The majority of council lawyers fear they no longer have the powers they need to tackle serious misconduct among elected members, an LGC survey has found.
Legal staff call for stronger sanctions to tackle councillor misconduct
The survey of council legal teams, carried out in association with Lawyers in Local Government, asked whether the abolition of the Standards Board five years ago had left them with the tools they needed to keep behaviour in check. Of 235 respondents 60% answered ‘no’.
The Standards Board oversaw the national code of conduct for elected members and investigated claims of inappropriate behaviour until it was scrapped in 2012 by then communities secretary Eric Pickles. Though it could not impose sanctions itself, the board could refer cases back to the relevant council, which could suspend members for six months, or to the Adjudication Panel, which could disqualify members for up to five years.
Councils no longer have to appoint standards committees or adhere to the code, but they may do either voluntarily. They cannot suspend or disqualify members.
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Survey respondents, around a third of whom were monitoring officers or deputies, called for “a single national code of conduct for councillors” and “more effective sanctions, including suspension and disqualification”.
Helen Lynch, acting monitoring officer and legal services manager at Coventry City Council, told LGC the new regime provides more flexibility to deal with low-level poor conduct more quickly – but she said stronger sanctions were needed in more serious cases.
She highlighted a case at Rotherham MBC which has led the council to raise concerns with DCLG about sanctions.
“A councillor had been convicted of indecent assault on a woman at a council event, but he didn’t receive a custodial sentence of three months or more, so he was not automatically disqualified,” Ms Lynch said.
”Had he not resigned, he could have continued. The council had no mechanism by which to make him stand down.”
Ms Lynch added accountability at the ballot box was not necessarily a strong enough deterrent as elections may not be held for several years after a breach of the code and parish councillors often serve unopposed for several terms.
Graeme McDonald, director of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, said the abolition of the Standards Board and the Audit Commission, the removal of designated independent persons protections for statutory officers and the decline of employment rights such as the cap on exit payments. Together they “left officers in a weaker position when speaking truth to power”.
He added these factors were behind Solace’s creation of a code of ethics for senior managers.