Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by Central Bedfordshire Council Standards (L 149)

At our meeting on 21 January the Standards Committee for Central Bedfordshire Council agreed that I should write to you on their behalf. These views have of course yet to be discussed at full Council. We understand that what we are saying is not new, but feel strongly that every attempt to modify and improve the Bill should be taken.

The complete withdrawal of a national Code of Conduct is unnecessary and dangerous. The argument that the withdrawal of enforcement powers makes the code redundant is seriously flawed. The public need to know what standards of behaviour they should expect, even if only to assist them in making decisions at the next election opportunity. Just as important, councillors need to know what is acceptable and what is not for their own security and effectiveness. Simply requiring each council to maintain "high standards of conduct", without any definition of what constitutes "high", is a recipe for disaster and loss of public confidence.

The 'promotion' of failure to declare an interest to the criminal code is potentially dangerous but in reality a meaningless token. It is a law which will not be used, as it will come very low in priority for a stretched police force and prosecution service, but if it is enforced will be a seriously excessive outcome for what can be a naive mistake by a councillor.

Larger councils such as unitary authorities have the structures to allow internal monitoring, such as party groups and officer support. Town, and especially parish councils do not. Under the present standards regime, the work of our Standards Committee has predominantly involved parish councils, and the withdrawal of this independent scrutiny leaves us more than a little concerned. This concern is increased by the additional powers and budgets proposed for such councils. Some are simply not capable of functioning, and after 2011 there will be no mechanism to deal with this. To whom will a concerned or angry resident complain?

We fully accept that the present structure will not survive, but ask that you convey our concerns, particularly over the withdrawal of the national code, and over the support and scrutiny of parish councils.

Finally, although we accept that larger councils such as our own have fewer problems and will be able to put in place effective mechanisms for ensuring ethical behaviour, we ask that ministers should accept the need for some degree of independent involvement in those mechanisms. Self-regulation is viewed with considerable cynicism by the general public, and at a time when we are all trying to rebuild public confidence in and respect for our politicians it seems a negative and dangerous policy to totally sweep away the independent scrutiny in place at present.

February 2011