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The framework indicates the high standards that are expected and requires an explicit commitment to them. Let me remind the House that the most significant provisions of the ethical regime were: the introduction of new statutory codes of conduct; the establishment in
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each authority of a standards committee to provide support and guidance to members on the requirements of their local code; and the creation of what was then a new body, the Standards Board for England, to promote high standards nationally and to investigate alleged breaches of the code in an independent and consistent manner.

The codes of conduct set out the conduct that is expected of members and provide a sensible framework for handling personal interests which should ensure that, providing that they have no prejudicial interests, councillors can take part in discussions and decisions and so represent their electors to the best of their ability. From May 2002, the provisions of the codes have applied to all councillors, and any allegations that the code has been breached can be reported to the Standards Board, which can then decide whether to investigate.

The model codes provide that members have a prejudicial interest in a matter if, as the hon. Gentleman said, the interest is one that a member of the public would reasonably regard as so significant as to be likely to prejudice the member’s judgment of the public interest. A member with a prejudicial interest is required to withdraw from the meeting at which the matter is discussed.

The codes also provide that members should not use their position to confer an advantage for themselves or any other person. Various further guidance documents have been issued to assist members in carrying out their roles in respect of the planning regime and the need to have regard to their own personal and prejudicial interests. Chapter 8 of the document, “Probity in Planning”, which is issued by the Local Government Association, makes it clear that councillors who have openly declared a view on an application should not use their position to lobby other councillors or organise a caucus to support their position. Elsewhere in chapter 8, it is made clear that other political meetings should not be used to reach a decision in advance of the committee which will make the decision.

A document prepared by the LGA, “Member engagement in planning matters”, gives similar advice. The purpose of that document is to explain to members how they can become more engaged in discussions without fettering their discretion. However, if they do, the guidance is clear. It states:

We wish to make the planning system fairer and more transparent. Accordingly, my Department continues to work with its partner bodies, such as the Local Government Association, to produce advice and guidance for elected members on propriety issues in planning. Indeed, the Planning Advisory Service, which is an arm of the Improvement and Development Agency, is financed by the Government. Its creation was one of the benefits of the £600 million in planning delivery grant allocation made available to improve the system.

When they were initially issued in 2002, the model codes were generally welcomed. There were certainly
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some complaints from the smaller parish and town councils, particularly about the requirements to register interests. It was feared that a sledgehammer was being used to crack a nut. However, many of the concerns have been eased as councillors have grown familiar with the conduct regime, and it now has broad support. This has been assisted by the Standards Board’s own provision of support, guidance and training to parishes on the operation of the system.

It is sometimes suggested that the introduction of the code of conduct for parishes has caused parish councillors to resign. I took those fears very seriously, because it is obviously important to get the balance right. However, I am pleased to be able to tell the House that there is little or no evidence to suggest that significant numbers of councillors have resigned as a result of the code.

That brings me to the subject of the hon. Gentleman’s debate. The recent reports of the Graham Committee and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Select Committee—which was so ably chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole)— considered the future of the local government ethical regime. They supported the continuing inclusion of parish councillors within that regime.

The conduct regime has now been in operation for four years. We have recently reviewed it, and our proposals for change were set out in our discussion paper of 15 December 2005. They included proposals to make decision making under the regime more locally based, to make the Standards Board a more strategic regulatory body, and to make the code of conduct simpler, clearer and more proportionate. We are hoping to make changes to ensure that the framework meets the objectives that it was created to achieve, and that the lessons deriving from practical experience in operating the rules are learned.

As part of our follow-up to the discussion paper, our review of the code of conduct will take into account the recommendations on changes to the code made by the Standards Board. These include proposals for a reduction in the number of interests that members need to declare, and for a relaxation of the rules relating to prejudicial interests to support the advocacy role played by members, particularly in respect of dual-hatted members—that is, those who are members of more than one public body.

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However, there is a continuing need to ensure that measures are in place to provide confidence that decisions are being made in the public interest, and that clear conflicts of interest—for example, where members stand to gain personally from a decision over and above the gain to others in the community—will continue to be proscribed by the code of conduct.

We believe that the vast majority of local councillors are honest and committed to the service of their communities. We wish to demonstrate to local communities that their councillors are signed up to the highest standards of conduct.

Mr. Lansley: It is now some six months since the Minister’s colleague replied to a similar debate, and five months since the Government published their discussion paper. When are Ministers going to turn what appear—in principle, at least—to be the good recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Standards Board into practical changes, by means of a statutory instrument on the model codes of conduct?

Mr. Woolas: That is the crux of the matter. I am as keen as the hon. Gentleman is to get on with this. Local authorities are looking to us to make announcements on this issue. I am also conscious that there are other cases—which I am extremely grateful that he has not mentioned tonight—that have thrown up some lessons to be learned about the way in which we deal with these matters. I cannot give him a specific timetable, but I will, as soon as I am in a position to do so.

We need to provide assurance that standards are being maintained. That is why the ethical regime is vital, and why it is important that all tiers of local government, including parishes, should follow the codes of conduct. We should also learn the lessons of the past four years and do the best we can to ensure that there is consensus across the three tiers of local government in regard to the changes that we are seeking to introduce.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Eleven o’clock.

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