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Judith Barnes was a co-opted member of the City of London Corporation’s Standards Committee until the Corporation abolished the Standards Committee earlier this year.

The government is not the only culprit when it comes to undermining standards in public life. The City of London Corporation paved the way, though without, unfortunately, the U-turn forced on the government by resistance in Parliament and the press. The sorry saga of the Corporation’s tussle over standards, detailed in a damning account by Lord Lisvane in his review of governance at the Corporation, may provide some useful pointers for Parliament in the fallout from the Owen Paterson affair.

The trouble started back in 2016 when, for the first time, a complaint about the conduct of a Member reached a hearing before the Corporation’s Standards Committee. The Committee ruled that he had breached the Corporation’s Code of Conduct. This caused consternation among the body of Members, who were particularly exercised by the iniquity of the Standards Committee in naming the Member in question in its annual report. It prompted a review by a QC who recommended a right of appeal (sound familiar?) to a committee of Members independent of the Standards Committee.

This did little to reconcile Members to the standards regime. When the same Member was found to have breached the Code of Conduct again, the new appeals committee dismissed his appeal. Members still refused to implement the proposed sanction (to suspend him from the new appeals committee, ironically).

By then, a head of steam was building to abolish the Standards Committee and outsource rulings on the conduct of Members. The Corporation turned to Lord Lisvane for a solution. Having concluded that Members were incapable of policing themselves, he recommended that the Corporation set up an independent panel to adjudicate on complaints about Members’ conduct. For legal reasons, determinations by the panel would need to be endorsed by the Corporation so, crucially, he said that any determination by the independent panel on a breach of the Code of Conduct, and recommended sanction, would need to be decided by Members without debate.

Predictably, Members, who had made great play of not wanting to be judged by their peers, then insisted on having some Members on the ‘independent’ panel when it considered appeals (to provide ‘internal context’ apparently). They threw out the need for a decision without debate which was Lord Lisvane’s attempt to put a stop to the Corporation’s repeated resistance to determinations on Members’ conduct. The upshot is that Members, who could not overturn determinations when they came from the Standards/Appeals Committees (only sanctions), are now at liberty to override any determination by the independent panel.

Events at the Corporation suggest improving the system can only do so much. Once there are appropriate safeguards in place, such as a right of appeal, an independent element, and the right procedures, elected members – at national or local level – need to recognise that verdicts delivered in accordance with the system will in the normal course merit support.

The rules governing conduct have to be right of course. The Committee on Standards in Public Life has recently decided to introduce a requirement for holders of public office to treat others with respect. Although at first glance this would appear uncontroversial, experience at the Corporation suggests it has its dangers. Along with the campaign to abolish the Standards Committee, there was a push to give Members a blanket dispensation for their term of office to speak and vote on local ward matters in which they had a financial interest, unless the matter in question affected the Member ‘uniquely or more than any of their constituents’.

One of the Members who applied for this dispensation owned his flat with his wife. In my capacity as a co-opted member of the Standards Committee, I pointed out by way of hypothetical example that, if he and his wife stood to profit from a planning application that benefitted no-one else in his ward, he would be able to vote for it.

He promptly complained that I was in breach of the Code of Conduct on the basis that I had shown a ‘lack of respect’, by slurring him and his wife as ‘hypothetical criminals’, and was ‘wrong’ (who knew being ‘wrong’ amounted to misconduct?). The second limb of this complaint was blown out of the water by a leading QC’s opinion which made it clear in no uncertain terms that such a dispensation would be unlawful. Nothing daunted, the Corporation, by some mental contortion that they have yet to explain, nevertheless concluded that my use of a hypothetical example to explain my objection to granting this unlawful dispensation could indeed constitute a ‘lack of respect’ and even ‘bring my office or authority into disrepute’.

The concept of ‘respect’ is all too open to abuse in this way. In the current climate it risks importing ‘cancel culture’ into political debate. That would undermine not only standards, but democracy itself.