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The only way is ethics

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Commentary on a third try at getting standards for councillors right

News that the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which examines ethical issues, wants councillors who have breached the code of conduct liable for suspension for up to six months will have awakened memories of the Standards Board for England (SBE).

Disciplinary arrangements for councillors have swung from one extreme to another in the past 20 years, with neither being satisfactory.

The SBE, created by the Local Government Act 2000, was memorably described by one sector grandee as: “A quango that decides whether two parish councillors called each other plonkers in a pub car park.”

It was required to investigate every complaint no matter how trivial, potentially malicious or incomprehensible.

The SBE’s less-than-stellar record included its investigators taking four years to exonerate Islington LBC councillors accused of improperly appointing a chief executive, investigating Dartford BC’s leader without its lawyers having read the evidence and spending 13 months mulling over whether Surrey Heath BC councillors correctly refused permission for a garden centre marquee.

To be fair, it had some successes such as disqualifying leaders who bullied and insulted staff, but the SBE had few defenders left when incoming communities secretary Sir Eric Pickles decided in 2010 to abolish it.

The problem was that Sir Eric did not really replace the SBE with anything. Council standards committees have been left to police member conduct.

As a House of Commons publication on public conduct systems noted: “Since the Localism Act, the only sanctions available to a local standards committee are to censure the member or to remove that member from a council committee.”

It’s understandable that the committee rejected both any Lazarus-like revival of the SBE and the current system.

The committee concluded the sanctions available were insufficient, and that party discipline lacked the necessary independence and transparency to play a central role in the standards system.

It stopped short though of suggesting that councils should be able to disqualify councillors or suspend them for more than six months. That would require a new tribunal, which would require a central standards body, which would require the recruitment of investigators .…you get the picture.

The Local Government Association welcomed the committee’s acceptance of continued locally-led standards decisions but warned that the power of suspension could undermine local democracy and said communities hold politicians to account at the ballot box.

The committee’s proposals mark the third attempt to devise a local government standards regime. Third time lucky?

Mark Smulian, contributor


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