Every day we have instances of local councillors making comments that are contentious, misleading, provocative – even, to some people, offensive. What is the proper remedy for those who might happen to disagree with a particular comment? We are fortunate to live in a free and democratic society which allows those of us who disagree with our local councillors to make our views known…and to vote for someone else at the next election. Political parties can also use the sanction of withdrawing the whip and/or deselecting any councillor whose views it regards as unacceptable. But the councillor should also be entitled to continue expressing his or her views and to stand for re-election (if necessary as an independent.) We really don’t want some Council committee to subvert the democratic process by sanctioning or removing from office a councillor for expressing an opinion that the high minded worthies have decided they dislike.
So it is welcome news that the Government is not recreating the Standards Board of England. The Committee on Standards in Public Life review of local government ethical standards had predictably decided that more Quangos and regulations were the answer. The Government responded:
“The Standards Board regime allowed politically motivated and vexatious complaints and had a chilling effect on free speech within local government. These proposals would effectively reinstate that flawed regime. It would be undesirable to have a government quango to police the free speech of councillors; it would be equally undesirable to have a council body (appointed by councillors, and/or made up of councillors) sitting in judgment on the political comments of fellow councillors.”
There was a particularly chilling proposal from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It proposed that:
“Councillors should be presumed to be acting in an official capacity in their public conduct, including statements on publicly accessible social media. Section 27(2) of the Localism Act 2011 should be amended to permit local authorities to presume so when deciding upon code of conduct breaches.”
The Government responds:
“As the government outlined to Parliament in March 2021 on tackling intimidation in public life: ‘It is important to distinguish between strongly felt political debate on the one hand, and unacceptable acts of abuse, intimidation and violence on the other. British democracy has always been robust and oppositional. Free speech within the law can sometimes involve the expression of political views that some may find offensive: a point that the government has recognised in a Department for Education policy paper. But a line is crossed when disagreement mutates into intimidation, which refuses to tolerate other opinions and seeks to deprive others from exercising their free speech and freedom of association.’ It is important to recognise that there is a boundary between an elected representative’s public life and their private or personal life. Automatically presuming (irrespective of the context and circumstances) that any comment is in an official capacity risks conflating the two.”
Even better though, would be measures to strengthen the right to free speech for our elected representatives. Take the case of Lisa Townsend, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey. Last November, the Surrey Police and Crime Panel cleared her of “misconduct” after complaints about her views on transgenderism. But a more recent complaint (concerning Townsend retweeting a comment from JK Rowling) was upheld by the complaints sub-committee of the Surrey Police and Crime Panel. It is missing the point to get drawn into a debate about transgenderism. The Surrey Police and Crime Panel and equivalent bodies should be abolished. Even if they grandly decide (while claiming thousands of pounds in allowances from us for the benefit of their wisdom) that some comment or another of Townsend’s is “acceptable” the process is a great waste of her time and emotional energy. That too has a “chilling effect.” PCCs and councillors find it prudent to only make the most bland and banal of comments. A better model would be for them to be free to express their views clearly and robustly and for the electorate to determine their fate.
Before you all cheer too loudly I would point out that that would mean Labour councillors making comments that Conservatives might well find offensive, would escape official sanctions too. In 2006, Ken Livingstone was suspended for a month as Mayor of London by the Adjudication Panel of England. Livingstone had compared a journalist to a concentration camp guard. He was found to have “brought his office into disrepute.” He certainly had – in that and countless other ways. But the remedy came through the ballot box a couple of years later. A Labour councillor in Wandsworth tweeted the other day that the Chancellor of the Exchequer (who was born in Southampton) “should go back to India.” Awful. But elections are next month.
I certainly do not suggest that councillors should be above the law. If there is corruption or incitement to violence then the police should get involved – as with anyone else. But let’s sweep away all the prissy monitoring officers, panels, boards, and commissions. They might regard themselves as maintaining “standards”. The reality is that they have a stultifying impact on debate which is corrossive for local democracy.