Peter Bradley (The Wrekin) (Lab): There is no doubt that there has been a decline in confidence in politicians and in our political systems that has accelerated since the 1990s. It is not always justified but we have to take it seriously, because we cannot afford to allow the public to lose faith in our institutions of government, whether at national or local level.
The Government have done a lot in recent years to try to bring government closer to the people through devolution, commitment to town and parish councils, constitutional reform and the incorporation of European legislation on human rights, and in the long-awaited and yet-to-be-completed reform of the House of Lords. But perhaps the two key principles in bringing government closer to people are the promotion of the transparency of our systems of government, through such legislation as the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and the enhanced accountability of those responsible for those systems of government.
Here, we have the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, and it is right that there should be a similar body in local government. That is why I support the Local Government Act 2000, and its creation of the Standards Board for England. The board is there to raise and sustain standards and public confidence in local government. I have to say at the outset that I disagree with the Conservative party, which says that it is unnecessary and should be abolished.
A great deal of mischief and nonsense has been talked about the impact of the Standards Board, particularly on parish councils. It has been alleged that there has been a wholesale exodus from that essential form of public service since the introduction of the code. My understanding is that that is simply not the case; the National Association of Local Councils tells me that of some 80,000 men and women who serve on town and parish councils, only about 80 have tendered their resignation because they are not prepared to submit to the code. The challenge is not to abolish the Standards Board; it is to make it work. We should certainly not throw the proverbial baby out with the bath-water, as I believe the Conservatives are proposing to do.
In general, standards are high among local councillors, but as there are 100,000 of them there are likely to be problems with individuals, and sometimes local authorities can have corporate problems and difficulties. Most councillors welcome the Standards Board. They recognise the need for guidance and support. They need the discipline of knowing that they are held to account. Above all, the public need to know that, too.
I have studied with great interest the evidence recently submitted to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committee, and saw that there was widespread support for the Standards Board from the Local Government Association, NALC, leading councillors and senior officers. However, I have serious concerns about the Standards Board. I accept that its performance is improving, and I welcome the fact that a review of its code is under way. I hope that this debate will contribute to that process. But elements of the code are, in my view,
1 Feb 2005 : Column 210WH
badly flawed and open to exploitation. Also, there are delays in its processes that are themselves the cause of serious injustices.
My first concern is that, for too many, the code has become a licenceindeed, a charterfor complaint. We are all familiar with the serial complainersthe small-minded, small-town curtain-twitchers who are turning some local authorities into battlegrounds on which they can fight out their personal and political vendettas.
"we can expect that the full panoply of the process, leading to the establishment of a tribunal, would be necessary only a few times a year."[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 8 June 2000; c. 427.]
I think that she underestimated. Partly because of the ill-defined breadth of the offences under the code, complaints are currently running at some 300 a month. That is up on the figures for last year, which were themselves 20 per cent. higher than the figures for the previous year. One third of those complaints come from fellow councillors, and no doubt still more come from political activists in the community. It is also noticeable that there is a concentration of complaints in the run-up to elections. Last year, 309 complaints were registered in February, 330 in April, and 257 in May; however, there were 444 in March. I am aware of at least one complaint made in the run-up to an election and dismissed after polling day where the accused lost his seat to the complainant.
In many cases, smaller local councils are paralysed by the length and complications of the Standards Board process. It is noticeable that 73 per cent. of complaints come from the smaller councilsdistrict councils, town councils and parish councils. It is also clear that the Standards Board is too often brought to a standstill by the sheer weight of the complaints that it is required to investigate. Until recently, it had to attach equal weight to all complaints, even though 75 per cent. of them were not referred onwards, and even though in 87 per cent. of those that were referred it was found that there had been no breach of the code or that no action should be taken. I am therefore glad that changes were introduced in November that allow the Standards Board to refer complaints back to local authorities for investigation. I am also pleased about the commitment to review in 12 months' time whether the Standards Board should introduce deterrents to vexatious complainants. However, it is my view that excessive centralisation has led to the injustice of delay, with many cases unresolved for well over a year.
So, more needs to be done to reduce the burden and cost of complaints, the mayhem that they can wreak for local authorities, and the damage to the reputations of those belatedly found to be innocent of the charges against them. Key elements of the code are flawed and misguided. We in Parliament have to take our share of the responsibility for passing such legislation without anticipating some of its implications. Paragraph 3 of the code of conduct established in the Local Authorities (Model Code of Conduct) (England) Order 2001 forbids the disclosure of information given in confidence, and in so doing suppresses the duties of oppositions and the
1 Feb 2005 : Column 211WH
rights of whistleblowers; they are important rights in any public authority. Paragraph 4 creates an offence described as
That offence is too broad and a licence for vexatious complaints. Paragraph 7 places on councillors an obligation to report allegations against others and provides a spurious justification for specious complaints.
I am most worried about the disclosure of confidential informationalthough, oddly, it is the element of the code that has received the least attention. It is a fundamental principle that a councillor's first duty is not to the authority of which he or she is a member, but to his or her constituents. Of course councillors should observe confidentiality when it is clear that the public interest is not served by disclosure, but there is a distinction between secrecy and confidentiality. Where in good faith councillors believe that the public interest overrides the principle of confidentiality, they have a duty to disclose confidential information. If that were not the case, local authorities could simply stamp any document or correspondence "confidential" if they did not want it to see the light of day. That is entirely counter to the Freedom of Information Act, the provisions of which were introduced only last month. It suppresses whistleblowing, and it can be, and is, used to suppress dissent and cloak and protect wrongdoing.
Peter Bradley : We have enshrined in our procedures parliamentary privilege, which enables us to refer to information that in any other forum would be regarded as confidential. Unless we can have a free flow of information and debate, there is little point in our being here. I am suggesting that the same principle that applies to us should also apply in other public bodies, and particularly in local government, because as much as we like to think of ourselves as being in the cockpit of power and having tremendous standing and importance, the decisions taken by local authorities often affect the lives of our constituents more regularly and intimately than our decisions. I am happy if I have helped the hon. Gentleman in that regard.
I may not please the hon. Gentleman quite as much in what I am about to say. Had the code been in place in the 1980s and '90s, I would have fallen foul of it frequently, as would my hon. Friends the Members for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and forshe will have to help mewhat used to be known as Westminster, North.
Peter Bradley : The three of us were colleagues and comrades in arms on Westminster city council in its heady days. Had we and colleagues not placed ourselves at variance with the code that has since been adopted, many of the wrongdoings at that council, with which we are all too familiar, would not have been detected and no one would have been brought to justice for them.
1 Feb 2005 : Column 212WH
The case of our former colleague Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg, who is currently the leader of the Labour group on Westminster city council, as he was for some time in those days, exemplifies the need to reform paragraphs 3 and 4 of the code and to address the delays in process, to which I referred. It is an extraordinary irony, and perhaps an example of the Standards Board at its most confused, that a man of such high integrity, who played so important a role in exposing the worst political corruption in living memory and brought Shirley Porter and her colleagues to justice against all odds and all expectations, should now and over the past 18 months have faced indictment before the Standards Boardnot for any political or personal corruption, and not as a result of a complaint from a member of the public, but as a result of a complaint by Westminster city council under paragraphs 3(a) and 4 of the code, which deal with confidential information and bringing a council into dispute. He is arraigned for exercising his judgment and revealing wrongdoing as he and we have done on many previous occasions.
I will not go into great detail about the case, but I want to outline the background to it. Councillor Dimoldenberg was concerned about the commitment of Westminster city council to press for the surcharge imposed on Shirley Porter and her former colleague, David Weeks, by, first, the district auditor and, ultimately, the Law Lords when all legal recourse had been exhausted. He had every right to be suspicious because, after all, many of those in the leadership of the council today are former acolytes of Shirley Porter, and he and we are all too familiar with the culture of secrecy, obfuscation and evasion that has long characterised Westminster city council. More to the point, he had evidence of the lack of progress being made in pursuing Shirley Porter for the surcharge. His concerns were shared by the media, which played a key role in uncovering the wrongdoings at Westminster over the years. It was a "Panorama" programme that gave rise to the objection to the district auditor that set in train the investigative process, and it was the long and honourable tradition of opposition parties working together with the media that shone light on the darkness with which many at Westminster would have preferred their activities to be cloaked.
Councillor Dimoldenberg believed that the council was dragging its feet and, back in May and June 2003, he gave evidence to the BBC to back up his claims. He gave the information not for broadcasting, but on a background briefing basis. On 30 June, "Today" broadcast an item that revealed some of that information. In retrospect, it is clear that Councillor Dimoldenberg's actions were fully justified. I shall cite one piece of information in support of that assertion: in the eight months prior to the broadcast, Westminster city council had been spending about £14,500 a month on legal feesa large amount, although pocket money by west end lawyers' standards. In the 11 months following the broadcast, Westminster city council had increased its activity to the extent that it was paying its lawyers not £14,500 a month, but £120,000 a month. As a result, some 10 months later, in April 2004, it recovered £12.3 million of the surcharge that was imposed on Shirley Porter. There is an argument that she got off too lightly, given that the surcharge imposed
1 Feb 2005 : Column 213WH
was £42 million. But there was no adverse outcome to Councillor Dimoldenberg's disclosure other than the embarrassment of Westminster city council.
Despite the evidence of Councillor Dimoldenberg's standing and integrity and the positive outcome of his actions, Westminster city council lodged a complaint and, worse still, the Standards Board is pursuing it. I said "pursuing", but perhaps that is a misnomer because it is now 18 months since that broadcast on 30 June 2003. It took precisely 12 months for the Standards Board to produce a draft report and it will not be until next week that Councillor Dimoldenberg has his preliminary hearing, and there is no knowing how much longer the process will last.
It is hard to quantify the cost to Councillor Dimoldenberg. When I make references to him, he stands for many hundreds of other local councillors who, for different reasons, find themselves in a similar position. His legal costs are already in excess of £6,000, but that is nothing compared with the disruption to his life over 18 months. He has a demanding career. He is still carrying out his duties as a councillor in Westminster. He has a young family, yet he is being obliged to spend much of his time and energy defending his reputation. It is difficult for us to understand the pressure, stress and anxiety that those circumstances create. On top of that, Councillor Dimoldenberg has serious uncertainties about his future and reputation.
I make no apology for going into the case of Councillor Dimoldenberg in some detail because it exemplifies the urgent need for a public interest exemption to the paragraph in the code that otherwise imposes on councillors a duty of confidentiality. Had there been a public interest exemption, there is little doubt that Councillor Dimoldenberg would not be facing a charge that is as unjust as it is serious.
What is to be done about the code? In November 2004, as I said, Parliament allowed the Standards Board to refer back minor cases to local authorities for resolution. I am sure that that was the right thing to do. On 19 January, the Committee on Standards in Public Life published an aptly titled report, "Getting the Balance Right: Implementing Standards in Public Life", on the Standards Board and other issues. It expressed similar concerns to those that I have mentioned today and made not dissimilar recommendations. It said that the Standards Board needs to be "fundamentally transformed". It wants a more locally based system, more independent members on local standards committees, the removal of unnecessary restrictions on councillors representing their constituents and a clearer distinction between private and official conduct.
In its evidence to the Select Committee, the Local Government Association pressed for more local screening of complaints. There is a valid argument on both sides of that issue, but I think that I disagree with the LGA's position. It is very important that there should be no doubt in the public's mind that complaints are dealt with dispassionately at national level, even if they are referred back to the council for further investigation and adjudication. It is also important to remove any question of political bias in making complaints and considering them, even if that is a greater problem in perception than in fact.
1 Feb 2005 : Column 214WH
We need to discourage trivial and vexatious complaints. The Standards Board has indicated that it may consider a review of the sanctions against vexatious complainants next year, and that is an important step forward. I hope that that will not be necessary and that the very threat of sanctions against such complainants will deter them. However, they must understand that the petty point scoring in which they indulge can have devastating effects on their innocent victims. They must be deterred if they can be.
It is also wrong that Members or political activists can make complaints purely for party political purposes, particularly during the run-up to elections. I hope that the Standards Board can find a way to penalise those who do so simply for the purpose of media exposure and for no legitimate reason. It is also important to remove the obligation on councillors to report allegations of misconduct. That obligation prevents such allegations from being resolved locally and expeditiously, sets in train the full panoply of the Standards Board and acts as an excuse or justification for trivial and personal grievances. The investigation process needs to be further accelerated, although progress is being made. There needs to be a much clearer and narrower definition of what is meant by bringing a local authority into disrepute. Finally, we need to qualify the paragraph on confidentiality with the public interest exemption, to which I referred.
I recognise that these are relatively early days in the life of the Standards Board, and that there have been some positive changes already. The Graham Committee has already come forward with further helpful recommendations and the ODPM Committee may also do so shortly. I welcome the fact that the Standards Board is reviewing its code. However, it is crucial that in seeking to strengthen public confidence in local government we do not undermine it and, in doing so, cause grave injustices when our purpose is to prevent them.
Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) on securing this debate. I, too, will focus on the issue of public interest, the need to protect those who find themselves required to blow the whistle on wrongdoing and the fact that the code needs reform. I make no apologies for the fact that I shall use the same case to illustrate some of the flaws in the system as I see them.
It is no coincidence that three former Westminster city councillors are here; they will hope to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Experience of Westminster council has taught us what can go wrong in local government, and we have more reason than most to believe in the principles underpinning a body such as the Standards Board, and in the necessity for proper structures for holding the locally elected councillors to account.
Ms Buck : I wholly endorse what my hon. Friend said in support of the Standards Boardas an organisation and for its principles and much of its work. Alarm bells should ring if those of us who have been at the coal face of local government corruption should now be concerned about aspects of the code of practice and the organisation that all our instincts tell us to support.
In the helpful Library briefing provided for the debate was a news article from The Daily Telegraph, which expressed the view that the words "hammer" and "nut" spring to mind when thinking about the Standards Board. That may or may not be true. The words that spring to my mind are more likely to be "shoot" and "foot".
How can it be that the Standards Board that we needed so much at Westminster council throughout the late 1980s and 1990s is now directing its inquiries against the man who, more than anyone elsewith due deference to colleagues here and other key individualsexposed the institutional corruption: Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg? The investigations are not because of an allegation of an abuse of public funds, taking bribes, downloading porn on a council computer or not signing the register of members' interests. If those were the types of allegations, I would be the first to sayfriend or no friendthat such allegations should be fully and properly investigated, because such behaviour has no place in public life. But, as my hon. Friend says, Councillor Dimoldenberg stands accused of bringing local governmenthis authorityinto disrepute because of his whistleblowing actions pursuing Westminster council's recovery of the debt owed to council tax payers by Shirley Porter.
He did not add what I have had confirmed in a letter from the Standards Boardthat such complaints cost an average of £5,000 each to investigate. Of course, as my hon. Friend said, the accused councillor may in some cases build up many thousands of pounds of personal debt in fighting the charge. It has been noted, but should be repeated, that Councillor Dimoldenberg has spent a year and a half with these allegations hanging over him.
I wanted to spend a few minutes on the issue described here as being a politically motivated concern that the Standards Board is anxious to remove. However, we have a substantial inquiry that seems both highly political and yet strangely stripped of the broader context of public interest.
Central to the allegation against Councillor Dimoldenberg is that he passed information to the BBC that he knew to be confidential and that could have
1 Feb 2005 : Column 216WH
caused harm to the interests of the council. We need to remember that this is a man who has devoted two decades of his life to a virtually unremunerated public service, championing the interests of his constituents in some of the poorest neighbourhoods in London. His record in public life is one of disinterested and effective service in opposition, with neither hope nor ambition for higher office.
When first elected, neither Councillor Dimoldenberg nor anyone else could foresee that the council that he had been a member of for several years would be embroiled in the scandal that began with the sale of the cemeteries and then became the homes-for-votes story. Equally, from the late 1980s onwards, as that scandal unfolded, few people could appreciate the extent to which the so-called building stable communities policyotherwise understood as homes for votesreached into almost all corners of the council, implicating councillors and officers in actions that were sometimes reminiscent of a cold war thriller.
Councillor Dimoldenberg and his colleagues may well have been suspected of a touch of paranoiathis was before I joined the councilwhen they alleged that homes for votes extended beyond merely keeping council houses empty for sale into policies that knowingly shifted homeless families into asbestos-ridden tower blocks and, ultimately, led to a campaign of dirty tricks against councillors and against tenants and community organisations perceived as hostile. Inquiry after inquiry, from the district auditor to the Barratt report, subsequently reported that, clearly, if anything, none of us was sufficiently paranoid to comprehend the scale of what was going on.
That is the important context, which explains why we remain sceptical of what we are told about the Porter affair and its legacyin this case, about Westminster council's commitment to recovering the debt owed to council tax payers, not least when Westminster's current leader, so different in many respects, none the less continues to refer to the woman from whom the council he leads is supposed to be collecting debts as a personal friend and to the vast apparatus of homes for votes as a "mistake".
"for the past year . . . I am sorry to tell you that I got a lot further than Westminster's lawyers investigating the matter . . . I offered to hand over my entire investigation and continue to develop the leads we had made. Did they want to know? No.
No wonder I was not as dismissive of that e-mail as I might have been under other circumstances, and nor was Councillor Dimoldenberg. Put simply, the trust we should, and normally would, place in the local authority has been comprehensively forfeited over the past 15 years and the road back has been long, slow and hesitant.
Even relatively recent events illustrate how reasonable it is that we should continue to regard with suspicion the council that Paul Dimoldenberg is accused of bringing into disrepute. For example, it continues to operate its own interpretation of the rules when it comes
1 Feb 2005 : Column 217WH
to standards. City solicitor Colin Wilson qualified the concept of confidentiality, when in an e-mail to council colleagues two weeks after the "Today" programme at the heart of the alleged confidentiality story, he said:
"I am not suggesting that you refuse him any and all confidential materials. Where Councillor Dimoldenberg is working constructively with the council, as he is on a number of issues, there may be no harm in giving him the material. On the other hand, where we are aware that he is opposing the City Council on an issue, and harm to the City Council interests could result from publication of the material he has asked for, we may need to refuse him notice".
The issue of confidentialitythe grounds for Councillor Dimoldenberg's referral to the Standards Boardis not the issue at stake at all. The issue at stake is simply determined by asking whose interests are being served. In other words, the situation is, "I inform, you brief and he leaks".
Peter Bradley : My hon. Friend has just read out a rather disturbing stream of consciousness from that senior officer. If he is right, who defines what a city council or any other local authority's interests are? Who defines what is in the public interest and what is harm? What is the role of opposition if it is not to oppose the council's policies with which it disagrees?
Nor was the instance that I mentioned the only one when representatives of Westminster council acted in such a way as to, at the very least, call into question the true nature of the campaign against Councillor Dimoldenberg. After the original referral to the Standards Board, the council's chief executive offered to withdraw the complaint. However, as an insurance policy, he asked Councillor Dimoldenberg to provide him with a signed, undated letter of resignation from the council, to be used whenever he considered that Councillor Dimoldenberg had breached the code of conduct.
"Effectively, a democratically elected councillor would have been serving at the whim of an unelected and, as far as the public is concerned, largely anonymous official. Such a situation would be a travesty of everything a democracy stands for. Given Councillor Dimoldenberg's reputation for integrity, it is mindboggling that anyone in authority really believed that such a seedy plan could ever succeed . . . This was a crude attempt to interfere with the democratic process".
So this is a council that spawned the largest and costliest gerrymandering exercise in local government historyone which cost the taxpayer many millions of pounds and caused considerable distress and misery. Many officials and councillors were identified as being complicit. They were aware of wrongdoing but not aware of their duty to stop it. Only two individuals were finally found guilty and subject to surcharge. Many of the same councillors involved in the Porter regime remained in office and were responsible for collecting Shirley Porter's £42 million surcharge. A year and half after the case was finally determined in the House of Lords, there were few signs of progress in recovering the debt.
1 Feb 2005 : Column 218WH
Yet, an opposition councillor who had exposed the wrongdoing and was wholly committed to the recovery of £42 million of taxpayers' money finds himself in the dock for attempting to move that recovery forward, even while senior council officers reveal their own, rather fluid interpretations of both confidentiality and accountability.
Celebrated humorist Tom Lehrer announced on the day Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize that he was giving up satire on the grounds that it was now redundant. While I express complete support for the principles of the Standards Board and for its staff, I am afraid that the referral of Councillor Dimoldenberg makes me feel the same way.
Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): I rise, first, to give the Chamber a short, if temporary, break from the affairs of Westminster city council, and secondly, because I want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) on this excellent but necessary example of post-legislative scrutinyin this case, of the legislation that set up the Standards Board. Before I tell my story, it is important to state that I was a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee for six years. Only one Member of Parliament has a longer record of service on it.
In May 2003, the Labour party lost control of High Peak borough council. Among the councillors who were elected then for the first time were two or three members of the Glossopdale Independent party, one of whom seems to be a fair-weather friend. Almost immediately, those councillors started using the council e-mail system to copy all members of the council and officers into copious amounts of correspondence. Much of it was unprofessional, much was personal and some was libellous and offensive. Some may even have been funny, but the joke soon wore off.
One of those councillors, Leslie WilcoxI stress that there are two councillors called Wilcox on High Peak borough council; I am talking about the one who represents Whitfield wardconsistently used the council e-mail system to belittle and undermine staff, and was rude to them over the telephone. He included large numbers of councillors and staff in his e-mails, often undermining the work of council officers in front of their juniors, instructing officers to do his bidding, expecting them to behave in an unreasonable manner and routinely accusing them of lying, plotting and secrecy, and copying his offensive and misplaced e-mails to the local press.
Over the months, the chief executive of the council and the reporting officer gave Councillor Wilcox verbal warnings about his offensive behaviour and his disregard for the code of conduct. Much of his attack was aimed at officers in the planning and development departments. It is widely believed that the attacks were a contributory factor in a number of unfortunate incidents. A senior director of one department has announced that he is taking early retirement earlier than originally planned. Another officer has been promoted to a job in another local authority, but the councillor's e-mails have followed him, undermining him in the eyes of his new employers, too. Another senior officer in the same department has had a heart attack, and yet
1 Feb 2005 : Column 219WH
another is considering legal action against the councillor after he publicly accused her of taking bribes. The level of stress-related absence in those departments has been increasing, and councillors have asked officers to record all examples of harassment and bullying.
So, after less than six months as a councillor, Leslie Wilcox was reported to the Standards Board following several encounters with senior officers who had attempted to alert him to the unacceptable nature of his behaviour and his need to stop. He was reported in late 2003. That action was supported not only by the Labour groupthe largest group on the councilbut by the ruling alliance of Conservative, Liberal and independent members.
In early 2004, the Standards Board took some 10 statements from councillors and officers in its investigation of some seven separate complaints that had been made against Leslie Wilcox. Then, in spring last year, everything went quiet, or at least it did so from the point of view of the Standards Board. Councillor Wilcox was continuing his campaign of harassment, offensive language and the belittling and undermining of councillors and especially officers.
In June, I wrote privately to the Standards Board, expressing concern about the time that it was taking to deal with the case. I discussed it not only with senior officers of the council, but with the independent chair of the standards committee of the council. My intervention was based on the fact that six months into the investigation, Councillor Wilcox's behaviour was as bad as ever, and no amount of internal warnings was curbing the abuse. I stress that I was not presenting any evidence to the Standards Board myself, or trying to influence the outcome of its deliberations; I was simply trying to get the report published, as the situation was going from bad to worse.
Also in June, the Standards Board chief executive, David Prince, apologised to me in writing for the fact that the investigation had taken so long. In September, the Standards Board told the independent chair of the standards committee of the council that its report was almost complete and would be presented in four weeks' time, at which point it would have to be decided whether to send the case to the national adjudication board for England, or to deal with it at local Standards Board level.
In November, the investigating officer from the Standards Board told High Peak borough council that the board appreciated the urgency of the situationat lastand that the draft report would be ready by
In December, the council withdrew the e-mail facility from Councillor Wilcox and another sometime member of the Glossopdale Independent party, because the level of abuse had grown even more intolerable. Throughout that time, however, the council continuedcorrectly, I believenot to refer cases involving the councillor to its own local standards committee, as it did not want that to prejudice the outcome of the Standards Board investigation.
On Boxing day, I was assured that publication of the draft report was imminent. That was more than a month ago, and we still have no report more than a year after the investigation commenced. Meanwhile, Councillor Wilcox has discovered that you do not need to be on the
1 Feb 2005 : Column 220WH
council's e-mail system to send abusive and disruptive e-mails to every council member and officer. Councillors have thick skins; like all politicians, they have to. However, we should not allow public servantscouncil officersto be subjected to such unacceptable behaviour by a councillor.
What is also unacceptable is the Standards Board's response to the case. Its tardiness has allowed a bad situation to get worse. By allowing this behaviour to continue for the best part of two years, it has brought itself into disrepute in High Peak. A bully continues their behaviour even when told not to. The way to combat a bully is not to roll over in front of them and pretend that they are not there, which is what the Standards Board gives every impression of having done in this case.
As a new councillor, Councillor Leslie Wilcox does not know and has never learned what it means to be in the privileged and responsible position of representing a ward. He does not know what it is to be a democrat and to work as a partner with other councillors and officers, and he will not be told. I am not asking my hon. Friend the Minister to adjudicate in this casethe facts speak for themselvesbut I want her to know that the Standards Board was initially seen by councillors and officers in High Peak as a friend of local democracy and the independent arbiter of what is acceptable behaviour. In this case, it was seen as a solution to an otherwise intractable problem. It is a necessary part of the regulation of public life, but there is a great danger that if it cannot act promptly and effectively in open-and-shut cases such as this one, it will not be seen that way in future. That is not good for democracy.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam): Order. The hon. Gentleman used the word "you", which refers to me. I assure the Chamber that I have never sent abusive or insulting e-mails to any member of High Peak or any other council, although I will not pretend that there have not been occasions when I might have thought about it.
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) on securing this timely debate. Both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) referred to our common history over many years of struggle on Westminster council. Our experiences from those days show the need for a better system of investigating complaints of misconduct. Were it not for the persistence of a relatively tightin the sense of working togethergroup of Labour councillors, backed by a number of determined people working in the Labour party, combined with the persistence and professionalism of a district auditor second to none, John Magill, I doubt we would have exposed those activities. Almost 20 years later we still have not seen the end of the story in that complaints still remain to be dealt with. I find it bizarre that Dame Shirley Porter, who was awarded her damehood for services to local government, still has that award whereas John Magill goes unrecognised.
After my experiences in Westminster, I was elected to this House and now have the privilege to serve as a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee.
1 Feb 2005 : Column 221WH
Those two factors give me an insight into different methods of dealing with particular problems. We need a system that is proportionate and exercises a degree of common sense, fairness and justicejustice delayed is justice not done. Only that way can we have a system that inspires confidence in the public and the people subject to it. Having seen the regimes of two Parliamentary Commissioners for StandardsSir Philip Mawer and his predecessorI have seen how the systems can change and develop for the better. In Sir Philip Mawer, we have a good public servant with a common-sense and fair approach to dealing with matters.
We have an effective way of dealing with mischievous and de minimus complaints, a procedure to correct minor errors, and clear advice and warnings against tit-for-tat allegations. I was the subject of a tit-for-tat allegation in the run-up to the last election. A bogus complaint was timed specifically to screw up my election campaign, but mercifully did not because of delays to the election caused by foot and mouth disease. Therefore, I can speak at first hand in saying that, even if it is a bogus complaint that is dealt with in a matter of two or three weeks, it imposes strain. The intensity of the pressure that it puts one under, the fears for the future and the sheer amount of time that it takes to deal with such complaints are very disconcerting. It does not bear thinking about that some of our councillors are under that pressure, sometimes for years.
We on the Standards and Privileges Committee deal with inquiries very quicklyin weeks, at most, unless the case is very serious, or if the person complained against does not co-operate with the inquiry. That is a better way of doing things. The fact that the work of the commissioner is subject to parliamentary scrutiny, with regular reports to us on progress, is an important check on the system.
We need to be aware of the impact on public life if we do not get those systems right. How can we expect people to devote many hours of servicewhen I was a councillor it was effectively unpaid service; now people are paid, although not wellto their local communities if the potential shadow of unfounded allegations takes so long to resolve? We need to find a degree of balance. I welcome the Standards Board's involvement.
I do not want to say a great deal about the case of Councillor Paul Dimoldenbergit has been amply described by my two hon. Friends. However, I will say this about the case. Councillor Dimoldenberg is charged with bringing Westminster council into disrepute, which assumes that it has a reputation to bring into disrepute in the first place. Looking back over those days, I think that the reputation of Westminster council is probably the worst in local government, and rightly so.
I was elected, with Councillor Dimoldenberg, to Westminster council in 1982. I served with him as a councillor for many years, and he has been a personal friend for almost 25 years. I have never come across anyone who is so dedicated to serving his local community, without fear or favour, so determined to stand up for what he believes in, or of such great integrity as Councillor Dimoldenberg. To see him
1 Feb 2005 : Column 222WH
dragged before the Standards Board in that appalling and shameful way, while others go unscathed, is a real blot on our public life.
Councillor Simon Milton and Councillor Robert Davis, two leading lights in the Conservative party on Westminster council, met Dame Shirley Porter for dinner in Israel in June 2001, at a time when the allegations were still being investigated and when the council was trying to get its money back. Even now, Councillor Milton refers to Dame Shirley Porter as a personal friend. I find it utterly appalling that no criticism has been made of them by anyone in authority.
I also find it bizarre that, after all we now know about Westminster council, the Conservative party has still not had the decency to apologise for what occurred under Dame Shirley Porter's regime. That is despite numerous assurances from the then leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister, John Major, and others, that an apology would be forthcoming if a case was found against her.
I have moved on, and now represent a constituency in Barnet. I should like to give two examples from Barnet. The first was of an unjustified complaint made in September 2002 against the then Councillor Alan Williams, who was leader of the Labour group and former leader of the council. He was reported to the Standards Board by the chief executive, whom he had criticised in the heat of debate in a council meeting. In council meetings, as in the House, we may often get carried away and say things that we regret. On that occasion, the chief executive was perhaps over-sensitive to criticism, and reported Councillor Williams. Some months later, Councillor Williams was interviewed by a junior Standards Board officer in what I can only describe as the star chamber approach; he was given no detail of the complaint against him or the evidence that he had to counter. We have experienced that problem in the House. Under previous regimes, when complaints were brought before the Standards and Privileges Committee, people were interviewed and cross-examined without knowing the case that they had to answer. That is neither fair nor natural justiceit is simply wrong. Councillor Williams was eventually cleared, some 10 months after the complaint was made; the complaint, which was in itself quite trivial, was dismissed.
That example calls into question the relationship between officers and members. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) referred to one aspect of that relationship. It is important that the right balance between officers and members is preserved. If officers think that they are going to have the whip hand over members, that can unfairly alter that balance. The best example of that was given by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North, when she described the appalling behaviour of the chief executive of Westminster, in demanding an unsigned resignation letter from Councillor Dimoldenberg to keep in his back pocket as some sort of lever over him for the future. If anybody should be investigated by the Standards Board, it is the chief executive who expects that from an elected member in those circumstances.
The other case to which I want to refer is that of former councillor Alan Sloam. Looking at his case from
1 Feb 2005 : Column 223WH
the opposite point of view, he was reportedin my opinion, correctlyfor very serious misconduct in August 2003 over attempts to fix parking tickets. The evidence was clear and, as far as I can see, uncontested, but it took until June 2004 for his case to be determined and for him to be disqualified. He then appealed to the High Court; the appeal was heard last week and was dismissed. The borough solicitor will not yet call a by-election to replace former councillor Sloam until the time limit for appeal to the Court of Appeal has expired. Going back to the restraints of sub judice mentioned earlier, that case is not sub judice because no appeal has yet been entered. However, from June 2004 to today, the electors of Colindale ward in my constituency have been one councillor light, and that looks as if it will continue for several more weeks. That cannot be fair to the other two councillors in that ward, who are having to carry a substantial extra work load in a large and demanding ward until a replacement can be elected. It is wrong that for nine months, a ward can be unrepresented in such circumstances. We can argue about the reasons for that, but ultimately, one of the arguments is whether the Standards Board is properly resourced in the first place to enable it to conduct inquiries promptly and effectively.
There has to be a procedure to get rid of the silly cases quickly and informally, as Sir Philip Mawer does. Many such cases are simply not reported to the House because they are so trivial: at every Committee meeting, several cases are dismissed because there is nothing in them. However, there must be a clearing of the decks to allow serious cases to be investigated promptly and properly and with a degree of professionalism. I question whether, from what I have seen of it, the Standards Board has the determination to investigate cases such as that of Lady Porter, or whether it has people of the calibre of a senior partner of Touche Ross. John Magill was backed up by the Touche Ross team, which devoted a lot of resources to investigating that case, and it is doubtful whether the Standards Board would ever have got to the bottom of the Lady Porter saga. We must operate with a degree of common sense, which is currently lacking.
The other thing that must be done is to recognise that the role of the Standards Board, as with our own Standards and Privileges Committee, is not just to punish the wrongdoer but to promote good practice. We hear far too little about efforts to promote good practice in local government, to raise standards, and to explain to people what they have to do to avoid getting into a mess in the first place. In this House, we have got much better at advising people what the rules and pitfalls are, and how to avoid getting into trouble. More of that needs to be done in local government.
Mr. Dismore : I forget where I had got to. I think I was summing up by saying that we need a Standards Board that shows proportionality and common sense, and operates quickly and effectively, because justice delayed is justice denied. It is only through such a process that we can ensure that we have a system that inspires confidence in both those who are subject to its regime and the general public.
Matthew Green (Ludlow) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley), one of my near neighbours in constituency terms, on securing the debate and on his excellent speech. He made good recommendations about changes that should be made to the Standards Board and, more importantly, to the code of conduct that it is working towards. We also heard excellent speeches from the hon. Members for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), for High Peak (Tom Levitt) and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). I shall deliberately stay well away from the issue of Westminster. I would not dare to tread on those subjects.
Rather than go over some of the points that have been made, I want to raise a few additional concerns. Some are already being addressedat least they will be if the Government accept the 10th report of the Committee on Standards in Public Lifeand others have yet to be addressed. To put the problem in context, out of all the Members present I probably have the most councillors in my constituency. There are 81 parish and town councils in my constituency, and two district councils and a county council cover the area. Around 750 of my 63,000 constituents are councillors, so there is a councillor for about every 900 constituents. The Standards Board probably affects my constituents disproportionately.
As a result of the setting up of the Standards Board and the way it has operated, despite some improvements, some good councillors have decided not to continue even though its investigations have since found them not guilty. That includes councillors from all parties in my patch, people like Robin Bennett, a Labour town councillor, and Alison Cundall, a Liberal Democrat councillor, who were both subsequently found to have nothing to answer. For them it was pretty near the final straw and they stepped down from the council. They were not alone in doing so.
All political parties have difficulty persuading people to come forward to stand for elections, and this is an added problem. One set of elections that we can be certain will be on 5 May is the council elections. We know from talking to people and asking them whether they will stand for election that the issue of the Standards Board is in the mind of potential candidates. It puts some of them off. The publicity surrounding the Standards Board is driving people away.
That is typical of the mood of councillors in the dozen or so cases that I have heard about. They are only a small proportion of the councillors in my constituency who have been affected. Third parties can also be damaged by the publicity. The Standards Board can hold hearings in public. In one case, despite the fact that it was found that the two councillors had no case to answer, the private details of a third party were mentioned by one of the solicitors. The Standards Board could not stop the press reporting the details of a proposed financial settlement, and the party in question has no recourse.
"The press were told about my reporting immediately. Confidential letters sent to me and the person who reported me were in the press immediately and when I protested to SBE I was told that they had no control system. However, the actual complaint letter had the name tippexed out. It is thus clear that anyone may make an allegation, with impunity, and put that accusation in the press. I am aware of the national debate about the famous, but at local level, it is a destructive situation."
That has been the effect. The situation paralysed Ludlow town council for a couple of years, although it no longer does so. Numerous complaints were made, mostly against councillors by other councillors; there was a tit-for-tat element. That paralysing effect on councils goes to the heart of some of the problems, and highlights the need to speed up the process and keep it more local. Some of the reforms may be moving in that direction.
Another Labour town councillor from a different part of my constituency came to me for help. He had declared an interest on a planning application, but wrote letters to his fellow councillors. He was subsequently found not guilty of having breached any code of conduct. I took up his case. Part of the problem was that the legal advice that the town council works from is that of the district council officer. There can be different standards of advice from different officers. I have two district councils in my area, and their officers give two completely different interpretations as to what should be reported. An officer who is overly cautious or overly zealousdepending on one's point of viewabout suggesting that things be reported can paralyse a local council.
"The officers of SBE displayed a level of ignorance about the rules and workings on government (especially about the division of duties and responsibilities in an area where there are three tier councils)".
Part of the problem is that the Standards Board has people who investigate on the one hand in, say, Birmingham, where there might be a ward of 24,000
1 Feb 2005 : Column 226WH
electors and three councillors, and on the other hand in parish councils of 500 people represented by nine councillors, as in my part of the world. There are big differences.
There is also the problem of the cost that councillors face. Let me offer a typical example, not from my constituency but from Salisbury. A councillor incurred £2,250 in legal costs to clear his name, and although he won his case he cannot claim for any of those costs, unlike in the normal legal process.
There are a number of other problems. My part of the country typically has single-member wards. One of the most disturbing things about the process has been the way that local councillors are prevented from speaking on a local issue, because they are deemed to have a prejudicialnot usually a financialinterest. Recommendation R28 in the tenth report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life deals with that, and I hope that the Government tackle it. If that recommendation had been in place, one of the hardest working independent district councillors in my constituency, Madge Shineton, would not have been found by the Standards Board to have wronged when she spoke at a planning meeting on behalf of her constituents who were trying to stop a pub being closed. She was found to be in breach and was barred from the council for six months. The people who really lost out were her constituents because there was no ward councillor for six months. I should add that there are not normally elections in that ward because all the political parties think so highly of Madge Shineton that we would hardly even consider standing against her, and yet she is the only person to have been found to have been in breach. The recommendation would have cleared her.
I am glad that the recommendations have been made, but they should go further. The relaxation in the recommendations of the tenth report will go some way to tackling another issue, which has been touched onthat of officers using the existence of the Standards Board and the code of conduct to pressurise councillors. It happens rarely, but it does happen. I know of cases; I do not particularly want to talk about them. A relaxation of the code and a more effective investigation system would tackle those problems.
Peter Bradley : This case probably pre-dates the introduction of the Standards Board, but the hon. Gentleman will know of, and I hope share my respect for, the former chief executive of Bridgnorth council, who was grievously wronged over an extended period by allegations made against her by elected members. The hon. Gentleman is right: just as elected members need to be protected against officers when they err from the straight and narrow, it is important that the Standards Board also protects the integrity and best interests of officers who do not always have the opportunity to defend themselves.
Matthew Green : I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The case that he cites is well known in the area; it slightly pre-dates the Standards Board. There were some tit-for-tat allegations that beset Bridgnorth council for several
1 Feb 2005 : Column 227WH
years, but they were dealt with effectively because they were dealt with locally. The allegations stopped immediately when one councillor, who I will not name, retired from the council. That is an interesting answer. There would have been a much bigger problem with the Standards Board in place, because it would continually have tied up everyone's time.
I finish by saying that the best way to ensure that local government is clean is to make certain that as much information as possible reaches the public, because if members of the public do not like the way a councillor behaves, they can throw them out. Too much of the Standards Board's time is taken up investigating conduct rather than misbehaviour. If a councillor is displaying appalling conduct, and they are abusing the electorate, as is sometimes the case, the answer lies in the ballot box. However, the Government might want to consider asking the larger councilsunitary authorities and county councilsto record their meetings. Something that keeps this House on the straight and narrow is the fact that what we say is recorded and published. If we say something that goes too far, there is a fair chance that another political party will publish it in a leaflet and use it against us. That is a very effective tool, which is not available to councils because what they say is not recorded.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): I found that last speech very distressing, largely because I agree with just about everything that the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) said. It is not good for me to find myself agreeing with Liberal Democrats. However, after years of Liberal neglect, one can now watch Brentwood council on the internet and every word is recorded.
This has been a most interesting debate, not least because it has given hon. Members, and students of constitutional history, a tutorial on the use of parliamentary privilege. Councillor Wilcox of High Peak will have something to chew over besides his cornflakes when he picks up his morning copy of Hansard. The man may have redeeming features, but, sadly, because of lack of parliamentary time, his Member of Parliament was not able to give us any of them.
Tom Levitt : I appreciate the sentiment with which the hon. Gentleman made that remark, but for the record I repeat that there are two councillors named Wilcox in the borough of High Peak and the other is a fine, upstanding member of the community.
"it is possible for the Committee to conclude on the evidence it has received that despite incidences of corruption and misbehaviour, the vast majority of councillors and officers observe high standards of conduct."
With some regret, I have to say that the Standards Board has become the problem, not the solution. It is damaging to the reputation and standing of local government and wastes taxpayers' money on frivolous and malicious complaints. It has done much to undermine confidence in councils and councillors. My party plans to abolish the Standards Board and, if time permits, I shall say what we will replace it with. There can be no doubt that the board is being used for partisan, malicious reasons. We have heard some very good examples of that, which I shall not repeat.
The Local Government Chronicle noted that just over 200 of 3,122 complaints made between March and April last year resulted in action being taken against councils. There remains a serious issue for the board in how it discriminates between legitimate and illegitimate public concerns.
Mr. Pickles : As I was saying, this is a charter for the disgruntled and the grudge bearer, against which there is no redress, unlike in the criminal and civil courts. Malicious complaints can be submitted that place a candidate or political party under a cloud of suspicion before they are cleared. We heard examples of that earlier today. We all know that mud sticks and reputations are ruined by dirty tricks. However, what makes matters worse is that the Standards Board refuses to publish the names of people or organisations that make the allegations, due to data protection legislation.
The Standards Board has a deserved reputation for dragging its feet with complaints. I shall give one example of how councillors appear to be guilty until they are proved innocent. One complaint against six Liberal Democrat councillors in Islington has taken more than two and a half years. I checked with colleagues before we resumed and that case is still going on, but it is unacceptable that it should be hanging over councillors for such a long time. As Sir Alistair Graham, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, who has been quoted already, has said:
He says that that appears to be compounded by some abuses of the complaints system for purely political or personal motives and it is often successful abuse, given the time taken to complete the investigations. We have heard various references to that committee's findings and I endorse its view with regard to proportionality.
1 Feb 2005 : Column 229WH
The Standards Board spends far too much of its time considering relatively trivial things. I also agree with the recommendation on culture, which says that local investigation is withering on the vine.
"Local government is far more constrained by rules governing conduct than any other part of the public sector we have examined. It is therefore ironic, but not at all surprising, that despite the profusion of rules, the lack of clarity about standards has grown."
In a way, that body is beginning to have an impact on representative democracy. Unless we are careful, we will end up with the local delivery and management of services without a democratic element included.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life report suggests that the Standards Board should be transformed into a more strategic regulator and goes on to explain why. The good old strategic role is in many ways the outer circle of hell for many organisations that have outlived their usefulness and are heading towards the door marked "Exit". Once people have achieved nothing much, they are made strategic and after a few years they are got rid of.
Much reference has been made to parish councils. It has to be noted that nearly two fifths of parish and town councils do not attract sufficient candidates to fill their available seats, there has been a decline in the number of contested parish council elections over the past decade, there is a great problem finding candidates and the situation is worse. People might not have left en masse, but there has been an exodus of a slightly more disguised nature: people are not seeking re-election.
That is why we believe that the Standards Board should be abolished, and we shall do that in our first month in office. We shall seek to repeal the secondary legislation within the first year. District auditors will continue to play their role in investigating financial impropriety in local government and the local ombudsman will continue to investigate complaints made by the public about administrative failures. The police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts will take the lead in investigating and prosecuting any breaches of criminal law.
Existing civil law will cover such issues as libel and slander by councillors. We will repeal the codes of conduct for councils and replace them with light-touch advice on declaring personal and prejudicial issues. That will ensure that there is a simpler, straightforward transparency in the conduct of councillors.
What should the sanctions be? If councillors do not meet the highest standards of conduct, which the electorate expect of them, the electorate will take the opportunity to vote them out of office through the ballot box. Alternatively, the councillor may choose not to present themselves again for public office or the political parties may choose not to sponsor that candidate for election.
Mr. Pickles : Let me make a final point before I give way. It seems to me that this should be about the big
1 Feb 2005 : Column 230WH
things: financial corruption and the misuse of public resources. It should not be about using these itsy-bitsy things to get even with the council.
Mr. Dismore : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and follow on from his last point with regard to Westminster council. He just referred to the importance of political parties taking responsibility for their people. Will he take this opportunityone of many given to the Conservative partyfinally to apologise for what Dame Shirley Porter did during her regime at Westminster council?
Mr. Pickles : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. At times, I have felt as if I were part of some elaborate Friends Reunited meeting of ex-Westminster councillors. The record shows that I defended Dame Shirley in this House, believing that she had a right to the presumption of innocence until she was proved guilty. I am happy, but sad also, to don the necessary sackcloth and ashes and recognise that what she did in Westminster was unacceptable. I support the current leadership of Westminster council in its pursuit of her to get back the necessary sums of money. It is a great shameDame Shirley had many things going for herbut justice has been gone through and a decision reached. I do not seek in any way to bow away or back-pedal from that. I hope that my response is sufficiently robust for the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Pickles : I rather think that that is what I have given. Does the hon. Gentleman want me to abase myself further? I deeply regret what happened in Westminster, although I cannot take personal responsibility. My party supports the current leadership of Westminster council in pursuing Dame Shirley and getting those sums of money back. I have gone as far as it is reasonable to expect me to go.
Perhaps I should make one final point. What caught Dame Shirley was not the Standards Board, but existing, robust procedures to ensure standards. They have been replaced by a system in which members and officers can hide behind the petty regulations of the Standards Board. It is certainly my view that this odious, useless and pointless bodyit has achieved virtually nothing, is toothless in its desire and has spent an awful lot of moneyshould be wound up without further ado. However, I look forward to the Minister's explanation of how necessary the board is until it becomes strategic.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Yvette Cooper) : I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) for the opportunity to discuss the work of the Standards Board for England. The board's role is to conduct important work, helping to maintain the highest standards of public conduct for local authority members. I want to address some specific points that hon. Members have made; although they will recognise that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on many of the individual cases that have been raised, I do want to respond on some of the principles that have been discussed.
1 Feb 2005 : Column 231WH
Clearly, promoting high standards of behaviour among councillors and elected representatives is an important objective for the Government. We know that many men and women devote their time and energy to the service of their communities. The vast majority of people elected to serve as local authority members already observe the highest standards of conductas indeed do the officials who support them. The strength of local democracy and the delivery of effective services depend very much on elected members' commitment and willingness to serve. We are lucky in this country to have high standards of probity, accountability and objectivity in our local political traditions.
However, we cannot disguise the fact that failings do occur from time to time. There have been cases, albeit rare, where elected members have fallen short of the conduct that is expected of them. That kind of misconduct not only harms the community that members are elected to serve, but can damage the wider reputation of local government and undermine the public's trust and confidence in the system as a whole.That is why an ethical framework is so important. In the Local Government Act 2000, a new framework was introduced to promote high standards of ethical behaviour. After a period to allow people to adjust, it is increasingly accepted by the local authority world as an integral part of public life. It aims to provide clarity about what constitutes acceptable standards of conduct; a fair and effective means of investigating allegations of misconduct; and a regime for response.
In November 2001, following consultation, the Government laid before Parliament a set of model codes of conduct, drawing on a set of principles of public life and laying down the conduct expected of members. From May 2002, the provisions of the code have applied to all councillors. This means that any allegations that the code has been breached can be reported to the Standards Board for England, which can decide whether to investigate. Some changes have already been made; regulations have now enabled ethical standards officers to refer less serious cases for investigation by local monitoring officers and the determination of cases by standards committees. This enables cases to be dealt with locally where this is the most appropriate level.
Hon. Members have raised a series of detailed points and concerns about the operation of the code. This is the right time to review the code. We have had the Graham report, which hon. Members referred to. We know, too, that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Committee is looking at the code and issues around it at present. The Standards Board will shortly go out to consultation on a review of the entire code. I will ensure that the issues raised in the debate are passed on and considered as part of that review. However, I want to address a couple of specific points that have been raised.
First, I wish to respond to a point raised by several hon. Membersnotably my hon. Friends the Members for The Wrekin, for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore)who expressed concerns about the issue of confidentiality and the way in which it is addressed. There is an issue about the relationship between the code and the Freedom of Information Act 2000. We need to ensure that the code reflects the introduction of that Act and operates clearly in line with it. The code of conduct was set out in 2001 in advance of the implementation of the
1 Feb 2005 : Column 232WH
Act. It makes it clear that members must not disclose confidential information, but it does not refer to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 nor does it refer to a public interest defence.
However, the Freedom of Information Act is clear about the importance of public interest and sets out what sort of information must continue to be confidential or exempt and what sort needs to be weighed against a public interest test. We must ensure that the code operates fully in line with the Freedom of Information Act. We clearly do not want to have a situation where, in theory, a councillor can be criticised under the code for releasing information that the Act says should be made public. Clearly, that would be unsatisfactory and unfair, not only for the councillor but for the public.
The Standards Board has already recognised such matters and is concerned about them. Ethical standards officers are expected to consider whether the information was properly confidential, perhaps under the Data Protection Act 1998 or other legislation, or whether it had been designated confidential out of expediency. Ethical standards officers are also trained in the Freedom of Information Act. So, in effect, there is an implicit public interest test on a case-by-case basis. However, in such circumstances it is important that consideration of such issues should be fully transparent and that councillors and the public know exactly where they stand and how questions of confidentiality and of the public interest will be assessed.
The Standards Board will therefore soon be consulting, as part of its complete review of the code, on whether and how that part of the code should be amended to deal specifically with the relationship between the code and the Freedom of Information Act and the way in which the public interest should be addressed. It will be asking specifically for views on issues such as whistleblowing, including the case for a public interest defence.
Peter Bradley : I am encouraged by what my hon. Friend has said. She has given a positive response to the points that have been made. However, how does it leave those who are subject to investigation under the current code, if the code were imminently to be revised because of the anomalies?
Yvette Cooper : As I said, ethical standards officers are already expected to be trained in the Freedom of Information Act and to consider whether the information is properly confidential. It is obviously a matter for the panel and the tribunals to take their decisions on individual cases, so we must make such issues explicit, but clearly freedom of information matters are already considered.
My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) referred to vexatious complaints. So far the board has decided that less than a third of allegations have required investigation. It will be consulting specifically on whether further action should be taken in respect of vexatious complaints. For example, it has been asked whether it should be a breach of the code to knowingly make false complaints under the code. Hon. Members have raised several other issues to which I have not had time to respond.
Tom Levitt : My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) raised the subject of vexatious
1 Feb 2005 : Column 233WH
complaints. My worry is that the decision whether the case that I mentioned should be adjudicated nationally or locally still has not been made, 15 months since the complaint was made.
Yvette Cooper : On my hon. Friend's specific point, the board's target is to meet 90 per cent. of investigations within six months. I will ask the chief executive and the chair of the Standards Board to contact him about that individual case. Obviously, I do not know the details of it, but he must know what is happening with the case and the reason for the time that it has taken.
It is important that we now review the code. Equally, we should recognise the important work of the Standards Board. It would be a completely retrograde step to try to abolish the board at this time. Given the importance of high standards in public life, the Conservative party is wrong to try to abolish it, especially given the history of the issue and the importance of preventing problems such as those that have occurred in local governmentin Westminster council and elsewhereand the importance of ensuring that we have appropriate high standards throughout the country and that they can be maintained. Furthermore, we want confidence to be maintained in those standards. That is the reason for the Standards Board and the code of conduct.