Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by Sophia Lambert, Chair of the Standards Committee of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (L 67)




1. I write as the independent chairman of the Standards Committee of a London Borough with some five years of experience of dealing with standards matters. The following represents my personal views, not those of my borough or committee.

2. I generally welcome the repeal of the current over-prescriptive arrangements for local government standards. However, I have three concerns about the new arrangements proposed, which I hope the Committee can consider.

Clause 15: Duty to promote and maintain high standards of conduct.


3. Clause 15 of the Bill places a requirement on local authorities to promote and maintain high standards of conduct, which is good. At the same time, Section 49(1) of the Local Government 2000, which gives to the Secretary of State the power to make an order specifying the principles which are to govern the conduct of Members, is repealed. This means that there is no possibility of any central definition of the principles that should govern high standards of conduct. Councillors will not even be subject to the Nolan principles unless their Council chooses that they should be.

4. I see no problem with the repeal of the Secretary of State’s power to impose a Code of Conduct. But I believe that, not least from the point of view of public perception, there would be merit in a centrally promulgated statement of the principles based – as is the present statement of principles imposed under Section 49(1) – on the Nolan principles of conduct in public life. These could even be on the face of the Bill, thus putting the Nolan principles into primary legislation.

Clause 16: Voluntary codes of Conduct: Action against members.


5. Clause 16 allows a local authority to investigate complaints and to take (unspecified) action against members who have failed to comply with its code. In the absence of powers to suspend or disqualify, I think it important that local authorities should have a power other than simple censure – as otherwise an obstreperous councillor could simply ignore the voluntary code arrangements completely. The obvious thing would be a power to suspend a member’s allowances. It is not clear to me that the current legislation would allow such a power to be exercised. I hope that MPs can extract an assurance from the Government that there will be regulations enabling authorities to suspend members’ allowances in cases of non-observance of a locally adopted code.

Clauses 17 and 18: Disclosure and Registration of members’ interests: dual jurisdiction and police problems

6. Clause 17 envisages regulations under which local authorities could impose sanctions on members who fail to declare or register interests or who participate in business despite having a relevant interest. Clause 18 makes these same acts criminal offences unless the member can show reasonable excuse. A dual jurisdiction thus appears to have been created, and it is not clear whether the practical implications have been fully thought through.

7. As the criminal jurisdiction normally takes precedence, if there was a complaint about a member failing to declare an interest, it would presumably have to go first to the police to investigate. Non-disclosure of interests is one of the matters about which standards committees receive most complaints. The vast majority turn out to be trivial. But this is not always obvious at the outset. Nor could one establish whether the member had a "reasonable excuse" without at least some investigation. So in practice the police would have to look into each and every one of these complaints. This seems a waste of scarce police time.

8. I am told by those who have experience of these things that, as these are "political" offences, they would probably have to be handled by a special police unit and the investigations could well take 12-18 months. If the police and/or DPP decided not to proceed, the matter would presumably then come back to the authority to take action as appropriate against the member under its own powers. This seems to be a cumbersome and lengthy way of proceeding, not justified by the relatively few really serious offences of non-disclosure that are committed. There badly needs to be some sort of filter.

9. It would be possible for the Clause 17 regulations to define the interests to be declared fairly narrowly – e.g. interests where the member or an associate stood to derive "significant benefit", or perhaps "pecuniary advantage"; or for the criminal offence to be limited to this sort of interest, thus excluding many non-serious acts of non-disclosure. Nevertheless, there would still be the problem of somebody having to look at each and every complaint and make a judgement on whether it fell within this definition, and this would presumably have to be the police. So that might not help much.

9. A more convenient alternative might be to make legislative provision for the local authority to be responsible for having a first look at any complaints, with a duty to refer to the police any where there appeared to be a prima facie case of a serious offence (however defined in the regulations) having been committed. This would allow the police would be cut out altogether from at least the run-of-the mill cases, no doubt to their great relief.

February 2011