Councillors in Lewisham could face sanctions or even suspension over social media posts in a possible code of conduct overhaul.  

Currently the council’s standards committee is powerless to dole out punishment for social media posts when the councillor does not “act in their capacity as councillor or hold themselves out as doing so”.  

Monitoring officer Kath Nicholson presented the latest review of local government ethical standards, from the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life, to the council’s committee members on Wednesday (January 8). 

Ms Nicholson, who manages issues raised by whistleblowers and allegations of misconduct, said: “At the moment the code only applies when a councillor acts in their capacity as councillor or holds themselves out as doing so. 

“Any other public behaviour is not within the remit of the code of conduct and not for me to look at. 

“What the Nolan Committee is suggesting is that there should be a rebuttable presumption that a councillor’s public behaviour including comments on publicly accessible social media is in their official capacity and therefore within the remit of the code of conduct and therefore subject to investigation through our formal procedures.” 

The review also recommended that details of an allegation against a councillor should be posted on the council website once the matter is concluded – although Ms Nicholson suggested this should only happen if the allegation is proven or leave it to the accused’s discretion.  

Following a devolution of standards rules, local authorities currently choose what goes into their code of conduct.  

But the latest review suggests going back to a voluntary model for all local authorities to follow, which would be put in place by the local government association.  

According to the review, the codes are of “considerable variation in length, quality and clarity” which “creates confusion among members of the public, and among councillors who represent more than one tier of local government”.  

“Many codes of conduct fail to address adequately important areas of behaviour such as social media use and bullying and harassment.  

“An updated model code of conduct should therefore be available to local authorities in order to enhance the consistency and quality of local authority codes.  

“There are, however, benefits to local authorities being able to amend and have ownership of their own codes of conduct.  

“The updated model code should therefore be voluntary and able to be adapted by local authorities.  

“The scope of the code of conduct should also be widened, with a rebuttable presumption that a councillor’s public behaviour, including comments made on publicly accessible social media, is in their official capacity,” it read.  

Committee member Cathy Sullivan “strongly backed” the proposal about social media after finding allegations against councillors “uncomfortable reading”.  

“The principle of suggesting the scope of the code of conduct be widened would be something that is highly desirable.

“I don’t think ordinary members of the public, if they know someone is a councillor, make the distinction about whether that person is acting in a formal capacity at that particular event, or in that particular situation,” she said. 

Other recommendations included having a statutory requirement for councils to have a standards committee, which Lewisham has had since 1998, as well as strengthening the role of the independent person, allowing them to vote.  

The review suggests standards committees should be able to suspend councillors who breach the code of conduct, if the independent person agrees.  

The recommendations are in the very early stages at Lewisham Council, having being discussed for the first time on Wednesday.  

Some of the suggestions, such as suspending councillors over breaches, would require a full council vote.