Commentary on the launch of a review into ethical standards
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The abolition of the Standards Board for England in 2012 was hailed by then communities secretary Sir Eric Pickles as ushering in an era of new rights for local government which would “strengthen freedom of speech for councillors”.
The government at the time was cutting in its criticism of the “centrally prescribed” regime “regulated by a central quango”, describing it as “inconsistent with the principles of localism” and used as a vehicle for vexatious or politically motivated complaints.
Abolition of the system, the government proclaimed, would also “restore power to local people”.
Many would have been persuaded, with the prospect of extending local government jurisdiction at the expense of central control appealing to a strong desire for greater democratic and community empowerment.
But six years on, the way councils have implemented new, bespoke processes appears to be inconsistent, with some weaknesses in the system undermining confidence in the very principle of accountability that the government so proudly stated would be reinforced and extended by reform.
This has prompted some calls for a return to a centralised system.
Writing in a personal capacity for LGC last year, the independent chair of the Improvement and Development Board for Local Councils Jonathan Flowers highlighted disquiet at the current system in town and parish councils.
He said councillors “expressed a desire for very strong sanctions on miscreants in the sector, furious that their actions colour the perceptions of the entire tier”.
“Despite a level of proud localism second to none,” he added, “they called for the central state to correct failures in local governance that cannot be resolved at that level.”
The announcement today that the committee for standards in public life has launched a review of the current ethical standards system in local government comes after some high-profile criticism of the post-standards board landscape.
Speaking to LGC following the publication of her high-profile review into integration and opportunity in December 2016, Dame Louise Casey – who, having investigated the catastrophic failures of Rotherham MBC to act on evidence of widespread child sexual exploitation, witnessed at first hand devastating consequences of the failure of those in public life – made her views clear on how standards processes had been applied.
She said while the previous system had been “litigious and challenging”, Sir Eric “threw the baby out with the bathwater” by abolishing the standards board, which left monitoring officers “emasculated” under new arrangements.
A recent intervention by James Morris MP (Con) also suggests, at the very least, a significant lack of confidence in the standards system at Sandwell MBC.
Last week Mr Morris used Commons privilege to describe the council as “a den of incompetence, corruption and cronyism” and said concerns had been raised with him by a wide variety of people, including members of the ruling Labour Party.
“I am very concerned that the standards and audit committee, for example, has been used in a way that preserves the leader’s position and has deliberately targeted certain individuals,” he said.
Council leader Steve Eling (Lab) said Mr Morris’s allegations are “un-evidenced”.
Jane Martin, who will lead the committee on standards in public life’s review, said members will be “open-minded” on the state of the current system.
But she admitted that the committee receives complaints about current arrangements on a regular basis, adding it is vital that there is confidence in standards processes in order to safeguard democracy.
The success of councils relies on the political and managerial leadership being strategically aligned.
But central to this success is not just trust between officers and councillors, but the trust communities must have that decisions are being made in an open, transparent and ethical way, in the best interests of residents.
At a time of ever-growing funding and demand pressures, with spending and strategic decisions becoming tougher and more complex, this trust is needed now more than ever.
Jon Bunn, senior reporter