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Jane Martin: The ethics system must be stronger and clearer

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Today, the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life has published its report on local government ethical standards.

We spent almost a year taking evidence from local authorities, councillors, officers, expert and representative groups, and members of the public, through a public consultation, roundtables, and visits.

The committee found that most councillors and officers uphold high standards of conduct and that respect for standards and governance is deeply ingrained in the sector.

But the system doesn’t adequately address serious or repeated misconduct by councillors, mainly due to the lack of credible and effective sanctions. This has allowed serious cases of bullying or harassment to continue unchecked in some councils.

We are also concerned about broader potential risks in the sector. For example, the current rules around declaring interests, as well as gifts and hospitality, need tightening, and the increased complexity of local government decision-making is straining traditional governance arrangements.

For this report we stepped back and looked at the standards system in local government as a whole. What is clear is that local authorities value the flexibility and discretion allowed by locally-determined arrangements.

This means local authorities have ownership of ethical standards, which plays an important part in building an ethical culture. We want local authorities to retain that responsibility, so aren’t recommending a return to a centralised system, but we recognise that the system needs strengthening and clarifying to be more effective.

We have made a range of recommendations to make this happen. We want to see an updated model code of conduct, taking account of new developments like councillors’ social media use. Local authorities should be able to suspend councillors for up to six months for the most serious misconduct, including serious cases of bullying and harassment, which cannot be dealt with effectively under the current system.

The arrangements for registering and declaring interests must be clarified so that councillors are required to register non-pecuniary interests and gifts and hospitality as well as pecuniary interests.

When it comes to declaring interests, we recommend removing the disclosable pecuniary interest requirements in favour of an ‘objective test’ in line with the devolved standards bodies, which is clearer and more transparent for councillors and for the public. The punitive criminal sanctions attached to the disclosable pecuniary interest requirements should also be abolished.

It’s also vital that councillors feel protected from malicious complaints and have confidence in the standards system. The role of ‘independent person’ should also be bolstered with fixed terms of appointment and a veto power when it comes to suspending councillors.

Beyond the behaviour of individual councillors we’ve also looked at broader issues for officers and local authorities as a whole. Disciplinary protections should be enhanced for statutory officers, to empower them to give sometimes difficult messages or unpopular advice.

We’ve also identified increased complexity as a result of partnership working, and councils setting up external bodies, such as joint ventures. Too often these can lack transparency and accountability. We’ve outlined best practice for councils to follow when setting up these bodies to ensure that governance is working as it should.

The aim ultimately is not a tick box system of compliance but an ethical culture, which enables and encourages councillors and officers to do the right thing, and make decisions in an ethical way.

From our visits to local authorities and a range of stakeholder meetings and roundtables, we’ve identified the key building blocks of an ethical culture. It starts with a constructive tone of political debate and requires openness to scrutiny from inside and out.

It requires trusted, impartial officers and early, effective induction training to sustain it. It also requires leadership to put it in place, which needs to come from the chief executive, the standards committee, chair of the council, and political group leaders.

We are confident that local government in England has the capacity to uphold the highest standards of conduct. Our recommendations and best practice released today will enable them to do so.

Jane Martin, member, Committee on Standards in Public Life, and leader of its review into local government ethical standards

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