Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by Mars Omega Partnership Ltd (L 112)

I am the Independent Chairman of  the South Kesteven District Council Standards Committee and have been since 2002.  I have always said to the Council that my task was to make myself redundant.  I welcome the fact you are moving that ambition to a conclusion at some pace!

Would you consider noting that in rural authorities - we have 82 Parish and Town Councils - the burden of delegation of power will fall firmly into the laps of worthy but poorly trained volunteers, the parish clerks and local councillors.  We have around 800 of them.

The standards regime was a large hammer to crack a small nut and my main task has been to educate and train councillors on the code of conduct from the perspective of the usually indifferent British public looking in: indifferent that is until they don't like something.  The complaints we have dealt with are low level, usually founded on long standing personal frictions and finding a new champion in the standards regime.  We endeavoured, with some success to put all parties back to bed gently and encourage them to get on with the job, there rarely being any serious attempt at duplicity or deception.  It was intellectually challenging and a very sensitive matter, especially as we were dealing with unpaid volunteers in nearly every case

The threat of criminal action over failing to register or declare interests will send Parish Councils into a 'fit' initially.  Their current ability to manage an accountable register of interests and record accurate, unambiguous minutes of meetings is less than perfect - they are volunteers or paid at rates with a large voluntary element embedded.  The requirement to distinguish between a criminal act and an error of judgement will  test them substantially and I see the need for a substantial education programme conducted by the District Council. 

It would be really helpful if you would consider providing a presentation and perhaps a video that is relevant at the Parish Council level.  Please don't get lawyers to lead the production of such a package.  We need their advice, but not their language.  What we really need is common sense and in a parish context.

I am suggesting to my own Authority that while the standards committee continues to exist, our best contribution is to produce a simple voluntary code, steering firmly away from the registration and declaration of interests issues.  I am suggesting that we simplify how we deal with public complaints, taking best practice from the present arrangements.  Above all, our contribution is to get to all 82 Parish Councils and give them a simple package of training and education and let them take responsibility for the governance of their own standards. 

A professional and preferably amusing film is an ideal start to such a package on a wet night in deepest Lincolnshire.

In 10 years I have yet to find a local councillor whose heart is not firmly rooted to trying to do the best thing for the community.  I commend the light touch and the spirit of this Bill, but changing the culture to grasp the opportunity offered will be tough for a while, especially as we have taken 8 years to finally adopt the Model Code of Conduct and make it work.

February 2011