, a street or a whole community. Sometimes we might generate casework ourselves through our own observations, and sometimes it will be reported to us by local residents.
Why is casework important?
Not only is it good to help people – if you are a local councillor it is also your job. Dealing with local issues in our wards and local problems that people raise with us is perhaps the most important responsibility we have as councillors.
Casework is also important for winning elections. People you have helped are more likely to vote for you and more likely to tell other people to vote for you (or not if you don’t help them). Casework provides a valuable source of data for our campaigning.
Where does casework come from? How do I get more casework?
Most casework will come from local people contacting you directly, but they will only do this if they know how to get hold of you! Make sure people know how to get in touch through:
grumble sheets in FOCUS leaflets
publishing your contact details (phone, email, twitter and website) in all literature
websites and social media
a published postal address if you are comfortable releasing this (e.g. on Council website or a poster in a local library)
You are likely to find that most casework comes in by email. You should have your email address displayed prominently on all your communications. If you are active on social media this may be another way that people get in touch with you, particularly over Facebook messenger. Community Facebook pages are also good sources of local casework. People will often post photos of an overflowing bin or a broken piece of play equipment at a park.
Note: Some Councils will not allow you to use your councillor email during the election campaign which can be damaging. For this reason ALDC recommend that you use a private email address as a campaigner that you continue using through the election period and only use your Council email address for things sent directly from officers.
Different wards will generate different amounts of casework – so if you’re not getting any issues it may be that there aren’t too many problems at the moment or you need to go out and look for some!
How do I deal with casework?
A fast initial response is vital. People remember the speed of your first response more than anything else. You should acknowledge an email or return a phone call as soon as possible after receiving it. Even if you cannot action the request immediately and you simply let the resident know that you are looking into it then they will still be impressed with the fast quick response.
Be realistic in what you can do – and don’t set unrealistic expectations. This could lead to residents being disappointed with your efforts if you promise something you cannot deliver.
Remember you are not there to defend the Council (even if we run the Council). You are the community’s voice on the Council, not the Council’s voice in the community!
The best way to deal with most casework is to have a good list of Key Contacts in your phone or email system. Most often these will be Council Officers who have responsibility for particular service areas. Personal contacts work best. Always report casework to a named individual rather than generic customer services inboxes. To get the speediest response you may need to phone officers up rather than email.
You should try to establish good working relationships with Council Officers who can help with:
police and crime issues
housing repairs, allocations and benefits
highways, planning and licensing
Always let the residents know the outcome (and keep them updated if its taking a long time). It is best to respond in the manner that they contacted you.
How do I make the most of my Casework?
Tell people about your hard work – no issue is too small for a small piece in a FOCUS leaflet and its’s even easier to tweet about casework and post on Facebook or your website. For certain issues you can also write a street letter. If the issue you have resolved affects more than one household – tell people about it! Have a simple system for producing a street letter to a few houses – sometimes your Council will allow you to send a letter to a small group of residents.
Build up a record of hard work – keep a record of all casework you undertake. Particularly community based casework. Small actions (such as getting a single pot-hole filled in) may not be FOCUS headline material but they can be used to demonstrate a record of action in the area. Certain Lib Dem leaflets are designed to draw attention to your record of action such as Annual Reports and Election Map Leaflets.
What do I do with Casework Information?
The information you receive while doing casework for people will often be very sensitive. People’s contact details, their personal issue and even other information they volunteer about themselves (their political persuasion for instance) is private data that it is your responsibility to protect.
You will receive information within your separate roles as a Councillor and as a Liberal Democrat – and these should be treated a separate domains that should not be mixed without permission from the resident.
You can find out more about data protection here.
How do I organise my casework?
If you don’t have a system for processing casework then you will ultimately fail to do it correctly. You will receive too much casework to simply hold everything in your head. Find a system that works for you and stick to it. If you’re a candidate starting off with casework it is a good idea to have a system in place before you get elected.
Some information will need to be shared with your ward colleagues if there is more than one Lib Dem councillor in your ward. You should develop a casework system that works for you that takes into account the need to protect private data – and the need to work with Lib Dem ward colleagues if you have them.
low-tech options – a notebook that you write everything in or a folder system. Be extra careful to not let this get into the wrong hands.
use the tools in your email system – flags, stars, a pending casework ‘folder’ that you review once a week.
an off the shelf ‘task management’ system. Things like trello and evernote are free task management systems that sync between your smart phone / computer /tablet.
a Council system – some councils have casework systems as part of their IT offer.
This advice is designed to help councillors understand what they need to do to comply with all current data protection legislation including the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Section 1: The difference between you and the party
There are three legal domains that you as a Liberal Democrat councillor need to be aware of. Each one represents a different part of your role as a Liberal Democrat councillor. They are the Liberal Democrats, the Council and you as a Councillor.
The Liberal Democrats domain
Information that you collect while campaigning as a Liberal Democrat party member is in this domain. Examples of data included in this domain include:
Information on the Connect database (My Voters & My Campaign)
Salesforce membership data
Emails in an approved system such as an authorised MailChimp account or NationBuilder
Petition and survey returns and issues raised on them
Knock up lists
Data collected at party events
Emails and phone numbers given with consent
The electoral roll
Postal vote data
The Liberal Democrat party itself is the data controller for this data and all rules and regulations around it are controlled by the party. You can find the full set of instructions on the members section of the Lib Dem website.
You may only use software and online services on the party’s approved list for handling personal data.
You must report any data breaches to the party’s Compliance Team at Lib Dem HQ.
Corporate Council Domain
Your local Council is a data controller in its own right and will deal with large amount of data from local residents. On a day to day basis as a councillor you are not going to be accessing this information. However, there might be exceptions to this such as:
Personal data on any employment applications you consider
Fostering and adoption panels
Planning application data
Personal data passed onto you about casework issues
Your local Council will have its own data protection policy that you must follow whilst handling anyone’s personal data. You can speak to your monitoring officer for any advice and guidance on handling Council data securely. You should report any breaches to your Council’s data protection officer.
Individual councillor domain
As a councillor you are also your own data controller. This is true for information you collect as a representative of people in your ward. The main example of this is casework. As a data controller you are personally responsible for the data you hold around casework that has been sent to you as a councillor by any means. For example, casework sent to a private email address or given to you on the doorstep.
It can therefore sometimes be unclear whether someone has sent you personal data in your capacity as a councillor or as a Liberal Democrat. Be very careful not to misuse data in such cases and, if in doubt, check with the person.
If you receive casework it can be shared with other relevant councillors, council officers, other public bodies and tiers of government as long this is presented in your data protection notification.
Section 2: Clear and transparent processes
Casework falls under the ‘statutory duty’ definition for all councillors. Because of this you do not need permission to hold data around casework which you do in your role as a councillor. However, it is vital that you still follow the rules around data protection.
When dealing with casework we must be clear and transparent with people about how we will use their data.
That means having a clear data protection notification at the bottom of all communications that specifically states what data you are collecting and why.
Example data protection notification – As your local councillor I will use the information you have provided to deal with your question/problem and try to solve it. To do so I may share your information with other local councillors, including in other tiers of local government within this locality as well as council officers. I will not share your information for any other reason than to carry out my duties as your local representative without receiving explicit consent to do so. You may opt out of some or all contacts or exercise your other legal rights by contacting me at any time.
Section 3: Take steps to secure data
As a data controller you are responsible for the safety and security of data given to you about casework. Some of this data will be highly confidential.
To ensure this data is protected you should put into place solid security measures like:
Add two factor authentication to your email address and onto any third party applications you use to store any personal data.
Complex and individual password or equivalent security measures should be added to hardware like computers, phones and tablets if they are used to access any personal records.
Any spreadsheets should be passworded and encrypted.
Because you are a data controller in your own right you may use third party systems to manage your casework, but you must sign the relevant data protection agreements with these companies before you do.
Any books or paper records should be stored securely – for example, in a locked drawer or cupboard in your home.
After you have finished using paper records, they must be destroyed using a cross shredder or a registered confidential waste removal company.
You should hold data for no more than 8 years. You may renew this period with the consent of the individual who has contacted you.
Section 4: Using data in multiple domains
The party’s GDPR rules, and in particular the small print (fair processing notice) the part uses when collecting data, allow data to be shared with councillors (and other elected people). This means that, for example, data that comes back from a residents survey and which has the party’s small print on it can both be used by the party and also by Liberal Democrat councillors wearing their councillor hat too.
In some cases, you will collect casework in other ways, for example:
Given in person at event
Sent to your personal or Council email
Sent to you via Facebook or social media
Provided via telephone call
In cases like these the data given is held in your councillor domain and given to you explicitly for casework and to fulfil your role as a representative in your local area. For that reason, it cannot be added to the party domain unless you receive explicit consent from the person the data relates to.
You can do this as part of your normal communications with constituents. For example, you can set up a form where people can opt in to receive your emails this way there consent is opt in and entirely explicit. On the form you should include a space for email, phone number, name and address as well as the Liberal Democrat data protection notification:
You can link to this form from messages you send with text such as, “Please can you fill in my email sign up form so you get all the latest news of what we’re doing around the area – just follow this link it takes 2 seconds”.
Importantly no councillor can withhold their casework service because a resident will not sign up to receive information from the local Liberal Democrats. These services are separate.
Capacity Building and Ward Infrastructure
The life of a councillor is a busy one!
Even if you prioritise your ward work there will still be significant demands on your time. As a councillor you will have regular council meetings to attend, resident’s meetings to go to, casework to do, reports and committee papers to read amongst numerous other responsibilities. You will also have a life away from politics and need to make time for your family, friends, hobbies and another job if you have one.
On top of all of this you need to campaign. This is why it is vital to build a ward infrastructure of local Lib Dem activists. You simply won’t be able to do everything yourself – and while local activists cannot attend your meetings for you or do your casework, they can help you deliver your local campaigning.
There are so many jobs local Lib Dem supporters can do in your ward. Some of the key roles are:
Delivering regular leaflets – One of your most time-consuming jobs is delivering FOCUS leaflets in your ward. Having a network of local deliverers who deliver their local area will save hours of your time each month and free you up to focus on other things.
Clericalwork – Regular mailings to voters should be built into your year round campaign plan. Stuffing letters takes just as much time as delivering them and having a local network of volunteers to help stuff your campaign letters, and hand address blue/cream envelopes, will save you a lot of time.
Wholesaling – This involves dropping leaflets off with deliverers or envelopes and letters off with stuffers. Having a ward wholesaler can be a godsend – especially in rural and dispersed wards. It is a good job for those who may not be able to deliver but want to help in another way.
Canvassing and Phone Canvassing – As councillors we have to keep canvassing all year round. But getting round the whole ward on our own can be a daunting and often unrealistic task. Having a team of volunteers who can join you knocking on doors, or who can be set up on Connect to phone voters at election time, will let you whizz through your canvassing much faster.
Poster Sites – Some residents may not have time to help in other ways but still support you and want you to win. Many will be willing to display and window poster or garden poster at election time. Having a sea of orange posters will generate genuine momentum for you and your Lib Dem colleagues at election time. Always have posters with you to hand out to people when canvassing near an election – and keep a record on Connect of everyone who has agreed to be a poster site in the past.
Members andDonors – When you come across a strong and committed Lib Dem supporter in your ward ask them to join the Lib Dems. It is only £12 a year and the more people you ask the more members you will get in your ward. Members are often the first people to volunteer to help in other ways and generally ward membership growth and ward capacity growth go hand in hand. Donors are another important group. You should have a donation ask (and membership ask) in all of your literature, and you should target Strong Lib Dems specifically at regular points to ask for donations. All of your leaflets will need paying for – and the more fundraising you do the more campaigning you can do.
Recruiting a network of ward volunteers should be a top priorityonce you are elected. If you invest the time early on into finding deliverers, clerical helpers and canvassers you be able to manage your time (and your ward) much more effectively. The best ways to recruit activists are:
Ask people in person – This is always the best way to recruit volunteers. Nothing beats personally asking someone. Every time you go canvassing and come across a Lib Dem voter you should ask them if they can help. Creating ‘recruitment’ phone banks on Connect of just Lib Dem voters in your ward is a really efficient way to ask a number of people in a short space of time. Never be afraid to ask. The people you are asking are Lib Dem supporters and they will be happy to be asked to help. The more people you ask the more will say yes.
Put volunteer questions on every leaflet you do – All your focus leaflets, canvass leaflets and surveys should include a response slip that people can post back to raise issues with you. This slip should always include some tick box questions letting people volunteer to deliver leaflets, do clerical work, donate or join the party.
Casework – People you have helped are always a good group to back to and ask if they can volunteer. Again this is a group who will want to help and support you.
Family and Friends – There will be people who want to help you personally who may not necessarily be Lib Dems. If you have family and friends who live in your ward or nearby see if they will take on some delivering or clerical work for you.
Retaining volunteers is just as important as recruiting new ones. Once you have a network in place you must make sure you look after it your volunteers and keep them happy:
Say ‘Thank You’ – There’s nothing worse than not feeling valued when you are a volunteer. Always say please and thank you whenever you ask for help. Even if it’s someone who has been helping for a long time. Include your volunteers on your Christmas Card list and make sure you do Thank You cards to your helpers after an election. Having social events for your helpers is also a good idea – for instance a Christmas social to say thank you for the help they have given over the year.
Don’t Overwhelm People – Make sure you give your helpers a manageable amount of work to do. If you dump 500 leaflets with a first-time deliverer it may put them off from doing it again. Start low and if they can do more build up to that with future leaflets.
Produce a Members & Supporters Newsletter – Members & Supporters newsletters are a friendly way to keep your supporters engaged with internal news about what you are up to in the ward, on the Council and what the Lib Dems are doing regionally and nationally. If you are part of a big local party you might have Members Newsletter that is sent out across your whole constituency / city. If so make sure all your ward volunteers are included on the distribution list for that and also consider doing smaller, more localised newsletters to just your ward helpers.
Whether you love social media or loathe it – there is no denying that more and more people are using social media to communicate with each other. In local community politics people are using social media more to discuss local issues and ask for help.
Social media can be a useful tool both in campaigning and community representation. However it is not for everyone and it is not an essential part of representing a ward. Regular leaflets, casework and speaking to people is much more important.
If you dislike social media, or have no experience with using it, you can be a fantastic and effective ward councillor without it. But if you are familiar with it and enjoy using it then Facebook in particular is good way to engage with residents in your area.
Ward Facebook pages where you share local news can be very successful. Especially if you share breaking news such as road traffic information, flood and weather warnings, school closures etc. These can get shared very widely and drive up likes for your page. The more regularly you post, the more likes your page will receive as people see your page as a source of local information. Ward Facebook pages are a good place to share small bits of casework such as getting bins emptied and reporting potholes etc.
Often you will find people choose to give casework over Facebook messenger.
Also on Facebook you might find community pages that cover parts or all of your ward. These are often followed by hundreds if not thousands of people. They are also good places to share local action stories and also pick up issues that residents raise. Often people will post photos of fly-tipping etc.
Golden Rules for Social Media
Social media can be very time consuming, and can trip you up if you post something foolish. Here are some things to remember when using social media as a local councillor:
Broadcastrather than Engage – Avoid getting into long discussions or arguments with people on social media. It will waste a lot of your time, and in the case of disagreements can make you look defensive and argumentative. Getting into the odd conversation is inevitable but avoid getting sucked into black holes.
Limit the time you spend on social media – You could spend hours each day just dealing with residents and community issues on Facebook. Limit the amount of time you spend on social media each day so it doesn’t take over your life or distract from the more important things you need to do as a councillor.
Be careful what you post – Many councillors from all parties have got themselves into trouble by posting inappropriate and unwise things on social media. A good rule to follow is never post anything that you would not be comfortable being quoted back at you on an opposition leaflet. This is equally true of any personal Facebook, Twitter, Instagram pages that you have. As a local councillor you are in a position of responsibility so make sure anything you share or retweet is from a legitimate source and accurate. If you share something false or libellous the buck will stop with you for sharing false information.
My Councillor Websites
ALDC members are can set up their own free website / blog site to promote their local campaigning.
My Councillor sites are easy to use and give you an excellent online forum to share local news and stories.
They work for individual candidates and councillors, or larger ward teams.
You can find out more information and sign up for a site by clicking on the link below.
Public speaking comes naturally to some people. To others it does not and can feel daunting and stressful. Whether you are confident public speaker or not there are always ways in which you can improve your speeches – both in your council and in the community.
You may be called upon to make a speech or statement in many ways as a local councillor – for instance in Council meetings, resident meetings, hustings, conferences, group meetings and in front of the press and media.
There are some important rules to remember when making a speech:
Delivery is as Important as Content You obviously need to think about the content of your speech and getting across the key information that you need to. But it is just as important non-verbal communication too. Research has shown that body language and voice resonates more with people listening to speech than the words themselves. Words are of course vital – but they will be lost if you do not present them well. You should be conscious of:
The pace of your voice – go slower than you think you need to, Speed up to emphasise isolated points.
Breathing – take regular pauses to give yourself space to breath. Pauses also give the listener chance to catch up and understand what you are saying.
Don’t move too much – if you gesticulate wildly and move your body too much it will distract people from what you are saying and lose you authority within the room. Well timed hand motions can add emphasis to a point. But try to stay in control of your movements and be calm and still as much as possible. Standing up straight and lifting your head up is also important.
Be loud – Speak as loudly as you can. Even if you have a microphone (as in most council chambers) it may still be hard for people to hear you if you mumble or talk softly. Practice projecting your voice if you are a naturally quiet speaker.
Body language – stand tall, avoid crossing your arms, keep you head up and direct your speech to people in your audience (and through the chair if in a council meeting).
But don’t forget Content A speech that doesn’t convey a clear message is as weak as one that is delivered poorly. A well-known rule to follow is – “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.”
Prepare and Practice Write your speech out beforehand and practice delivering it while remembering to make use of pauses and changes of tone and emphasis. Start strongly and end with a call to action. Tell people how the subject you speaking about affects you. People remember stories more than they do facts. Facts are good but try to link them to real life experiences. Alliteration sticks in people’s mind, as does using the rule of three.
In certain situations, such as in the Council Chamber, you can read your speech from a written out script and still make it dramatic and impactful using the rules above. If speaking at a hustings, residents meeting or to the press you will need to carry more information in your head and this is where practice and preparation becomes vital. So long as you have put the work in your speech will be effective – no matter how nervous you may be. A nervous person delivering a well-thought out and calm speech will make more of an impression that a confident person who has not prepared and is making it up as they go along.
Understanding Your Council
Council Procedures and Constitution
The business of your Council will be governed by a Constitution that outlines the rules for all meetings and decision-making in the authority.
The Constitution is likely to be a very long document! Try to get a good understanding of the Standing Orders contained within it as these are the rules that will govern the procedures for council meetings.
Each Council’s Standing Orders will be different and will usually cover the following:
The administrative procedure – the terms of reference of the Cabinet and each Committee, etc.
The power structure – the system of delegation of decision-making powers.
The formalities of Council – for instance when the Annual Meeting must be held, how Committee Chairs, Cabinet members are elected, order of business for meetings, etc.
You should make sure that you obtain a copy of your Council’s standing orders – as a last resort they should be available on your Council’s website.
Every Council Meeting will also have an agenda item where Councillors are asked to declare any interests relevant to the meeting.
There are two types of interest – personal and prejudicial.
Personal interests should be declared if an agenda item involves an interest you have registered in your Declaration of Interests (link to section) or if your well-being is likely to be affected by the business of the meeting more so than it would affect most people in the area. If you declare a personal interest you can remain in the meeting, speak and vote on the matter.
Prejudicial interests should be declared if it is reasonable to feel that your personal interest is so strong that it will prejudice our judgement on an item (for example if the outcome will directly affect your financial position or that of someone with whom you have a personal interest. If you declare a prejudicial interest you must leave the room for the duration of the item and not vote.
Allowance and Expenses
How much do Councillors get paid?
All principal authorities (i.e. higher than Town, Parish and Community) have some sort of allowances scheme (a small number of Town and Parish Councils do as well). These vary widely across the Country and between types of Authority.
The average tends to be around £10,000 for a London Borough, English Met, County or Unitary Council, or about £5,000 for an English District. The average for Scottish, Welsh and certain larger English unitaries and counties is higher – around £16,000 a year.
In addition, Councils provide Special Responsibility Allowances (SRAs) for particular roles such as Council Leaders, Cabinet Members, Scrutiny and Committee Chairs, Opposition Leaders etc.
Certain outside bodies and joint authorities may also have an SRA attached – for instance Fire Authorities.
Councils set the level of remuneration themselves. It is one of the few things that Councillors vote on that is exempt from declaring an interest.
Tithings are the financial contributions councillors make to their local party to support campaigning activity and development. This is generally paid as a gross percentage of the allowances and SRAs that a councillor receives. The rules around councillor contributions are set by the state parties in England, Wales and Scotland.
In England the minimum contribution is set at 10%. More information about tithings can be found here (link to section in CG toolkit).
Can I have another job?
Many Councillors also have other paid employment. A small number of working Councillors go part time (for example to 3-4 days a week) to make it easier to fulfil both roles.
Others – like Council Leaders, Deputies and Cabinet Members – give up their job to undertake their council role.
But please remember that being a Councillor is not a permanent job – it’s one we need to be re-elected to every four years (and every year by your group for positions that involve an SRA) – and you should factor that risk into decisions you take with other jobs you have. Going full time as a councillor is a rewarding experience and lets you get involved in things you would otherwise not have time to, but it is not a decision to be taken lightly.
Is my allowance pensionable?
The income you receive from being a Councillor is no different from other income. You may wish to consider putting some of it aside for your retirement. Some Councils operate pension schemes which elected members can join.
Will I lose out on benefits?
Please remember that if you are in receipt of, or intending to claim for, benefits which are based on assessment of your income then your councillor allowance WILL count as part of your income.
What tax do I have to pay?
Council allowances are just the same as other income and are subject to Income Tax and National Insurance payments.
The Council will deduct these at source before you receive your allowance – they’ll be shown as deductions on your pay slip.
If you have another job (which earns more than being a Councillor) then this is normally your ‘principal employment’ as far as taxation is concerned. This means that the tax free element of your pay is ‘used’ there, not at the Council and 100% of your Councillor allowance is then subject to taxation.
It is a good idea to talk to the payroll offices at both your Council and principal place of employment and make sure your tax codes tally up and you are paying the correct amount across both incomes – otherwise you could end up having a big tax bill at the end of the year!
What if I’m in arrears with my Council Tax?
If you are in arrears with your Council Tax, then you will not be able to vote in issues with budgetary implications (not just the Council Budget).
What expenses can I claim?
Most Councils will agree a scheme of expenses for Councillors in addition to their allowance scheme. This is normally agreed at the same time as the Allowances Scheme.
This will include:
travel to Council meetings or other Council Duties (sometimes only if they are outside of your authority)
regular expenses such as telephone, broadband bills – perhaps dealt with as a standard sum each month
other items such as childcare costs or subsistence
Expenses exist to make it “fair” for people to be elected members. Obviously it costs more to travel to a Council meeting if you are 50 miles from County Hall in a very rural local authority, than if you live in the next street. If you are a single parent then you will most likely incur childcare costs that other councillors do not incur.
We recommend that you claim sensible and reasonable expenses. As a rule only claim what would an ordinary resident would think was reasonable.
Councillors remuneration and expenses are generally reported annually by the Council as a matter of public record on its website.
Standards and Interests
What does the law require councils to have in place to regulate standards?
Each Council has a duty to promote and maintain high standards of conduct of its members and co-opted members. Each authority is required to have its own Code of Conduct and a Committee to deal with any breaches of the Code – as well as an independently appointed person to consider complaints.
What are the principles that must be included in the Code of Conduct?
The Code of Conduct to be adopted by each local authority must be consistent with seven principles as set out in the Localism Act 2011. They are:
Councils have discretion as to what it includes within the Code of Conduct provided it is consistent with the seven principles stated above, so codes will vary from council to council. The Code must also require the registration and disclosure of “Disclosable Pecuniary Interests”.
What are “Disclosable Pecuniary Interests”?
These are essentially financial relationships that a councillor may have with another person, company or body. The broad heading under which pecuniary interests fall are:
Employment, office, trade profession or vocation (Any employment, office, trade or profession or vocation carried on for profit or gain)
Sponsorship (Any payment or provision of any other financial benefit (other than from the relevant authority) made or provided within the relevant period in respect of any expenses incurred by you in carrying out duties as a member or towards your election expenses. This includes any payment or financial benefit within the meaning of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1992.)
Contracts (Any contract which is made between the relevant person (or body in which the relevant person has a beneficial interest ) and the relevant authority – a) under which goods and services are to be provided or works are to be executed; and b) which have not been fully discharged.)
Land (Any beneficial interest in land which is within the area of the relevant authority)
Licences (Any licence (alone or jointly with others) to occupy land in the area of the relevant local authority for a month or longer)
Corporate Tenancies (Any tenancy where ( to your knowledge)):
(a) the landlord is the relevant authority; and
(b) the tenant is the body in which the relevant person has the beneficial interest
Securities (Any beneficial interest in securities of a body where):
(a) that body ( to your knowledge) has a place of business or land in the area of the relevant local authority; and
the total nominal value of the securities exceeds £25,000 or one hundredth of the total issued share capital of that body; or
if the share capital of that body is of more than one class, the total nominal value of the shares of any class in which the relevant person has a beneficial interest exceeds one hundredth of the total issued share capital of that class)
What else do I need to declare?
The Localism Act also requires a councillor to disclose their interests and any interest of:
The Member’s spouse or civil partner
A person with whom the Member is living as husband and wife
A person with whom the Member is living as if they were civil partners
If the Member is aware that that other person has the interest
In these cases you must disclose on behalf of these related persons any information which you have to disclose on your account under the Disclosable Pecuniary Interests.
How do standards rules apply to Parish and Town Councils?
Parish Councils within the area of a principal local authority will be able to offer that council’s Code of Conduct or their own, but governed by the same principles
How are breaches of the Code of Conduct considered?
Once an authority adopts a new Code of Conduct it is under a duty to have arrangements in place to deal with complaints relating to a breach of the Code. These must include arrangements for investigation of complaints, and arrangements for decisions to be made on allegations. This will also have to include arrangements with regard to allegations about a breach of a Parish/Town Council’s Code of Conduct as principal authorities will also be responsible for dealing with a breach of a Code adopted by any of the Parish or Town Councils within their area.
The requirement to have a Standards Committee ceases to have effect under the Localism Act 2011 but the council is still be required to appoint a committee to deal with standards issues and cases relating to a breach of the Code. The Committee will be a normal committee of the authority established under section 101 of the Local Government Act 1972, it will be subject to political balance, unless the committee or sub committee were to determine that political balance should not apply under a procedure laid down in regulations which state that if this committee/sub committee wished this then all members need to vote in favour of such a proposal. Parish Councillors and Independent Members will not automatically be members of the committee unless the Council wishes them to be co-opted members. Both the Independent Members and Parish Councillors will be non voting members of any sub committee. They are not able to be voting members of any committee under the Local Government Act 1972.
How do I declare interests?
Your authority will give you a Register / Declaration of Interests form which you must complete. Under the Localism Act, your answers on this form will be published on the council’s website and be available for public inspection.
It is your responsibility to ensure that your register/declaration of interests is up to date and you must update the records within 28 days of any changes.
In addition, if you believe you have a specific pecuniary interest in a matter being discussed at a meeting of the council, you should declare that interest at the start of the meeting.
If the issue is not on the agenda, and comes up during the meeting (e.g. a verbal question), you must declare any interests straight away.
Unless dispensation has been granted, you may not participate in any discussion or, vote on, or discharge any function related to any matter in which you have a pecuniary interest. In essence this means that, having declared a pecuniary interest, you must leave the room for the duration of the debate on the matter.
Remember, this applies whether the interest is yours, your spouse’s or civil partner’s, or is the pecuniary interest of somebody with whom you are living with as a husband or wife, or as if you were civil partners.
Full Council, Annual Council and Budget
Your Council will have regular Full Council meetings in which all councillors come together to vote on constitutional issues, petitions and motions. Each Council sets the frequency and procedure rules of its own Full Council meetings. However they are usually monthly or bi-monthly and usually contain as regular agenda items the following:
Questions to office holders such as Council Leader, Portfolio Holders and Committee Chairs.
Receipt of Petitions from the public.
Formal adoption of binding council documents such as Local Plans, Area Action Plans, Article 4 Statements etc.
Questions to office holders are a good opportunity to raise ward issues and, if you are in opposition and raising the issue with an opposition councillors, a good opportunity to challenge the ruling group on issues that are important to local residents. When you do so you should follow up with appropriate publicity such as press releases, social media posts, emails and focus articles.
Council Motions are your opportunity to change the direction of the Council and introduce new policies and commitments – particularly if you are a backbench / opposition councillor. You can move a Council Motion on almost any subject but they should be on issues that are important to local residents, will help people in your local area, improve the Council and it’s functions, and have a definite and realistic call to action. Some motions can also be political attacks on the administration.
Your Council may limit the number of motions that can be moved per political group. Your Lib Dem council group should therefore be mindful of moving motions that will have the biggest impact both politically and practically.
ALDC has an archive of Council Motions that can be found here.
Each year the Council will hold an Annual Council (or AGM) meeting. It is usually held in May shortly after local elections. It is at this meeting that councillors will be elected to formal council positions – such as chairs, deputy chairs and ordinary members of council committees.
Once a year your Council will also hold its Budget meeting. Budget meetings usually take place around February and set the Council’s spending commitments for the financial year ahead. These budgets are usually divided into the following:
Council Tax – The rate of Council Tax is set at the Budget meeting for the financial year ahead. Council’s have a choice between freezing Council Tax at the current rate for all residents, or increasing it up to a maximum limit set by the Government (currently 2.99%). Council Tax rates are set as part of the Revenue Budget.
Revenue Budget – This is the council’s day-to-day expenditure. It includes all staff salaries and running costs for Council buildings and services. Revenue essentially funds the running of Council services. It is derived through the Council’s revenue income sources such as Council Tax and charged services.
Capital Budget – This is money spent on improving the Council’s assets. It is usually spent on larger projects. For instance purchasing new land and buildings, refurbishing or building new leisure centres or theatres or major highways schemes such as new roundabouts, bridges, crossings etc.
Housing Revenue Account Budget – All Councils own housing that they rent out to tenants. Councils are legally required to separate all of the financial activities related to its role as a housing landlord into a ring-fenced account known as the Housing Revenue Account (HRA). The HRA budget is set every year. Any changes to council housing rents will be covered in this budget.
The Council’s Budget will be moved by the ruling group. Opposition groups will then have the opportunity to move amendments to the Revenue, Capital and HRA budgets. Each will then be debated and voted on. Individual councillors who do not belong to a political group (for instance if you are the only Lib Dem councillor in your authority) can still move a budget amendment though they will be reliant on a councillor from another party to second it!
As part of the budget preparation process all council groups should have access to senior Council officers to plan their budget positions – whether you are in administration or opposition.
The Budget council meeting is a very politically charged day. It is where each political group sets out its vision for the Council area. You should make sure your budget reflects Lib Dem values and the priorities of local people in the area. If you are in opposition then the Budget is a bog opportunity to get major publicity for your big campaigns and draw attention to wasteful spending of the other administration.
The Role of Scrutiny
Scrutiny commissions are there to provide challenge and balance to the Council’s administration (Leader and Cabinet). They can be an effective way for backbench councillors and opposition councillors to raise issues, hold the administration to account and pursue policies and ideas of their own.
The Local Government Act 2000 established the requirement for Councils in England and Wales operating executive arrangements to establish an Overview and Scrutiny Committee. Scottish Councils that operate under the committee system or English or Welsh Councils that have returned to the committee system (whereby there is not an executive cabinet as such but rather Council decisions are taken by committees) are not required to establish a scrutiny committee.
Different Councils implement their scrutiny functions in different ways. For example some have just one Overview and Scrutiny Committee, whilst others have a number of scrutiny committees each covering a different area of the Council’s work.
If you are in a political group that does not form part of the administration of the Council then engagement with the scrutiny processes will be one of the ways in which you can influence the policy and direction of the Council – and hold the administration to account.
If you are running the Council then scrutiny is still a valuable way to ensure the Council is discharging its functions as effectively as possible. But you will need to be conscious not to be too critical of your own administrations performance.
The Centre for Public Scrutiny
In terms of seeking advice and support on scrutiny, the Centre for Public Scrutiny is an independent charity that provides advice and guidance on public scrutiny. It’s a great resource with an active online forum and a number of guides that are worth reading.
Here are some ways that you can use scrutiny effectively as a Liberal Democrat councillor:
Setting theAgenda and using Scrutiny for Campaigns
We recommend using scrutiny committees you are on to propose topics that you think are important, and that you are campaigning on in your Focus leaflets. You should think about how the topics you raise fit into your group’s campaigning and policy objectives. Communication is key here, turn the fact that you have requested a topic is put on the agenda into a news story. You can do this by putting it on a leaflet, writing a letter to the press, issuing a press release, putting it up onto your MyCouncillor website, and sending it out to your email list. You should be using your time and influence on the scrutiny committee as an extension of your campaigns, not as something detached and separate.
Holding the administration to account and Scrutiny ‘Call-In‘s
The call-in function is the mechanism back bench Councilors have for challenging decisions made by the executive of the Council. As a campaigning Liberal Democrat this is a great mechanism to use to try and draw extra public and political attention to a decision that you disagree with.
The call-in procedure varies greatly from Council to Council, so it’s important that you read the constitution of your own Council to understand the mechanism by which you can use the call-in scrutiny function. Essentially, if an executive decision is made, back bench councillors can ‘call-in’ the decision for further scrutiny within a certain time limit. This is a very effective tool for an opposition group as it stops the decision going through and expose faults in the decision-making process.
It’s important if you do call-in an executive decision of the Council that you seek to maximize the publicity for the call-in. The aim with a call-in is to try and get the executive to reconsider, and one way in which you can do this is to increase the political cost in their reputation for carrying on and implementing an unpopular decisions.
Even if a decision has not been made that is subject to the call in process you should always be thinking about how you can use scrutiny to expose flaws in the administrations running of the Council. Read your agenda papers, identify the controversial items and reports, and look for holes.
Remember to only be this critical if the Lib Dems are in opposition.
Policy Development – Scrutiny Reviews
The scrutiny function does not always have to be carried out within a formal committee structure. It’s possible to establish cross-party working parties to carry out some more detailed scrutiny work. Undertaking a scrutiny review is a great way to put forward detailed policy proposals in an area that you or your group has an interest in. It’s also a lot easier to invite experts, and members of the public along to a more informal meeting where you can discuss particular topics in more detail
Councilor Call for Action
A Councillor ‘Call for Action’ was created in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. Section 119 of the act provides Council members with the opportunity to ask for discussions at scrutiny committees on issues where local problems have arisen and where other methods of resolution have been exhausted.
A Councillor call for action is particularly useful in Councils where we do not have much representation on a scrutiny committee, or where it has proven difficult to resolve an issue by asking questions at Council, or through the presentation of petitions.
It’s probably true that a lot of the impact you will be able to have by instigating a call for action is around the press and story that you will be able to create through the call for action. It’s another mechanism that you have within scrutiny processes to hold an executive of a Council to account, and to try and resolve issues within your own ward.
The usual challenge around scrutiny is that it is ‘non-political’. This is simply not true. Scrutiny should always be used to make political advantages. Quite often there will be journalists attending scrutiny meetings and they will report on contentious items. Do not be afraid to stick to your liberal values, represent the views of your group and to criticise Council proposals that do not reflect these.
Planning and Licensing
Local Councils have important statutory functions. The two most common that involve elected-members are Planning and Licensing Committees. On these committees we do not vote as Liberal Democrats, but on our own conscience after considering the issues. Political considerations are still important, and it is good to talk issues through with colleagues, but you cannot be whipped to vote a certain way on applications that come before these committees. You can take political positions on policy items that are decided by these committees (for instance Article 4 Directions, Supplementary Planning Documents, Cumulative Impact Zones, Local Plan amendments etc).
Planning Committees deal with applications for development or changes to the physical environment within your Council area. These can range from new houses and buildings to extensions, infrastructure (such as phone masts), dropped kerbs, tree-felling, and installation of new advertising signs amongst many other things. Planning also deals with applications for changes of use – for instance from a family home to a House in Multiple Occupation (HIMO), or from a shop to a takeaway.
Local councils are the principal decision-making bodies for determining planning applications. Different tiers of Councils have slightly different planning powers. Single-tier councils such as Unitary Authorities and London Boroughs have responsibility for all planning decisions within their area. In two-tier authority areas District Councils are responsible for most planning matters, aside from Transport, Waste and Mineral Planning that are usually the responsibility of County Councils.
Most planning decisions will be made by council officers under an agreed scheme of delegation within your Council. These will be routine decisions that are not controversial. The more contentious planning applications will go to Planning Committee to be decided. These could be applications that have received a number of objections or are contrary to planning policies.
Licensing Committees discharge the responsibilities of your Council under the 2003 Licensing Act. These responsibilities most often concern the sale of alcohol but also relate to hot-food takeaways, gambling premises, adult entertainment and other legally defined licensable activities.
2003 Licensing Act decisions are usually made by a sub-committee of councillors.
Your Council may also have a separate Licensing Committee (usually comprised of the same councillors) to deal with other licensing issues such as taxi driver applications and street trading – or these functions may be delegated to officers (street trading can also fall under the planning function of some councils).
Both Planning and Licensing, whether you sit are on the respective committees or not, present great opportunities for engaging with residents in your ward.
All Planning and 2003 Act Licensing applications are subject to statutory public consultation whereby members of the public can object to or support the application within a set timeframe. Applications, and documents related to them, are publicly available to view.
If an application affects residents in your area you should make people aware (through email, social media or a letter/leaflet) and let them know how to make representations. If the application is particularly controversial, and residents in your ward have an overwhelmingly strong opinion on it, you may decide to actively campaign for a certain outcome. You can encourage residents to make representations in greater numbers and you should also make a representation yourself and try to speak to the committee making the decision during the relevant part of the meeting.
Planning and Licensing Call-Ins
If a contentious Planning or Licensing decision is due to be considered in your ward you can take steps to ensure it is considered by a Committee or Sub-Committee of councillors – rather than officers.
Usually with Planning Applications this involves ‘calling in’ the application for a committee decision. In Licensing raising an objection as a ward councillor will usually necessitate that the matter is decided by a sub-committee that you would be invited to attend.
Calling in applications for a committee decision is an important part of making sure your community’s views are represented and considered for applications that are contentious. You do not need to take a side if you call an application in, though it may often be the case that your wish to.
If you are a member of your Council’s Planning or Licensing Committee you must not show that you have pre-determined your decision on any application that you are sitting on the committee to decide. You can only make up your mind when the item is being considered at the committee meeting once all representations have been heard.
If you have a particularly contentious application in your ward that you feel you need to show leadership on and take a position you may want to send apologies and find a substitute for the meeting in which that item will be considered – allowing you to campaign on the application and also speak against it at the meeting.
Pre-determination rules do not preclude you from raising concerns about an application – for instance writing that you are concerned about the impact on traffic or public safety is not the same as pre-determining your decision.
Appointments to Outside Bodies
An outside appointments is any appointment made by a council to an external body such as a housing association, charity board, fire authority, police & crime panel etc.
These rights to appoint a representative are either enshrined in law (for a Fire Authority appointment, for example) or often at the request of the authority or outside organisation concerned. For example, your local Credit Union or Citizens Advice Bureau may invite the council to nominate a representative to sit on their management board.
How are appointments decided?
Outside appointments may be made by the full council or by the cabinet/executive. Some appointments must be filled by councillors (e.g. police and crime panels) and some may be filled by officers or members of the public (e.g. drainage boards).
Outside appointments are made under a number of different criteria which usually (though not always) will reflect political balance in the case of council appointments and not in the case of cabinet/executive appointments.
The appointments are usually reviewed on an annual basis.
Are allowances available?
The allowances available will vary from council to council and from appointment to appointment.
For some posts, for example appointment to a Fire Authority, an additional basic allowance with be available in addition to a range of travelling and subsistence allowances.
For most appointments, only travelling and subsistence allowances will be payable. For appointments to charities or local organisations, often not even travelling and subsistence allowances are payable.
Am I required to produce reports or represent the views of the council?
The requirements will vary from council to council. Some councils require written or verbal reports from members appointed to outside bodies – particularly in respect of members of Fire Authorities and Police & Crime Panels. Others have no such policy.
As an appointee of the council you may be expected to reflect the council line in your dealings with outside bodies. This is not a requirement – but clearly you will be mindful of the need to maintain council or group support in order to retain any outside appointment.
If you are appointed as a Board Member of an outside body you must at all times act in what is in the best interests of the body not the Council which appointed you. if you foresee a conflict of interest arising you should seek advice from your Council and if needs be declare an interest at or before the meeting.
You should be aware of the skills and abilities required of any board position, and assure yourself that you can meet that requirement. You should, therefore, ensure that you have the skills and abilities to meet the requirements of a member of a Board or Arms Length Organisation before accepting the nomination or appointment.
The ‘Six Month Rule’ and Attendance
These often cause confusion as they have same name but entirely different meanings:
The first is to avoid unnecessary by-elections. For the last six months of a councillor’s period of office no by-election is normally held if they resign or die. The vacancy is held open until the normal date for the election of that office.
The second relates to the disqualification of any councillor who fails to attend council meetings for 6 months
The six-month rule – Failing to attend meetings
If a member of a local authority (or joint authority) fails through a period of six consecutive months from the date of their last attendance to attend any formal meeting of the authority, they cease to be a member of the authority. This meeting does not have the be a Full Council meeting. It can instead be a Scrutiny Committee or any other formal committee. It cannot be an informal meeting such as a briefing, workshop or Lib Dem group meeting.
The six month rule can be suspended for individual councillors by agreement from the Council. This is usually done through a resolution being passed at a Full Council meeting and must be done before the 6 month period has expired. This is often done in cases of ill health or military service and in most cases would be accepted by all parties – though a simple majority is required for it to pass. If you are in opposition and require votes from other parties for the 6 month rule to be suspended for one of your members then you will need to open discussions with them to obtain their support.
It is NOT sufficient to simply have their absence recorded in the attendance record of the meetings they have missed, and once the six months has been exceeded it is not necessary for there to be a “request” for the council to act. It is not the same as a death or resignation and there is no need for two electors to call the election. The council should declare the office vacant and set the timetable for the election immediately.
Any period during which a member of a local authority is suspended or partially suspended shall be disregarded for the purpose of calculating the period of six consecutive months. However the period before and after such a suspension are then treated as consecutive for the 6 month rule.
The councillor who fails to attend is not disqualified from standing in the subsequent by-election because of the 6 month rule. However it seems both unlikely and inadvisable for the local party to re-approve them for selection except in exceptional circumstances.
Access to Information and FOI requests
Councillors are free to approach any Council Directorate/Department to provide them with such information, explanation and advice (about that Directorate’s/ Department’s functions) as they may reasonably need in order to assist them in discharging their role as members of the Council.
Councillors have a statutory right to inspect any Council document, which contains material relating to any business, which is to be transacted at a Council, Committee or Sub-Committee meeting. This right applies irrespective of whether the Councillor is a member of the Committee or Sub-Committee concerned and extends not only to reports, which are to be submitted to the meeting, but also to any relevant background papers.
This right does not however apply to documents relating to items which appear in the confidential section of the agenda for meetings. The items in question are those which contain exempt information relating to Councillors, employees, occupiers of Council property, applicants for grants and other services, the care of children, contract and industrial relations negotiations, advice from Counsel and criminal investigations.
In principle councillors have the right to access any information held by the council of which they are a member. This right of access may not extend to publication or otherwise making public and indeed councillors may be asked to sign up to a confidentiality undertaking before being provided with certain information
Freedom of Information Requests
What does Freedom of Information mean for councillors?
There are two main issues which need to be considered when discussing the relationship between freedom of information and councillors. The first issue is whether councillors are covered by the legislation, and the second is to what extent local authorities hold information on behalf of councillors.
Are councillors covered by the legislation?
The UK Information Commissioner has expressed the view that there are three capacities in which a councillor can act:
As a member of a council (e.g. as a member of a housing committee who has access to tenancy files)
On their own behalf (e.g. dealing with complaints made by local residents)
On behalf of a political party (e.g. as an office holder or official candidate)
Guidance suggests that only when the councillor is acting as a member of the council are they part of the council.
So effectively, any information held by a councillor in relation to his/her party political or constituency activities will not be accessible under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) (though might be under the Data Protection Act). Any other information held by a councillor is likely to be covered by FOI. This includes recorded information about formal council meetings (including minutes, agendas and reports) and informal meetings which the councillor has with council staff or with external bodies on council business. It will also include information which the councillor holds as, e.g. the leader of the council.
It may also include information which a councillor holds as a result of his/her membership of an external body, although this is likely to depend on the terms of his/her appointment to the body.
Requests for information relating to a councillor’s work as member of a council could be made either to the council or to the councillor. The 20 working day period for responding to requests begins when the council or the councillor receives this information.
What about information held by a council which belongs to a councillor?
The Freedom of Information Act allows an information request to be made for any information which is held by a council. However, there is a definition of “held” in FOI, which means that if a council holds information on behalf of another person, then that information is not considered to be held by the council and does not have to be released in line with an information request.
Many councils are likely to hold information on behalf of a councillor. For example, a council may allow a councillor to use its IT system for writing and storing correspondence with and on behalf of constituents. Some councils provide councillors with administrative support, including for political meetings. What happens if requests are made for information held by the council in these circumstances?
As mentioned above, councillors do not need to respond to requests for information made to them where the information request relates to their party political or constituency activities.
What information do I have the right as a councillor to get access to?
Councillors have a right to access information or documents which contain material relating to any business to be transacted at a meeting of the council or any committee. (Councillors obviously also have the same rights as the public in relation to inspection of document/access to information).
This means that your statutory right of access is limited to documents concerned with business about to be transacted at a meeting and not for documents/information not yet due to come before a meeting.
A councillor may also be provided with information or inspect Council documents which are reasonably necessary for him/her to see in order to carry out his/her duties as a councillor. This is dependent on establishing a “need to know” in order to enable the councillor to properly perform his/her duties. This would usually derive from the councillors committee responsibilities but it may also relate to legitimate ward issues.
However, this is not an absolute right – it will not extend to all information/documents. Nor is it a right to a “roving commission” to examine all information held. There must be a good reason for accessing the information and this right cannot be exercised for an improper or indirect motive.
Can I use the Freedom of Information Act to get information?
Yes! The rights that a member of the public would have to access information, you also have a councillor. There should not be any information that you cannot access as a councillor but can access using FOI, but it does happen that authorities can be very secretive (or slow) in releasing information to councillors, especially opposition ones.
Anyone – anywhere in the world – can submit a Freedom of Information Act request to any public authority or wholly owned public company in the UK. There are over a hundred thousand public authorities, which include everything from the Home Office down to your local parish council – all authorities come under the umbrella of the Freedom of Information Act.
You can request any information the authority holds. Don’t be shy here – the authority has very limited grounds for refusal, and in many instances needs to have a watertight argument that it’s in the public’s best interest to withhold the information if it does decline to provide you with it. But you do need torequest information that it holds – and you can’t ask for information that it holds on behalf of another organisation, or an opinion. The authority needs to be able to find and provide you with the information, rather than create it. That’s the authority’s duty, but what of yours? You need to provide a name – which can be a pseudonym – a request for information, and an address.
Finding out the correct contact person for your request from the authority’s Internet site (it ought to be under ‘publication scheme’) will ensure they don’t have to rush a reply to you which is what might happen if your request gets delayed in the organisation’s postal system.
Including as many contact details you have, such as email address, physical address, work, mobile and home phone numbers can assist the authority in contacting you should they need to clarify anything.
Your query ought to be as specific as possible, outlining exactly the information you require. Though there’s no compunction for you to do so, if you explain what you require the information for this can assist the authority to answer your request in the most suitable manner.
What happens after I’ve submitted my request?
Once the authority receives the request, they ought to send you some acknowledgement saying so, and let you know when you will hear back from them. If they’re unclear about anything, they may reply or call to clarify as they have a duty to provide reasonable advice and assistance to applicants.
If you haven’t received your response within twenty working days – about a month later – the authority has fallen foul of the law, though it does have a right to extend the deadline if they need to conduct a public interest test, but only to a reasonable limit. This ‘public interest test’ extension has caused a number of requesters to become disgruntled and the Campaign for Freedom of Information and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) are pushing for some restrictions on its use. Whatever the case, the authority is required to inform you of the delay and explain how long they expect it will take.
If you’re not happy with the response, the authority’s covering letter to you ought to outline ways in which you can appeal their decision. If the authority has invoked the public interest test, it has declined to issue you with information that you want, and their arguments for non-disclosure aren’t fully disclosed or seem vague, don’t hesitate to appeal their decision. It is free to do so.