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Eric Pickles pledged today that the new Government will scrap the army of town hall ‘thought police’ who are spending millions of pounds on suppressing freedom of speech in local councils. Under laws passed by John Prescott in 2000, a whole ‘monitoring’ industry has been created in local government which prevents elected councillors from championing local issues and has fuelled thousands of petty and malicious complaints. Instead, new criminal sanctions will target genuine town hall corruption.

Under Labour’s so-called ‘crackpot code’ – policed by local ‘monitoring officers’, so-called ‘ethical standards investigators’ and the unelected quango of the ‘Standards Board’:

  • In December, councillors were told not to share a car when driving to a Planning Committee meeting to avoid the “appearance of bias”.
  • Opponents to hikes in car parking charges have been gagged by town hall bureaucrats. Anyone making a comment “in a public forum” questioning higher parking charges were gagged from speaking or voting on the issue at a council meeting.
  • Election candidates campaigning against the closure of a local swimming pool and sports centre were told they would not be allowed to vote on the issue if they won the election.
  • Opponents of a controversial park-and-ride scheme and mobile phone masts were forbidden from voting if they drove a car or owned a mobile phone respectively.

Taxpayers have footed the bill – with highly-paid ‘monitoring officers’ and ‘ethnical standards investigators’ having to be bankrolled by councils. The Standards Board costs £8 million a year, and high-profile cases have spiralled into six-figure sums: Ken Livingstone’s Standards Board case cost £208,000 even though he was subsequently acquitted. A three-year case in Islington cost £1 million and similarly resulted in acquittals and massive legal costs for all involved.

The new Government has declared today that the forthcoming Localism Bill will change the law to allow councillors to campaign on local issues and champion their local residents. Prescott’s code and Standards Board quango will be scrapped. Instead, in a clampdown on real town hall corruption – councillors will be required to publish their personal interests in a public and online register – those failing to do so or lying about it, will commit a criminal offence, facing arrest and the courts.

Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, says:

“John Prescott’s town hall thought police are squeezing the life out of local democracy. They have suppressed freedom of speech and wasted millions of taxpayers’ money on petty and malicious complaints. Prescott’s crackpot code has sent a chill down the spine of local councillors that have prevented them from championing local issues like opposing damaging developments or higher parking charges. This bureaucracy should go, and replaced with real openness and transparency in how councils spent taxpayers’ money and how decisions are made.”

Grant Shapps, Minister of State for Local Government, added:

"Rather than some PC quango telling councillors what to say, what the public really want to see is tough rules to prevent town hall corruption. People who abuse their public office for personal gain
should be charged and dragged before the criminal courts."

In the Local Government Act 2000, John Prescott legislated to create a new town hall ‘thought police’ – the ‘Standards Boards’ and ‘Adjudication Panel’ quangos, backed up by petty rules in the form of a ‘Model Code of Conduct’ for councillors. This went over and above the requirement to declare financial and personal interests which existed under previous legislation. This code of conduct has subsequently been gold-plated by town hall monitoring officers. Prescott’s laws have been labelled the "crackpot code" by journalist Christopher Booker, who has highlighted "the extraordinary damage that is being done to our local democracy".

DON'T SHARE A CAR WITH FELLOW COUNCILLORS

In guidance issued by the Standards Board in December, councillors are discouraged from travelling to a Planning Committee in the same car.

"Under the Code, a councillor may take part in considering whether or not to grant a planning application which is recommended for refusal by planning officers and made by a colleague with whom they do not share a “close association”. Nevertheless, because the councillor is the Chair of the planning committee, uses his casting vote to decide in favour of his colleague, and regularly shares a car with that colleague when coming to council meetings, this gives rise to an appearance of bias.”

OPPOSITION TO CAR PARKING CHARGES SUPPRESSED

A detailed survey into Prescott’s ‘crackpot code’ has found:

“Councillors were also sent a circular letter by a senior official explaining how the new legislation affected the local debate on car parking:… Members of the District Council should therefore resist
making comments in public forums that could be interpreted as your having already committed to making a particular decision about the introduction of the revised car parking enforcement regime. If this could be interpreted from the comments you have expressed and you subsequently speak at a Council meeting at which the decision is being taken, I do not believe that the decision would be flawed. However should you then proceed to vote on the matter the decision could be open to a legal challenge” (Owen Paterson MP and Gerald Howarth MP, A Question of Standards, September 2006).

ELECTION MANDATE IGNORED

“During the same campaign in Surrey there was much local anger over a plan by Reigate and Banstead council to close the local swimming pool and sports centre in order to sell off the land for housing. All the candidates were sent a letter by the council’s chief executive, Nigel Clifford, warning them that they must not express any view on this proposal during the campaign because this would indicate that they had ‘closed their minds’. They must wait until they had seen a report on the plan being prepared by Mr Clifford’s officials” (Owen Paterson MP and Gerald Howarth MP, A Question of Standards).

“The Borough of Rushmoor includes the Farnborough aerodrome, home of the famous air show. When the Ministry of Defence decided it was surplus to their requirements there was a proposal to turn it into an executive jet centre. Patrick Kirby stood for election as an independent at the local elections on a platform hostile to the proposition. He won but was promptly told that his predetermined position on the issue would debar him from membership of the key planning committee and indeed, from voting at full council” (Owen Paterson MP and Gerald Howarth MP, A Question of Standards).

“Members of South Cambridgeshire District Council, for instance, had been told by their monitoring officer… that they might be disqualified from discussing the siting of a mobile phone mast if they themselves used a mobile phone. Neither could they pronounce on a park-and-ride scheme if they drove a car nor speak out against a proposed wind farm if they had previously made known their doubts about wind power” (Owen Paterson MP and Gerald Howarth MP, A Question of Standards).

COST TO TAXPAYERS

Taxpayers have ended up footing the bill. As an illustration, the Standards Board complaint against Ken Livingstone for breaching the Code for not showing respect to a journalist cost taxpayers £208,000.

He was subsequently acquitted.

“Mr. Pickles: To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government with reference to the Answers to the hon. Member for Beckenham of 9 October 2007, Official Report, column 569W, and to the hon. Member for Meriden of 11 December 2006, Official Report, column 898W, on the Mayor of London, what the final cost to the public purse of the Standards Board case in relation to Mr Ken Livingstone was, including the costs to (a) the Standards Board, (b) the Adjudication Panel, (c) her Department and (d) the Government Office for London, including legal fees, advice, staff time and costs payable to the Mayor.

John Healey: The Standards Board’s own costs in respect of the case against the London Mayor amount to £64,000. The costs payable by the board to the Mayor in connection with the case are £130,000. The cost to the adjudication panel in respect of the case is £14,000. Neither the Department nor the Government office for London were parties to the case, so that no costs were incurred by them on legal representation in respect of it.” Hansard, 26 March 2008, col. 312W.

A case in Islington took over three years, cost more than £1 million, and eventually found that no breaches had been made.

COALITION GOVERNMENT REFORMS

  • The new Government believes councillors are entitled to have and express their own views, as long as they are prepared to reconsider their position in the light of all the evidence and arguments. Changes to primary legislation in the forthcoming Localism Bill will protect councillors’ freedom of speech to champion their voters and local communities.
  • Ministers believe councillors should be free to seek to influence the views or decisions of other members by lobbying them.  This attempt to influence the views and hence decisions of other members may be prompted by views that the member holds themselves, or if the member taking such steps to represent the interests of their ward or their constituents.
  • These proposed legislative changes will mean councillors can be very clear and discuss freely their view and voting intention and publicise their views as they see fit. Of course at the point of decision
    making, councillors must be prepared to listen to arguments and evidence before making their decision. These changes will reduce the threat of challenge to a member that they are biased and that their decision should not stand.
  • Councillors will have to register certain personal interests in a publicly available register; this could include anything that could reasonably be regarded as likely to influence or affect their actions,
    conduct when on business for the authority or voting.
  • Councillors will have to conform to the highest standards of conduct. At present if a councillor abuses their position for personal gain it may result in a complaint to the local authority's standards committee with the councillor simply having to apologise. New legislation will make failing to register an interest, or deliberately seeking to mislead the public about an interest a criminal offence, overseen by the police, Crown Prosecution Service and the courts.

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