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COMMENT-MEMBERS' CODE SPEAKS IN A DIFFERENT LANGUAGE

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The introduction of a new code of conduct for councillors is a huge step for local authorities and is broadly welco...
The introduction of a new code of conduct for councillors is a huge step for local authorities and is broadly welcomed by lawyers.

There was strong feeling the old code needed updating to combine its coverage of personal, non-pecuniary interests with the provisions on pecuniary interests contained in the Local Government Act 1972, so it was all in one place.

Most felt the old code was obscure and unclear in places and needed simplifying.

The result published on Tuesday has received a mixed reception. The hope it would be easier to understand has been dashed as lawyers feel they will be the only ones able to decipher it.

The wide areas it covers, as the DTLR tried to include everything, has made it an extremely legalistic document, they say.

Regarding content, there are a few welcome omissions compared with previous drafts, such as the provision that any criminal conviction would be a breach of the code. Instead, there are certain 'big' convictions which would prevent a person from becoming a councillor and conduct bringing the council into disrepute is a breach.

But the interpretation of this is unclear. Would, for instance, a traffic offence be deemed unsuitable for a councillor in charge of traffic and the roads?

Another area of confusion is the inclusion of the duty of all councillors to report a breach of the code by others. This could lead to political back-biting with politicians using the code of conduct as an excuse for undermining opponents.

The government has left out a provision requiring councillors to declare membership of all clubs and societies, including those which have secrecy about their rules like the Freemasons. This part of the code was omitted from the final draft after legal advice.

The mandatory code must be adopted by councils in the next six months. They can add their own provisions as long as they are consistent with the model. It has been introduced to coincide with the formal launch of the Standards Board for England which will deal with members' complaints.

The code may be difficult to understand and there are problems surrounding interpretation in some areas, but the severity of these will not be known for some time.

But the presence of the code is essential in helping to increase awareness among councillors about the rules covering local government, and to promote the public image and uphold probity.

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