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Watchdog chair urges councils to engage with Government amid disappointment at ministerial response to local government ethical standards report

The Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) has called on those in local government to take up the Government’s stated commitment to work with local authorities and representative organisations “to ensure the hard work done by those in local government is not put at risk by a small minority of individuals who do not live up to high standards of public life”.

Lord Evans’ comments came in an exchange of correspondence this month with Cllr Richard Cotton, Chair of Camden’s Standards Committee.

Cllr Cotton had written to the CSPL after the committee he chairs had considered the Government’s response to the CSPL 2019 report Local Government Ethical Standards.

He said Camden’s Standards Committee had noted that the Government’s decision not to implement the watchdog’s recommendations on sanctions had left the local government standards regime with very few powers at a local level.

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“In effect, the most severe sanction available to local authorities is a finding of a breach of the Code of Conduct. While in councils such as Camden with already high standards, group discipline and close media scrutiny, this does not have any detrimental effect, in other councils without such controls councillors who have behaved very badly will remain in office,” Cllr Cotton said.

“Standards Committee requested that I write to you to express its disappointment in the Government’s response, encourage you to continue to push for new, stronger sanctions, and ask you what the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s next steps in this area will be.”

In his response Lord Evans said: “We were similarly very disappointed that the Government decided not to implement our recommendations. It took over three years for them to respond and then to accept just a few in principle.

“We aimed in that report to produce a balanced, considered package of recommendations to strengthen the arrangements in place whilst respecting the benefits of a localised approach. I do understand your committee’s frustration at the limited powers within the local government standards regime to address poor behaviour.”

In relation to what the CSPL’s next steps might be, Lord Evans said: “The Committee is not based in statute, we cannot therefore enforce our recommendations.

“However, although we are not a campaigning organisation, we try to exert influence where we can. We have, for example, published our own update on councils adopting our best practice recommendations, and I have spoken at local government events in the past year, most recently at the Lawyers in Local Government Leadership conference on 13 May.

“We made public our disappointment with the Government’s response and reiterated our regret in our 2021/22 annual report.”

Lord Evans said the CSPL also intended to write to the Secretary of State once the new Prime Minister has been appointed. He also encourage those in local government to take up the Government’s stated commitment to work with local authorities.

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