Filed under: Politics
For once, and probably only once, I find myself in full agreement with John Hemming [pause for sharp intake of breath] on the subject of the Standards Board and the current Code of Conduct for Councillors.
As a principle the idea that Councillors should be accountable for their actions in between times where that accountability is vested in the electorate is no bad thing. Public Office brings with it certain duties and responsibilities, in terms of conduct, which we have right to expect our elected representatives to adhere to - I think everyone would agree with that.
Equally I think that most, if not all, would agree that the list of principles defined by the Nolan Commission on Standards in Public Life sets exactly the right tone for what should be our legitimate expectations of those holding public office - although this has since been extended and adjusted so that honesty and integrity are presented as a single principle and Stewardship, Personal Judgement, Respect for Others and a Duty to Uphold the Law have been added to the list.
The problem starts, however, when you realise that of more than 3,700 complaints last year only a quarter were actually referred for investigation and in only half of those cases are the complaints upheld and action taken.
Reading through some of the complaints - there’s a full archive on the Standards Board’s website - it clear that many are obviously trivial, relate to matters which have nothing whatsoever to do with a Councillor’s public office and in some cases appear simply malicious.
It also seems to the be the case that the mere existence of the Standards Board and the Code of Conduct has become a vehicle by which Council Officers and even other Councillors now regard themselves as being above personal criticism even within the context of Council Meetings - Councillors do not have the same rights of privilage on statements made in the Council Chamber that Members of Parliament have on the floor of the Commons which seems rather an anomaly as both are largely in same line of business, its only really the scale of interests which is different.
Its an unfortunate and I think unhealthy fact of life that were I a councillor then much of the political ‘knockabout’ between myself [and others] and John Hemming over the course of the recent election campaign could easily have landed me up ‘on a charge’ before the Standards Committee for I was, and I suspect, John too, would consider nothing more than than the usual hurly burly of political discourse which goes on, legitmately, during election campaigns.
Equally at least one of the ‘principles’ set out for Councillors seems entirely at odds with the reality of British political culture. The Standards Board has this to say on the subject of Personal Judgement:
“members may take account of the views of others, including their political groups, but should reach their own conclusions on the issues before them and act in accordance with those conclusions.”
… a statement which, without qualification, appears not to admit the existence of the poltical whip and which makes no distinction between poltical judgements, which are rightly matters of party policy, and judgements taken which acting in judicial or quasi-judicial capacity on, for instance, a recruitment panel or planning committee, which are non-political.
In fact, as this particular case shows, there seems to be a particular problem within the Standards Board itself when it comes to understand the difference between political and non-political activity.
Reading this case I can’t help but disagree fundamentally with the Standards Officer’s assertion that simply because the Councillor in question chose to make an ascerbic comment about Council policy on residential care, as defined by the ruling party, he was by default acting in his official capacity as a Councillor. It seems to me that, instead, he was acting as politician and making a legitimate political point about the policy of another political party - questions of taste and sensitivity may come into it elsewhere - but the fact remains that a party activist in the same situation could, and probably would, have made the same kind of comment without fear of sanction. By imposing his own unnuanced view, in this case, that the councillor was acting as a councillor and not as a politician at the time he made the comments, thereby bringing this matters unnecessarily under the jurisdiction of the Standards Board, the Standards Officer was, as I see it, clearly interfering in legitimate political discourse and by logical extention, in the lawful process of democracy itself.
I could go an higlight many other issues with which I have a real problem, not least one case where, in rendering judgement on matter of personal criticism directed by a councillor towards a council officer, the Standard’s Officer states clearly that that the issue of whether that criticism had any foundation in reality was not considered relevant to the question of whether the tone and context in which the criticism was made was disrespectful - something I consider to be a total crock of shit. and I also find myself deeply disturbed by the extent to which the notion of ‘bringing their office into disrepute’ appears to routinely impinge on private and personal matters which have nothing, really, to do with public office.
It seems that these days, as a councillor, you’re not even allowed to have a row with the sales drone in Dixons when they try to claim that consumer protection legislation doesn’t really apply to them for fear of being recognised as a councillor and being hit a complaint that of bringing the Council into disrepute. I find it wholly bizarre and to say the least horrifying that some tactics I take for granted in such situations - in the sales drone scenario, for example, my usual response would be to go for the mobile phone and loudly announce my intent to call the local Tradings Standards department - would, were I councillor, result in my being investigated for seeking to gain an undue advantage from my office for simply trying to exercise my normal statutory rights.
The one bit of good news is that the current Code of Conduct is up for review at the moment - the consultation document can be found here - and councillors, and others, have the chance to challege the current system and seek changes which will place the emphasis where it should be, on supporting proper and open democratic accountability rather than on hamstringing councillors, most of whom are simply trying to fulfil their office to the best of their ability.
Councillors should, of course, know by now that they have until 17th June to get their comments in but, more than that, it needs ordinary citizens who care about local democracy to put their views forward as well and challenge this present system - after all, if councillors no longer find themselves able to call the local bureaucracy to account thanks to this code of conduct then, ultimately, its us ordinary citizens who lose out as well if not most of all.
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