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4 Nov 2008 : Column 58WH—continued

On 10 April, in response, Miss Carter outlined the real human and health costs of the delay for her clients. She pointed out—quite rightly, in my view—that those issues really ought to be taken into account and that the case should be given priority. It then appeared that the board listened to her plea: on 17 April, the director of casework, Hazel Salisbury, wrote to confirm that the new investigator would

That promise, of course, was not kept.

On 30 April, Hazel Salisbury gave only an update. She said that the case was receiving “top priority”. It certainly was not. She also said that board aimed to complete even complex cases within six months but, of course, the board had already missed that target. She wrote again on 8 May to say that she hoped to be able to issue draft reports for comment by mid-July. On 26 July, the new investigator, Natalie Birtle, confirmed that that was still on schedule.

On 15 July, Hazel Salisbury seems to have changed her role from casework director to ethical standards officer. She wrote to say that significant new evidence had been received and that she needed “further oral evidence”. Miss Carter pointed out that, at this late stage, the delays were such that they may constitute a breach under article 6 of the European convention on human rights, which assures the right to a fair trial within a reasonable period. Instead, those involved were set to face questions about things that happened long ago. The passage of time leads memories to fade.

It was confirmed that the new evidence did not affect the case against at least some of the accused—the cases against them are different. Miss Carter urged that the cases that were not affected by the new evidence should be brought to a conclusion. On 10 October, some three months later, Hazel Salisbury, who had by this time changed back from being ethical standards officer to director of casework, claimed that she had considered severing the cases “at every stage”. However, she now says that she has recently taken legal advice, and finally concedes that

It is a great pity that she seems not to have looked more thoroughly into that before.

The most worrying aspect is that, in the same letter, she says, yet again, that she has received new telephone calls concerning “further information” relevant to the case. Yet more interviews will be needed. At least one of the councillors has received a letter stating that the investigators will visit the island on 19 or 20 November. That councillor will be away on those days. There was no discussion about fixing a convenient date, and no reason why a further interview was necessary was given. The councillor has not yet received transcripts of the interview that he gave on 1 August. Is that really how a serious investigation should be conducted?

Disgracefully, there is still no time scale—not even a provisional one—for the final conclusion of the case. The behaviour and attitude of the board throughout this case has been reprehensible. The investigation has been subject to wholly unacceptable delays. The board
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has failed to communicate in a timely fashion with those being investigated and to consider properly severance of the different cases.

There is another basic injustice. The board initially failed to meet its target of six months. The files were therefore open when new evidence materialised 10 and 13 months into the investigation. With the passage of time, it becomes harder for those involved to have accurate recall of conversations, meetings and events that could clear their name. In criminal cases, an accuser must stand in open court and face the person whom they are accusing. It is a basic common law right for the accused to hear in full the evidence against them. The original allegations made to the board were clear and attributable, and names, dates and details were provided. Yet, in accepting the late evidence, in which no criminal activity is alleged, the identity of the accusers is being kept secret by the board. I challenge those who have submitted late evidence and who hide behind anonymity to have the courage to stand up and be counted in public. Without knowing the source of the new material, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that the allegations may be motivated by political purposes, rather than by any desire to reach the truth or to see justice done. Without knowing who is making the accusations, my constituents have no opportunity to question motives or integrity.

The timing of this matter may affect the outcome of the local elections, and the flawed and iniquitous process may fundamentally undermine our democratic rights. The Minister and I understand that the selection of candidates takes place not in the days before an election, but in the preceding months. I am not sure that the ethical standards officers know that.

I turn now to the considerable financial cost. Five councillors applied for indemnity against legal costs, and four of them were granted it subject to their being cleared. In January, East Hampshire district council standards committee was asked to examine the initial evidence to judge whether indemnity should be granted. It made its decision in two weeks. What on earth is taking the board so long?

The legal costs have mounted as the case has progressed. One of the councillors has already paid more than £14,000 in fees and can no longer afford to take proper legal advice. The others owe various amounts, currently up to £8,000 each and still rising. Disgracefully, the tribunal that may eventually hear the case has no power to award costs against the board.

I have supported a complaint that has been made to the parliamentary ombudsman, Ann Abraham. I believe that she will reach the same conclusions that I have about the way in which the case has been handled. However, I felt that it was important to bring the case into the public domain and also to let the Minister know about the very real suffering that it has caused. The chief executive of the Standards Board, Glenys Stacey, wrote to me recently. She says that once these investigations are complete, she intends to

The Minister may remember the case against the five Islington councillors. All were acquitted after a two-year process. The outcome of that investigation was a review. Has nothing been done? While I accept that it is very
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important for the board to review this investigation, it is clear that such a review will give little comfort. Councillors Bishop, Churchman, Joyce, Peacey-Wilcox, and Sutton are suffering still, and the situation is painful to the family and friends of Brian Mosdell. All those councillors are decent, honest people who work hard for their local communities. The very worst of which they could be guilty—and I emphasise the worst—is an error of judgment. They do not deserve to have been treated in such a way. The board has now dropped the case against Councillor Mosdell. With Brian dead, the opportunity for him—and for everyone else—to know that his name was cleared has gone, which is very sad and a travesty of justice.

1.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Sadiq Khan): I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on securing the debate. I also congratulate him—I say this in a non-patronising way and hope that he accepts it in the spirit in which it is intended—on the tenor and manner of a speech that was made in difficult and emotional circumstances. The hon. Gentleman has conducted himself with a huge amount of dignity, and I congratulate him on his contribution.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to discuss the work of the board and the role that it plays in maintaining high standards of conduct. The debate also gives me the opportunity to address the issue of investigations into alleged misconduct. You will agree with me, Mrs. Anderson, that when councillors need to be investigated, the investigation should be done in a fair, thorough and impartial manner.

I shall make it clear from the outset that I cannot intervene in individual cases. It is right that I should not be able to do so, because that guarantees the impartiality of the conduct regime and the investigation process. In addition, although I am happy to discuss the process of a board investigation in general terms, I will not comment on, make reference to or engage in debate about any specific ongoing investigation. I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands why it would be inappropriate and unwise for me to do so.

Will the hon. Gentleman convey my condolences to the bereaved family of Councillor Brian Mosdell? Moreover, I want to assure him that two very senior members of the board are listening to this debate and that they will have heard his comments. The hon. Gentleman referred to the letter that he received from the chief executive of the board in which she said that the ethical standards officer is committed to completing the investigation and reaching a final conclusion as soon as possible. He also referred to the review. Without prejudice to the investigation, I undertake to take a personal interest in the review to ensure that it is not of the standard to which he alluded—not that I am saying anything about the previous review.

I want to do four things during my speech—promote high standards, address the issue of the conduct regime, consider the role of the board and consider investigations and their time lag, which relates to a specific point made by the hon. Gentleman. Almost a month ago today, on my first outing as a Minister, I discussed the conduct regime. As someone who served on the planning committee of a council for 12 years—I know that the hon. Gentleman was a councillor, too—I can say that the vast majority
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of people who are elected to serve as councillors observe the highest standards of conduct, as do the officials who support them. Trust in our local authority members is one of the cornerstones of healthy local democracy. Voters expect that the members who have been elected to represent their interests will behave with honesty and integrity. Many men and women devote their time and energy to the service of their communities as local authority members, as stated in the recent White Paper “Communities in control: real people, real power”. We want more people to take on civic roles and stand for office for their local authority, thus ensuring that local authority members are an able, enthusiastic and diverse group and that local representatives reflect the communities which they serve.

In this country, we have high standards of probity, accountability and objectivity, both as natural expectations of those we vote for and enshrined in the conduct regime. However, we cannot ignore the fact that failings occur from time to time and that there have been cases, albeit rare, in which the conduct of local authority members has fallen short of the expectations placed on them. When it occurs, such misconduct damages the community that the local authority members were elected to serve and also damages the wider reputation of local government, thus undermining the public’s trust and confidence in the democratic system as a whole. We should, and do, take allegations of misconduct seriously. That is why we have put in place a robust conduct regime, which is supported by local authorities and the board.

I want to touch on the conduct regime. People expect a conduct regime that is serious, reasonable, robust and fair. The regime has to be fair to the public and to local authority members. It is worth reminding ourselves that the regime was introduced in the Local Government Act 2000 to promote high standards of ethical behaviour by local authority members. It gave a clear ethical framework for local authority members to work within, and clarified for the electorate the standards of behaviour that they can expect from those they vote into office. It gave clarity about what constituted acceptable standards of behaviour; it introduced an independent, robust, efficient, fair and effective means of investigating allegations of misconduct; and it gave a proportionate regime—proportionality is the key word—for dealing with those who had fallen short of those acceptable standards of behaviour.

A revised code of conduct for local authority members was issued last year. The idea was to provide a clear, simple and more proportionate code for members. The code removed barriers to members speaking up for those whom they represent on issues such as planning and licensing, and it has been well received by the local government world. It is that code by which all local authority members must abide. In May this year—I appreciate that the complaint that the hon. Gentleman has discussed was generated in September 2007—the Government fulfilled their White Paper commitment to introduce a more locally-based conduct regime for members and co-opted members of local authorities in England. Devolving responsibility for conduct issues to local authorities provides them with greater ownership of the conduct regime and local conduct issues, and it boosts their role in promoting and maintaining a culture of high standards of behaviour in local authorities. That belief is shared by the local government world.

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The Standards Board, which until this point was responsible, as in the current case, for investigating alleged breaches of the code of conduct, assumed its new responsibility as the strategic 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. That assessment is in essence a filtering stage. No decision is taken 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 by a hearing of the standards committee after a full investigation of the allegation has been undertaken by the authority’s monitoring officer.

It was the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) who secured last month’s debate, which I referred to earlier. During that debate on 7 October, at column 60WH, he made a colourful reference to an incident in a local authority when one councillor threatened to “rip the arm” from another. I hasten to add that neither was a Labour councillor—I will let the hon. Member for Isle of Wight guess to which parties the maker of the threat, and the person on the receiving end, belonged. Thankfully the threat did not turn into action, but I think that we can agree that the cut and thrust of debate should be free of threats of dismemberment, even partial. Simply put, misconduct by local councillors and officials is not acceptable.

To address unreasonable behaviour we have the conduct regime, underpinned by the code of conduct and enforced through standards committees and regulated by the Standards Board. One of the roles of the board is to offer advice and guidance about the conduct regime to local authority standards committees. That is an important part of its work, but it is by no means the limit of its scope. The Standards Board still investigates the most serious allegations of misconduct. That is not to say that local authority monitoring officers lack the will, ability or experience to conduct a fair and thorough investigation into a serious allegation; it is simply that the Standards Board has people who are willing and able to investigate serious allegations of misconduct and who are experienced at doing so. In addition, the Standards Board has powers, should it ever need to use them, to compel witnesses to give evidence.

The Standards Board has investigated more than 4,000 cases since it was established and, while in its new role as a regulator it passes on its knowledge and experience through training courses and guidance, it remains ready to investigate when required. The hon. Gentleman may be interested to hear that at the beginning of October—during my second week in my present job—I was pleased to be invited to give the opening address at the Standards Board’s annual assembly in Birmingham. Speaking with officials of the Standards Board, I was struck by their professionalism and enthusiasm. I believe that those attending the assembly—more than 700 councillors, standards committee members and monitoring officers—found it informative, useful and even enjoyable. That is because as well as holding seminars, plenary sessions and breakout sessions, the
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Standards Board brought together more than 700 members of the conduct regime community, which provided an ideal opportunity to share knowledge and best practice.

The Standards Board has the challenging target of completing 90 per cent. of its cases within six months. Last year, the board not only met but exceeded that target, completing 96 per cent. of cases on target within six months. My officials meet members of the Standards Board monthly, to discuss, among other things, its performance against its targets. The hon. Gentleman will have heard my commitment to take an active interest in the review that I mentioned earlier. I realise that for those who are the subject of an allegation awaiting the outcome of an investigation can be a stressful time. Performance against targets is, as the hon. Gentleman said, of little comfort to those who fall into the small minority of investigations that take longer than six months.

Investigations can become protracted for a number of reasons. Some cases are complex. There are investigations where an allegation is made against a member about an incident; that is about as simple as it gets and under the devolved conduct regime we would expect such an investigation to be conducted by a local authority’s monitoring officer. However, investigations can involve multiple allegations and counter-allegations involving up to half a dozen councillors. It takes time to be thorough and fair. The availability of witnesses, for instance, may be a problem, especially in large and complex cases. Of course, the Standards Board recognises that a protracted process can be stressful, but haste is not an option.

We must also, consider, unfortunately, that the process of investigation can be protracted by malicious behaviour by the subject or subjects of the allegation, who perhaps have reason to fear the outcome. Findings of guilt can be damaging not just to individuals but to the political parties they are associated with. Delaying tactics, such as not attending scheduled meetings for interview, can push back the conclusion of an investigation, and it is all too easy to understand why a finding of guilt might be better for certain parties after a local election than before it.

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Mr. Turner: The Minister has said that he can understand delay that is favourable; has he thought about delay at the other end, when people interfere and enter late information?

Mr. Khan: Without talking about specific cases, of course I can. There can be malicious complainants who understand that delay prejudices proceedings against the person complained of. I appreciate that, and so does the Standards Board. My point is that there are sometimes reasons, which we need to understand, for delays, particularly in protracted cases. I was trying to make the point—although I did not do so clearly enough—that although a delay of more than six months occurs in a small number of cases, there are usually reasons for that, albeit that the hon. Gentleman and I would find that delay unacceptable, because we want investigations to be fair, swift and dealt with as soon as possible.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that an investigation process might be protracted by new evidence coming to light. New evidence arriving and changing the direction of an investigation is not just the stuff of fictional courtroom melodrama; in real life new evidence can complicate matters as well as resolving them. New evidence means further investigation, and thorough further investigation takes time. That is crucial if we are to ensure that the process is fair to all involved.

The outcomes of the investigations have an impact on reputations, careers and lives. They are not undertaken lightly. The Standards Board realises its responsibility; it realises that councillors trade with the public in the currency of trust—a currency as vulnerable to devaluation as any other. We believe that the current system—a locally based conduct regime with local authorities responsible for holding their own members to account, regulated by the Standards Board—is the right approach to underpin a functional, proportionate, effective conduct regime and a healthy local democracy.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman once again on raising the issue, and on the tenor and manner of the speech in which he did so.

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