New abuse rules will stop complaints being “shut down because it’s inconvenient”

County bosses have promised a new set of rules will not be used to shut down "inconvenient" complaints.

Tuesday, 6th July 2021, 11:13 am
Cllr Richard Wearmouth.
Cllr Richard Wearmouth.

One of Northumberland’s top bosses has admitted he could have fallen foul of rules intended to protect against abusive or threatening behaviour, if they were ‘misused’.

Northumberland County Council’s policy on ‘vexatious complainants’ is supposed to protect staff and councillors from issues or individuals deemed either offensive or simply a waste of their time.

But chiefs hope an overhaul of guidance will make it less likely that legitimate concerns can be swept under the carpet.

“Prior to [my election in 2017], I think that I could reasonably have been a victim of misuse of a policy like this, if we weren’t careful,” said Cllr Richard Wearmouth, the deputy leader of the county council.

He added: “In the run up to the 2017 election I was in correspondence with the then chief executive [about school places in Morpeth].

“Eventually it got to a point where he just said I’m not going to correspond with you any further on this – I think my reply was I’ll pick it up [after polling day].

“But the more serious point is we need to make sure people understand that there is a complaints route.”

Cllr Wearmouth was speaking at last week’s Communities and Place Overview and Scrutiny Committee.

According to bosses, the new ‘Unreasonably Persistent and Vexatious Contact Policy’ is needed to deal with the ‘small number of cases’ in which the usual process for handling complaints breaks down.

This could include Threats of violence; Use of abusive or offensive language; Repeated threats of legal action which are not followed-through; and Lack of evidence of support claims.

Cllr Wearmouth added: “We don’t want members of the public to find that they’re exposing some form of council incompetence, only to be shut down because it’s inconvenient.

“We value criticism and feedback from the public and this really must be limited to a very small handful of people who are malicious or vexatious and will not take the correct feedback in the spirit that it’s intended.”

Julie Dennitts-Seal, the council’s corporate complaints manager, said: “[The policy] provides a level of protection for staff to ensure that they are allowed to carry out their role as intended.”