On March 31st the Standards Board for England officially ceased to exist. Localism now applies to rules to enforce standards for councillors. Should there be such special rules? Like everyone else, councillors have to operate within the law – which applies to such matters as corruption. So far as making offensive comments is concerned, shouldn't that be a matter for voters to decide upon? But certain requirements of transparency seem reasonable.
Certainly any new rules should protect freedom of speech. And those who act as "whistle blowers" to misconduct should not be punished for "bringing a council into disrepute." The localist arrangements should also provide some protection against the huge expense of vexatious complaints.
One authority had to fork out £160,000 after receiving more than 170 complaints from the same person. Each one had to be examined, but only three were considered worth investigating, and after investigation all were dismissed.
Local Government Minister Bob Neill says:
“As the death knell tolls for the unpopular and unelected Standards Board regime, councils and communities can look forward to a new era of locally set codes of conduct that will prevent corruption, ensure high standards in public life, and put an end to petty, partisan and malicious complaints that have dragged down the reputation of local government.
“Instead of having hundreds of expensive and frivolous investigations hanging over their heads local councillors will be free to get on with the job of getting the best for their local area. But far from letting councillors off the hook without any checks we are ensuring that they conform to the highest standards and anyone who abuses their position for personal gain can expect to face the full force of the law.”
A complaint against Ken Livingstone when he was Mayor of London was thrown out at a cost to taxpayers of nearly £200,000. Of course Livingstone makes all sorts of deeply offensive remarks. The way to deal with such people is to defeat them at the ballot box.
This is the text for the code of conduct suggested by the Government:
You are a member or co-opted member of the [name] council and hence you shall have regard to the following principles – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.
Accordingly, when acting in your capacity as a member or co-opted member –
You must act solely in the public interest and should never improperly confer an advantage or disadvantage on any person or act to gain financial or other material benefits for yourself, your family, a friend or close associate.
You must not place yourself under a financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might seek to influence you in the performance of your official duties.
When carrying out your public duties you must make all choices, such as making public appointments, awarding contracts or recommending individuals for rewards or benefits, on merit.
You are accountable for your decisions to the public and you must co-operate fully with whatever scrutiny is appropriate to your office.
You must be as open as possible about your decisions and actions and the decisions and actions of your authority and should be prepared to give reasons for those decisions and actions.
You must declare any private interests, both pecuniary and non-pecuniary, that relate to your public duties and must take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest, including registering and declaring interests in a manner conforming with the procedures set out in the box below.
You must, when using or authorising the use by others of the resources of your authority, ensure that such resources are not used improperly for political purposes (including party political purposes) and you must have regard to any applicable Local Authority Code of Publicity made under the Local Government Act 1986.
You must promote and support high standards of conduct when serving in your public post, in particular as characterised by the above requirements, by leadership and example.
Registering and declaring pecuniary and non-pecuniary interests
You must, within 28 days of taking office as a member or co-opted member, notify your authority’s monitoring officer of any disclosable pecuniary interest as defined by regulations made by the Secretary of State, where the pecuniary interest is yours, your spouse’s or civil partner’s, or is the pecuniary interest of somebody with whom you are living with as a husband or wife, or as if you were civil partners.
In addition, you must, within 28 days of taking office as a member or co-opted member, notify your authority’s monitoring officer of any disclosable pecuniary or non-pecuniary interest which your authority has decided should be included in the register.
If an interest has not been entered onto the authority’s register, then the member must disclose the interest to any meeting of the authority at which they are present, where they have a disclosable interest in any matter being considered and where the matter is not a ‘sensitive interest’.1
Following any disclosure of an interest not on the authority’s register or the subject of pending notification, you must notify the monitoring officer of the interest within 28 days beginning with the date of disclosure.
Unless dispensation has been granted, you may not participate in any discussion of, vote on, or discharge any function related to any matter in which you have a pecuniary interest as defined by regulations made by the Secretary of State. Additionally, your must observe the restrictions your authority places on your involvement in matters where you have a pecuniary or non pecuniary interest as defined by your authority.
(A ‘sensitive interest’ is described in the Localism Act 2011 as a member or co-opted member of an authority having an interest, and the nature of the interest being such that the member or co-opted member, and the authority’s monitoring officer, consider that disclosure of the details.)