Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)|
6 DECEMBER 2004
Q1 Chairman: Good afternoon. Welcome
to the first session of this Urban Affairs Sub-Committee's inquiry
into the Role and Effectiveness of the Standards Board for England.
Could I welcome the witnesses and ask you to give your names for
the record, please.
Mr Ahmad: Thank you, Chairman.
I am Mirza Ahmad. I am the Chief Legal Officer for Birmingham
Ms Lloyd-Jones: Claer Lloyd-Jones.
I am the Director of Law and Democratic Services at the London
Borough of Hackney.
Mr Mussett: Gordon Mussett, I
am Town Clerk for Haverhill Town Council.
Q2 Chairman: Good afternoon and welcome.
Would any of you like to make an opening statement or are you
happy to go straight to questions?
Mr Ahmad: Happy to go straight
Q3 Mr O'Brien: It has been argued that
introduction of a written Code of Conduct has given an opportunity
for troublemakers to achieve political gain. Do you believe the
Standards Board for England as worked hard enough to prevent this
Mr Mussett: I will answer, if
Q4 Chairman: Yesand I should just
say that if you agree amongst yourselves you do not have to repeat
what other speakers have previously said.
Mr Mussett: I will answer for
my authority. Certainly the Standards Board would seem to have
been not as prepared as it might have been to deal with vexatious
people who were out to score points. Other organisations have
had experience of how to handle these people who submit multiple
complaints and I believe the Standards Board perhaps did not take
on board the experience of those other organisations.
Ms Lloyd-Jones: Certainly the
proposal that Hackney favours, which is that there should be a
local filtering mechanism before complaints go to the Standards
Board, would allow local experience and knowledge of where there
are serial or vexatious complainants to be weeded out at a very
early stage by those within the authority who do have experience
of handling complaints, either through the council's complaint
system or to the ombudsman, or even complaints against councillorswhich
of course we used to have a jurisdiction to deal with previously.
Mr Ahmad: It is the same from
my perspective, Chairman. The issue is one of ethics across the
board. Where there are open and transparent arrangements in place,
individuals will use the opportunity to test the system and obviously
to see whether or not the complaints are followed through. I think
it is right to say that the Standards Board for England has struggled
with the earlier years to weed out those frivolous and vexatious
complaints to the extent that it should.
Q5 Mr O'Brien: Do you think the aims
and objectives of the Standards Board: confidence in local democracy
and governance, have been achieved?
Mr Ahmad: From my perspective
and Birmingham City Council's perspective, I think it has achieved
a fair amount of that confidence in local governance. I must,
however, emphasise that that does not mean confidence in local
governance was at a low level. I think generally confidence in
local governance was high, but the independent aspect of the Standards
Board of course has helped.
Q6 Sir Paul Beresford: This whole procedure
has allowed the nutters which every areas has to sit there and
complainas they did in the past, but they can carry
it furtherwith vendettas between individuals, be they elected
or non-elected or against elected. Really the Standards Board
should be acting on these people more strictly than they are,
should it not?
Ms Lloyd-Jones: I do not have
any experience of frivolous or vexatious complaints that have
been made either directly to the authority or to the Standards
Board in relation to Hackney members recently so I cannot comment
Q7 Sir Paul Beresford: You must live
in a unique area.
Ms Lloyd-Jones: I think there
is a problem with the extreme delay that there has been in the
first stage of the complaint process being fed back to local authorities.
Therefore the local knowledge that we have, if it is a frivolous
or vexatious complaint, cannot be fed into the complaint system
sufficiently early in the process. I would also add in relation
to your previous comment about the remit of the board that it
is confidence in local democracy that we are looking at and therefore
there does need to be a local dimension and there does need to
be local input into the management of ethical framework locally.
It is important that here is a national body which can lead and
influence the way it is interpreted locally.
Q8 Mr O'Brien: Do you consider that local
democracy and governance are being achieved at this moment in
Ms Lloyd-Jones: I do not think
the Standards Board or even a local standards committee by itself
can achieve that. I think, with respect, you may be concentrating
too much on the issue of complaints' handling, whereas in fact
the other half of the board's remitin fact the major remit
of local standards committeesis to deal with training,
is to deal with giving guidance, issuing protocols and so on,
in terms of leading local authorities to a norm of high ethical
standards and good behaviour both by councillors and by local
Q9 Mr O'Brien: Taking into consideration
training and lecturing, are we achieving democracy and governance
at a high standard?
Mr Mussett: You must see it as
a journey: you are not at the terminus, you are some way down
the road, and by the time we have the next round of local government
elections experience will be there and you will be closer to it
than you were when it was first introduced.
Q10 Christine Russell: Could I move on
to ask you about the impact of the establishment of the Standards
Board on town and parish councils. In particular, what problems
have parish councils had in interpreting the regulations and dealing
with the regulations?
Mr Mussett: The introduction of
the code was widely accepted but there were a number of parish
councils who felt they did not need to be adopting the code because
they were already adhering to good practice. Certainly there were
a number of parish councils which failed to sign up to the code
within the time scale.
Q11 Christine Russell: I do not now how
extensive your experience of parish councils is but in the past
parish councils have very much been a law unto themselves, not
wishing to be controlled or regulated by anyone.
Mr Mussett: I think there was
perhaps some degree of that, and the audit and accounts regulations
which preceded this code had been another instance where there
had been resistance.
Q12 Christine Russell: Do you think again
from your experience, that the Standards Board recognises the
difficulties that some parish councils have had with the welter
of regulations they now have to adhere to?
Mr Mussett: It is not just the
Standards Board alone; I think the Government in totality has
a problem in communicating its regulations down to parish council
level. As far as the Standards Board is concerned, a lot of the
onus for delivering guidance falls upon the clerk and the clerk
in many parish councils operates out of their own house for two,
three, four hours a week, and you have to recognise that you have
the variation between the part-time clerk, who is overwhelmed
with new legislation and changes to legislation, as distinct from
a county council, say, where there is a wealth of people who can
work on the regulations and analyse them.
Q13 Christine Russell: What explanation
would you give other than the workload of the clerks for the fact
that proportionately the volume of complaints has been far heavier
from parish councils than from other local authorities?
Mr Mussett: Some of it is to do
with training. I can speak within Suffolk and within Essex: although
the local associations of councils provided training, not all
councils took up that opportunity, so within any one parish the
number of councillors who have been trained in the code is remarkably
few. The other aspect of course is that parish and town councillors
tend, in the main, to be non-politically aligned, so they do not
have the back-up experience that a member of a political party
might get, such as if they were a member of a borough council
or a county council.
Q14 Christine Russell: Is that another
way of saying they are remarkably inconsistent in their views?
Mr Mussett: I think it is another
way of saying sometimes the political parties may have the opportunity
to provide training and give experience to their councillors,
but independent councillors, particularly at parish level, tend
not to have access to that opportunity.
Q15 Christine Russell: In your experience
of parish councils in and around Suffolk and Essex, do you think
the introduction of the Code of Practice is going to make it more
difficult not only to recruit clerks but also to encourage people
to stand for election to parish councils?
Mr Mussett: Once the problem that
we have encountered with frivolous and vexatious complaints can
be eliminated, then there will be no problem in recruitment of
parish councillors. The code will not present any problems in
terms of recruitment of parish councillors. It is more difficult
to operate within the code at a parish council level, because
in a very small village the chair of the parish council is very
often on the church council, they are very often the leader of
the WI in the village, and they are very often on the village
hall management committee, and all those things mean that there
is a lot of declaring of interests and exiting themselves from
the meetings. So it does make the day-to-day operation of a parish
council difficult in some circumstances.
Q16 Andrew Bennett: If I may come on
to the role of the council officers, do you think as a principle
that if someone makes a complaint the council officers should
know that they have been complained about?
Mr Ahmad: This is where the complaint
is from a council employee rather than
Q17 Andrew Bennett: As far as I am concerned,
it is where anyone has made a complaint. It seems to me that if
someone makes a complaint about the way in which something has
been done by a council or an individual officer, it ought to be
almost like natural justice, that the person who is complained
about should know the Standards Board is investigating.
Mr Ahmad: I think there is a mixed
view, if I may startand I know Claer has a view on this.
Clearly lots of complaints procedures involve preliminary investigation
without necessarily causing any anxiety to the person complained
against, so there is a logic in terms of why people would not
necessarily tell somebody that they have been complained against
in the first stage. However, I think there comes a time when you
say, "There is sufficient evidence here that the person who
has been complained against ought to know"which is
why I sought the clarification in terms of officersshould
the monitoring officer or the chief executive, as Head of Paid
Service, know about that scenario. I think there is a relationship
issue between the Standards Board and the monitoring officer when
they have received a complaint and it is sufficiently developed
that they are going to be looking at it at a serious level, then
the monitoring officer should be told about the complaint.
Q18 Andrew Bennett: The monitoring officer
but not the individual who has been complained about?
Mr Ahmad: I am sorry, the individual
as well should be told at that time.
Q19 Andrew Bennett: And if it is going
to be dismissed as frivolous, you do not see any need to tell
Mr Ahmad: In terms of best practice,
I think you will find there are quite a few national codes which
follow that similar model and I, as a member of the Bar, have
a similar provision there as well.
Ms Lloyd-Jones: If I could add
that I think it is absolutely vital that the monitoring officer
is aware as early as possible about complaints because there may
well be action which the authority needs to take which is not
just to do with the investigation of the complaint. It may be,
for example, that in a case of breach of confidentiality or misuse
of resources or some such, there is administrative action which
the monitoring officer, in compliance with our duties to uphold
legal principles and so on and best practices in administration,
would need to take some steps on, which would not interfere with
the legitimate investigation of the complaint subsequently but
which would safeguard the councillor's position in those circumstances.