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CASE ...

The government will reconsider the system of surcharging once the case against Dame Shirley Porter and fellow Conservative members of Westminster City Council is over.

In its written submission to the inquiry into local government by the Nolan committee on standards in public life, the DoE said it would 'consider afresh' surcharge 'in the light of current circumstances'.

The system allows councillors to be disqualified and fined unlimited amounts for unlawfully spending more than £2,000. Auditors charge the cost of the inquiry to the council and may take an unlimited period to complete their inquiry. The court case involving Dame Shirley is not expected to end before 1998.

The Nolan committee has said it is considering recommending the overhaul of the national code of conduct for members and recommending councils establish their own ground rules for officer/members relationships.

In a speech after the Association of County Councils' last annual dinner, Lord Nolan outlined the four main lines of inquiry his committee would pursue, following 900 written submissions.

He said there was 'widespread agreement' that a statutory code should be retained but needed clarification.

Lord Nolan said he doubted the sense of setting national rules to govern officer/councillor relations. But he said either encouraging each council to set its own rules or implementing 'more fully' the Widdicombe recommendations - which make it impossible for some officers to engage in political activity - could be possible.

Surcharge would be another area of possible reform. Lord Nolan noted that 'even the Audit Commission' had suggested some changes.

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