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2.45 pm

Lord Graham of Edmonton: The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has raised an interesting and important aspect of local government. The question to ask is whether, having scrapped these provisions, we have anything to put in their place. If matters are not dealt with locally, they have to be considered in some other way. All the examples that the noble Lord has given resonate with me, not because I was involved in or had knowledge of such things, but because I understand how these things can happen. The person who is clueless about the possibility that they might be maligned, misunderstood or stood up before they get on to the council is really naive. We all know what

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human nature is and we all know about politics: it is about power. If the manner in which one achieves power attracts people who indulge in what you and I would call distasteful practices, that is the way it is. You are not going to change human nature. However, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is right to ensure that we hear from the Minister about experiences that may guide us on the relevance of all this.

I have declared almost redundant interests in local government over the years, although I am still in touch. I have been to events at which things are said, alleged or pursued that I can honestly say from my point of view ought not to have been, because one has to be robust in local government. I am not talking about matters in the Chamber. One might get very heated and use illustrations, but one should have the grace to withdraw if one is challenged and if, on reflection, what one has said proves to be untrue. But here we are talking about very sensitive matters over which some people can become much more distressed than perhaps I or the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, might. The question therefore is: is it right that they should be so protected that those who wish to pursue a matter, maybe a vendetta, are warned off for being unchivalrous or ungenerous? Quite frankly, I do not think that that protection needs to be provided.

My final point on this issue is that when you stand for election at any level, you should expect some nastiness in one form or another to come your way. That is not to say that you deserve it but, human nature being what it is, it will happen. One therefore needs to have a method of resolving this kind of problem. To that end, we are constantly looking for solutions to problems before they get to court or progress to a higher level in the form of libel, stories in the newspapers and so on. In my view, the papers are far harsher today, so I will be interested in what the Minister says about practice.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has regaled us with evidence, and I can understand how such things could happen. It is regrettable that they do. But we still need a means of resolution. The noble Lord talked about allegations made against chief officers or senior officers of bullying members and people feeling that they are being hectored. But of course that can also happen the other way around. Some officers have a reputation for trying to run a committee, and that is either resented or people just bow down to the pressure. We are talking about character traits and a certain manner of doing things. But in the end it is the councillors who call the shots, and the councillors whom I know both in London and elsewhere are robust enough to know their rights. As far as I am concerned, if this amendment is passed and the provision is repealed, I wonder how we are to provide a forum in which these matters can be resolved.

Baroness Hanham: I find it difficult to support this amendment. I understand what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, means, but I have always interpreted this part as being the end of a long road. Most people will put up with quite a lot, but eventually somebody breaks and says, “I can’t go on”. There must be a system whereby they can appeal to somebody else.

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The fact that the Standards Board is now being repatriated and brought back into a more local focus on the council means that these questions can be dealt with by the local standards board—the council and the independent member of that standards board—in an immediate and far less public way. It has always seemed to me that going to the Standards Board for England is a step too far. It is far too important and far too over the top. However, local standards boards or committees can handle something like this. Where there is evidence, or even just a feeling, that somebody is being treated badly and that there is a history of that, a mechanism such as this is necessary, so I do not support the amendment.

Baroness Hamwee: My noble friend did not say that this is party policy. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, asked how we would deal with things if we did not have a Standards Board for England, but it is only seven years old. The world kept on turning, although there were problems of conduct that led the Government to believe, possibly in response to difficulties in Labour-run authorities as well as in others, that some sort of standards regime, such as the one they put in place, was required.

There are three powerful influences on how a councillor conducts himself. There are the influence of his colleagues and the issue of reputation, which are much better dealt with within the authority by his colleagues, and there are elections. The Standards Board for England has developed a culture that will be hard to change. It is pity that as we move towards local determination, which I strongly support, it still has some involvement. It will be hard to change that culture. As the noble Lord, Lord Graham, said, the board deals with sensitive matters, but it has not always dealt with them sensitively. With sanctions up to and including disqualification from office—being barred from standing for office—this is serious stuff.

One of my colleagues on the London Assembly said, “Hasn’t everybody been referred to the Standards Board at some point?”, which shows how it is regarded. I have not been referred, but I have frequently thought, “There but for the grace of God go I”, because that has been overdone. My noble friend asked whether it has made a difference and went on to say that he would not talk about the London Borough of Islington case because we could be here all day. I declare an interest because I was a witness in that case. It made a difference in the toll that it took on those who were involved—the councillors who were referred and an individual who was a third party—and it took a huge toll financially, which was eventually largely paid by the council tax payer. The Mayor of London case is the other big case, although a number of small cases have gone into folklore. The Mayor of London case was separate. The adjudication panel that took the final decision was largely responsible for moving the whole thing on because it was so absurd. It was seen to be absurd by the London Assembly, which had unanimously called on the Mayor to apologise over the comments in question, but felt that to suspend him was an absurd reaction and completely over the top. That was not

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the adjudication panel or the Standards Board, but it was part and parcel of the same cultural approach.

As we have heard, we have monitoring officers, some of whom are overzealous about ward issues. They may possibly be overanxious and their zealotry may come from anxiety about what they should be doing. My noble friend mentioned planning. The standards code will reduce that problem a little, but it does not deal with balancing conflicts of interests with proper ward representation. An awful lot is wrong with the system, and a lot of it stems from the way in which the Standards Board set itself up and went about this. It would be better if it went, which is not to say that councillors should misbehave; that is not what we are saying at all.

Baroness Hanham: My understanding is that situations such as this, where there may be a complaint against a councillor by an officer or the other way round, would never go near the Standards Board for England. It would go to the local standards council. It is on that basis that I do not support the amendment. There has been a lot wrong with the Standards Board for England and if it vanished without trace nobody would miss it, but I want to be clear that this would be a locally determined matter that would be taken against the background of doing precisely what the noble Baroness suggested, which is local councillors looking over their colleagues.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): This was an interesting debate that was full of real common sense. In moving his amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, spoke about the situation as it is has pertained to date, not about the new regime, which is exactly as the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, described it. Everything will start off at the local level and there will not be a circular process of things being referred up, coming back down and so on. The monitoring officer and the local standards committee will deal with the first challenge and only in very specific circumstances will a case be referred to the Standards Board. That is the context.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was right when she said that the most effectual methods of disciplining behaviour and raising standards are the culture of the council, constituency pressure and elections. However, there has to be a discipline for instances where those all fail and things go wrong. My noble friend Lord Graham and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, were right that there are instances where people behave badly, and there have to be arrangements for that. The reason why we have those arrangements was set out in the Graham report, which looked at the operation of the national standards board and came to other conclusions. It made the point that this was better done at a local level. We have followed those recommendations.

This amendment would sweep away any ethical regime. The noble Lord said that he does not expect us to accept it and, once again, he is right. However, he has raised interesting questions about the sociopathology of local politics and what one can do to achieve integrity and good behaviour while at the

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same time having a discipline regime that takes care of vulnerable people and people who misbehave.

The noble Lord asked whether this has made a difference. One could argue that there is evidence that, if it had not made a difference, there would have been more reference to the Standards Board itself. Recent research indicates that 93 per cent of councillors support the code of conduct—what it is there to do and how it does it. Eighty per cent said that maintaining high standards is one of the most important issues in which they are involved. One can see why when one considers the fact that many people feel that the conduct of members is one of the most important issues for authorities. Trust is low, and we return again and again in our discussions on the Bill and in the House to how to restore and nourish trust in politics as a whole, and to the connection between the elector and the councillor or politician. Indeed, the health of our democratic institutions depends on trust, and poor behaviour by a small number of people can have a disproportionate and damaging effect. It is also interesting that 44 per cent of councillors also said that they thought that standards had increased in recent years. That is a significant percentage. It seems that more people would prefer to have this than not to have it.

3 pm

Baroness Hamwee: I ask the Minister to distinguish between the code of conduct and the Standards Board for England. They are different.

Baroness Andrews: That is absolutely right. I take that point. The amendment does not envisage substituting the ethical regime that we have now with any other arrangements. In that case, it would remove local government from many other parts of the public sector that have ethical codes that we expect people to abide by. There is no reason why local government should be exempt, but that is the nature of the amendment. We take the point that the current regime has been attacked for being overly bureaucratic and centralised and lacking in local ownership. Our proposals are designed to tackle that. On the trivial nature of complaints, to which noble Lords have drawn attention, the Standards Board rejects straightaway 75 per cent of the complaints that it receives and there is no investigation, so there is clearly a mechanism for filtering out trivial challenges. Again, we take the point that one cannot control human nature and that there are always unpredictable situations, but our proposals are very much based on the conviction that high standards of conduct are more likely to be maintained if local authorities take most of the decisions about conduct.

Noble Lords also talked about the culture at the Standards Board. I believe that such a culture is much more likely in a local situation in which people know the people involved and where it may be possible to take a more proportionate, more sensitive and more commonsensical approach. This will be helped a lot by the fact that we have introduced independent chairmen on standards committees for local areas. That is an important development. Moreover, if people feel that they are not going to get a fair deal from the standards

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committees, they can always refer their complaint to the Standards Board, which, under the new regulatory rule, will look carefully at any complaints that are made about the behaviour of standards committees. Indeed, part of the Standards Board’s function will be to offer guidance and support to generate better and more consistent practice in the operation of standards committees. That is one reason why we want the Standards Board to remain.

The system will be less bureaucratic and will promote greater ownership. It will make the role of the Standards Board at local level more transparent and more likely to promote and maintain a culture of high standards of behaviour. For that reason, I cannot accept the amendment. We believe in the need to maintain consistent standards across the country, retaining the Standards Board very much as a light-touch regulator to oversee the consistent operation of the new committees.

The noble Lord asked a couple of other questions. We are aware of the issue of conflicts of interest when a councillor represents his electors. He will know that the code of conduct was recently revised to make it clearer and more proportionate, which has certainly been welcomed. The regime is more relaxed about personal and prejudicial interests, to allow councillors to speak up. That was overdue. I ask him to bear in mind the principles that we are trying to follow in this revised regime—namely, local ownership, local control, being more sensitive, learning the lessons of the Standards Board and being careful about trivial complaints and litigious elements—while maintaining the Standards Board but as a lighter-touch body, as I said. I think that the balance is right. It has certainly been welcomed and I hope that the noble Lord will be able to live with this as it develops.

Lord Greaves: I thought that the Minister was going to invite me to withdraw the amendment, but she invites me to live with this. I have absolutely no choice but to live with it as a local authority councillor. This will be very interesting, because it will develop differently in different places. I repeat my usual mantra that all councils are different and all have different cultures, and that the culture of standards committees will evolve within the framework that has been laid down. I am a passionate advocate of local councils and local government, but there are still some pretty awful local councils, so there will be some pretty awful standards committees. It is up to everyone who is active in those areas to be very vigilant about those and to replace them.

I have three very quick points to make. There is a stage before reference on which current guidance seems to be lacking, and if the new system is to work well it really must stress it strongly. That stage is mediation. There may be a big row between a councillor and a council official at whatever level. A senior councillor might quite wrongly be trying to bully a low-level member of staff, a senior member of staff might be trying to bully a new councillor, or it might simply be a good old-fashioned row. Good old-fashioned rows often involve what might be called behaving badly. That never happens in your Lordships’ House, of course, but it happens everywhere else in the world. It

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certainly happens down the Corridor. There is nothing wrong intrinsically with good old-fashioned rows, so long as they do not take over and become the dominant factor in a situation. It is part of human life. One only has to read Alastair Campbell’s diaries to discover that people in high places are behaving badly all the time. It is life; it is politics.

If a council officer or a councillor is complaining about the behaviour of another councillor or council officer, there need to be probably informal processes locally for mediation. Sometimes, that is done within political groups. Group leaders will get together and say, “Look, there has been a bit of a problem here. Can we sort it out and just calm things down please?” Sometimes it will be done by senior staff of the council. It happens all the time. The problem is that the number of cases that could be referred in this kind of situation is a huge proportion of the tiny fraction of cases that do get referred, because most are dealt with sensibly.

If a senior councillor is trying to persuade a junior officer to do something that has not been agreed and is against council policy or whatever, the obvious thing for that junior officer to do is to go to his or her senior and, if necessary, go right to the top. You sort the problem out that way. You do not invoke legalistic processes that bring the whole thing into the local press and bring the authority into disrepute when it can be sorted out locally. That is my main point.

I am not sure that the new system has adequate rights of appeal against decisions of local standards committees. Obviously, we do not want everyone appealing, but there has to be a safeguard in the system for when local standards committees are not doing it right. As I understand it, the only right of appeal is to go to the courts and about 99 per cent of people would not have the ability, wish or finance to do that.

Like everyone else, we wish the new system a fair wind. We hope that it will be much better, but we will be watching it very carefully. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 184 [Conduct that may be covered by code]:

[Amendment No. 235AC not moved.]

Baroness Scott of Needham Market moved Amendment No. 235B:

The noble Baroness said: The previous amendment and the next group of amendments relate to big issues of high principle. This very small amendment concerns drafting. The Bill refers to,

What does that mean? The word “include” suggests that there might be other principles as well, but we do not know that or what they might be. Does it mean that there will be other principles which are applied only sometimes or to some people? Where is this term used and what does it mean? I beg to move.

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Baroness Andrews: Clause 184, which these amendments seek to amend, provides for the principles which govern the conduct of local councillors and the terms of the code of conduct which they should follow to include principles and provisions which apply at all times. Amendments Nos. 235B, 236A and 237A in this group are obviously related. They amend Clause 184 by providing that the principles governing the conduct of members and the provisions of the model code are limited to principles and provisions that apply at all times.

The intention behind the amendments is probing, as the noble Baroness said; that is, what is meant by the word “include” rather than for a specific limiting requirement to be imposed to indicate that specifically only these arrangements apply. We would be worried that the amendment imposes a barrier to what could be added or would reduce flexibility. The word “include” is deliberately used because we may want to have flexibility in future.

I am prepared to say to the noble Baroness—I will be saying it on the next amendment—that I will take away the issues that she raises because I can see what she is getting at. I think that they relate to the next group, which was originally grouped with these amendments because of the interface between public and private life. I shall be happy to consider the implications of what she is saying on this.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: I am grateful to the noble Baroness. These important provisions carry a heavy sanction and operate within a quasi-legal framework. It is important to have a watertight and widely understood Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3.15 pm

Baroness Scott of Needham Market moved Amendment No. 236:

The noble Baroness said: This more substantive amendment is designed to give the Minister a chance to clarify the situation regarding the private behaviour of elected members in terms of the code of conduct. As we have already heard from my noble friend Lady Hamwee, the most high profile case of private behaviour being used as grounds for bringing the council into disrepute concerns Ken Livingstone, but there have been a number of others.

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