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Devon health scrutiny chair under fire from council investigation

Thursday, 31 August 2017 6 Comments by Claire

An investigation by Devon County Council into a highly charged and controversial meeting last month, has found health scrutiny committee chair, Sara Randall Johnson not guilty of breaching the code of conduct, however, she will be “strongly reminded” of the importance of neutrality, fairness and calling the health service to account in her role.

23 complaints were received from members of the public about the conduct of the chair at the meeting on 25 July (which was specially convened to debate a referral to the Secretary of State for Health about hospital bed closures), and a report of it can be read here -

The full report, which is some 50 pages long, remains confidential and I am working my way through it.

While I am disappointed that a breach of the code as I saw it in terms of showing disrespect to local people about an absolutely huge and widespread issue of concern and anxiety, I am pleased that the chair does not escape criticism and that she will be reminded about the importance of holding the NHS to account (which as a committee is our job!) and being fair and neutral.

It was quite wrong in my view to allow a proposal not to refer this highly controversial decision to the Secretary of State for Health, right at the beginning of the meeting before any debate or questions had been asked of the CCG.

Even more so, when the chair had been aware of my own proposal to refer the decision, which was sitting on the desk in front of her.

The meeting was after all, convened specifically to debate the merits of a referral to the Secretary of State for Health.

Equally, there should have been a careful consideration of all the legal issues associated with the decision, as was set out in the agenda papers in a special report by the county solicitor.  These were essentially ignored at the meeting.

I also believe it was quite wrong (albeit not against the rules) for the chair to vote in favour of the proposal not to refer.

I will be talking to fellow members about how we can take this forward, as local people have simply seen their views trampled by the conservatives on that committee, and that is unacceptable.

A wrong needs to be put right somehow and that is what I will now be considering.

And the chair will need to work very hard if she is to regain the trust of the public…. who some fellow councillors need to remember that we are working on behalf of.

My thanks go to the county solicitor and investigating officer for their prompt investigation and recommendations.

The resolution of the Standards Committee, which met in private session on Tuesday afternoon (29 August), is below:

It was MOVED by Councillor Gribble, SECONDED by Councillor Mathews and unanimously


(a) that the Investigating Officer’s Report be acknowledged and endorsed as an exhaustive and thorough piece of work;

(b) that the Committee finds that the allegations are not proven and that there has not been any breach of the Code of Conduct or that they disclose any sufficiently serious potential breach that might warrant punitive action or sanction or that the subject member failed to apply one or more of the Principles of Public Life;

(c) that there is no evidence to support any allegation that the subject member failed to adhere to the Code of Conduct or had failed to treat others with respect or had failed to act in the public interest or had acted improperly or did not have regard to the relevant facts before taking part in any decision making process as alleged, specifically, in relation to paragraphs 4 and 5(a), (c), (d), (g) and (h) of the Code and that that complaints cannot therefore be upheld;

(d) that, notwithstanding the above, the Committee accepts that the events of the Health and Adult Care Scrutiny Committee meeting on 25 July 2017 may not reflect well on individual Members or upon the Council as a whole, and further recognises that the perception gained by persons present at the meeting or subsequently viewing the webcast is not that which would have been desired: Group Leaders should therefore be asked to remind Members of the need to conduct themselves appropriately and respectfully at all times; 

(e) that, additionally, the subject member be strongly reminded of the importance of the work of scrutiny committees - reinforcing the value of neutrality in scrutiny both generally and in calling the ‘health service’ to account – and the need to be seen to be even handed and scrupulously fair, recognising that failure to do so may be perceived as a deliberate act; the difference between perception and reality being not easily countered;

(f) that in light also of the evident lack of awareness of some Members of the procedures to be followed at meetings, further training be offered (i) to Members on the rules of debate including procedures relating to the moving of motions and amendments and voting at committee meetings and to remind them that assistance was available through the Council’s Democratic Services & Scrutiny Secretariat to help them in ensuring consideration of any matter by a Committee and in drafting motions or amendments and (ii) to Chairmen and Vice-Chairmen of Scrutiny Committees, generally, relating to the management of those procedures at meetings;

(g) that Members be also reminded of the need to ensure microphones are switched on and used particularly when meetings are webcast and that Officers examine the potential within the current audio system to ensure that Members’ microphones are switched on remotely, if necessary, to ensure that their contributions are heard and recorded on the webcast; 

(h) that, additionally, the Procedures Committee be asked at its next meeting to ensure the wording of the Council’s Constitution in relation to the appointment and membership of Scrutiny Committees is accurate and consistent throughout and reflects the provisions of the law and that the presentation of information about such appointments at the Annual Meeting of the Council is similarly made clearer in future; and

(i) that complainants be advised that any complaint over the conduct of the Health and Adult Care Scrutiny Committee’s Co-opted Member cannot be dealt with by the County Council and that as that Member was currently an East Devon District Councillor any such complaints should be referred to East Devon District Council’s Monitoring Officer.

A link to the full minutes of Tuesday’s standards committee, are here -

Pic:  The protest before that fateful meeting last month.


1. At 04:14 pm on 31th Aug Sandra Semple wrote:

You can bet that had it not been a Tory as chair the outcome would have been VASTLY different.

2. At 05:22 pm on 31th Aug Gillian Anne Newcombe wrote:

Thankyou Councillor for attempting to get the opinions of the majority of people in Devon across to the Scruitany Committee. What a shame that they do not feel it is their responsibility to represent us.

3. At 06:40 pm on 31th Aug Tina Benson wrote:

I fail to understand their analysis. I hope, in the interests of natural justice, that the committee might decide of its own volition to revisit the decision and refer the matter. Please use your best endeavours to privately persuade all committee members to clean up their act & do the right thing to ensure that the “perception” is answered.The committee are unlikely to have any support from the public if they behave contrary to the wishes of the people it’s to serve. Sara Randall Johnson should step down as clearly she has her own agenda.

4. At 09:58 am on 01th Sep Sandra Semple wrote:

Alas, Tina, the chair and Tory members of this committee care not one jot about voters opinions, otherwise they would not have voted as they did.  The only way to change this is for people who vote Tory to vote for the person likely to come second to them in any future elections - however painful that might be.  They are only there because people enough people voted them there.

5. At 10:41 am on 01th Sep Sandra Barrett wrote:

This is a fair report but councillors need to be reminded of responsibility and respect the advocacy of all its members representing constituents as this was not evident in this recent health scrutiny issue. We expect more from a body of people who manage our council, DCC. Thank you Claire for bringing this issue to the attention of all DCC constituents.

6. At 06:48 pm on 01th Sep Chris Wakefield wrote:

Chief exec’s report is probably about right - she followed the rules but not the spirit of local government. SRJ is probably too self-obsessed to recognise her failures and will doubtless take the judgement as an endorsement of her approach, which it absolutely is not. It is quite appalling that people with such limited abilities can attain positions of such importance. This has happened in a great many cases in the last thirty years and frequently in local government, where old school priorities, tiresome though they may have seemed in the dim and distant, did set a standard based on traditional values of respect, co-operation between parties, and finding the common (and local) ground. The zealotry of modern Toryism, its devotion to ideology, its prioritising of the national message over local practicalities, is utterly unsuited to the very raison d’etre of local government. As Sandra Semple says - the only way to restore genuine local government is to make sure the Tories have their grip prised off the tiller.

And just let me add in concluding - I’m not against all Tory local councillors. There is still a seam of old school Tories too - who think differently about their local responsibilities, and actually do try to represent the interests of their constituents. It may be a bit paternalistic in tone, but it is not the groveling adherence to the Party Line that we now so often see in local Toryism, and which Mrs SRJ has so ably exemplified in her studied rejection of local feeling about the NHS.

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