Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by Simon Sapper, Chair of the Standards Committee London Borough of Merton (L 76)

CHAPTER 5: LOCAL GOVERNMENT STANDARDS (Clauses 14-20)

 

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

2. I have three specific 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 welcome and appropriate requirement on local authorities to promote and maintain high standards of conduct. But the parallel repeal of 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, 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 share the view 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. I strongly believe that local authorities should have a power other than simple censure which I submit will be an insufficient constraint on behaviour that is not in the public interest. My preference would be for the powers to suspend or disqualify to be retained where local authorities wish it. I believe possible alternatives - such as suspension of a member’s allowances - creates an uneven playing field as those with sufficient financial means are at license to continue displaying the behaviours which attracted criticism in the first place.

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, but the demarcation between the two areas appears unclear.

7. If there was a complaint about a member failing to declare an interest, would the criminal jurisdiction take precedence? If so, one presumes that the matter would 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 I am concerned if the legislation either envisages or will lead to the practice of the police looking into every one of these complaints. This does not seem the best use of police resources

8. Alternatively, if the responsibility for initial investigation is intended to lie at the local authority level I believe this should be clarified. Whilst this would seem both pragmatic and appropriate, it is clearly not the way to manage potentially criminal matters.

9. Would it therefore be possible for the Clause 17 regulations to define the potentially criminal interests to be declared fairly narrowly – e.g. interests where the member or an associate stood to derive "significant benefit", or perhaps "pecuniary advantage", thus excluding many non-serious acts of non-disclosure. The Local Authority would, as part of this arrangement, have to maintain arrangements for assessing the merits/weight of the alleged breach 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.

10. I believe the practical and financial advantages of having a local filter of this nature outweighs the possible perversity of having potentially criminal matters dealt with at an initial stage by the local authority rather than the police. If on investigation the police found that cases referred to them do not justify any further action, they can then revert to the local authority concerned for any action as appropriate against the member under its own powers

February 2011