Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by Taunton Deane Borough Council’s Standards Committee (L 90)

1. Taunton Deane Borough Council is a district council based in Taunton, Somerset. The Council has had a Standards Committee prior to the Local Government Act 2000 and considers itself as a very forward thinking committee. The Committee sees its role very much as the conscience of the Local authority and is always happy to work with the borough councillors and the parish councillors in a way that helps to ensure that the Council maintains high ethical standards. In this regard the Committee has been held in high regard nationally for the work that it carries out with its town and parish councils and this has gone a long way in ensuring that there have been a low level of complaints against councillors generally and in particular no complaints have been received against parish councillors.

2. The Standards Committee at Taunton Deane Borough Council have therefore considered the proposed changes set out in chapter 5 of the Bill and have a number of comments/observations that they would like the Scrutiny committee to consider in this regard.

3. The Standards Committee has grave concerns regarding the abolition of a mandatory code of conduct as they believe that this will lead to a great deal of inconsistencies and confusion for members of all authorities and will not help to support the duty to promote and maintain high ethical standards. There are currently discussions taking place between all authorities within Somerset to assess whether members would like to sign up to a voluntary local code of conduct in order to try to maintain some consistency.

4. However it is possible that at parish level in particular, that some parishes will not want to sign up to a voluntary code of conduct but some will and this will again create inconsistencies for some of the Council’s members who are dual and triple hatted, if they do not sign up to the same code as other authorities this will lead to a great deal of confusion for all concerned.

5. There are a number of dangers that the Standards Committee believe will arise from the removal of a mandatory code and they are as follows:-

a. Some authorities will want a code and others will not therefore creating inconsistencies and confusion for both officers advising members and members as stated above. At a time when authorities are being encouraged to work together and be as consistent as possible to reduce costs this is likely to create a greater financial burden in both time and resources.

b. There is a danger members could find themselves in breach of the code possibly unwittingly if there is not a consistent code.

c. It is anticipated that some of the advisory organisations such as ACSeS, LGA or the National Association for Parish councils are likely to want to draft a model code therefore most authorities are likely to adopt such a code which begs the question that there should be something left in place.

d. It is noted that although the current code of conduct could benefit from some amendments it is felt that to remove it altogether is a retrograde step and the majority of members would like to see it stay as it provides a framework to help members do their job.

6. If, as is expected, Taunton Deane maintains a code of conduct and Standards Committee, then it is felt that to remove most of the sanctions from the Committee is also a retrograde step. Currently the Standards Committee have a range of sanctions available to them ranging from a censure up to suspension of a member for up to six months. The Committee believe that the removal of these sanctions will mean that there is no real deterrent for any member who breaches the code of conduct and there are a range of areas where a member may breach the code of conduct and a censure would not be suitable. For example, the Council had a member who was disqualified for inappropriate use of council IT equipment and currently under the new proposals if this were to occur the Standards Committee would be able to do nothing more than reprimand that councillor whereas if it were a member of staff they would be dismissed, therefore creating real inconsistencies between members and officers. The committee would like to see the range of sanctions currently in place remain at the very least although in the spirit of localism believes that they should also have the power of disqualification should the situation warrant it as there are times when to wait until the next election may be too long which could impact on the reputation and credibility of the authority concerned.

7. There is currently no appeals process being suggested in the bill which from a human rights perspective seems to be inappropriate and therefore it is suggested that there could be a right of appeal to may be the Local Government Ombudsman as a higher body that also oversees the conduct of local authorities and therefore would sit well with their current functions.

8. With regard to the criminal sanction being suggested in the bill, the Committee believe that this is a very draconian measure and that there is a gap in the range of sanctions between the reprimand for a breach of a code of conduct and the offence of failing to register an interest. There is concern that should a member fail to register an interest that the DPP will not want to deal with a case which they would no doubt see as relatively minor depending on the nature of that failure to register. In the committee’s experience, members are very good at registering their interests, and therefore does not see the need for this sanction other than in extremely serious situations. It is also noted that there are likely to be further regulations therefore the lack of detail at this stage is not helpful but the Committee believe that the range of interests to be registered at present is sufficient.

9. It is noted that there is nothing in bill to cover the situations of vexatious litigants which has been a problem for a neighbouring authority and the Committee feel that this should be addressed.

10. The Standards Committee would be grateful if the Scrutiny committee would take their views in to account but should any further information be required they would be more than happy to assist.

February 2011