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14 Jan 2004 : Column 289WH—continued

Local Government (Standards Board)

2 pm

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con): I am delighted to have secured this important debate on a vital subject, having applied for it for many consecutive weeks. I am also delighted to have the support of several of my right hon. and hon. Friends, who have experienced the same type of problems with the Standards Board in their constituencies as I and my councillors have.

Some other right hon. and hon. Friends indicated that they wished to participate in the debate, but they have been prevented from doing so by other duties in the House. They include my hon. Friends the Members for Poole (Mr. Syms) and for Wantage (Mr. Jackson), both of whom have passed on details of problems suffered by councillors in their constituencies, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who had a long-standing commitment that he was unable to alter, but who may be able to contribute later. Several other hon. Friends have written to me to express their concerns about the way in which the Standards Board's procedures are not operating properly.

The Standards Board system has clearly gone badly wrong. That has been commented on fairly extensively in the national media, and I will refer to some such comments later. I also have detailed evidence that has been provided by senior local government officers in Surrey Heath district council—specifically, the chief executive, Mr. Barry Catchpole, and the borough secretary and solicitor, Mr. Richard Ivory, both of whom I thank.

I stress that I have evidence from officers because, although I need to mention some of what has been happening to councillors, one of my contentions in my extensive correspondence with Sir Anthony Holland, the chairman of the Standards Board, was that people working for the board ought to take advice from experienced local government officers who understand the system and how it is supposed to work, and should be able to influence the way in which the Standards Board investigators—the so-called ethical standards officers—carry out their work.

On the basis of the appalling way in which many councillors in my district council and elsewhere have been treated, I and the officers and councillors to whom I have spoken regard the most significant flaws to be as follows. First, in many cases, the so-called ethical standards officers do not seem properly to understand how local councils work and what their procedures are.

Secondly, councillors under investigation do not seem to have even the minimum protection that would be given to a criminal defendant under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. That must be wrong, because we are not talking about criminal investigations. In some cases, there will be only quite minor allegations, and for councillors to feel that they are facing a kind of star chamber inquisition without proper support is clearly completely unacceptable. That has happened to several councillors from my district council.

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Thirdly, and equally importantly, there is no proper filter to get rid of complaints that should be seen from the outset as factually erroneous, trivial, vexatious or purely politically motivated.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): My hon. Friend makes an important point about cases that involve minor irregularities but are left hanging over councillors, often for long periods. Is he aware that a local councillor in my area was subject to an allegation that amounted to little more than the suggestion that he was from the same political party as someone seeking to buy some council assets? It took 11 months for him to be cleared by the Standards Board, so the allegation was hanging over him throughout last year's local elections. Despite the essentially trivial and vexatious nature of the allegations, the Standards Board refused to accelerate the process. That was very damaging to the reputation of the councillor concerned, and to local authorities and local government generally.

Mr. Hawkins : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for making that point. What he has described is almost identical to what has happened to some long-serving and distinguished councillors in my constituency. Precisely the same kind of unwarranted allegations were made, and they were hanging over the councillors concerned throughout a local government election period. In a couple of cases, they clearly affected the results of the elections. In one case, the allegations were seen to be politically motivated. One of the people who made the allegations, which were subsequently dismissed, was elected as the challenging candidate, not for any political party, but as an independent. That is how the whole system is being skewed.

My right hon. Friend rightly refers to immense and inordinate delays, which are contrary to what the Government said would happen when the legislation was introduced. I am sure that he would agree that the problem that he has described, which councillors in my constituency have experienced, will deter a lot of people from standing for election for any party to any local authority at any level, right down to parish level. We have seen evidence from throughout the country that that is already happening. All political parties are finding it difficult to find people of the appropriate calibre who are prepared to give up their spare time to work in public services as councillors do. Such inordinate delays and allegations that turn out to be completely spurious will be significant deterrent factors.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman may or may not be aware that I have also had a lot of experience in local government. I share his concerns about deterrents that could stop people from running for local office. He referred to political motivation and vexatious complaints, but does he accept that his argument can be turned on its head? Is his case not damaged by the fact that the people whom he is citing, praying in aid and supporting are all members of the Conservative party? Would it not be better if he were to come forward with a cross- party approach to what may or may not be a real problem?

Mr. Hawkins : I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's strictures are entirely fair. I have tried to

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talk not only about issues relating to my party, but about council candidates from all parties being deterred, particularly in my reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory). I am grateful to the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) for his support on that point, at least. The Government have to take the problems on board, and I hope that he agrees. I shall turn in a moment to comments made in the national media, but if there are problems that affect councillors of all parties and of none, something is clearly wrong with the system. The issues that I have raised are by no means restricted to people in my own party.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): The hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) said that this was a political issue. Some 5,000 complaints have been made to the Standards Board since it was set up in 2001, and they have resulted in only 28 members being disqualified for one year, and in one member being disqualified for 20 days and one for five days. There should be a much better filtering system for complaints at the first stage, and people should be exonerated more quickly in respect of frivolous and vexatious complaints.

Mr. Hawkins : I agree with my hon. Friend that that is part of the burden of my case this afternoon. However, the bureaucratic monster that is the Standards Board was created by this Government in the Local Government Act 2000. In preparing for this debate, I looked back to see what was said when those provisions were debated. I was delighted to find that the precise problems that have now occurred were predicted by two of my hon. Friends—one from the Front Bench and one as a Whip—who served on the Committee considering that Bill. My hon. Friends the Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) correctly predicted that those things would go wrong, and I shall quote briefly some of the things that they said on 8 June 2000.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said that

He spoke in support of amendments suggesting that it was vital for members of the Standards Board to have experience. The proposal was that all of them should have sat on, or worked for, a local authority continuously for at least four years. If those Conservative amendments had been accepted, I am sure that we could have avoided at least some of the subsequent problems that have been experienced in my constituency and elsewhere, which were caused by a failure to understand how local authorities really work.

In the same debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham intervened to say:

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Those are all very good questions. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said:

I am sure that we would have had a much better system if those Conservative suggestions had been accepted. We predicted several of the problems relating to the structure and those relating specifically to functions of ethical standards officers.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham went on to say:

Councillors in Surrey Heath borough council and elsewhere have faced precisely that problem.

Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham gave this warning:

Before the Bill became an Act, a prediction was given of exactly what would go wrong—and it has done so. My hon. Friend expressed the view that the matter should have been reviewed in 2003, or three years after the Bill's enactment. If that view had been taken on board, we would have had that full review by now. The Government said that the matter would of course be reviewed after five years. The situation is far more

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urgent, however, which is why I am delighted to have secured the debate today. This may be the first debate on the issue, but it certainly will not be the last, as the problems will increase.

Before I conclude my remarks to enable some of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members to contribute, I want to describe what the chief executive of the main borough council in my area, Surrey Heath, and the borough secretary and solicitor say has gone wrong. I wish to refer to a letter from the borough secretary and solicitor:

Turning to the four complaints that have already been concluded, his concerns were focused on the time that it took to investigate them. That relates to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells about his councillors.

The borough secretary and solicitor says that the first two complaints against a councillor and a now former councillor

but that paperwork sent by the borough secretary and solicitor to the Standards Board was then mislaid. The investigator then gave an assurance that, despite those papers being lost, his final report would be provided by 20 September 2002. However, contrary to that assurance, the draft final report was not sent to the borough secretary and solicitor until 20 November 2002—two months late.

The purpose of the draft is for the parties involved and the borough secretary and solicitor to be advised of the draft findings and to pass any comments back to the ethical standards officer within a week or so. Everyone at the Surrey Heath borough council naturally assumed that, unless any fundamental observations were made, the final report would be issued in early December 2002. However, as the borough secretary and solicitor says:

which were never disclosed—

and to the borough secretary and solicitor—

The final report, which dismissed the complaints, was sent on 10 November 2003, so there was a total delay of 12 months. That occurred despite the fact that, as the borough secretary and solicitor says:

"totality" seems to be a fashionable word in current political circumstances—

He continues:

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the councillors concerned—

That seems similar to the case raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells.

The Standards Board has published its first case review booklet, which gives helpful guidance on the interpretation of its code. It states that

If that was the board's own guidance, it should have been simpler and quicker to dismiss the complaints. The borough secretary and solicitor said that

in the cases that had been resolved so far—

The borough secretary and solicitor encapsulates in the following statement all the concerns raised:

In practice, however, the borough secretary and the chief executive believe that many of those cases should have been dismissed straight away as frivolous and vexatious or that a brief conversation between the ethical standards officer and senior local government officers in the authority concerned could have explained that there was simply a misunderstanding of how local government worked.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for being generous and giving way again; I know that he is trying to conclude his speech. Would it not be a better way of proceeding under the rules of a fair hearing, if new procedure rules are adopted by the Standards Board, to ensure that when a complaint has been made about anybody, that person is immediately asked to make a statement, accompanied with evidence, so that a quick investigation of the facts can be carried out and the case dismissed if it is vexatious or frivolous?

Mr. Hawkins : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and I hope that we shall eventually succeed in persuading the Government that the system should be changed in that direction.

The borough secretary and solicitor raises an important point that may help to deal with the issue that the hon. Member for Reading, West raised in his

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intervention. If an allegation is made relating to decisions taken by a planning committee as a whole, and when that committee includes members from all three main political parties, the ESO would be quite wrong to proceed with complaints against members of only one political party. In respect of allegations such as those made in my constituency, where no abstentions or votes against the applications were recorded, and where every member of the committee was equally involved in the decision, an investigation might seem politically biased if the ethical standards officer were investigating members of only one political party.

The borough secretary and solicitor feels that

or checked with the officers.

Mr. Salter : I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Can he clear up two points for me? He said that some of the complaints may be vexatious. Making such a complaint would be a serious thing to do, and it is a serious charge to make. Does he feel that any of the complaints levied against councillors in Surrey Heath were not vexatious? Secondly, do any of the complaints that have been investigated refer to decisions made by the controlling group that were not unanimous?

Mr. Hawkins : I do not have details of every complaint, and I am afraid that I am simply unable to answer the hon. Gentleman's point. I hope that he is not going to allow this debate, which is about serious matters that can affect councillors of all parties, to degenerate into a point-scoring exercise. That is not what the debate is about; it is a genuine attempt to try to improve procedures that are clearly not working. Although I cannot answer his question, I can say that the cases that have been decided so far have been dismissed.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): With regard to not declaring all interests, is the hon. Gentleman aware that in some cases, members have not declared their role in respect of bodies to which they have been appointed on behalf of the council and have been named by ethical standards officers for not declaring something that was clearly in the public domain?

Mr. Hawkins : I do not know what the hon. Gentleman is referring to. Perhaps he will elaborate when he makes his speech, but I cannot deal with that point now.

The chief executive of Surrey Heath borough council, Barry Catchpole, told the Standards Board that he had written to Sir Tony Holland about the time that initial

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complaints were taking to conclude. In response, Sir Tony advised that he could not be involved in a current investigation. He has subsequently agreed to attend a meeting only when further outstanding cases are concluded, even though those cases have no bearing on the details of the cases that have been concluded. Barry Catchpole believes that Sir Tony Holland is being poorly advised.

When I wrote to Sir Tony Holland—I have had extensive correspondence with him—I, too, was disappointed that he found himself unable to respond to my concerns. The danger is that if another complaint is made as soon as a case is dismissed, we will never get to the end of the process. If the Standards Board is saying that it must wait until every complaint is completed before it looks into the system, that is simply not good enough.

The chief executive of Surrey Heath borough council is also concerned about the fact that people from the Standards Board are prepared to give information to the press without proper safeguards. Members of the local press say that they can obtain information from the board over the telephone. Indeed, a local journalist told the chief executive that they were amazed at how much information was given to them in that way. Given the factual inaccuracies in some cases, the chief executive believes that that practice reflects poorly on the board's professionalism, and I agree. That has also been shown by some of the media coverage of things that have gone wrong with the board in the past.

I was particularly concerned when the issue of someone attending ethical standards officer hearings with councillors was drawn to my attention. A councillor approached me to see whether I would act as what is called a Mackenzie friend—a person who is not involved in the allegations but is there to help and advise the councillor. However, the Standards Board told me that the ESO believed in his wisdom that it was not appropriate for me, as a Member of Parliament, to attend as a Mackenzie friend, simply because I had expressed concerns about unrelated complaints to the board. That is a very odd view. It would be wrong, in my judgment, for MPs to be prevented from acting as Mackenzie friends, particularly when the system does not provide enough protection for people, in the way that I described earlier.

I wanted to touch on some of the issues that have cropped up in other areas, but I am running out of time and I want to ensure that my hon. Friends can contribute, so I shall finish by saying that I hope that the Minister will accept that there are huge concerns about the Standards Board. The whole system needs looking at again. The concerns that my hon. Friends expressed when the Local Government Bill was in Committee have been amply borne out by the problems throughout the country, which have been heavily commented on in the national press and the specialist local government press. I hope that we shall see a vast improvement in the system in future.

2.28 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I shall aim to be brief because I know that other hon. Members want to speak. I should be in a Select Committee at this moment, so I suppose one could say I am double hatting.

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I declare an interest: I am a continuing member of a town council, so I am one of those individuals whose name could be referred to a body such as the Standards Board. To my knowledge, my name has not yet been referred to the standards committee, but the names of colleagues on the local authority in Stroud have recently been referred. I am pleased to say that, in the cases of Hilary Fowles and Mattie Ross, it was felt that there was no case to answer, but the experience was certainly not a terribly pleasant time in their lives. They are both long-term servants of local government and felt that it was wrong for their names to be referred, for reasons that I shall comment on in a moment. I hope that we can learn from that experience.

It is right and proper that a body such as the Standards Board exists. Anyone with a history in local government will know that the great majority of people who serve as councillors and of those who serve councillors—obviously other people's names can be referred—are the most outstanding individuals in our communities. Anyone in politics who started out in local government, as I did, knows that they have to be a bit touched because the time they put in grows exponentially, even if they can contain it at the beginning. These are not the sanest individuals—I include myself—but I have the utmost respect for their commitment to their communities and for the way in which they exercise their duties.

I have served on several authorities and have come across very few cases of malpractice, but such cases are serious and need investigating. The ombudsman route is often taken by those from outside the organisation—it might be taken by a constituent who lives in the area, for example—but the trouble is that investigation by the ombudsman relies on the accumulation of a great deal of evidence, and it tends not to deal with matters as I would wish.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) on securing the debate and I concur with what he said: this is a cross-party issue and we have to deal with it as dispassionately and impartially as we can. The ombudsman route had its failings and the Government were right to set up the Standards Board, but the arrangement would work better if an initial inquiry had already been undertaken. Part of the problem is that the Standards Board takes the investigation away from where the incident took place, where it could have been properly examined. Investigation by an anonymous body takes longer and can result in people feeling that they are under undue pressure.

I wish to refer to the case of the two councillors whom I mentioned earlier; indeed, I have already commented on it privately and in public. It comes after Stroud's recent large-scale voluntary transfer ballot, which is the most divisive local issue I have ever been involved with. We get used to adversarial politics in this place, but at a local level, members of all parties want to serve their area to the best of their ability, and in doing so they usually forget party differences. Of course, there is robust debate in council chambers and people take up positions as they do in the House, but when there are genuine local issues, people try to reach a compromise for the betterment of their community.

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Stroud's ballot was a divisive process, largely because it was set up to produce a clear-cut decision. As the Standards Board required, Stroud had to adopt a code of conduct, which caused problems and led to allegations being made about my two councillor colleagues. Under the code of practice by which the large-scale voluntary transfer would be progressed, every piece of literature about the ballot had to have the imprimatur of both sides of the argument before it was sent out. That is laudable in theory, but party politically, I am not sure whether I would want my election material to be checked and ruled out of order by the Conservative party, and I am sure that my Conservative opponent in the next election would have some doubts about my checking his material.

One has to live with such arrangements, but the problem in my council was obvious when it became apparent how strongly held the different opinions on the issue were. People said things that, in the light of day, they regret, and we had a ludicrous situation in which pieces of paper were submitted under a code of practice. One would have thought that the ruling group would be more careful than its opponents given that, although they were represented by Labour and Green councillors, the opponents were mainly tenants. However, unfortunate language was used and events escalated into an unpleasant situation that resulted in the two councillors being reprimanded in the council, which is one way of dealing with the situation, and then referred to the Standards Board.

That was not appropriate, as there should have been a robust discussion about the problem, instead of an approach under which councillors who disagreed and campaigned accordingly were referred to the Standards Board for not holding to the collegiate view of their council. This was the first time I had seen a system in which, even if councillors did not vote for the process into which the council entered, they were still bound by the collegiality of the decision. I understand that that is how the planning process has always operated, but there are differences between the granting of planning applications and other council debates.

Mr. Hawkins : The hon. Gentleman is making a helpful and non-partisan speech, and I appreciate his earlier kind words.

The hon. Gentleman supports the councillors whom he knows well and with whom he has worked for many years, just as I support many long-serving Conservative councillors in Surrey Heath whom I know well and in whose integrity I have enormous faith. Does he agree that one difficulty is that it is much easier to throw mud and watch it stick than to defend oneself? Whichever party a councillor represents, it is difficult for them to rebut allegations made against them in the local press when the Standards Board effectively muzzles them. I do not know whether that has been a problem for the councillors on his patch, but it has been for my Conservative friends and colleagues in Surrey Heath.

Mr. Drew : I concur absolutely: such difficulties are indeed part of the problem. As the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) said, the time that the investigations can take adds to feelings of hurt and wrong, because anyone being investigated will be under a pall during the examination. Even though they may

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know in their heart that they are innocent and are likely to be found as such, the fact that the investigation is taking place makes things difficult for them. The process is inevitably conducted through newspaper columns because it is news, albeit of the worst sort. The situation can be particularly hard in cases such as the one mentioned by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, where someone is standing for election. Understandably, people will ask whether they should be standing for election as they are under investigation.

I will not argue against the Standards Board, as it serves a purpose. However, I want far more investigation of the legitimacy of a referral before it is sent to the board. I hope that the Minister will say a little about that. If there is clear evidence that a case is vexatious, I want it dealt with quickly, and if the referral is vexatious, a statement should be made that the people who made it should feel some guilt for wasting everyone's time and blackening someone's name. The system should work in the same way as a court of law, where if the accused is clearly innocent, the accuser is made to feel some guilt. That is how I would like the system to be changed.

None the less, the system is in its infancy, and we must give it some time. I am grateful to the House of Commons Library for looking at the figures for referrals, although I am a little surprised by them. In my experience of local government, the great majority of people are upstanding and work very hard to deliver local services. The figure of 5,000 referrals in no way reflects my experience of the extent of wrongdoing.

We need to tighten things up and perhaps to bring the investigation forward, although it is quite an expensive operation—it has cost £6 million-plus, and the figure is going up. That makes me somewhat fearful of what will happen if the lawyers get involved, although we shall leave aside the previous incarnation of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. They will have only to start saying that someone's name has been unfairly blackened and that legal action will be taken if that person is proved innocent for someone to take such action against the board. Those issues must be thought through. The board is an important representative body, but it needs to work much better.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): Order. I remind hon. Members that the Front-Bench wind-ups must start no later than 3 o'clock.

2.41 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): As Members of Parliament, we will all recently have received from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards a doorstep tome on standards in the House of Commons. Among other things, it sets out the remit of the Parliamentary Commissioner and of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. It says that the Parliamentary Commissioner's remit does not include such matters as

The standard code of conduct for local authorities says:

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When that code was incorporated into statute, we inadvertently introduced double standards. In many instances, local councillors may be in danger of being investigated, while Members of Parliament are not, and I shall give the Minister three examples.

First, a Member of Parliament may be convicted of a road traffic offence, such as driving without due care and attention, but that is where the matter will end, because it does not lie within the Parliamentary Commissioner's remit, and nothing in the code would allow it to be referred to him.

Secondly, many marriages end in divorce. Members of Parliament may be involved in divorce, or there may be allegations of sexual malpractice—that is not unknown in the history of Parliament—but those are not matters for the Parliamentary Commissioner. However, members of the public may say that a county councillor who has been convicted of a speeding offence has brought his office into disrepute, or that a district councillor who has had an affair with another district councillor has brought their office into disrepute.

Finally, the Register of Members' Interests shows that I am the director of several companies. That is that, and if one of those companies gets into financial or other difficulties, that will not be a matter for the Parliamentary Commissioner or for the Committee on Standards and Privileges. However, if a local councillor's business gets into difficulties, and people complain that he has brought his office into disrepute, the matter will go to the Standards Board.

The Minister may think that those are unreal examples, but let me tell him of the instance that brought me to the Chamber. Mr. McCall is a parish councillor in my constituency. He was involved in an altercation in the local pub, and not a particularly elegant altercation but simply an argument with another constituent of mine. It is common ground that they threw beer at each other. There is a dispute as to whether Mr. McCall struck the other constituent, but that is putting it at its highest. There is not a scintilla of a suggestion that the matter had anything to do with Mr. McCall's work as a parish councillor; the dispute was not about how he conducted himself as a parish councillor or how he voted in parish council meetings.

A month later a different constituent, who had not been present in the public house and who therefore knew about the incident only by way of hearsay, wrote to the Standards Board complaining that by his conduct Mr. McCall had brought South Newington parish council into disrepute. If as a Member of Parliament, I had gone to the local pub and had a row with someone that degenerated into throwing beer, I should certainly expect to be excoriated in the press and to be up before the Chief Whip. However, there is no way that a constituent could refer me to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards for it. That would be a matter for the electors at the next general election.

There is a good Latin tag: de minimis non curat lex—the law should not involve itself in trifles. If we reach a point at which the Standards Board is investigating rows in public houses between two people, one of whom happens to be a parish councillor, the law is really beginning to interfere in trifles. What is the Standards Board investigating in the case in question? It wrote to Mr. McCall on 10 November telling him that it was to

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investigate. But what will it investigate? Let us for a moment accept that it found the allegation to be correct: there was a row in a pub, the constituent threw beer at someone who threw beer at him, or however it happened. On what is there a sanction?

We are told that complaints will be investigated quickly. The letter was written in November. Here we are in January. Frankly, if it takes that long for matters to be resolved in such a straightforward case, which I should put at the de minimis level that should be screened out straight away, I can only be concerned that proper investigation of more serious cases is being impeded by the inability of the Standards Board to screen cases.

The Government introduced the Act in good faith, and like the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) I have no quarrel with the Standards Board. I just hope that the Minister will say that after a reasonable period the Government will review its workings. I fully understand that the Secretary of State and Ministers find it difficult to intervene because a code has been set up by Act of Parliament, but if the code is not brought into proportionality, there will be judicial review.

I was tempted to go for judicial review on behalf of Mr. McCall. The investigation seemed so monstrously oppressive in relation to what he was alleged to have done. I hope, although I appreciate that the Minister cannot comment on that case, that the Standards Board will in due course say that the matter is not for it to investigate, and that it is a tiff in a pub and does not require the full panoply of the board.

I have one more matter of concern to mention. The Standards Board writes to councillors and tells them that a complaint has been made against them and they are not allowed to discuss it with anyone, whereas the complainant is free to go to the local newspapers and tell their side of the story without restraint. As my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) has said, the Standards Board seems perfectly willing to brief newspapers on what is happening. That seems totally unjust. It is not in accord with natural justice.

If a person against whom a complaint is made is restricted from talking to the press, so, too, should be the complainant and the Standards Board. As I have said, I think that the Act was passed in good faith, but for reasons of cock-up rather than conspiracy it is not working entirely as it was intended to. I hope that the Minister and the Government will have the courage to review it in due course and amend it as appropriate.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): Order. There are 10 minutes left and two hon. Members want to speak. They might want to bear that in mind.

2.49 pm

Mr. Chris Mole (Ipswich) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. O'Hara. I shall try to fit into five minutes a quick look at the work and functioning of the Standards Board for England.

A former local government colleague, who was probably a member of a development control sub-committee or a similar body, was giving advice to a constituent who offered her money for the advice,

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although not to influence her decision. She was quick to call her husband into the room as a witness to clear the position. I wish that everyone took such a clear approach, thereby avoiding circumstances in which they might be referred. There is no doubt about the popular perception of corruption in local government among both members and officers. It was therefore entirely appropriate to address that through legislation.

My interest in the issue started when the Standards Board was established and I was invited to give induction training to Tony Holland and his colleagues on the board. They were keen to pursue their duties as pragmatically as possible and wanted to listen to actively involved local councillors and learn from their experience. That was before those members who are still active councillors joined them on the board, so it is wrong to suggest that the Standards Board has not responded to concerns about vexatious or trivial complaints. A review of the code of practice is under way. In response to comments from the Opposition, I note that 62 per cent. of the 5,188 complaints in the last two and a half years were terminated before the investigation started. That shows that a pragmatic approach was rightly adopted in the first place.

The Standards Board for England clearly had problems processing many of the complaints that it received, owing to the legal challenge to delegation powers that it faced. That was fixed in last year's new local government legislation, which should help the speed of processing. However, I am not sure that many hon. Members realised at the time that that legislation contained provisions to deal with the problem. That said, we should not be alarmed by the rise in the number of cases, from 35 in the first month to an average of 300 a month. As with most complaints procedures, we should welcome the fact that people are increasingly aware that the systems are available. It is interesting to note that 43 per cent. of complaints have come from other councillors, 40 per cent. from the public and the remainder from monitoring officers and other council officers.

I am sure that we will see a fall in the number of complaints, as awareness of the decisions that the Standards Board has already made rises, its procedures become more common currency and people understand the precedents set. Members are right to raise their concerns about the time taken, so I welcome the Standards Board's decision to set a target of completing 90 per cent. of investigations within six months. However, a small number will always be outside the board's control, as a result of police investigations or similar activities.

The most difficult issue will always be the local register of members' interests. I am pleased that the Standards Board has taken the matter so seriously, with most of the 335 investigated cases resulting in disqualification. There is no doubt that planning and purchasing are the areas of greatest public concern. The rule of thumb must be that councillors and officers of local authorities must not only be clean, but be seen to be clean. When I was a member of Suffolk county council and the legislative framework was originally drawn up, such comments were made on a cross-party basis. However, I agree with the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) that it would be welcome to have some further advice from the

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Standards Board about the declaration of interests when a councillor has been appointed to an outside body by the local authority itself. It seems to me that there is a lack of clarity among local authority law officers about the blindingly obvious; it should easily be resolved with advice.

The Standards Board has made significant progress in the face of a deluge of complaints, although I accept that many of them were from individuals who should have known better. However, some serious issues were raised—including the bullying of staff and undeclared interests in planning applications. Although they involve only a small number of individuals elected to councils, they give the whole of local government a bad name. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said, the vast majority of hard-working councillors do not want to be tarred by the activities of the few. We should applaud the work of the Standards Board for England for undertaking to protect the good name of local government.

2.56 pm

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton) (Con): I, too, Mr. O'Hara, will attempt to be brief. The village of Norton Fitzwarren, which is close to the town of Taunton, has seven parish councillors. Two of them have been reported to the Standards Board—Mr. Chris Trebble, the chairman, and Mr. Ken Hayward. They received a letter from Mr. Tim Bailey, the head of referrals at the Standards Board, alleging that they had taken part in meetings to discuss various aspects of the local plan, including the development of the greenfield site at Ford farm. The allegation was that those parish councillors should have declared a prejudicial interest in that they live opposite the site where a new estate might be built.

The parish council is not a planning authority, and the matter has gone before a public inquiry. For a long time, the village has waged a loud campaign against excessive building on greenfield sites, although there is the potential for a large planning application on a brownfield site. I was involved in that campaign when selected to fight, and win, my seat.

A former borough councillor, who is also a parish councillor, a Mr. Paul Partington, thinks that councillors Hayward and Trebble have erred. I am led to believe that he was behind their being reported to the Standards Board. The allegation is that, because Councillors Hayward and Trebble live opposite the site, their arguing against the development would have increased the value of their houses. That is ludicrous, because Councillor Hayward lives on a main road; if the site were to be developed, the road would be rerouted, and most people would expect the value of his house to go up. What makes it even more ridiculous is that the two councillors sought the advice of a highly regarded individual—another constituent of mine, who knows a lot about standards, the chairman of the Somerset Association of Local Councillors, Mr. Peter Lacey.

For some reason, Mr. Partington has not seen fit to report the other three people who live in the village and who have discussed the plans at various meetings. Presumably, by the same logic that caused councillors Hayward and Trebble to be reported, they too should have been thought to have had a prejudicial interest. It seems that in my part of the world, a particular political

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party is keen to use such allegations and report them to the Standards Board. The leader of the Conservatives on the county council has repeatedly been threatened with being reported to the Standards Board by the leader of Somerset county council and other leading county councillors.

It will not surprise the House to hear me say that this is a vexatious complaint. I do not ask the Minister to reply to the particular point, but I would like to know how such vexatious complaints square with what the Minister for the Environment said in June 2003: he said that the code of conduct would reinforce the Nolan Committee's principles of honesty, integrity, openness, selflessness, objectivity, accountability and leadership in public life.

On all these matters, Mr. Partington has erred from the straight and narrow. He is the person about whom the Standards Board should be making inquiries, along similar lines to those suggested by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). I hope that the Standards Board will quickly drop its ridiculous investigation, clear both councillors and allow Norton Fitzwarren's parish council to get on with running the affairs of its local village.

3 pm

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): We have had an interesting debate and heard from hon. Members from all parties about possible problems with the Standards Board. I hope that the Minister will accept that the board must be reconsidered. The problems that have been detailed serve as adequate evidence that something is remiss.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) on securing the debate; it is particularly timely this week. I am glad that the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Mole) was able to understand my intervention. It is obvious to everyone on a council if a councillor is sitting on an outside body. Therefore, to be criticised by the Standards Board for not declaring that interest seems trivial and petty. That was the point I was making; my intervention was intended to help the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Hawkins : I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's clarification. Councillors from all political parties across the country have suffered from that problem. That is why I said that, from the experience of councillors and council offices in my constituency, ethical standards officers have not received sufficient training. The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Mole) may have given members of the board training, but ethical standards officers have not received the training necessary to understand how local government works.

Richard Younger-Ross : That is exactly right. I understand that two of the ethical officers are special branch officers and one is an ex-member of the FBI. People interviewed have felt that the officers have been conducting a police inquiry or dealing with terrorists rather than understanding how local government works, and that must be addressed.

The hon. Gentleman repeatedly made the point about the length of the waiting period. I contacted several councils and councillors to ask for their views on the Standards Board. Councillor Adrian Vinson from Southampton replied:

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comment made by another councillor—I will not name names or parties, because we want to avoid that—

To wait about six months before starting an investigation is out of order. A councillor from Preston wrote in an e-mail:

A councillor from Shepway wrote:

another point raised by hon. Members earlier—

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) made a point about the effect that the delay will have on people, particularly if they are fighting an election at the time. Many councillors are full-time politicians and sit on a number of councils. They rely on the job for much of their income; it is their living. It is wrong for something trivial and petty to be hanging over them during an election period. The Standards Board could deal with many issues far more quickly. It could reject petty, trivial matters and say that there is no case to answer.

The board could deal appropriately with people trying to score petty party points, rather than leaving people under a cloud. Many councillors believe that the board can be used as a political tool to whip opponents. All parties would decry that, but no party can control all its councillors. The Standards Board must be more robust in fighting against that.

Another comment made by a councillor was about costs, which we have not yet addressed. A councillor from Salisbury wrote to tell me that he incurred £2,250 in legal costs to clear his name. He won the case but, unlike in the normal legal process, he cannot claim against anyone for the costs. He has cleared his name but is out of pocket. That cannot be right. I hope that the Minister will address that in his summation.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) spoke about double standards. That is entirely right. The conditions imposed upon councillors, particularly parish councillors, are far stricter than those on Members of Parliament. Let us take a fictional example. I come from a large rural constituency. Teignbridge is a beautiful area with lots of small parish councils. Let us take a fictional character, like David Archer from "The Archers". I do not get time to listen to it these days, but I understand that he is a parish councillor. If he had broken the rules—this is perhaps something for the scriptwriters to think about—his uncle, George Barford, would be obliged to report him. That is nonsense. If George did not report David, the Standards Board would investigate George and say that had acted

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dishonourably. We are asking members of a family to report on each other. I am not too sure that that is what was intended when the legislation was first introduced.

Let us stick with our fictional example of a small village where everyone knows everyone else. There will be a Christmas party and they will all buy Christmas presents for each other. Parish councillors will potentially have to declare all the Christmas presents that they receive from friends within the parish. When they declare that they have been given a bottle of malt whisky from one person and another from someone else, their other friends will be able to see those gifts listed and who gave what to whom. That is clearly nonsensical in small communities. It is far too onerous on the councillors.

Mr Mole : The case that the hon. Gentleman describes sounds so trivial. It ought to have been properly and simply resolved by the parish council deciding to have a de minimis threshold for the registration of gifts and hospitality. That approach should be taken to avoid such situations.

Mr. Younger-Ross : The hon. Gentleman may be right, but this is a fictional case. The hon. Gentleman may be right, but many councils take the safe view. Their legal advice is over the top in many circumstances. I can quote examples from before the Standards Board was set up. Councillors were advised not to participate in a planning decision because the person who was making the application happened to be the chairman of a political association. They all left the room. That is nonsense. They had no real interest in it. They happened to know the person.

In small communities people know each other and live in a community with others. Some of the standards being imposed on councillors deny the realities of the world that we live in. That needs to be addressed. A number of councillors believe that the workings and the investigations of the ethical officers are almost Kafkaesque and can be particularly unpleasant. They take a long time. They affect people's lives. They will deter good people from standing for councils. They will deter good people from remaining as councillors.

These investigations may even lead to a perfectly good and innocent councillor losing his council seat after being falsely accused. That is wrong. I hope that the Standards Board will be revisited and that some of the problems can be addressed. We all want to see high standards in local government, and the Standards Board is a good thing in principle. It must sort out its working, start to understand local government and act more like an investigator than an inquisitor.

3.9 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) on bringing this important matter before the House. I start where he started, on a point that the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) also mentioned. If the Standards Board is seen to be too bureaucratic, too onerous and unfair, good people will be deterred from volunteering to stand for parish, town, district and county councils. There needs to be a perception of fairness.

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The Standards Board for England was set up in March 2001 by part 3 of the Local Government Act 2000. It is responsible, above all, for promoting high ethical standards, and for investigating allegations that members' behaviour might have fallen short of those standards. We all say amen to that—provided that the Board does its work expeditiously and fairly. Of course, there are similar organisations for Wales.

Let me explain the reason for my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath about the number of complaints and how long they take to be investigated. I quote the Library's figures:

The 2003–04 figures show

of almost 5,000 cases,

That seems to prove that the board is not operating a proper monitoring and filtering-out procedure at an early stage.

As I said in my second intervention on my hon. Friend, the person about whom a complaint is made to the Standards Board should have an early opportunity to make a statement, accompanied by whatever supporting evidence he wishes to submit to the board. There could be a tight timetable for that to happen, and the case could then be either dismissed or investigated further. Written parliamentary answer 96849 from the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire tells us that

Judging by the types of case that have been cited in excellent speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for Taunton (Mr. Flook) and for Surrey Heath and the hon. Member for Teignbridge, and given that many of the complaints are about fairly simple matters such as not having declared financial interest, it is clear that four months for an average investigation is too long.

I should like the Minister to tell us today that the Standards Board will speed up its work. One of its aims, as the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Mole) has said, is to complete 90 per cent. of its investigations within six months—40 per cent. within four months and the other 50 per cent. in between four and six months. When people stand accused, their characters besmirched, perhaps in the middle of an election period, as the hon. Member for Teignbridge said, four months is too long for an investigation.

Mr. Hawkins : My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. His point about investigations being completed quickly when an election is in the offing is particularly germane; it is enormously damaging to long-serving councillors to be unable to answer back because an investigation is ongoing. I have described the very long

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times taken in the cases of some of my local councillors. One of the very best, regarded by all parties as a fantastically successful councillor, who set up a children's charity and ran it with great success, was former councillor Gordon Parris MBE. The way in which the complaint against him was dealt with illustrates how things can go wrong: he was eventually acquitted, but not until after an election in which he was defeated by the complainant. A good, long-standing councillor, who has been mayor of his borough, can lose his seat partly as a result of a far-too-lengthy investigation.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, who reminds me of two aspects of the problem—anonymity and publication—to which I shall return when I have finished speaking about speed of investigation.

The Standards Board produced a corporate plan for 2002–03 that contains no fewer than 10 key performance indicators, but not one of them deals with the speed of adjudicating complaints. It has a corporate paragraph on "responsiveness", which gives the percentage of correspondents receiving an initial response within five working days, of invoices paid within terms, and of helpline inquiries answered within two working days. It then has a bit on referrals and the average time taken to determine whether to investigate a complaint, and the percentage of complaints acknowledged within two working days. However, to my mind, there is no real drive to increase the responsiveness and speed of investigating complaints.

Mr. Mole : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the introduction of a new case management system by the Standards Board for England would be one such tool to increase that speed?

Mr. Clifton-Brown : That is certainly worthy of investigation. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that suggestion.

The Standards Board's statistics show that an enormously high percentage—some 51 per cent. of total complaints—were about parish and town councillors. Considering that many of those councils have precepts below £5,000, there is a case for exempting small parish councils, and perhaps having some form of simplified procedure for planning, where it seems the biggest amount of fraud occurs.

On the anonymity of the complainant, in every case the complainant's name should be published, and if the complainant makes a vexatious or frivolous complaint, I would expect the Standards Board to make a strong adjudication against them and make sure that their name was published. There is also the issue of publication by the complainant; the person who is complained against does not have the same right to have their side of the story published, and that can lead to a skewed report in the local press at an early stage. A person can stand accused for a long time before the complaint is properly adjudicated upon.

My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath quoted many comments from a letter from R.J. Ivory, the borough solicitor of Surrey Heath. Mr. Ivory has made many strong comments, but perhaps the most pertinent

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is in relation to the planning committee, where a case was made against Conservative councillors. I do not in any way want to make this a partial or partisan debate; the subject could apply equally to Liberal or Labour councillors. On that case, Mr. Ivory says:

the planning committee—

That is particularly pertinent, I think. He goes on:

That must be the case. If the principle of a decision of a committee can be investigated, and the people who voted and made a speech in that committee in good faith can be questioned, that is a serious matter that goes a long way further than the code of conduct deserves.

Finally, I should like to touch on the matter raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury—the fact that the model code is more obtrusive for councillors than for Members of this House. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards recently looked into the problem of vexatious and frivolous complaints. The eighth report of the Standards and Privileges Committee said:

The Parliamentary Commissioner then issued a procedural guidance note. That said:

The same sort of procedure should apply to the Standards Board. Some of the vexatious and frivolous complaints should be completely and unceremoniously thrown out.

The Standards Board has been in operation for a comparatively short time. It acknowledges the issues—I quote its press office statement that

We all say amen to that. I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath on obtaining this debate. I hope that the Minister will take into account the comments made during the debate and transmit them to the board. Let us hope that through this parliamentary process we can improve the board's work.

3.21 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Phil Hope) : I am grateful to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) for

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the opportunity to discuss the work of the Standards Board for England and the valuable work that it is doing to maintain the highest standards of public conduct of local authority members. I want to spell out from the start that the Government are clear about the need for the Standards Board, the value of its work and the success it has achieved in the first two years of its life, and I warmly welcome the opportunity to say so.

I had a similar experience to that described by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Mole), not only as a Minister but as a former borough and county councillor as well. After I had carried out a piece of work, a crate of red wine appeared on my doorstep, which went straight back. I immediately warned the chief executive of what had happened and made sure that my lines were cleared.

We have to deal with issues here and it is right that we do so. I cannot address all the problems that have been raised. Some cases would be inappropriate for me to comment on and I cannot address others for lack of time, but I want to nail one or two myths that have been aired. A large body of men and women devote their time and energy to the service of their communities. I want to place on the record from the beginning that the majority of people elected to serve as local authority members already observe the highest standards of conduct, as do the officials who support them. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). I want to reinforce and echo strongly his sentiments.

Mr. Hawkins : Of course I echo what the Minister says, particularly as I know one of the members of the Standards Board from many years ago. I understand what he is saying about the board members. He will understand that my hon. Friends and I have severely criticised the ethical standards officers and the processes under which they work, with which I hope he will deal. His remarks so far will be treated as rather complacent, given that we have news cuttings, provided by the Library, of problems and over-trivial complaints from around the country.

Phil Hope : I shall endeavour in the time available to me to address the hon. Gentleman's points. Those people who serve our communities in that way need to feel secure when they speak up robustly for their communities in debate and take tough decisions on priorities and budgets—the essence of local politics. We should not take that commitment for granted. We are lucky in this country to have high standards of probity, accountability and objectivity, but we cannot disguise the fact that some failings occur from time to time. There have been cases—thankfully rare—of elected members falling short of the conduct expected from them. The impact of such misconduct can go far beyond the damage done to the local authority in which it takes place. Not only does it harm the community that members are elected to serve, but it damages the wider reputation of local government and undermines the public's trust and confidence in its quality.

I hope that all of us share a desire to promote high standards of behaviour. As hon. Members said, over the past couple of years we have introduced a new framework under the Local Government Act 2000 to promote high standards of ethical behaviour and it is

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still bedding in. However, the signs are good. After an inevitable period of confusion and suspicion at the beginning, I think people now accept that codes of conduct and the board are a routine part of public life and that there is clarity about what constitutes acceptable standards of conduct, a robust, efficient and fair means of investigating allegations of misconduct—I will deal with specific points in a moment—and a proportionate regime for dealing with any councillors who are found to have fallen short.

I am very aware that this is a sensitive matter, as hon. Members noted. People who give up their time to serve their communities will naturally and rightly be outraged if they think there is an initial presumption that they are doing so for dishonourable motives. However, we needed a new framework, which we have, to help dispel public criticism of those in public life. Its two elements are the introduction of the new statutory codes of conduct and the creation of the Standards Board.

Before we issued the codes of conduct, we set out the 10 general principles that should underpin the conduct of members of local authorities: selflessness, honesty and integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, personal judgment, respect for others, the duty to uphold the law, stewardship, and leadership. I have no doubt that every hon. Member, especially those present, would agree that we can all support those principles and lend our names to them. They summarise what we might expect from local councillors and provide a yardstick against which conduct can be measured. Hon. Members have given me examples of things that are not right. We are open to the views of all stakeholders on the operation of the codes in the light of continuing experience.

The codes of conduct have been operating for only about 18 months. We continually review them and their operation, and will do so when they are fully bedded in. While we do that, we welcome comments and examples, and the opportunity continuously to improve the process. The Conservative party has decided to attack bureaucracy and red tape in local and central Government, but I am pleased to hear hon. Members recognising the Standards Board and asking if it can be made better, rather than simply attacking it for being unnecessarily bureaucratic. I welcome that consensus.

We all share the view that action must be taken to maintain public confidence in the system where the conduct of elected members does not meet the highest standards. In practice, action can be triggered only if someone makes an allegation. We thought that all elected members should have a positive duty to be intolerant of the unethical behaviour of others, so we have placed on them an obligation to make allegations if they believe that there has been misconduct. We also

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recognised the need for more robust and effective mechanisms to allow cases of misconduct to be investigated and dealt with. Putting in place the Standards Board and the other elements of the new ethical framework ensures that complaints can be investigated independently and thoroughly. In the most serious cases of misconduct, the adjudication panel can disqualify members from holding office for five years.

The ethical standards officers have a wide range of experience. Some have as many as 20 years' experience of local government. Another myth is that they can suspend councillors. They cannot. They must apply to an independent tribunal. To date, they have not sought any interim suspensions while cases are current. The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) said that two special branch officers and an FBI officer are running the ethical standards office. That is not true. None of them is an ex-police officer. Such a myth can arise in a debate like this, and I want to nail it at the outset.

Richard Younger-Ross : That is not what I said.

Phil Hope : The hon. Gentleman can read his comment in Hansard. I heard it, as did every hon. Member. I simply want to ensure that we get the facts right.

Half the board members have long periods of local government experience under their belts. One is a Conservative leader, another is a Labour leader, and there are two ex-chief executives of major councils. Others also bring valuable experience from other walks of life.

Other points have been made about the way in which some members of the board have operated. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, along with the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, was concerned about how to rebut false allegations in the press. Before the boards were created, there was no system whereby members could clear their names if allegations were made. Allegations were left hanging. Now the board provides members with an independent body that can disprove false allegations.

I have pages of other points and comments to which I wanted to respond. I will write to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath about some of the key points, because I know that he is interested in them. Unlike the survey conducted by the hon. Member for Teignbridge of one or two of his colleagues in local government, the Standards Board conducted MORI surveys and surveys of councillors and of local authorities, which show that there is overwhelming support for it. Parliament must ensure that we give the boards and the councillors the backing and support that they need.

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