Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140
TUESDAY 22 JUNE 1999
140. On standards?
(Councillor Lord Hanningfield) As I have
just said, the provisions of the Bill are very strong indeed.
We are saying they are almost too complicated. I certainly think
they would cover the planning worries that you have just brought
up. I do not see any problem there. I support totally what Nolan
said about it.
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) Within the Bill there
is a framework for the Code of Conduct on which hopefully we will
be working jointly with the Government which will have to cover
issues such as planning. In fact, we produced some very good guidance
on planning two or three years ago. The old Association came up
with that. In addition, of course, under the proposed new structure
the planning committee or the body which takes the relevant control
decisions within the council will not have serving upon it members
of the executive. That is quite an important safeguard which goes
some way to meet the concerns that you have expressed.
141. Can we perhaps just pick up on the issue
which was raised in a previous session. Presumably you do not
see the executive as being excluded from planning in the wider
sense, the planning policy, strategic planning, or do you?
(Councillor Lord Hanningfield) The executive
will always be taking the major decisions. If it came to something
like an airport or something they would be the ones who would
be looking at the expansion of an airport or something like that.
Obviously the scrutiny committee would be the ones who would be
challenging that I am sure. The new planning committee will be
doing the day to day decisions on waste disposal or gravel extraction
or something like that which would be outside the executive.
142. As you see it the executive would be people
who would be making the input into the authority's strategic plan,
its development plan?
(Councillor Lord Hanningfield) Yes, that
143. And deciding where it was residential,
where were the business districts, etc.
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) Development
control decisions would not be taken by any member of the executive.
144. No. In a sense the big decisions have been
taken in advance.
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) I might
be the only ex leader here who can confirm that development control
committees even under the present regime do not necessarily follow
the full policy guidelines.
Chairman: Normally to the intense irritation
of the leader of the council.
145. I want to come back to the standards and
who scrutinises. Do you not think that there are lessons to be
learned from what you are proposing in the sense that self-regulation
in this place has been less than effective in some respects and
that local government could be in danger of advocating self-regulation
and is open to the same possible problems?
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) We are
not suggesting that. We are looking at a screening process which
would hopefully make sense of what could be a bureaucratic nightmare
if there is a huge flood of cases going straight into the national
machinery and they are having to be filtered and then some sent
back and some dealt with and it could be very cumbersome. I think
it would be unacceptable to the public if the filtering were conducted
by elected members of the authority, that would not make sense.
On the other hand, if you had a scrutiny committee with some independent
members onand Camden, incidently, have appointed an entirely
independent standards committee and the Bill would not allow thatthe
initial screening could be done by those independent members.
If they thought it could be dealt with locally then it would be
given to the standards committee. If it were referred on then
so be it. I think it would be worth at least trying that for a
period. I cannot see any disadvantage in doing it that way. The
Ombudsman was very clear in the hearings that unless there is
some sort of screening the system could simply come under strain.
(Councillor Lord Hanningfield) There will be a lot
of frivolous ones. I can think of one where they wanted a lollipop
lady in a village and they have not got it. They will use every
single way of trying to get it and they will use the new standards
committee to try and get it and if you are not careful you will
get hundreds of complaints from people who have not been able
to achieve what they want through the democratic processes and
the financial processes we have got now just making some complaint,
although it is not supposed to be on that level at all. It could
cost tens of millions of pounds to set it up in the way the national
standards committee is set up at the moment with its large bureaucracy
and also take years to get through it all and therefore we are
saying there should be some local system, even not elected councillors,
but local people who could sieve these and send up the ones that
are really important for the standards committee to look at.
Ms Moran: It might be an administrative argument
for screening but that could be done separately at a national
level as well as other than at the local level. Local government
has always been seen as the flagship of probity and standards
and so on. Is there not a danger that there will be wide variations
in the effectiveness of screening at a local level which might
lead to undermining the whole process? I am speaking as one who
is generally in favour of devolving to the lowest possible on
everything except on standards because I think there is too much
at stake on this one.
Chairman: Before you answer perhaps I could
ask Lord Carnarvon to put his point.
Earl of Carnarvon
146. I imagine that each individual local authority
would have its own standing orders so that the standards committee
will be adjudicating or acting within the standing orders of the
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) And the
national Code of Conduct.
147. Of course. Just as a matter of interest,
on declaring interests, do most local authorities now ask the
member to leave the room?
(Councillor Sir David Williams) They
have to do by law.
148. It is now by law.
(Councillor Sir David Williams) Unless
the committee decides otherwise on a very minor case.
149. That must be something new since my day.
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) This
area of declaration of interest is fraught with complexity and
it is one of the things that needs to be resolved, as Nolan pointed
out, in the new national code.
150. Is that something that you will be looking
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) Yes.
151. Could I have an answer to my question about
variations in scrutiny at a local level?
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) It is
not impossible that there would be variations, but it is not impossible
either for that to occur, for example, in the Ombudsman system
now. There are different views taken by Ombudsmen in what seems
to be on the face of it similar circumstances. The point is, however,
that to fall within the remit of the standards committee or the
national body that would be established by the Bill there would
have to be a prima facie breach of the Code of Conduct
and that will set out those matters because this is what it is
concerned with, it is only concerned with conduct at the moment
and that would set out the duties of members and it is only if
a connection can be made with all of those that the matter should
be referred either locally or nationally depending on the gravity.
So I cannot really see that in principle it is going to be all
that difficult. Conversely, if the thing was handled nationallyI
do not know how many people would be recruited for the purposethey
could simply be overloaded. In my own profession and the Chairman's
we have had ample experience of massive complaints of an under-resourced
national body endeavouring to deal with it. I think you are likely
to get a more effective turn around if it begins at local level
with screening out things which are obviously capable of being
dealt with locally or are deemed to be completely outside the
(Councillor Lord Hanningfield) That would not be local
152. Can we hear from Mr Gee and Sir David who
wanted to add briefly to what has been said.
(Councillor Gee) First of all, let me
make it quite clear that I do support the standards committee
and, indeed, we have established it but at the moment are looking
for an independent chairman, which I think is extremely important,
with the ability to assess the situation and make a decision.
I believe that the vast majority of decisions have got to be determined
locally and only in very serious cases should they be moved on
upwards. I believe that standards committees should be able to
tell a member whether they are breaching the Code of Conduct or
not. At the moment it is left very much to the member, you make
your own decision, and very often it is difficult. Planning was
mentioned and I have to say that at the moment even the new rules
that are coming in make it extremely difficult. A pecuniary interest
or an interest with somebody doing something next door to them
is no problem, that is obvious, but there are other ambiguities
within the paper at the moment which have got to be determined
and have got to be decided on. I shall be following it up through
other channels, this particular issue about planning, because
I have already had several members on to me saying: "I am
now totally confused about the new rules". Essentially I
believe that things should be dealt with locally and quickly.
Nothing is worse than expecting a member who could be criticised,
quite wrongly, to wait weeks or months for the issue to be decided.
It must be decided locally wherever possible.
153. I think we are going to have to adjourn
very shortly so, Sir David, did you want to add anything or not?
(Councillor Sir David Williams) One of
the two points that I was going to make Ron Gee has made about
the long delay and clouds hanging over members of local authorities.
The second point that I just want to respond to is that it is
interesting that planning committees, development control committees,
are expected to continue and not be subsumed by the executive.
The point is that it has been a very open procedure, an open part
of local government's business, because it is so contentious and
it is so difficult. As all of us who have been on local authorities
know, you get the contentious planning application which can be
merely somebody's house extension and if you approve it you will
upset one person or thousands, if you refuse it you will upset
another block of people, so you have to absolutely make sure you
do the best you possibly can on the policy framework and so on.
Margaret Moran asked a point about whether we are self-adjudicating.
Just remember the difference between Members of Parliament and
local councillors. When under the former Government the Minister
for Corporate Probity was found to be acting for commercial interests
improperly he simply went to the back benches; if that happened
to a local councillor under the present legislation we could be
fined, we could be surcharged, we could be disqualified from office,
we could be imprisoned, or any combination of all those four.
That is the present legislation. The final point I make about
this is that you have to have planning procedures as open as possible,
which is what we managed to achieved in Richmond-upon-Thames,
under the procedures largely decided by Lady Hamwee when she chaired
the planning committee in Richmond, I had a neighbour come to
me after a planning application that he was very much against
in the road in which I lived, so I took no part in it whatsoever
I am glad to say, and he said to me: "I have to say, David,
I do not agree with the decision you took but I do admire the
procedure you went through". If we can get that with any
local government changes we are not doing too badly.
154. I accept that in the planning process there
are very considerable constraints on individual councillors misbehaving
and obviously on planning officers as well, but I would remind
you of what Nolan particularly said: "We have particular
concern about planning gain and about local authorities granting
themselves planning permission." That, it seems to me, at
the moment is not dealt with in the Bill and I would have thought
it ought to be.
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) I think
it is really a matter for planning legislation, but in practice
many such decisions are called in by the Secretary of State.
155. Two things. One, Nolan in the report that
has been referred to suggested that there were not many problems
and yet then constructed quite an elaborate system to solve those
problems. We are now hearing from the evidence today that you
are expecting a huge flood of cases. How do we equate these two
things, Nolan saying there were not many problems yet putting
in place the system and you now saying there is going to be a
lot of cases? Secondly, how do you actually guarantee the independence
of these independent members on standards committees?
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) On the
first point, Nolan gave local government a clean bill of health
particularly on areas of fraud and detection. However, if he set
up a complaints system inviting complaints about members' conduct
short of corruption and fraud, which are criminal offences, one
should not be surprised because it is the experience of everybody
that has done it, from the National Society to the Health Service
and others besides, that if you do not get a great many complaints,
most of which will on examination be shown not to be valid in
terms of disclosing a breach of the national Code of Conduct.
If you set up shop you expect passing trade and that will undoubtedly
happen. As to how you guarantee the independence, one can go on
forever devising appointment systems for independent members of
scrutiny committees. What you would need is some guidance produced
by the Association and the Department perhaps in conjunction with
professional bodies like the Law Society, for example, perhaps
establishing panels from such bodies, people who would be willing
to serve and making sure that they serve for a limited number
of years, three or four years, but this kind of detailed stuff
is properly the subject of guidance which we would be happy to
embark on discussions with the Government on.
156. What do you think can be done to stop people
trying to pursue a complaint through the Auditor, the Standards
Commission and the Ombudsman? Do you think there should be some
kind of revision of the procedures and some kind of territory
staked out? Does local government think there ought to have been
a resolution to surcharge procedures before these new procedures
came into being?
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) We certainly
think that the surcharge procedures ought to be changed and the
surcharge abolished and a new offence, which I think was foreshadowed
in the White Paper, brought into being. I gather the Home Office
is now looking at this, so we might expect some resolution in
the course of the next 20 years or so! The first question was?
157. Whether we should do something to avoid
people pursuing complaints through umpteen different channels.
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) I think
it would be wrong to anticipate at this stage. I think we should
see how it works first. We certainly want to discuss with the
Ombudsman this potential overlap because he is concerned about
it. I would not like to rush to a judgment about that without
seeing whether our fears are justified and what kind of verbal
output there might be. It is an area that I think we will need
to return to.
(Mr Briscoe) The way in which an individual can pursue
a complaint to an Ombudsman is only through the authority's complaints
procedure and the complaints procedure needs to be exhausted before
a case can go to the Ombudsman. The only way in which an individual
can pursue a case of audit is after the accounts have been audited
and they have a standing in relation to the audited accounts,
which is fairly simple and often the cause of frivolous complaint
but they are relatively small in number. The problem with this
new arrangement is that it will provide for everyone an opportunity
to complain about something and connect it with the conduct of
a councillor. That makes for a very potentially large number of
cases. There is no such thing as a frivolous complaint when you
receive it, you have to deal with it sensibly, and that means
if there are, as there are in authorities, a very large number
of complaints as a matter of normal business, the way in which
most of those complaints are resolved is by gradually working
through the authority's complaints procedure and settling the
matter with the complainant in one way or another and finally
a small tip of the iceberg gets to the Ombudsman. It is that kind
of mechanism that we believe would be a more sensible use of the
resources than one large national machine to deal with what could
be a very, very large number of cases. Authorities will, of course,
always have a monitoring officer and if we have an established
Code of Conduct for every authority based on a national code then
it ought to be possible to describe fairly carefully what is a
breach of the Code and for the monitoring officer in the authority
to give advice to the independent members of the standards committee
as to what action it would be appropriate for them to take. There
would still be the opportunity for that matter, if it was not
resolved satisfactorily, to go on to some national procedure but
at least you would be filtering out perhaps some of the more frivolous
and vexatious complaints which undoubtedly can occur in political
Earl of Carnarvon
158. On officer recommendations, publishing
officer recommendations, you were a little ambiguous. Perhaps
it would be kinder to say that you were leaving it to the local
authority. Is that really right? Ought you not to come out and
say: "yes, we think officer recommendations should be published",
particularly in planning applications or perhaps regarding children's
homes where it might be different? It seems to me that officer
recommendations should be available to the public.
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) This
is a personal view and it is not an Association view. I do tend
to that view certainly in relation to planning recommendations,
I think that is an important consideration. I think our Association's
position is that it ought to be left to local discretion but I
think many of us would wish to exercise that discretion in the
way that I have described, that of providing the information.
159. Why do you think it should be left to local
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) I think
in general we are in favour of leaving matters to local discretion.
Personally I would rather that recommendations were made available.
I cannot at this stage speak for the Association.
Earl of Carnarvon
160. Has SOLACE come out on this one in any
(Mr Briscoe) SOLACE has a view about
the giving of advice. The White Paper actually suggests that in
some of the models, particularly the directly elected mayor model,
it would be possible for officers to give advice in private, and
indeed presumably it would be possible for elected mayors to have
advice other than that that would normally come from the impartial
part of local government and that would be in private. That is
what the model envisages. It is similar in that respect to the
Whitehall and Westminster model. I think there may be a debate
about that and it is not appropriate for an officer to give an
opinion on that, other than to say
(Councillor Lord Hanningfield) Just say it is your
(Mr Briscoe) Other than to say that if the system
is to work effectively and have public confidence then I suspect
that it will not be helpful for advice to be given in private
and locked away for 30 years.
Earl of Carnarvon: I could not agree more.
Chairman: May I thank you, Sir Jeremy, and your
colleagues for attending the Joint Committee. Thank you for bearing
with all of our questions and giving us so much time, we are very