A question of standards
Guest post alert, and this pleases us. As regular readers will know, WLLG Towers is home to more than one brain, but even between us all we find a fair few corners of the local government world about which we know pitifully small amounts. If you happen to have some thoughts to share about any such corner then please send them in to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, as did today’s fantastic guest blogger DSO. Enjoy!
In those heady days after the last general election, the coalition government sat down and hammered out a document, The Coalition: our programme for government, subtitled “Freedom Fairness Responsibility”. Included in the proposals for local government was a sentence which met with cheers from many local councillors: “We will abolish the Standards Board regime.”
Now, the Standards Board regime might have had a lot of reasons to be disliked, but it would never have been established if there hadn’t been a need for some oversight of ethical standards in the conduct of local councillors. The vast majority had no trouble sticking to the Code of conduct although they might have resented the necessity of legislating requirements to treat people with respect, not bullying and not to abuse their position for personal gain.
The real problems came from those determined to breach it on principle and from the complicated framework for dealing with complaints: investigations could drag on for months, there was secrecy concerning what information was seen and by whom, and no one was ever satisfied with the outcome of a Standards Committee hearing. Some of these criticisms were addressed when the regime was overhauled in 2008, transferring most of the work to local councils to speed up the process and bring local knowledge into play, but at the same time increasing costs for the local council. Everything had to be filtered through a first-stage committee meeting which could consider only evidence from the complainant and, based on this one-sided view, had to decide what to do next: investigate or drop it. An authority in the southwest received more than 800 complaints from one resident, and had to meet to decide what to do with each of them as the legislation didn’t allow the Monitoring Officer any discretion to dismiss clearly vexatious complaints.The announcement to abolish the standards regime met with little interest from the media and public, joy from councillors, and shock from many officers who felt that a code of conduct offered them some protection from bullying – parish council clerks in particular are at risk as they are often the sole employee and feel their job is at risk if they complain. Following lobbying by legal professionals and Standards Committees up and down the country, the House of Lords added a host of last-minute changes and the government backed down on its initial hard line approach and delivered some poorly-drafted legislation. The following mess comes into effect on 1 July 2012:
- Councils have a duty to promote and maintain high ethical standards and must adopt a code of conduct. Unlike previous regimes, this is a local code which must embody the so-called “Nolan Principles” (selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership – though not the principles of respect for others, duty to uphold the law, stewardship and personal judgement) and a requirement to declare interests. The wording of the code is up to each council to decide, and it can include anything else the local council thinks is important enough to be added. The Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors (ACSeS) has sensibly been developing a model code to try to get some kind of coherent national picture so what is deemed acceptable by one authority is not forbidden by their immediate neighbours, and councillors who serve in multiple tiers of local government aren’t trying to juggle different codes all the time.
- Councillors currently sign up to abide by the code of conduct as part of their acceptance of office, but now the code of conduct will be a separate document to sign and it’s no longer mandatory. Will there be situations where the majority of councillors have signed up to a local code but others haven’t? How will complaints about the non-signatories be handled? Can they be dealt with if the person hasn’t signed up to abide by it?
- Town and parish councils must also decide whether to sign up to the district council’s or unitary authority’s framework for investigating and addressing breaches, but this also isn’t mandatory, so one town/parish councillor can complain about another, the DC/UA has to go to the time and (taxpayer’s) expense of investigating, and the town/parish council might ultimately decide to ignore any sanctions imposed because it has decided not to cooperate.
- Standards Committees, now optional, will be subject to proportionality rules, that is, the composition of the committee will reflect the political composition of the whole Council, so the majority group, which by default of being the largest group and forming the administration tends to attract the majority of complaints, will hold the majority of seats on the Standards Committee.
- The responsibility to decide what to do about complaints will rest primarily with the Monitoring Officer and an Independent Person, a member of public unconnected to the council, councillors or political parties, but who is open to being lobbied by all parties in each complaint. The Monitoring Officer must “seek the views” of this Independent Person when deciding what to do with a complaint, but doesn’t actually have to take any notice of it. The good news is that letting the Monitoring Officer rather than a committee decide should speed up the process and see minor complaints dismissed quickly. The bad news is that this is a lot of responsibility for an officer who could be subject to pressure from councillors or more senior officers to drop a particular matter.
- Councillors must declare their own financial (pecuniary) interests and “other” interests (yet to be defined by the Secretary of State, hopefully with more coherence than the existing standards provisions) in a register made available for public inspection and on the Council’s website. They must also declare the interests of their spouse or civil partner and that goes onto the website too, even if that person has nothing to do with local government. Quite understandably councillors are up in arms at this, and pointing out that it will lead to a lot of resignations, particularly at town and parish council level where there already is a challenge to fill vacancies. (Devil’s advocate asks: “But aren’t their pecuniary interests linked to their spouse’s?”)
- The register of interests must be completed “within 28 days of being elected or co-opted” but the new legislation dropped the requirement to keep it up to date. Also, since the new arrangements come into effect on 1 July 2012, after local elections, there isn’t any requirement for councillors midway through their term at that date to switch to the new system until they are next elected or co-opted.
- If you’re a councillor and have registered your interests and they’re online, then you no longer need to declare them aloud at meetings. A real bonus for the public (and the Democratic Services Officer taking minutes!), who the government seems to expect will have read all registers of interest before going to a meeting.
- If you are a councillor with a pecuniary interest on the website (even if you haven’t declared it aloud), you must leave the meeting room whenever something related to that item appears on the agenda…but only if your council has put this requirement in its standing orders. Under the 2008 arrangements, councillors with prejudicial interests could speak during public speaking time, then had to leave the room for the rest of the debate. This seemed a fair compromise as often the councillor had local knowledge which would assist the committee with its decision-making. Now they are banned from saying anything, but unless the council has amended its standing orders to require a member with a pecuniary interest to withdraw, that councillor can still sit at the meeting table and try to influence a decision about their own planning application – without speaking of course.
- If you wilfully fail to declare your interests, it’s a criminal matter and must be referred to the Police (whose are less than overjoyed to be tasked with chasing up failures to declare interests at meetings), but the onus is on the complainant to prove that it was reasonable for the councillor to know of the interest and that he/she wilfully failed to declare it.
I admit bias as an officer who has seen bullying councillors and the effect that they have on staff morale, but I’ve also seen excellent councillors who have been left reeling after baseless complaints have been made about them, and I have seen some resign rather than make themselves a target for further “conduct” complaints from anyone who disagrees with their politics. I’ve read details of many serious cases of clearly corrupt councillors whose behaviour shows why a code of conduct is needed to reassure the public that most councillors would never stoop to such behaviour. What I cannot find out much about is what the public think about the new standards legislation. It seems to excite those on the inside in local government, but what about the public who elect their councillors to represent them? What can they do if their councillor won’t sign up to follow a code and then can’t be complained about? Will councils see a two-tier system between those members who have agreed to uphold standards and those who refuse to sign and can be rude, bullying and reckless within their role (as long as they don’t get caught wilfully failing to declare an interest)?
So who wins? Councillors? They are free from the previous regime but bound by a mishmash of confusing and half-thought-out rules and regulations (unless they choose not to sign up to it). Officers? Those who manage standards work can find themselves in an uncomfortable position if pressure is put on them to dismiss cases which could make senior councillors or the council itself look bad, and all officers are no longer to be protected from bullying. The public? It seems that the intention of Localism is that misconduct will be dealt with at the ballot box, but four years can be a very long time to wait.
Freedom, Fairness and Responsibility makes a nice subtitle, but it’s unclear how any of these words can be applied to the mess that is the new ethical standards regime.
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