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Cross-organisational working group on councillor safety and "one stop shop" model of support

Hounslow Council have set up a cross-organisational working group with expert representatives to help identify emerging issues and gaps in support and develop solutions that will help to prevent and deal with these issues when they arise.

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The London Borough of Hounslow recently resolved to assess how the council could take greater responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of councillors in relation to abuse and intimidation associated with the elected role. The council has since worked to consider this issue by establishing a cross-organisational working group of skilled practitioners and is progressing work to provide additional training for councillors, greater opportunities for elected members to discuss these sensitive issues and providing a ‘one-stop-shop’ place for safety and wellbeing advice for councillors to help them navigate these issues more easily.

The challenge:

The London Borough of Hounslow recently passed a motion recognising the issue of increasing issue of harassment of elected members online and in-person and agreeing to take greater responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of councillors and candidates in relation to preventing and handling abuse and intimidation.

The motion was part of the national LGA Debate Not Hate campaign, but also recognised local issues of online toxic harassment campaigns, often carried out by anonymous perpetrators, and face-to-face interactions with the public, which the police cannot always support members with.

The solution:

Hounslow Council is taking steps to address harassment affecting it’s elected members. Following the passing of the motion the council is now working on setting up a cross-organisational working group with expert representatives from democratic services, legal, health and safety, and other relevant departments.

The purpose of the group will be to use the various expertise to identify emerging issues and gaps in support and develop solutions that will help to prevent and deal with these issues when they arise. The group will also work towards creating a hub space on the intranet where members can access all the necessary information in one place, including access to counselling through the employee assistance scheme.

The council is also considering providing training on emotional intelligence and softer skills to help members pre-empt, navigate and deescalate tensions when challenging issues create passionate responses in the community. Furthermore, the council is encouraging and facilitating respectful and civil conversations about sensitive issues, such as misogyny, between its elected members.

The group will also consider what the council can do to prevent abuse against councillors and when the council should step in actively protect members. For example, it is sometimes appropriate for the council’s legal department to take over communications when correspondence is abusive and vexatious and to write an official letter informing the resident that the correspondence is no longer appropriate. This is an important step to explore all avenues before taking any further action.

The groups will consider a range of issues including:

  • Police protocol: The council believes that it is essential for members to understand the role of the police. As a result, the council aims to establish a protocol with the police that sets out expectations on both sides and explains how reports can be handled.
  • Setting expectations: there is a perception that public discourse is getting more toxic and that this must be addressed first before engagement can resume. It is therefore key to set expectations about how the public should engage with members and staff in the right way.
  • Clear mechanisms: it’s vital that councillors have a clear mechanism for reporting incidents and escalating concerns as necessary. This is a central part of the ‘one stop shop’

The impact:

All councils will be experienced at supporting councillors with the range of issues they encounter while fulfilling their elected role. However, abuse and intimidation of elected members is an increasing issue which councils are working now to address.

The council is just at the beginning of using this approach to address abuse and intimidation of councillors and hope the impact will be to produce a more efficient and effective range of solutions for councillors which they can access easily through one central hub on the council intranet.

Lessons learned:

  • Using the available capability and capacity within your organisation can provide more impactful solutions than commissioning a bespoke solution or looking outside the organisation for an answer.
  • It important to be clear where the role of the council is and where it is more appropriate for other public authorities, such as the police, or organisation to hold responsibility.