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The idea of a standards board moved up the agenda and eventually became law. An alternative might have been to make the electoral system more vital and elections more contested in areas where corruption had set in or was more apparent. The basic idea of a standards board is to have a code of conduct and a set of desirable principles and qualities for public life that can be modestly stated, agreed and observed by all. That was accepted, at least initially, as a rational solution.

When I first became an MP, I was surprised to receive, as I am sure did other hon. Members, a huge bundle of forms for my surgery from the Standards Board for England inciting people to lodge formal complaints. I could not imagine their all being used legitimately or being required. That annoyed me a little because my observation is that very few councillors merit a formal complaint, although I can think of a few members of the public who could use the whole package and still ask for more.

I raised that experience at the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government when the hon. Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas) was the Minister in charge. By and large, he agreed that such touting for custom was not the way to proceed because it was a heavy-handed approach and led to complaints being used as an electoral and political tool, with complaints often being made just prior to or during elections, and so on. It also led to overload of the Standards Board and had a lack of clarity, particularly about whether complaints were legitimate because they involved a councillor’s public role, or were simply applied to a councillor as a person. Councillors do not have to be saints, but there was lack of clarity about whether they should be judged on their public performance as a councillor or their behaviour as a private individual, and those two aspects of their lives were not always significantly differentiated.

I supported the change in law that suggested that local determination and local committees provided a better process for the less serious complaints. The reasons struck me as persuasive at the time. First, local committees had a better understanding of local government issues, and some of the original members of the Standards Board had an almost unworldly character. Secondly, politically motivated complaints were likely to be scented out fairly early and seen for what they were.

I am questioning now whether local determination is leading to an unacceptable variation in practice, whether the rules, legislation and statutory instruments circumscribing it allow for that, and whether the Government and the Standards Board, which still has an overall watching brief, recognise that and are prepared to tolerate it or wish to redress the balance and deal with the matter.

The best way to illustrate that is to refer again to my local borough, Sefton, as an example. Its references to the local standards committee have reached almost epidemic proportions. Having served on that council, I regard that with bemusement because the vast majority of councillors are decent and some are almost saintly, although I must add that an ex-mayor recently went to jail for a criminal offence, but that is not typical in Sefton.

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The worst Standards Board case that I recall in Sefton in recent times is of one councillor threatening to “get” another after a meeting. During the poll tax period when the atmosphere on many councils could be fairly abrasive, I remember a senior councillor threatening to rip the arm from a colleague of mine during a policy and resources meeting, which continued unfazed with no one commenting because the event was not imminent.

The stricture in this case and the Standards Board’s activities may be a sign of genuine progress if it persuades councillors to behave more politely and rationally. However, most cases in Sefton never get as far as having a verdict determined or a positive finding reached, usually on the permitted ground that complaints as stated do not justify the expense of investigating them. That is a kind of catch-all clause because it can apply irrespective of the complexity of the case. In other words, a complaint might be quite trivial and easy to bottom out, but because it is quite trivial it might be discarded on the grounds that the expense simply is not worth it, even though the expense might be relatively trivial.

Complaints have sometimes been rejected on the grounds that defamatory comment is robust debate, which leaves councillors genuinely uncertain about what the limitations of robust debate are. Occasionally, a formal complaint has been dismissed simply on the grounds that it is political, without mentioning the substance of the complaint itself. The common thread through many of these cases is the avoidance of a finding of fact, which is a crucial element of the decisions to be made. That leaves a twofold level of uncertainty for members: whether the conduct as described took place or whether it is simply an allegation, and even if the allegation took place, if such a verdict is arrived at, whether it would be a breach of the code. I find that somewhat unsatisfactory. At the end of the day, if the rulings do not leave councillors more certain about where they stand and what to do, the system is not working as well as it could.

This situation has not stopped decision notices failing to make it clear that no finding of fact has taken place. I would like to mention one case. A charge or allegation was made against an experienced and respected councillor, for which there was no finding of fact. In effect, the complaint was thrown out, but the offences that he might have been guilty of, if he had been guilty, were listed at length. In addition, there was a suggestion that he went on a course that might or might not have been appropriate to the issue. There was no verdict or finding of fact, but the person concerned found he could not appeal against what was obviously an acquittal and the political opposition had a feast day in the press at his expense. That is a grotesque failure of natural justice.

I suspect that all that case illustrates is that the local standards committees in Sefton and other places are under pressure, and that is not helped if frivolous complaints emerge or a tit-for-tat culture prevails. I suspect that the experiences of those in Sefton are not particularly unique and that such problems are occurring elsewhere. The foibles of the local committees can be as various and arbitrary as premier league referees are considered to be by football teams, in relation to which the same uncertainty and difficulties prevail. However, there is one important difference, and this is a very serious thing: the reputation of councillors is at stake. That is very important to councillors, not just because
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of their electoral prospects, but because of how they feel about themselves and how their families feel about them.

My plea is essentially that the Government should assess, monitor and record this demonstrably imperfect quasi-judicial system. My suspicion is that the standards boards are not setting the clear standards in performance, practice or outcome that we all desire.

1.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Sadiq Khan): It is a pleasure, Mr. Key, to speak with you in the Chair the first time that I respond to a debate in my new role. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on securing this debate. He and I served on the Public Accounts Committee, on which he still sits, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to discuss the conduct regime for members of local authorities in England.

I am aware that the hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in this matter, not only because of his 13 years as a councillor in Sefton, but as a member of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government. This is the first Adjournment debate on the important issue of standards since the new regime, and it is particularly welcome as it gives me the opportunity not only to get off the mark, but to reassert the Government’s support for the conduct regime for local authority members. I would also like to mention the Government’s gratitude for the hard work of the Standards Board for England and the work of local authority standards committees. In the same way that premiership referees are not thanked enough, local authority standards committees are not thanked enough, and therefore I would like to thank them this afternoon.

It is now almost six months since the Government devolved responsibility for dealing with the conduct of local authority members to local authorities themselves, so it is an apt time to hold this debate. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the tenor and spirit in which his comments were made. To be blunt, there is only one thing in the history he articulated with which I would disagree. As someone who was a councillor for only 12 years, I can say that the events in Wandsworth were nowhere near as flowery and colourful as they appear to have been in Sefton. I cannot think of one occasion on which anyone was threatened with having their arms ripped off, but I will check with other colleagues about whether that happened in Wandsworth.

This debate gives me the opportunity to mention the extremely effective alternative action procedures, which are a fundamental aspect of the conduct regime and generally work well. The vast majority of people elected to serve as local authority members observe the highest standards of conduct, as do the officials who support them. I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman addressed that in his speech and made the point that there might be problems with only a minority of councillors or officials. Trust in our local authority members is one of the cornerstones of healthy local democracy. Voters expect the local authority members for whom they voted to represent their interests and to behave with honesty and integrity, which is why actively promoting high standards of behaviour among local authority members is an important Government objective, and it is not a duty we take lightly.

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The strength of local democracy and the delivery of effective services depend very much on elected members’ willingness to serve and on their commitment. It would be awful if hurdles and barriers were put in the way to stop people or deter them from coming forward to stand for local government and become local councillors. Many men and women devote their time and energy to the service of their communities as local authority members and, as stated in the recent White Paper, “Communities in Control: real people, real power”, we want more people to take on civic roles and to stand for office in their local authority. We also want to ensure that local authority members are an able, enthusiastic and diverse group and that local representatives reflect the communities they serve.

In this country, we have high standards of probity, accountability and objectivity. That is part of the natural expectations of those we vote for, and it is enshrined in the conduct regime. However, we cannot ignore the fact that failings do occur from time to time, and there have been cases, albeit rare, where the conduct of local authority members has fallen short of the expectations placed upon them. When such misconduct occurs, it damages both the community that the local authority members were elected to serve and the wider reputation of local government. The public’s trust and confidence in the democratic system as a whole is undermined.

The hon. Gentleman alluded to the conduct regime, which was introduced in the Local Government Act 2000 to promote high standards of ethical behaviour by local authority members. The regime gives a clear ethical framework for local authority members to work within and makes clear to the electorate the standards of behaviour they can expect from those they vote into office. The regime also clarifies what constitutes acceptable standards of behaviour and has introduced an independent, robust and fair means of investigating allegations of misconduct. A regime was set up for dealing with those who have fallen short of acceptable standards of behaviour, and that regime is evolving.

Last year, a revised code of conduct for local authority members was issued to provide a clearer, simpler and more proportionate code—I emphasise the word “proportionate”. That code removed barriers to members being able to speak up for those they represent, for example on planning and licensing issues, and it has been well received by the local government world. All local authority members must abide by that code of conduct, which has been in place for over a year now, and my Department—I say that on just my second day in this role—has just gone out to consultation on it. We are asking for views on how it is functioning and how it might be improved. In May this year, the Government fulfilled their White Paper commitment to introduce a more locally based conduct regime for members that co-opted members of local authorities in England. The devolution of responsibility for conduct issues to local authorities provides them with greater ownership of the conduct regime and local conduct issues, and boosts their role in promoting and maintaining a culture of high standards of behaviour in local authorities.

Dr. Pugh: It is probably as much my fault as anyone’s, because I was involved in considering the relevant legislation when it went through the House, but there is an omission in that legislation, because if the local regime is not
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performing well, the national board does not have the remit to receive complaints about it. If people believe, for whatever reason, that the standards board is not up to the job, taking that further is almost impossible. That is an omission in the legislation, and I am questioning whether the ministerial team have a mind to change it in any way.

Mr. Khan: I can tell the hon. Gentleman, on day two in my job, that we shall shortly lay before Parliament legislation to enable the Standards Board to suspend a standards committee’s local assessment of complaints functions if it believes that to be necessary. That will be a last resort, following work with the local authorities to help them to improve the way in which standards issues are addressed locally. I hope that when the hon. Gentleman issues his press release, the glory will be shared between him and me for the progress that has been made on day two of my job.

I did not finish the point that I was making before the hon. Gentleman’s very useful intervention. The belief in devolving down is shared by all those in local government. I know that he and his party believe in devolving down. The move to devolve responsibility was in line with the 10th report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, published in 2005, which recommended that high standards of conduct by local authority members are more likely to be guaranteed when most decision making on conduct is undertaken by local authorities. The Standards Board for England, which until that point had been responsible for investigating alleged breaches of the code of conduct, assumed its new responsibility as a light-touch regulator of local authority standards committees, responsible for monitoring their performance and issuing guidance on the conduct regime.

Under the devolved conduct regime, allegations that a member of an authority has failed to comply with the code of conduct are initially assessed by the local authority’s own standards committee, as has been said. That assessment is in essence a filtering stage. No decision is taken at that stage about whether a member has, or has not, failed to comply with the code of conduct. Any decision on whether there has been a failure to comply with the code—in other words, a decision about guilt or innocence—is determined in all but the most serious cases by a hearing of the standards committee after a full investigation of the allegation has been undertaken. The more serious allegations of misconduct are determined by the quasi-judicial adjudication panel for England.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is interested in alternative action procedures and I shall now deal with those in slightly more detail. There is no doubt that elected members of a local authority who abuse their position or abuse others should be brought to book. That is what the conduct regime is there for, but often cases are not so clear-cut and can be the result of more complicated, deep-seated issues. Perhaps there has been a breakdown in working relationships, a long-standing dispute over a contentious issue, or a lack of training. The hon. Gentleman will recognise some of the descriptions from the example to which he alluded in Sefton.

Recognising that cases are often not clear-cut, several years ago, Standards Board investigators sought and received the power to use their discretion in certain
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cases and, after examining them, to recommend an action other than full investigation—typically, facilitating mediation between disputing parties, whether two members of an authority, a member of the public and a member of the authority, or an officer of the authority and a member. The Standards Board considers that such an approach often yields the most successful, long-standing solutions. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of examples in which the complainant is an activist from one political party and makes a complaint against an elected councillor from another political party.

When the new ethical framework was introduced this year, alternative action was therefore built into the system at an early stage. The devolved regime gives standards committees, if they consider that the merits of individual cases make it appropriate, the option to refer a matter for alternative action, rather than investigate it. That means that instead of an allegation of misconduct resulting in a full investigation and possibly a sanction, the matter can be quickly addressed at an early stage through alternative action, such as mediation, training or a review of the local authority’s procedures. Under the devolved conduct regime, indications are that about 9 per cent. of allegations result in their being referred for alternative action.

That is not a quick fix, and it will not be right in all circumstances. There is a right time and place for it to be used, but it is a useful tool, as it recognises that a problem has arisen and it attempts to deal with that problem in the most pragmatic way possible. Importantly—this is the nub of the concern that has been raised—such a recommendation does not, and should not, imply guilt. That course of action is consistent with other regimes that deal with complaints about individuals. I should make it clear that I am not advocating that all allegations that a local authority receives should be dealt with by action other than an investigation, or that there should be any default approach. The suitability of alternative action depends on the nature of the allegation. What is, I hope, apparent is that such a measure lends itself to allegations that might be judged to be less serious, where alternative action might be the most proportionate and cost-effective way of resolving an allegation.

Dr. Pugh: There is a difficulty of which I hope the Minister is aware. When someone is charged with a motoring offence and found not guilty, they will not subsequently be advised to take extra driving lessons or something like that, because that would almost imply a not proven verdict. It would imply that there was a belief on the part of the committee that the person was guilty as charged, but it tried to give them a softer deal. There is a difficulty in proposing an alternative course of action that is appropriate to the allegation, if it is true, when the allegation has not been found to be true, because that can leave the person in the worst possible world of having been acquitted on the issue of fact but still, in the eyes of the public, being held to be generally guilty.

Mr. Khan: With respect, is the hon. Gentleman right? As an ex-lawyer, I am all in favour of litigation—as a Minister, I am not, I hasten to add—but there are examples in which people who could receive three points on their licence are encouraged to do a training session to avoid receiving a sanction. In other examples, staff in
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Marks and Spencer or other shops may be discourteous and rude, a complaint is made and they receive training to be less discourteous and less rude. There are examples in which training, rather than a stick, has an important role to play. I would expect more of a carrot approach, rather than the stick approach, from the hon. Gentleman.

Dr. Pugh: I want to come back on that. When someone receives three points on their licence, that is because there has been a definite finding against them in the case. They might be offered something as an alternative, and many people would accept that. There is a presumption of guilt, and they are offered something as an alternative, rather than the full penalty. If, however, someone is wholly innocent of a driving offence—their driving has been completely blameless—but they are sent on a driving course after being acquitted, they will feel a bit raw about that, will they not?

Mr. Khan: The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point, to which I am coming—the foundation of guilt. I think that that is the point to which he has alluded in correspondence. I understand that he has concerns that when an allegation is referred for action other than investigation, the subject of the allegation is not afforded an opportunity to have their name cleared. Let me assure him that in terms of the conduct regime, that concern is without foundation.

I do not for a moment underestimate the fact that the subjects of allegation, breach of the code, innocence and guilt are very sensitive matters. Reputations are important in local democracies where the candidate and the voter trade in the currency of trust. However, let me reiterate—this is explicitly stated in the guidance issued by the Standards Board—that if a decision is made to refer a matter for alternative action, everyone involved in the process should be made aware that the purpose of alternative action is not to determine whether an individual has failed to comply with the code of conduct, and it should be clear that no finding of guilt or innocence can or should be made. The hon. Gentleman is right to distinguish the example that was given from one in which there is evidence—for example, in the case of a motoring offence, a camera has taken a photograph of someone speeding through the light.

As I have explained, one of the roles of the Standards Board is to offer advice and guidance about the conduct regime to local authority standards committees. That is an important part of the board’s work. A robust conduct regime, trusted by local authority members and the people who vote for them alike, is an essential part of supporting the trust in local government to make local democracy function. I welcome the contribution that the hon. Gentleman has made to this important area, and I look forward to working with him over the coming months and years to improve the system even more.

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