Although I am no longer a member of the London Borough of Hounslow's Executive, as Leader of the Community Group I naturally keep a keen eye on the recommendations that come forward for approval. One which caught my eye prior to last night's meeting was proposed by the Deputy Leader of the Council and Executive Member for Complaints Mark Bowen and was entitled Dealing with Abusive, Vexatious or Persistent Complainants.
Now it hopefully goes without saying that if a member of the public is abusive towards officers of the local authority, or makes complaints which are clearly vexatious, there must be a point at which we can reasonably terminate our dealings with such a complainant. Our officers should not be expected to put up with abuse, insults or obscenities, and we make no apology for protecting them from such. Most large organisations have a policy of this kind, and much of the report which was brought to Executive concentrated on ratifying what was essentially the obvious and the indisputable.
However my attention was drawn to the reference to "Persistent Complainants", as this as a concept is not so easy to define. A complainant might, for instance, make the same complaint repeatedly despite it being self-evidently unreasonable or not upheld following a proper investigation. It is right that at some point we as organisation need to be able to say that enough is enough and discontinue a conversation that has clearly run its course.
On the other hand a persistent complainant could of course be someone who makes a series of different but nonetheless valid complaints, possibly acting on behalf of a residents' group or civic society. Or a person who, having not received a proper answer to a first complaint, pursues the matter in the hope of achieving appropriate closure.
One fairly recent example of the latter was a correspondent from the Mogden Residents' Action Group (MRAG), who had to ask a question of a senior officer thirteen times before he would provide a substantive answer. Even after councillor intervention the officer continued either to evade the question or, on other occasions, to ignore it completely. Under such circumstances the MRAG representative could not in all good sense be labelled a persistent complainant and cut adrift from the process - indeed the officer should have been disciplined by his seniors, who had been copied in to most of the correspondence.
Councillor Bowen, probably more than any other elected member, is a tenacious advocate of the member-led council. Nevertheless even the most competent batsman can be bowled out as a result of a momentary lapse in concentration, and so my ICG colleague Councillor Jon Hardy proposed an amendment to the recommendation which ensured that the relevant ward councillors, together with the Lead Member himself, would be given prior notice before the extreme and, I would hope, exceptional step of discontinuing communication with a complainant would be taken. The amendment was accepted.
To make doubly sure - and I hope I am not breaching any confidences by sharing this - I contacted Councillor Bowen this afternoon and he agreed with me that this power would not be allowed to be misused to silence genuine complainants, even those whose correspondence is frequent or challenging.
So, anybody within the organisation who might have had ideas about using the approval of this report against community activists and representatives of such groups as MRAG or The Isleworth Society (TIS) would do well to disavow themselves of them right now. To do so would effectively be a declaration of non co-operation with the Community Group and as such an unacceptable challenge to the authority of the coalition administration.
This recommendation was a sensible one, but requires sensible implementation. My colleagues in the community can be assured that for at least as long as we have anything to do with it this principle will be applied at all times.