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RIBA in election clampdown after Owusu’s repeated ‘breach’ of guidelines

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The RIBA is to overhaul its election process after it failed to stop candidate Elsie Owusu from repeatedly breaching its guidelines during this summer’s controversial presidential race

The institute has said that the recent elections revealed its current rules were ’not fit for purpose’ as Owusu, who lost the election to Alan Jones, ignored ‘at least’ eight warnings with no consequences.

A proposed changes to the rules – outlined in a report by RIBA’s returning officer and CEO Alan Vallance – recommend that the guidelines should reinforce clearly that candidates for any seat should not make ‘allegations which are damaging to the reputation of the RIBA’.

The document, which was revealed at a council meeting last Thursday (27 September), also recommends that the returning officer should have the power to sanction candidates who make damaging allegations, ‘including disqualifying a candidate who wilfully makes damaging allegations without supporting evidence’.

This year the rules prohibited candidates from campaigning during the lengthy ‘purdah period’ between 3 July and 7 August, with the exception of ‘simple reminders to members to vote’.

‘Anything deemed as campaigning by the returning officer may be scrutinized for removal,’ the rules state.

The RIBA claims Owusu breached this protocol by running a ‘highly critical’ and ‘visible’ campaign during purdah including an opinion column in the Financial Times, comments on her Twitter feed, and other social media platforms.

Owusu lost the presidential race to Jones but won a seat on the RIBA council.

However, the report said the RIBA had also faced a ‘challenge’ from an unsuccessful national candidate who complained that Owusu’s ‘media campaign’ had a knock-on effect on the national elections.

To avoid the ’potential for unfairness’ where the national seat ‘rides on the coat-tails of the more prestigious presidential campaign’, the report recommended candidates should not be allowed to stand more than one type of seat.

The report also recommended shortening the five-week purdah period guidelines to reflect that most votes are cast online, pointing out that the current guidelines were drafted before social media existed in any ’meaningful form’.

It also said clearer guidance was required on what social media activity is ‘acceptable’ and that the same purdah restrictions apply to elections for all council seat elections. The vote will also be opened up to students. 

Responding to the proposed changes, Elsie Owusu told the AJ: ’As far as I was concerned those were guidelines, not rules. I don’t think I breached any of them.’ 

On the recommendation for bringing in sanctions, Owusu said: ‘I think a good number of them [recommendations] may be unlawful. They are trying to prevent freedom of speech – to shut people up.’

’At the hustings [in Leeds] all I did was state facts about the CEO’s pay which were in the public domain, in reply to a question from an audience member. I don’t see how this can possibly bring the RIBA into disrepute when the information was available online.’

Elsie Owusu and Alan Vallance

Elsie Owusu and Alan Vallance

Elsie Owusu and Alan Vallance

Currently, the RIBA’s CEO holds the role of returning officer but this is set to be reviewed.

At a council meeting last Thursday (27 September), Owusu raised concerns that there was a ’conflict of interest’ in Vallance holding the position. 

It emerged last week that the RIBA had held crunch talks with the Charity Commission at Portland Place following the media storm surrounding the recent presidential election.

The watchdog has issued the institute with advice and ordered it to respond within 14 days. RIBA president Ben Derbyshire told council members the action was ’a very serious compliance issue’ and an ‘unfortunate state of affairs’. 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • EO's daughter works at the FT… hence the coverage.
    Another article on 20 Sept showed EO's lovely cottage in Ticehurst, East Sussex and gave a much more laid back and mature version of her, almost presidential material, which sadly the other two were not.

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