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Government rejects standards watchdog call for power to suspend councillors found in breach of code of conduct, but backs additional protections for monitoring officers

The Government has rejected a recommendation by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) that local authorities should be able to suspend councillors without allowances for up to six months for breaches of the code of conduct.

In its Local Government Ethical Standards report, issued in 2019, the CSPL had recommended:  

  • Recommendation 10: A local authority should only be able to suspend a councillor where the authority’s Independent Person agrees both with the finding or a breach and that suspending the councillor would be a proportionate sanction.
  • Recommendation 12: Local authorities should be given the discretionary power to establish a decision-making standards committee with voting independent members and voting members from dependent parishes, to decide on allegations and impose sanctions.
  • Recommendation 13: Councillors should be given the right to appeal to the Local Government Ombudsman if their local authority imposes a period of suspension for breaching the code of conduct.
  • Recommendation 14: The Local Government Ombudsman should be given the power to investigate and decide upon an allegation of a code of conduct breach by a councillor, and the appropriate sanction, an appeal by a councillor who has had a suspension imposed. The Ombudsman’s decision should be binding on the local authority.
  • Recommendation 16: Local authorities should be given the power to suspend councillors, without allowances, for up to six months.

However, the Government response said: “There is no provision in current legislation for a sanction to suspend a councillor found to have breached the code of conduct, and this was a deliberate policy decision by the Coalition Government at the time of the Localism Act 2011 to differentiate from the previous, failed Standards Board regime. The Standards Board regime allowed politically motivated and vexatious complaints and had a chilling effect on free speech within local government. These proposals would effectively reinstate that flawed regime.

“It would be undesirable to have a government quango to police the free speech of councillors; it would be equally undesirable to have a council body (appointed by councillors, and/or made up of councillors) sitting in judgment on the political comments of fellow councillors.”

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The response insisted that “on the rare occasions” where notable breaches of the code of conduct had occurred, local authorities were not without sanctions under the current regime.

“Councillors can be barred from Cabinet, Committees, or representative roles, and may be publicly criticised. If the elected member is a member of a political group, they would also expect to be subject to party discipline, including being removed from that group or their party. Political parties are unlikely to reselect councillors who have brought their group or party into disrepute. All councillors are ultimately held to account via the ballot box.”

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) noted that as part of its response to the CSPL’s report on intimidation in public life, the Government had recommended that every political party establish their own code of conduct for party members, including elected representatives.

The response added that the Government would engage with sector representative bodies of councillors and officers of all tiers of local government “to seek views on options to strengthen sanctions to address breaches of the code which fall below the bar of criminal activity and related sanctions but involve serious incidents of bullying and harassment or disruptive behaviour”.

The CSPL had also called on the Government to clarify if councils may lawfully bar councillors from council premises or withdraw facilities as sanctions. “These powers should be put beyond doubt in legislation if necessary,” it had said.

In its response the Government said: “The criminal law, overseen by the police and courts, provides for more appropriate and effective action against breaches of public order, for anti-social behaviour, and against harassment.

“The occasion where councils would seek to bar councillors from council premises are thought to be extremely rare. We will consider this further.”

The Government meanwhile said it agreed in principle with a CSPL recommendation that The Local Authorities (Standing Orders) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 should be amended to provide that disciplinary protections for statutory officers extend to all disciplinary action, not just dismissal.

The response said the Government “recognises this will be pertinent to Monitoring Officers who may not necessarily be afforded the same seniority in the organisational hierarchy of a local authority as the two other statutory officers (Head of Paid Service and the Section 151 Officer), and who may be subject to personal pressures when conducting high profile breach of conduct investigations”.

It said the government would engage with sector representative bodies of all tiers of local government to seek views on amending the Local Authorities (Standing Orders) (England)(Amendment) Regulations to provide disciplinary protections for statutory officers.

In other comments the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said:

  • The government agreed with the principle behind a CSPL recommendation that candidates standing for or accepting public offices should not be required publicly to disclose their home address. It considereed that amending the Relevant Authorities (Disclosable Pecuniary Interests) Regulations 2012 would be an option to achieve it. “Notwithstanding, it is important that home addresses are internally registered with monitoring officers, to help avoid conflicts of interest.”

  • On a CSPL recommendation that councillors should be presumed to be acting in an official capacity in their public conduct, including statements on publicly accessible social media, the DLUHC said it was for individual local authorities to consider if their code of conduct is adequate in addressing the issue of councillors’ inappropriate use of social media. “It is important to recognise that there is a boundary between an elected representative’s public life and their private or personal life. Automatically presuming (irrespective of the context and circumstances) that any comment is in an official capacity risks conflating the two.”

  • A recommendation that the Localism Act 2011 should be amended to require that Independent Persons are appointed for a fixed term of two years, renewable once, “would be likely to be unworkable”. Discussions with Monitoring Officers had indicated that in practice most local authorities would likely find servicing this rate of turnover unachievable. “There is frequently a small pool of people capable and willing to undertake the role, who also fit the stringent specifications of being amongst the electorate, having no political affiliation, no current or previous association with the council, and no friends or family members associated with the council.”

  • The Government agreed in principle with a recommendation that local authorities should provide legal indemnity to Independent Persons if their views or advice were disclosed. It endorsed the provision of legal indemnity but did not currently see the need to require this through secondary legislation.

  • The Government did not agree that criminal offences in the Localism Act 2011 relating to Disclosable Pecuniary Interests should be abolished, “but rather believes the criminal offence of a non-disclosure of pecuniary interest to be a necessary and proportionate safeguard and deterrent against corruption”. The high bar of police involvement had served to discourage politically motivated and unfounded complaints.

  • The Government did not agree that section 27(3) of the Localism Act 2011 should be amended to state that parish councils must adopt the code of conduct of their principal authority, with the necessary amendments, or the new model code. It has no plans to repeal Section 27(3). “The government considers that the adoption of the principal authority’s code or the new model code is a matter for local determination.”

Responding to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities response, Cllr James Jamieson , LGA Chairman, said: “We are pleased that the Government’s response to the Committee for Standards in Public Life report acknowledges the work the LGA has undertaken to address the issues outlined in the report through the development of a Model Councillor Code of Conduct and supportive guidance in consultation with the sector.

"We agree that there is still more to do to, but that a locally-led standards and conduct system, supported by guidance, training and good practice is the best approach. In addition, it is positive to see that the Government agrees with the principle of safeguarding elected representatives in relation to the disclosure and publishing of councillors home addresses.

"We look forward to working with government and councils to determine the best mechanisms to support improvement in areas of continued focus outlined in the response and to ensure the continuination of high standards of conduct and appropriate protections for councillors and councils in the future.” 

Lord Evans, chair of the CSPL, said: “While we note the government’s commitment to further work to support local government, the Committee is disappointed that many of its careful recommendations have not been accepted. It was clear from our evidence that the sector backed our call to strengthen the arrangements in place to support high ethical standards, whilst respecting the benefits of a localised approach.

"We are pleased that many local authorities have already reviewed their approach as a result of this work and are adopting the best practice points from the report. Across all tiers of local government, decisions are taken about a wide range of local services using public funds, so it is important that there are robust governance arrangements that command public confidence.”

Cllr Keith Stevens, chair of the National Association of Local Councils, said: “I am bitterly disappointed by the government's light touch, totally inadequate response to the CSPL report on local government ethical standards. It will do nothing to help stamp out poor behaviour in councils at all levels where it exists, and I would strongly urge ministers to have a rethink.

"Coming over three years since the committee published its thorough 110-page report, the government’s 12-page response simply fails to properly address its recommendations and dismisses nearly all of them.

"The response falls woefully short of taking seriously the changes needed to address and improve standards in local government, including the introduction of sanctions for poor behaviour which NALC called for and the committee agreed with.”

Cllr Stevens added: "There is an obvious gulf between the high standards of conduct and behaviour the local (parish and town) council sector wants to see and which is supported by a more effective regime, and the kind of standards in public life the government expects.

"It is only by taking the committee’s recommendations forward as a complete package, rather than simply a commitment to further work to support local government, will we be able to continue to promote and uphold the high standards of conduct we all expect and to tackle poor behaviour where it exists.”

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