A robust response from Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles to the revelations in the Daily Telegraph of councillors.
In a letter replying to his Labour Shadow Hilary Benn, Mr Pickles says:
It is unacceptable for councillors to be receiving any form of payment to lobby their own council. Such behaviour is a clear breach of the Nolan Principles (embedded in the Localism Act), and we would expect such conflicts of interest to be prohibited in councils’ own local codes of conduct, which the statute requires must be consistent with those principles.
Under the Act, councillors must also register their employment and any trade for profit or gain, and failure to do so is a criminal offence. It is a requirement in law for such registers to be online by the local authority. I have asked my officials to remind councils of this requirement.
Nor is this the only legal safeguard:
The Bribery Act also covers those who promise or provide such payments, be they consultancy firms or individuals. Those who offer financial advantage to any councillor to attempt to influence the planning process in their local authority are themselves potentially committing a criminal offence. It is no different than offering a bribe to a police officer – a practice that is both unacceptable and illegal.
Apart from the legal sanctions there is also the responsibility for political parties to act if they beleve there has been wrong doing by one of their councillors:
More broadly, separate to the law of the land, there is also a role for local and national political parties to promote high standards in public life, especially in relation to day to day conduct on avoiding conflicts of interest. I understand the Conservative Party has already taken firm action to suspend the party whip from one councillor. I would hope that political parties of other colours also take any necessary action in this regard, which would send an unambiguous signal on the expectation of high standards, especially in the planning process.
However Mr Pickles adds:
Notwithstanding my comments above, I do believe it is important to have a sense or proportion in relation to recent reports. Instances of corruption in local government are, and remain, extremely rare. Whilst recognising the need for due process and a fair hearing, we must also protect the right of freedom of speech to allow councillors to champion their local residents: the narrow interpretation of pre-determination rules has previously been corrosive to local democracy.
Councillors are not full-time politicians: they can and should have outside jobs and interests. I believe the sunlight of transparency will be the best disinfectant.
The upshot seems to be that the necessary rules are already in place. What is needed to ensure they are enforced.