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Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)

6 DECEMBER 2004

MS CLAER LLOYD-JONES, MR GORDON MUSSETT AND MR MIRZA AHMAD

  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 City Council

  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 to questions.

  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 happening?

  Mr Mussett: I will answer, if I may.

  Q4 Chairman: Yes—and 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 councillors—which 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 complain—as they did in the past, but they can   carry it further—with 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 on that.

  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 time?

  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 remit—in fact the major remit of local standards committees—is 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 employees.

  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 start—and 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 officers—should 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 the individual.

  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.


 
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