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SLEDGEHAMMER HANGS OVER ISLINGTON

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By Richard Vize ...
By Richard Vize

The office of the deputy prime minister is obviously familiar with one of the accusations against the Standards Board for England.

'Frequently asked questions' in the relevant section of the ODPM's website includes: 'Have we created a sledgehammer to crack a nut?'

The department answers: 'An independent body charged with investigating allegations of misconduct will restore public confidence more effectively than if it were left to councils to police their own behaviour.'

Islington LBC has played the role of nut beneath the sledgehammer for two years, and is still there (LGC, 23 July).

The merits of the original dispute about the appointment of Islington's chief executive Helen Bailey have long been overtaken by concerns about natural justice, since the board's probe is taking far longer than do most murder investigations.

Indeed, the Committee on Standards in Public Life is taking evidence on whether the board represents a proportionate response to the problem of local government probity.

The saga began in July 2002 when Islington appointed Ms Bailey, a respected public sector management consultant who started her career with the Greater London Council, and who was working for

Islington as a consultant alongside then chief executive Leisha Fullick.

Ms Bailey was a prominent Liberal Democrat activist, and with the party in control of Islington, the Labour group cried 'foul!' and complained to the board.

In the frame are former mayor Margot Dunn (Lib Dem) and leader Steve Hitchins (Lib Dem), who has spent a five-figure sum out of his own pocket on legal advice.

Ms Bailey is not under investigation - in any event, the board can only deal with councillors - but she has spent a similar sum on lawyers since she feels her position could be compromised if her appointment was questioned by the Adjudication Panel for England, to which the board refers cases for decision.

Councils can reimburse the legal expenses of exonerated councillors, but it is unclear whether this applies retrospectively to the Islington case. Even if it did Ms Bailey, as an officer, would be unlikely to benefit.

David Clark, director general of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, says: 'An officer is caught in crossfire not of her own making and if it was not someone who is as strong a character as Helen is, they could find themselves damaged by a process that is mostly not to do with officers at all.'

Mr Clark has met the board's chief executive David Prince, who took office in April. He says: 'I had a shopping list of moans, but he had a shopping list too and it was almost the same.

'The major things are to clear the backlog of cases and get some proper business processes in there.'

One issue is that the board's investigators, the ethical standards officers, operate independently and not even Mr Prince can question how they conduct cases.

Mr Clark says: 'We have got the Audit Commission as a model where the district auditors are independent, but we do not get the same problem there because there is a team approach and they know what

they are doing.'

A factor in the delay is that regulations require all complaints, no matter how trivial, to go to the board. This leaves it swamped, while local standards committees are largely idle.

One senior local government figure says the board appears to be 'something that spends its time deciding whether two parish councillors have called each other plonkers'.

The Association of Council Secretaries & Solicitors told the Committee on Standards in Public Life that the number of trivial complaints about councillors created a false impression local government was riddled with misconduct, when the reverse was true.

Immediate past president Mike Kendall told the committee: 'The impression is being created that there are thousands of complaints arising. [People] question why and think this is a reflection on wrongdoing in local government. I think it is a false impression.'

Mr Kendall feared that the risk of having to face a vexatious complaint deterred potential councillors.

Local Government Association Labour group leader Sir Jeremy Beecham said in evidence: 'We are drifting towards the vexatious side of things, [because] the temptation to haul somebody before the Standards Board may be irresistible to a certain kind of complainant.'

Westminster City Council leader Simon Milton (Con) says: 'There is now a degree of cynicism about the operation of the Standards Board, mainly because of the length of time it takes to resolve issues, which can be in excess of 12 months.

'When there are, in our view, issues which could easily have been solved with a phone call early on, that makes it doubly frustrating.'

Sir Jeremy notes almost anything could be regarded as 'likely to bring the authority into disrepute' and called for a more exact definition of this term.

The Islington case has gone on so long even the Labour group thinks its opponents have been treated unfairly.

Labour group leader Catherine West says: 'It calls up questions about the basic efficiency of the Standards Board, because it is not in the public interest to have a high profile matter just simmering.

'We have never been written to about what is happening. It feels uncomfortable.'

For those directly in the crossfire, it surely feels worse than uncomfortable.

The misgivings from the Labour side in Islington mean that both the prosecution and the defence in this case have complaints about the way the Standards Board is handling it.

As local government minister Nick Raynsford forges his '10-year vision', surely public confidence in councils would be improved if there was a drastically slimmed down and more efficient Standards Board, which itself had a notion of standards.

richard.vize@emap.com

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