I would issue a word of caution to councillors who think they are being ‘freed up’ by the abolition of the standards board to manage performance issues themselves when fellow members step out of line. It is not that easy. I worry that the government will end up leaving local council and party discipline and governance in a worse state than before.
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It is a positive step forward that the government seems likely to meet valid concerns raised in the House of Lords and will accept the argument that councils must have a code of conduct after all. Professions are governed by codes and councillors should be no different.
But what is the point of a code if it is toothless? At present, local standards committees have the power to suspend members for the most serious misconduct. However, it seems that the government intends that power should be removed.
When ministers have been asked what councils would be able to do if a member is found guilty of serious misconduct, they have fallen back on two arguments. If it is a criminal matter the courts will deal with it – and they have created a narrow new criminal offence that is unlikely to be given much police resource in reality. If it’s not criminal, then ministers say the ballot box will deal with it – or party groups will enforce their own discipline. Is that really enough of a safeguard and is it in the public interest? Much misconduct happens ‘behind closed doors’ – officers and members being ‘leant on’, individuals being bullied and intimidated away from the public gaze.
So how reasonable is it to expect the electorate a few years on to judge a councillor on these matters alone when voting? Why should voters be asked to put aside policy considerations to pass judgement on someone whose alleged offence could and should have been sorted out by the council in a more proportionate way at the time? In practice matters will fall back to the political group to try to manage.
But, putting to one side the increase in the number of independent councillors who are not covered by party machinery, my experience tells me that past unregulated practice contributed to public cynicism and disillusion with all political parties. A proper local mechanism with appropriate independent input has been more transparent and conducive to good governance.
Local standards committees have been able to impose sanctions without regard to political calculations such as a party’s own particular issues and personalities. If the government has its way and takes effective independently supported disciplinary powers away from a council, parties will face the challenge of being left to manage for themselves. And that will do none of our reputations any good in the long run.
Public trust and confidence requires an independently validated local standards committee with sanctions, alongside a national code.
Ann Reeder is a director of Frontline Consulting Associates and a former Brent LBC councillor and head of local government for the Labour Party
Effective sanctions for a revised standards regime