Councillors who have breached the code of conduct could be suspended for up to six months under proposals to bolster the local government standards regime.
The keenly awaited recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life would see local authorities given the power to suspend members, without allowances, for the “most serious” violations of the code, most likely relating to bullying, harassment and significant failures to declare financial interests.
The year-long review of ethical standards in the sector, led by former local government ombudsman Jane Martin, is the first since the abolition of the Standards Board for England in 2012, a move which some feared would undermine the effectiveness of monitoring officers.
In its report, the committee found that the current sanctions available to local authorities were insufficient, and that party discipline lacked the necessary independence and transparency to play a central role in the standards system.
“The current lack of robust sanctions damages public confidence in the standards system and leaves local authorities with no means of enforcing lower level sanctions, nor of addressing serious or repeated misconduct,” it said.
However, it stopped short of concluding that councils should have the power to disqualify members or order suspensions of over six months. To do so would require an independent tribunal, which could not be put in place without the introduction of a central standards body, it said.
It rejected the case for such a body, saying responsibility for ethical standards should remain with local authorities.
To protect councillors from malicious or unfounded complaints, the committee also recommended a strengthened role for the independent person and the introduction of a right to appeal to the local government ombudsman.
Greater transparency on how complaints were assessed in a system which was currently too reliant on internal party discipline would also provide a safeguard against opaque decision-making and provide reassurance to the public, it said.
The committee described the current rules around conflicts of interest, gifts, and hospitality as “inadequate” and warned that the increased complexity of local government decision-making was putting governance under strain.
The current arrangements for declaring and managing interests were unclear and too narrow, it said, and should be updated to include non-pecuniary interests. The current rules should also be replaced with an objective test.
An updated model code of conduct should be made available to local authorities, it said, to address the “considerable variation” in the length, quality and clarity of existing codes of conduct, many of which failed to tackle key areas such as the use of social media.
The Local Government Association welcomed the continuation of a locally-led approach to standards, but warned that the power of suspension could undermine local democracy.
“A number of adequate sanctions already exist to deal with the most serious issues and care needs to be taken to avoid adding to the current regime and causing unintended consequences,” said association chairman Lord Porter (Con).
“For example, suspending councillors for up to six months could see them lose their seat. This would pose a risk to the democratic process leaving residents without locally-elected representative.”
Communities would ultimately hold their politicians to account at the ballot box, he said. The intimidation and harassment of councillors was also a growing problem which should be addressed by councils, the police and social media companies, said Lord Porter.