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GWYNEDD MEMBERS ORDERED TO APOLOGISE FOR FAILING TO DECLARE INTEREST

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A member of Gwynedd CC has been named in an ombudsman's report for failing to declare an interest during debates on...
A member of Gwynedd CC has been named in an ombudsman's report for failing to declare an interest during debates on a tree preservation order, reports The Western Mail (p7).

Peter Gaffey failed to declare his joint ownership of land under discussion by a planning committee.

If follows news last November that Alun Fred Jones, leader of the council's Plaid Cymru group, and Owen Huws, a councillor, were named in a district auditor's report as failing to declare an interest in companies that were awarded council grants.

Yesterday a separate report by the authority's independent panel, told both members to 'apologise unconditionally' to the council for their failure to disclose the interest.

The ombudsman also found that the council's officers did not follow proper procedures when the tree preservation order was made.

The report from the Welsh Ombudsman follows.

98/1144/CN/129, 99/0462/CN/158 & 99/0483/CN/160

Gwynedd Council

The complainants complained about the way in which the council had made a tree preservation order in respect of trees on land near their homes. (A number of the trees were located on land in the ownership of one of the complainants.)

They alleged that the council had failed to comply with the procedural requirements governing the making of such orders, but they also alleged that a council member had contravened the national code of local government conduct. Council officers acknowledged that the complainants had not been served with a copy of the confirmed order within the prescribed time limit.

The ombudsman also found that, despite the advice in the Welsh Office's technical advice note, the council had also failed to give its reasons for rejecting objections to the tree preservation order and for confirming the order.

There had also been unacceptable delay in replying to correspondence from one of the complainants. The ombudsman found those failures to be maladministration.

However, of more serious concern to the ombudsman was the conduct of a councillor who was a joint owner of some of the land affected by the tree preservation order. He was required by law to declare any interest in land in Gwynedd in a statutory register kept by the council and open to public inspection.

He had to keep any information in the register up to date. The entry made by the particular councillor in the statutory register, signed by him, stated that he did not have a beneficial interest in any land in the county, but that entry was incorrect.

Ultimately, it was a matter for a court of law to decide whether the councillor had committed an offence by failing to register his interest in the land affected by the order, but the ombudsman was satisfied that his failure to declare and register his interest also amounted to a failure to observe the national code of local government conduct.

The ombudsman was also satisfied that the councillor had failed to observe the code of conduct at a meeting of a council committee at which theorder had been confirmed. The councillor had failed to declare his interest at the meeting, and had not withdrawn from the meeting during consideration of the order.

The ombudsman also criticised the lack of any record, either in the minutes of the committee meeting or in the committee clerk's notes, of the identity of the member who moved confirmation of the order. He pointed out that the committee clerk's notes were an important record, and could be particularly important when questions arose as to a member's conduct.

He said committee clerks should routinely record in their personal notebooks the names of those who propose and second a motion or amendment, the names of those who speak in a debate and the names of any members who leave a meeting before it ends.

The ombudsman is obliged to name in his report a councillor who has breached the national code of local government conduct unless he is satisfied that it would be unjust to do so. The councillor in this instance had been told of the ombudsman's statutory duty, and he had been given the opportunity to submit reasons to the ombudsman why it would be unjust to name him in the report.

The councillor had not submitted such reasons, and he was therefore named in the report. The ombudsman also found that the complainants had suffered some injustice as a result of the council's failure to follow statutory procedures in confirming the tree preservation order.

The appropriate remedy, as already suggested by council officers, was for the need for the tree preservation order to be reviewed by the council. To avoid a recurrence of the maladministration and of the injustice, the ombudsman recommended the council to ensure that: a) all its members were made aware of the need to update their individual entries in the statutory register of interests; b) officers familiarised themselves with the statutory procedures for making tree preservation orders; c) committee clerks kept an adequate written record in their notebooks of the identity of members who participate in discussions and of the identity of members who leave a meeting before it ends.

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