Third Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Monday 2 April 2001
[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]
Relevant Authorities (General Principles)
The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Relevant Authorities (General Principles) Order 2001.
It is a great pleasure, Mr. Illsley, to serve under your chairmanship. Knowing of your long interest in and knowledge of local government, I am sure that you will find our deliberations interesting.
The order sets out the 10 principles of conduct that will govern the behaviour of elected and co-opted members of local and other relevant authorities. Those principles will be the foundation upon which the new ethical framework for local government will rest. I shall say more about the other elements of the framework in a minute.
The principles before the Committee have been developed from the seven principles contained in the third report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, then chaired by Lord Nolan, which was published in July 1997. The principles have been tailored to the needs of local government in discussion with the Audit Commission, the Commissioner for Local Administration, the Local Government Association and others. They have also been the subject of extensive consultation with the relevant authorities to which they will apply.
The 10 principles require members to behave selflessly, serving only the public interest; to discharge their public duties with honesty and integrity; and to take decisions on merit. They stress that members should be open and accountable to the public and treat people with respect regardless of their race, age, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability. The principles also require members to uphold the law, to ensure the prudent use of council resources, and to act in a way that preserves public confidence.
As I said earlier, the principles are the foundation of the new ethical framework introduced by the Local Government Act 2000. They will form the basis of the model code of conduct, which will contain mandatory provisions that every local authority will be required to include in its own code of conduct. Councils will have six months after the model code is introduced to draw up their own codes, and all councillors will then be required to sign up to them.
A new independent body, the Standards Board for England, will investigate any allegation that a councillor may have breached the new code. If a case can be made, an adjudication panel will convene to consider the evidence. If a councillor is found to have breached the code, he or she could be censured, suspended from office, or, in the most serious cases, disqualified for up to five years. The general principles, therefore, are the key to the new conduct framework. I confirm that the order is compatible with the Human Rights Act 1998. I commend it to the Committee.
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): It is a great pleasure, Mr. Illsley, to meet under your enlightened and inspirational chairmanship. It would be temping to say merely that it was an excellent set of principles and then to sit down again[Hon. Members: ``Hear, hear.'']but you know me better than that.
As the Minister said, the order specifies the principles that are to govern the conduct of members and co-opted members of relevant authorities. She mentioned the model code. It would be interesting to know when it will be available. I understand that it will be made under section 50 of the Local Government Act. The sooner it is available to local authorities, the better.
The order is an example of the nanny state gone mad. By coincidence, the number of principles that are to rule the conduct of members and co-opted members is 10. One might call them the 10 commandmentsmissing out the eleventh commandment in some Labour local authorities, which is the commandment not to get caught.
There is a fascinating paragraph in the explanatory notes, which I cannot resist asking the Minister about. As we have heard, the rules are designed
``to govern the official conduct of members, apart from the second and the eighth, which have effect on all occasions.''
I am not sure what that means. Are those rules meant to regulate members' private lives? I would have hoped that the exhortation to honesty and integrity and the duty to uphold the law were surplus to requirements for most people in public life. Why leave out paragraphs 1, 3 to 7, 9 and 10? One would like to think that some of the other civic principles, such as those of selflessness and respect for others, could also be carried on into people's private lives when they were not acting as local councillors.
According to one view, the order is a matter of motherhood and apple pie, but according to another view it is a tad insulting to local councillors, particularly to those who have served for many years, for whom these principles are second nature and who certainly do not need to be lectured by Ministers on how to conduct themselves, whether in public or in private.
I raise some specific points on the principles. Principle 5``Openness''states:
``Members should be as open as possible about their actions and those of their authority and should be prepared to give reasons for those actions.''
How does that tie in with the problems experienced by both opposition members and so-called back-bench councillorsthose who are not members of a cabinet or an executivein authorities that are subject to the new structures? Such councillors may not even know the reasons for a particular action. To what extent will they be in breach of that provision by default, simply because they have been excluded from the democratic process in a way that did not happen under the committee system? With the increased secrecy that is being introduced by the Government, with the support of the Liberal Democrats, in respect of council meetings and discussions, the risk is all the greater.
I would like to know why the rules are so specific and far reaching for local government, when they are apparently flouted almost weekly by central Government. Principle 2 seems particularly relevant in that regard. It states:
``Members should not place themselves in situations where their honesty and integrity may be questioned.''
Principle 4 is perhaps even more salient, in view of the recent problems involving the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz). It states:
``Members . . . should co-operate fully and honestly with any scrutiny appropriate to their particular office.''
It does not sit well in the mouths of Ministers in this Government to administer such lessons to those in local government.
The principles themselves are, on the whole, pretty unobjectionable. As I have said, I hope that they already inform and direct the way in which elected and co-opted members conduct themselves in local authorities. On the principle of selflessness, it is difficult to think of anyone standing for office in a local authority who is not seeking to serve the public interest, except for a few unfortunate cases. That is why people go into public service. It also goes without saying that members will conduct themselves with honesty and integrity.
Objectivity and accountability are very important. Ministers frequently claim that their new structures for local government will increase accountability, whereas in many respects they will do the opposite. In some councils, small groups of people of the same party will make all the major decisions, sometimes behind closed doors. On openness, I have already raised the issue of greater secrecy in local government, and in particular the temptations involved in the new cabinet system.
The ``Personal Judgement'' principle is interesting. The Minister and I have had previous debates about whipping on scrutiny committees, and I had one the other day with the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes). The code of conduct and regulations that we debated then merely exhorted that there be no whipping on scrutiny committees. Is it not a little hollow for the Government to propose in the order that
``Members may take account of the views of others . . . but should reach their own conclusion . . . and act in accordance with those conclusions''?
What does the Minister have to say about whipping? As she will recall from our debates on the Local Government Bill, the evidence from places such as Hammersmith and Fulham is that whipping still takes place, including on scrutiny committees.
One would hope that the ``Respect for Others'' principle merely stated what is obvious already. The next principle is ``Duty to Uphold the Law.'' Frankly, it is staggering to think that that even needs to be outlined in the order.
The ``Stewardship'' principle is that
``Members should do whatever they are able to do to ensure that their authorities use their resources prudently''.
That raises two issues. I have already mentioned one: how much control the so-called back-bench councillors will have over budgets and the spending decisions of their authorities under new systems. The other is the continued capping powers in the hands of Ministers, to be used when they feel that authorities have not used their resources prudently.
The final principle is ``Leadership'', with which we can all agree.
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Does not my hon. Friend believe that the reason for incorporating paragraph 10 into the schedule is primarily because of examples such as Labour-controlled Doncaster council? It has demonstrated leadership in corruption and exploitation of a sort not seen since the corrupt Liverpool council.