A Cornwall Council meeting heard yesterday that criminal checks on its members are purely voluntary and councillors don’t have to agree to a check if they don’t want to. 

There was a call for a list to be published of all councillors who don’t consent to a DBS check.

The council’s constitution and governance committee was discussing a recommendation to endorse basic checks for all councillors and enhanced checks for cabinet members. The meeting heard that the council last formally considered its position on criminal records checks for members in 2015.

A Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check is a way for employers and public bodies to check someone’s criminal record, to help decide whether they are a suitable person to be employed or take on a public role. This includes deciding whether it is suitable for a person to work with children or vulnerable adults.

On reading the council report, Cllr Mike Thomas asked officers: “Are you saying that criminal checks at the moment for members at basic level is a voluntary activity?”

Monitoring officer Henry Gordon-Lennox replied: “Yes. Actually, all the checks are essentially voluntary because it requires you to sign your agreement to having it carried out.” He added that it was correct that local authorities can’t force members to go through such checks.

“There was a clear expectation stated in 2015 that all members would have a basic check. Perhaps the wording in the policy came across as slightly more mandatory in nature than was the actual reality. You have to give your consent to it otherwise the check can’t be done, but the expectation is that all members would have a basic check carried out,” he said.

Cllr Thomas added: “Would it be appropriate then for the council to have a list of people who haven’t consented?” Mr Gordon-Lennox said that would be possible: “As I understand it, every member has consented to the basic check.”

During the debate, Cllr John Conway said: “A DBS check to be a councillor makes perfect sense but we must remember that the legislation states who can and can’t be a councillor. If it comes back that you are legally allowed to be a councillor, what happens if you have something on your basic DBS?

“I would remind you there was a very senior councillor ten or so years ago who was never found guilty of anything in a court of law but he ended up getting hounded out of the council because there was something on a DBS check. His political career was totally killed. Can we have any conscience at all to say that your whole political career is going to be ruined because of something that we’re not even prepared to publicly disclose?”

Mr Gordon-Lennox replied: “It’s a difficult position for the chief executive and the monitoring officer to be in because essentially we’re the ones who become aware of something on a check. If a check comes back and they’re not automatically disqualified for what is on there but it is something that raises a concern, we then have to follow a procedure to effectively risk assess.

“The council has no powers to do anything as far as that individual is concerned other than potentially limit their ability to sit on a particular committee, represent the council in a particular capacity or attend various events as far as it is possible to control that.

“Our options as an organisation are incredibly limited. If it is something that goes to trust and confidence they may want to consider they’re own position, and that’s a conversation that could be had, but if a councillor doesn’t want to resign or carry on then all we can do is look to limit that person’s role where it’s appropriate to do so.”

Cllr Hilary Frank said that the council’s standards committee is a clear area where the members have to uphold standards because they’re acting as role models for other councillors. She believed that from a reputational risk point of view members of that committee should have an enhanced check.

Mr Gordon-Lennox said that didn’t fit the criteria of safeguarding when it comes to contact with children and adults in education and social care situations.

“If (something) was to happen then, yes, the reputation of the council is at issue, which is why if something comes back on a certificate that isn’t an automatic disqualification then there is a risk assessment and a procedure we have to follow to deal with that.

“That could be not sitting on a particular committee to ensure that if it were to come out, the council was able to say we dealt with it as far as we were able to do so within the confines of the law,” he added.

The committee agreed to the recommendation to endorse basic checks for all councillors and enhanced checks for cabinet members.