Review of Local Government Ethical Standards: Stakeholder Consultation

Review of Local Government Ethical Standards: Stakeholder Consultation

Submission made by Lanner Parish Council.

(Submission sent by email to: public@public-standards.gov.uk)

The Committee on Standards in Public Life is undertaking a review of local government ethical standards.

Robust standards arrangements are needed to safeguard local democracy, maintain high standards of conduct, and to protect ethical practice in local government.

The following observations are made:

Council consider that there is a need to differentiate between the different levels of local government and consider whether the same standards of disclosure, conduct and sanctions should apply throughout. Perhaps standards should increase as the level of responsibility in decision making increases and/or the level of payment/allowances increase.

Safeguarding local democracy depends on so much more than the codification of standards. The most important thing is to create a framework in which participation in local government appeals to a large number of people of wide diversity and allows and encourages them to come forward for election. Council express concern that standards appear so draconian or intrusive into private life and free debate as to stifle participatory democracy.

Standards in local government cannot be divorced from standards in public life generally. There is a feeling that standards in higher government and public life should lead by example when it is clear that this has not been the case in recent times. We are persistently being shown examples of a complete disregard of ethical standards in parliament, the Church, banks, public companies, police, armed forces, sport and so many walks of life which are supposed to be exemplars of good citizenship. Maybe running a fine-tooth comb through the functioning of parish councils is not of paramount importance in these sleazy times – other than to act as a distraction from more important matters.

Consultation questions

The Committee invites responses to the following consultation questions.

Please note that not all questions will be relevant to all respondents and that submissions do not need to respond to every question. Respondents may wish to give evidence about only one local authority, several local authorities, or local government in England as a whole.  Please do let us know whether your evidence is specific to one particular authority or is a more general comment on local government in England.

Whilst we understand submissions may be grounded in personal experience, please note that the review is not an opportunity to have specific grievances considered.

a. Are the existing structures, processes and practices in place working to ensure high standards of conduct by local councillors? If not, please say why.

It follows from the opening paragraphs that Council consider existing standards and practices relatively sufficient at this time. There are some standards though that merit some thought for future advice:

  • In this world of “devolution” where functions and services are being handed down – in our case from Unitary Authority to parish council – if there is a divergence of codified standards, which standards should prevail? For example, where competitive tenders might be required.
  • We are seeing more and more that where a principal authority has a statutory duty, such duties are being ignored or abandoned where it is deemed financially expedient to do so. Parish councils are being effectively told: “You take up the cost of this duty or lose the service/asset.” Is this ethical/lawful and should there be remedies to communities to force the matter?
  • There appears to be little public accountability or facility for scrutiny of “arms-length” companies owned by local authorities (often on the grounds of “commercial sensitivity”.) Perhaps, for example, a code for the publication of accounts should be put in place to mirror those of public limited liability companies.

b. What, if any, are the most significant gaps in the current ethical standards regime for local government?

Council have not identified any “significant gaps”. There are inconsistencies in performance and councillor/officer relationships can seem variable – but these are not ethical consideration. One of the comforting aspects of ethics and standards is that they have a reasonable level of permanence. This reassures both those engaged in local government and in the community. To keep tinkering with standards suggests either lots of nasty things are going on behind closed doors or that our standards as a society are in a state of flux. Or, a third option, that change is being sought for change’s sake: every year, for example, changes are made by DEFRA, Soil Association and Red Tractor of their standards for farmers when the reality of their significance is either minimal or negative.

c. Are local authority adopted codes of conduct for councillors clear and easily understood?

Council consider, there is room to make the Code more user friendly either by simplifying language relating to pecuniary and non-pecuniary interests and dispensations or, more realistically, by providing an annexe showing a few worked examples.

Do the codes cover an appropriate range of behaviours?

Yes, except that we have separate provisos against bullying and against intimidation. Council think they are much of a muchness and the two sub-paragraphs could be merged.

What examples of good practice, including induction processes, exist?

Cornwall Council affords induction courses and we, as a parish council, will hold our own internal induction course when a new member is elected/co-opted.

d. A local authority has a statutory duty to ensure that its adopted code of conduct for councillors is consistent with the Seven Principles of Public Life and that it includes appropriate provision (as decided by the local authority) for registering and declaring councillors’ interests. Are these requirements appropriate as they stand? If not, please say why.

Council consider these seem wholly appropriate and adequate. Perhaps, membership of a political party should be recorded but where and how political party should be defined is not clear. Similarly, consideration could be given to CND, 38 Degrees, Greenpeace Momentum, PETA.

Investigations and decisions on allegations

e. Are allegations of councillor misconduct investigated and decided fairly and with due process?

What processes do local authorities have in place for investigating and deciding upon allegations? Do these processes meet requirements for due process? Should any additional safeguards be put in place to ensure due process?

Council Standing Orders lays down procedures for various types of complaint and how they are to be dealt with internally. It does not detail how this should be done to ensure “due process” nor does it provide for any appeal process. Neither does it provide for a complaint against the whole council. However, the level of decision making exerted by a parish council is so limited as to make complaints requiring a formal hearing/appeal process seem rather excessive.

Is the current requirement that the views of an Independent Person must be sought and taken into account before deciding on an allegation sufficient to ensure the objectivity and fairness of the decision process? Should this requirement be strengthened? If so, how?

We do not mention referral to an Independent Person. How would an Independent Person be found or nominated? In consideration with other parish council shared responsibility was not progressed.

Monitoring Officers are often involved in the process of investigating and deciding upon code breaches. Could Monitoring Officers be subject to conflicts of interest or undue pressure when doing so? How could Monitoring Officers be protected from this risk?

Monitoring Officers can indeed (and possibly have) been subject to conflicts of interest/undue pressure. This has been a concern of Lanner in the past. The result is that we prefer to keep the MO at arm’s length.

Sanctions

f. Are existing sanctions for councillor misconduct sufficient?

What sanctions do local authorities use when councillors are found to have breached the code of conduct? Are these sanctions sufficient to deter breaches and, where relevant, to enforce compliance?

Since we’ve never had a complaint or breach we can’t really answer other than to say it is not the threat of sanctions that keep us in check but our dedication to the principles in the Code.

Should local authorities be given the ability to use additional sanctions? If so, what should these be?

This would seem wholly unnecessary given our experience.

Declaring interests and conflicts of interest

g. Are existing arrangements to declare councillors’ interests and manage conflicts of interest satisfactory? If not please say why.

A local councillor is under a legal duty to register any pecuniary interests (or those of their spouse or partner), and cannot participate in discussion or votes that engage a disclosable pecuniary interest, nor take any further steps in relation to that matter, although local authorities can grant dispensations under certain circumstances. Are these statutory duties appropriate as they stand?

See above.

What arrangements do local authorities have in place to declare councillors’ interests, and manage conflicts of interest that go beyond the statutory requirements? Are these satisfactory? If not, please say why.

See above.

Whistleblowing

h. What arrangements are in place for whistleblowing, by the public, councillors, and officials? Are these satisfactory?

This question is not understood in the context of our council. There is a complaints procedure and that should, realistically, be sufficient.

Improving standards

i. What steps could local authorities take to improve local government ethical standards?

None. Ethics don’t seem to be a real problem.

j. What steps could central government take to improve local government ethical standards?

Lead by example!

Intimidation of local councillors

k. What is the nature, scale, and extent of intimidation towards local councillors?

What measures could be put in place to prevent and address this intimidation?

Perhaps this relates to the Momentum issue within the Labour Party and, indeed, any threat by a political party to remove support, membership or deselect. If so, Council consider this is a matter between member and their political party. It is not for third party intervention.

Other circumstances where this might occur were not identified.    

 

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