THE leader of a Conservative-led local authority who launched an official complaint over the conduct of Labour councillors during meetings has said her move has backfired as it appeared to have given approval to elected members making personal attacks and levelling unproven accusations.

Councillor Heather Scott has spoken of her concern after the independent Darlington Borough Council inquiry suggested politicians were “expected to possess a thicker skin and greater tolerance than ordinary members of the public”.

Councillors’ conduct is subject to regulation through the Local Government Act 2000, which ensures standards are maintained largely through the Code of Conduct.

The inquiry report concluded senior Labour councillors Stephen Harker and Nick Wallis had not broken the Code of Conduct or bullied cabinet members at meetings in July, but had been properly exercising an “opportunity for elected members to raise difficult issues and to challenge and to hold other members to account”.

The report warned that facing questions in the political arena could be “uncomfortable, challenging and stressful to those subject to challenge”.

It also highlighted findings from the case of a Welsh councillor, which highlighted his right to freedom of expression and how politicians were expected to be more tolerant of criticism.

The report quoted: “Freedom of expression includes the right to say things which right thinking people consider dangerous or irresponsible or which shock or disturb. The recognition of the importance of expression in the political sphere and that the limits of acceptable criticism are wider in the case of politicians acting in their public capacity than they are in the case of private individuals.”

Cllr Scott said she was pleased the Mayor, who presides over full council meetings had accepted the acrimonious last full council meeting must not be allowed to happen again. She said: “In all the years I have been a member of council political debate has always been accepted, but personal attacks should never be allowed. I would have hoped that all political groups could debate the issues without making unproven accusations against individual members which at the last meeting were repeated time and again. I am very disappointed that the result of my complaints appear to condone that this is part of what we should accept and that we should have a thicker skin and greater tolerance than members of the public. Democracy needs more citizens coming forward to stand for council from all communities in order that we are more inclusive and this sends the wrong message.”

Her comments follow a report by the government’s Committee on Standards in Public Life last year concluding that political groups should set clear expectations of behaviour by their members. It stated: “An ethical culture starts with tone. Whilst there will always be robust disagreement in a political arena, the tone of engagement should be civil and constructive. Political groups should require their members to attend code of conduct training provided by a local authority.”

Cllr Scott said claims by Labour councillors that the Cabinet members had refused to answer questions were completely false and if a complex, technical response was needed a written reply would be given, which was the same way the previous Labour administration operated.

Cllr Scott said: “I would appeal to all councillors to respect others whilst having different political views otherwise what kind of example are we giving to the public and to think of the damage this could cause to the prosperity of the town.”