Friday, 29 March 2013

Councillor standards...or lack of them?

The Standards (Board) for England, which ensured that councillors’ conduct did not fall below a required standard, was abolished in March 2012.

A Communities and Local Government department spokesman said, as an excuse for abolishing them: “The old Standards Board regime prevented councillors from championing the interests of their local residents and suppressed freedom of speech". Since then councils have been required to adopt a code of conduct based on the seven Nolan principles of public life [1 below].

The Localism Act 2011, given Royal Assent on 15 November 2011, implemented this policy
commitment. Measures included:

• The abolition of Standards for England (previously Standards Board for England)
• A requirement to promote and maintain high standards of conduct
• Local codes of conduct and local responsibility for acting upon possible infringements
• Requirements concerning the registration and disclosure of pecuniary and other interests
• The creation of a new criminal offence of failing to comply with the statutory requirements for disclosure of pecuniary interests.

However, I think the DCLG may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater because we no longer have any independent scrutiny of councillor standards.

Even the Committee on Standards in Public Life consistently argued that codes need to be supported by independent scrutiny. In addition they also stated that the reliance of the new arrangements on 'relatively modest sanctions and significantly reduced independent input' already carries inherent risks.

Whilst I accept that the Standards Board for England weren't perfect, better to have some body independently policing councillor standards rather than what we have now, essentially councillors regulating councillors.

As with all so called solutions introduced by government, they often end up worse than the problem they were intended to fix, and I am certain this will prove true as far as councillor standards are concerned.

Although Section 28(7) of the Act requires local authorities to appoint at least one independent person
to advise the council before it makes a decision on an allegation. That does nothing to elevate the inerrant risk of having no independent scrutiny. The wording itself gives the game away, they are nothing more than an independent advisor, someone who can be ignored. What is needed is independent scrutiny from someone or some body who can't be ignored.

My main concern is that everything, other than criminal activity, is now 'in house' without outside scrutiny, therefore, it must be possible to a) reject, minimise or cover up a standards complaint against individual councillors who have 'friends' or 'supporters' on the standards committee.' b) over react to a standards complaint against individual councillors without 'friends' or 'supporters' on the standards committee.

It appear to me that standards are dropping across the board in English councils since they abolished Standards Board for England. Hardly a week now goes by without news of another councillor displaying well below acceptable standards of behaviour and more worryingly getting away with it.

Whilst I am not suggesting that Cheshire West and Chester Council are any worse than any other English councils they don't show any signs of bucking the trend.

It is interesting to note that one of the risks [of the new system] highlighted by Committee on Standards in Public Life was, if - 'the new system was not seen to be effective it will lack credibility and is unlikely to command public confidence'.

I would have no confidence if the police were abolished and criminals were allowed to police themselves. So why should I have any confidence in councillors being allowed to police themselves now the Standards for England has been abolished? No system of self regulation without outside scrutiny will ever be seen as acceptable by the public.

Nolan's principles of pubic life

Selflessness: Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends.

Integrity: Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might seek to influence them in the performance of their official duties.

Objectivity: In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit.

Accountability: Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.

Openness: Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.

Honesty: Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.

Leadership: Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.