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At this point I must pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) and for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who wrote a tremendous pamphlet on the Standards Board called A Question of Standards. Given that we have limited time, I urge
all hon. Members to read that pamphlet, which exposed the problems of the Standards Board and highlighted some of the cases that it has dealt with.
In one case, the Standards Board investigated a complaint of misconduct made against a chap who was a long-standing parish councillor and county councillor, and indeed a churchwardenan upstanding member of the community. Someone in the parish had baked a loaf of bread, and the lady claimed that this upstanding member of the community refused to eat her bread at a Sunday communion, and that that was tantamount to harassment and humiliation. She deemed him unfit for public office, and complained to the Standards Board. While that allegation was minor, the ridiculous investigations that ensue following such complaints are not uncommon. That emphasises the ridiculous situation that we have got ourselves into.
The chairman of a parish council proposed that a grant of £300 be made to a village club for retired people. Two other councillors declared an interest as club members, and they did not speak or vote on the matter; but because they did not leave the room, an anonymous complaint was made to the Standards Board that they and the two other councillors were in breach of the rules. The resulting investigation lasted nine months, culminating in a full hearing involving 15 people, including lawyers, district councillors and a senior enforcement officer. The hearing lasted four hours. All were found guilty and sent on a training course on how to follow the rules. That particular charade cost the taxpayer thousands and thousands of pounds. Such instances are clearly not uncommon, given that only 3 per cent. of complaints lead to people being found in breachand that was one of the 3 per cent. The whole situation is a shambles.
There is now more scrutiny of parish councillors and local district councillors than there is of Cabinet Ministers. The Deputy Prime Minister was responsible for introducing the relevant legislation. If the Standards Board applied to Ministers, it is likely that by now, under the system that he set up for parish and district councillors, he would have been suspended.
Quite apart from the way in which the Standards Board has operated, there is an important principle at stakea principle of democracy. When people are elected as councillors, whether district, parish or county councillors, they are there to represent their constituentsthe people who elected them. It should be for those people to determine whether they consider that their councillors actions are appropriate. It should not be for a committee of busybodies dealing with tittle-tattle to decide whether people who have been democratically elected have acted properly or improperly. Such matters should be decided by the electorate at the next election.
The Standards Board is a shambles. It is incredibly damaging to the reputation of local councillors and local government generally. It serves no particular fit purpose. I therefore intend to press the new clause to a Division, to test the will of the House. I think that Members of Parliament should stand up for local councillors, who work incredibly hard on behalf of
their electorate and do not deserve to have the smell of this self-serving Standards Board constantly hanging over them.
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I have some sympathy with the position taken by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), having seen the cases involving Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg of Westminster city council and the London Mayor, which there is no time to go into.
However, I shall focus on amendments Nos. 250 to 252, which, in effect, have been tabled on behalf of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I chair, and give effect to the recommendations of our 11th report and our subsequent monitoring report. In our view, there is no doubt that that the Bills proposed extension of the scope of the conduct of local authority members that may be covered by code of conduct engages members right to respect for their private life under article 8, and their right to freedom of expression under article 10, of the European convention on human rights. We believe that there is a real risk that those two articles will be breached.
In January 2005 the Committee on Standards in Public Life considered the question in its 10th report. It recommended that the model code should make a clear distinction between private and official conduct, and that private conduct wholly unrelated to an individuals official capacity should fall outside the ethical framework. The most obvious example of that was the case of the Mayor of London, in which the High Court allowed the Mayors appeal on the basis that the code of conduct did not apply because the Mayor was not acting in his official capacity and the code did not extend to regulating the Mayors private conduct. So far, so good. However, it appears that the Government want to overturn the decision of the High Court through the proposals in the Bill.
In proceedings in the Public Bill Committee, the Minister for Local Government confirmed that the policy objective was to bring within the code instances where members who were acting outside their official duties received a criminal conviction. He said:
We are trying to say that the code of conduct should not cover a councillors private life, with the caveat that if a criminal conviction was involved, that should be taken on board by the standards committee.
We welcome that clarification, but that is not what the Bill actually says. As it stands, the Bill provides for a power which, on the face of it, is capable of being exercised so as to make the code of conduct apply to any private conduct of a member. In our view, that is highly likely to give rise to breaches of members rights to privacy and freedom of expression under articles 8 and 10. There is nothing in the Bill to confine the power along the lines that the Minister suggested.
have the impression...that we are trying to do the opposite of what we are really trying to do,
the law has to be widened and clarified so that the code can be narrowed. [Official Report, Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Public Bill Committee, 1 March 2007; c. 419-21.]
The members of the Joint Committee simply do not understand that rather puzzling explanation, and we see no reason why the Bill should not expressly state the exact extent to which the code should apply to private conduct by membersfor example, by providing that the only private conduct to which the code applies is conduct that has resulted in a criminal conviction.
The second problem that remains is that the Governments intention appears to be that any criminal conviction, however minor, should be capable of counting as conduct that could reasonably be regarded as bringing a members office into disrepute. That would mean that speeding tickets or other regulatory offences of a minor nature would be within the scope of the code of conduct. We agree with the Committee on Standards in Public Life that only private conduct resulting in a criminal conviction relevant to the members official duties should be within the scope of the code of conduct.
We corresponded with the Minister and we were not satisfied with the outcome of that correspondence. As the Bill neither states the basic principle that private conduct should not be covered by the code, nor defines an exception to that principle, such as cases in which private conduct has resulted in a criminal conviction, we remain of the view that we should press our amendments. I hope that the Minister will respond positively to that point in the time that he has to reply. If he does not, amendments of a similar nature will inevitably be tabled in the other place, and they will almost certainly be made.
We are trying to give effect to the Governments stated policy, which we think is a reasonable approach. If it were a question of restricting the code to relevant criminal convictions of a sufficiently serious nature to impinge on someones ability to serve as a councillor, we would say, So be it, but unfortunately the Government amendments simply do not do that. Our Committee wants legislation that says what it should say; it should confine itself to the narrow requirements of policy, which are acceptable, and not go beyond them, as the legislation does, and impinge on articles 8 and 10 of the European convention on human rights.
Andrew Gwynne: In Committee, I spoke at length on that very issue. Is it not the point that many of the complaints made to the Standards Board are frivolous or vexatious, and are made either by political opponents or by the disgruntled? Is it not the case that if we are to have a body such as the Standards Board, we need to tighten up on such complaints and deal with the issues that my hon. Friend is talking about?
Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend is right, and that is why I have some sympathy with the hon. Member for Shipley, who moved a new clause that would abolish the Standards Board. I certainly do not think that we should go that farthere must be a minimum degree of standardsbut there is the question of whether what is proposed in the Bill is discriminatory and contrary to article 14. For some reason, we have singled out local government councillors for a regime that is much more rigorous than any that applies to anyone else in public life, including ourselves. After last Fridays debate, we need to be a little more aware of the fact that we should treat people fairly and equally.
I hope that the Minister will take my Committees concerns on board. We are dealing with significant issues of human rights, and it could be argued that the Standards Board has itself been brought into disrepute by some of the cases that it has taken up. If we are serious about maintaining standards in public life, and particularly in local government, we have to be realistic about what we do and do not expect from our councillors.
Mr. Syms: Debates on first principles are usually the best, even when they are very brief. We know why the Standards Board was set up, and most of us have seen how it has operated over a number of years. Most of us probably know councillors who have been affected by it in one way or another. The most important issue is the length of time that it has taken to deal with many investigations, and the way in which it has operated; it does not seem that there is natural justice in the whole process. The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) made a good point, and we have concerns about widening the scope, but we welcome many of the other issues that the Minister discussed, and the measures that will localise many aspects of standards. Progress is being made, and throughout the Committee stage I was pleased with what the Minister said. In our last general election campaign we opposed the Standards Board, and that may well be our position at the next election, too. We believe that we need to keep the Minister on his toes, so we will support my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) when his new clause is pressed to a Division.
Andrew Stunell: I want to draw the Houses attention to amendment No. 134, in my name and that of my hon. Friends, which addresses a completely different issue: the capacity of local councillors to stick up for their constituents when planning issues are being discussed and voted on by councils. It deals with the difficult doctrine of predisposition and bias, which we spent some time on in Committee.
Bearing in mind what was said in Committee, and the sympathetic words that we have heard from the Minister in respect of matters other than planning, I hope that he now feels able to move forward on the planning issue. I particularly draw his attention to what the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said yesterday about the importance, under the new planning White Paper, of more community engagement and involvement with planning at the local level. I draw the Ministers attention to the fact that we would be preposterously incapable of delivering that if, every time that there was such engagement, all local representatives were excluded from participating.
I now want to give the Minister the opportunity to say something about that, and the other issues. We shall support the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). Some progress has been made, but more needs to be made.
In the brief time available to me, I shall attempt to respond to the points raised by hon. Members. The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is clearly a Yorkshireman. He stated what he thinks, and he
thinks we should get rid of the Standards Board lock, stock and barrel. He is consistent, although I wish he would get off the fence on some of the other issues. We do not agree with that view, although we agree with part of his analysis. On some occasions the processes have unintentionally damaged the reputation of local government, but we think the return to a more locally based system is right.
There are examples of frivolous complaints, which we have tried to address. Frivolous complaints are made against the police, and the hon. Gentleman would not want us to abolish the police force, and similarly the court and the police court. We have a straightforward disagreement. I respect that. We have put in place measures that will enhance the reputation of local government and provide for a sensible code.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) raises a technically more difficult issue. I understand exactly what he and his Committee are trying to do, but my preference is that the stricture should not be written into the Bill. The code that will apply will meet his intention. I should like more time to consider the matter. The explanation that I gave the Committee was that the code refers to criminal convictions. There was a debate about that definition. The code and the practice will make that clear.
We have agreed with the Standards Board that during this year we and the board will monitor and review the introduction and working of the new code, and we intend to review it afterwards. I argued in Committee that we need to clarify the legislation in order to comply with the judges ruling, but it is the code that enforces the ethical regime. My hon. Friends intention is met by the new code. He shakes his head. We have a disagreement. I undertake to look at the point. He is probably right to say that it will come up in the other place.
As I have failed to satisfy my hon. Friend, let me try to satisfy the hon. Member for Hazel Grove on the point that he consistently makes about planning. The code of conduct does not prevent a member from having a predisposition towards a particular outcome for a planning proposal. However, where, for example, a councillor is strongly identified in favour of or against a particular planning proposal, that might amount to predetermination, were that member to participate in the decision on that application. As I have said, it is planning case law, not the code, that deals with predetermination. Where predetermination occurs, members have made up their minds about a matter and are not prepared to listen to the arguments raised at the council meeting.
It is important for natural justice that people should get a fair hearing when a planning application is made. As I indicated in Committee, we have been considering the issue of predetermination so that concern to guard against predetermination does not fetter a councillors capacity to speak up for the local electorate. We have discussed the matter with the Standards Board, and I can tell the House that at its meeting last week, the board agreed to issue, after consultation, a commentary on predetermination to help members and monitoring officers to understand the situation.
In other words, we believe that it is the application of case law in much too restrictive a manner by monitoring officers that has led to a culture in which
councillors have been unable to speak out. It is that case law, not the code of conduct, that is fettering elected councillors. Again, I agree with the intention. It is clearly right that local councillors should be able to speak up for their constituents, but it is also right that people before a planning committee should have a fair hearing. I believe that we can square that circle.
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