Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by the Cornwall Council Standards Committee (L 141)

Localism Bill – Section 14 – 20 Ethical Standards

The Standards Committee for Cornwall Council met on Monday 7 February 2011 to discuss the changes proposed to the Ethical Standards Regime by the Localism Bill which you are now considering. The Standards Committee resolved that I should write to you to set out the comments of the Standards Committee in relation to this matter. These comments are listed below.

To give you some background; Cornwall Council was formed on 1 April 2009  and has a Standards Committee of 29 members, 10 independent representatives, 10 Town and Parish representatives and 9 Cornwall councillors. The Standards Committee oversees complaints about the 123 councillors of Cornwall Council and the 214 Town, Parish and City Councils within its jurisdiction, the largest number overseen by any Authority in England.

70 complaints were received by the Council from 1 April 2009 – 31 March 2010 and to date, 63 complaints have been received since 1 April 2010. The Council recently undertook a business process review to ensure that the way ethical standards complaints were handled was done as effectively and as efficiently as possible. On average it costs £150 in officer time to process a complaint, meaning that for the year 2009 – 2010 the cost to the Council tax payer in Cornwall for processing the complaints made to the Standards Committee was £10,500.

In considering the proposed changes to the ethical standards regime the Standards Committee looked and the pros and cons of the current system then considered sections 14 – 20 of the Localism Bill as it is currently written.

Current system – pros

1. The current system makes local councillors answerable to local people by giving the local community confidence that something can be done about a ‘rogue’ Councillor between elections. The perception of the public is this is a system that can help to police elected officials; it is free to them to exercise and is conducted in a way that allows anyone to make a complaint should they wish.

2. As a national code of conduct there is a consistent standard of behaviour for councillors set out across the country that covers all examples of poor behaviour.

3. The current system acts as a deterrent against poor behaviour and helps protect staff, in particular those in small Parish Councils.

4. All Committees which consider allegations against councillors are independently chaired and all minutes from these Committees are published giving transparency for both the public and councillors.

5. The current system, now in force for nearly 10 years has built up its own case law which allows sound advice to be given to councillors and that can be employed when complaints are considered. This has cut the number of complaints investigated and has ensured that if breaches of the code are found following an investigation these are balanced and well reasoned.

Current system - cons

6. The way the current system is framed allows for vexatious complainants to abuse the system which can result in it been manipulated by the complainant resulting in high costs for the Council tax payer.

7. Due to a lack of ‘sifting’ power for officers, that allows them to weed out vexatious complaints, all complaints made have to be processed, this makes the system unnecessarily cumbersome.

8. The system as worded can be costly in terms of the number of hours it takes to administer and it is too prescriptive and too process driven.

9. The cost of Standards for England is disproportionate compared to local costs and the functions of regulator for the system could be absorbed by the Local Government Ombudsman.

Sections 14 – 20 of the Localism Bill

10. Overall in considering the Bill the Standards Committee felt that this does not fit with the Government’s proposals for localism or the Big Society. It takes the power away from the people in terms of the ability to make a complaint, other than through a judicial process using the DPP, and this is likely to be expensive to the tax payer and hugely time consuming for all concerned. The proposed changes only consider that failure to declare or register an interest to be an offence that should be acted upon while, in reality, there are many other examples of poor behaviour and bullying that are now either overlooked or considered acceptable by those drafting the Bill. Turning to the sections of the Bill;

11. Section 15. This states that an authority must promote and maintain ethical standards but Bill only gives the DPP the authority to maintain. The Standards Committee consider that the ‘must’ obligation that is placed on a local authority to maintaining ethical standards is essential to ensuring public confidence in the system but an authority has to be given the opportunity to maintain.

12. Section 16. The standards Committee have concerns about the lack of sanctions in this section and the fact that there is no obligation to follow a national code. As written the Bill has the potential to allow 215 different codes of conduct in Cornwall which would lead to greater confusion on the part of the public as to what code is being employed and when, and in the long term would be unsustainable.

13. It is unlikely that many Parish Councils would adopt a code, as the Parish Council would be responsible for overseeing it and this would place too great a burden on the Clerk. Were this to be outsourced it would increase the local precept to cover the costs of running the new system. At the moment the code of conduct is the only way a member of the public can complain about a Parish Council as they do not come under the remit of the Local Government Ombudsman. It should be noted that the local community would have no say as to whether their Council adopted the code.

14. A national code, similar to the current one, set out and administered centrally would ensure a consistent standard and take the burden from Councils while at the same time allow local communities to be able to take action should they consider a Councillor has erred. However, the Standards Committee do not wish to see the a continuation of the current regime but a system that allows complaints to be sifted in order to ensure that those that are vexatious, or can be resolved by an apology are dealt with by the Monitoring Officer. It is estimated that should this method be employed in Cornwall it would cut the number of complaints referred to the Standards Committee by 70%. Had this method been employed in the year 2009 – 2010 the cost of considering ethical standards complaints in Cornwall would have been £3,150. It is doubted that if all, or even a high percentage, of Councils were to adopt their own code in Cornwall it could be administered so efficiently.

15. There is an increasing problem with attracting new councillors, particularly at a Parish Council level. The Standards Committee consider that a national standard of behaviour would help to encourage new councillors as it ensures that they can engage in robust debate without such debates becoming over zealous or personally abusive.

16. Section 17. The Standards Committee welcome the suggestions for declaring and registering interests but in terms of sanctions that can be employed by a local authority they consider that there should be an opportunity to remove a member from a particular committee or, in extreme cases to suspend a member. The Bill is mute as to what actions can be employed should a sanction be handed to a Councillor and the Councillor refuse to comply. Should no further sanction be available this would render the system useless. The Standards Committee consider that sanctions need to be robust, when required, to be effective and to deter poor behaviour.

17. While the Standards Committee appreciates the concern that the failure to correctly register and declare an interest can bring to a local community it is considered that the use of the DPP in such situations is disproportionate in all but the most extreme of cases. The cost of taking the matter through the courts would remove any savings that may be gained from altering the code as it is proposed and would result in the councillor concerned gaining a criminal record further acting as a deterrent to other people stepping forwards to represent their community, again this is disproportionate in all but the most extreme of cases. The Standards Committee have noted that there is now a large cut in police resources due to cost cutting and have questioned what resources would be made available to investigate such matters. In reality the Standards Committee have genuine concerns that given the cost and time it would take to bring a matter to court it is highly unlikely that prosecutions would be brought thereby rendering this part of the code mute.

18. The Standards Committee consider that the current system of local hearings conducted locally allowing the local community to attend and give evidence in an informal tribunal style setting with the Councillor able to represent himself if he so wishes to be the most effective and efficient means of holding a hearing into potential breaches of the code.

February 2011