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Standards watchdog in renewed concern about local government regime

The Committee for Standards in Public Life has expressed renewed concerns about the workings of the local government standards regime brought in last year.

In its Annual Report for 2012/13, which can be viewed here, the watchdog accepted that the new system needed time to properly bed in.

Through the Localism Act 2011 the Government wanted to encourage a greater sense of local responsibility for standards – Standards for England was axed – and to reduce the number of vexatious complaints. After lobbying, ministers agreed the introduction of a mandatory requirement for local authorities to adopt a local code of conduct incorporating the Seven Principles of Public Life.

The CSPL’s concerns about the new regime are:

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  • Its operation in local authorities where leadership is inadequate;
  • The lack of meaningful sanctions;
  • The weakness of the ‘independent person’ arrangements; and
  • The lack of time that was available for transition to the new system.

On the issue of leadership, the committee suggested that due to the emphasis on local ownership of standards it would expect the new regime, like the previous one, to function well in those areas where party leaders were prepared to provide the necessary leadership and example.

“It is likely to do less well where such leadership is inadequate,” it said, pointing out that in several prominent recent cases it was the behaviour of leaders themselves that had been under question.

The committee added: “History suggests that problems are most likely in areas with monolithic political cultures and correspondingly little political challenge, where partisan rivalry is most bitter and tit-for-tat accusations most common, or in those predominantly rural areas with significant numbers of independent members without the benefit of party discipline.”

In relation to sanctions, the watchdog highlighted how under the previous arrangements local authorities and an independent tribunal had the power to suspend members for varying periods of time as a sanction against poor behaviour.

“The only sanctions now available, apart from through the use of a political party’s internal discipline procedures are censure or criminal prosecution for deliberately withholding or misrepresenting a financial interest,” it said.

“We do not think these are sufficient. The last few years have seen a number of examples of inappropriate behaviour which would not pass the strict tests required to warrant a criminal prosecution, but which deserves a sanction stronger than simple censure. While censure may carry opprobrium in the political arena it is often considered unacceptably lenient by the public relative to other areas of their experience. Coercion of other members or officers is one category of offence with which it will be difficult to deal adequately under the new arrangements.”

The CSPL meanwhile criticised the change brought in by the 2011 Act whereby every local authority must appoint at least one independent person whose views it will seek, and take into account, before making its decision on an allegation that it has decided to investigate.

Previously, allegations about poor behaviour were determined by standards committees independently chaired by individuals who were not themselves members of the local authority.

On the new ‘independent person’ regime, the committee said: “We doubt that this will be sufficient to provide assurance that justice is being done and, equally important, that it is seen to be done.”

Finally, the watchdog claimed that in the transition to the new system local authorities might have lacked proper time to prepare.

The CSPL wrote in early June 2012 to all local authorities in England to ask about their preparations for implementing the new regime which came into force on 1 July 2012.

“The committee was concerned that so late in the day, nearly half of those who responded had yet to adopt a new code and around four fifths had yet to appoint an independent person,” it said. “The fact that the regulations and order which took effect from 1 July were laid only on 6 June cannot have helped their preparations.”

The watchdog said that there had inevitably been “various teething problems” with the new regime, and it would continue to monitor the implementation and its effectiveness, “particularly in relation to public confidence that any wrongdoing is tackled promptly and transparently in the absence of any external investigation and scrutiny”.

Elsewhere in the Annual Report 2012/13, the CSPL reported on a review of ethics and best practice, its fifth biennial survey of public attitudes to conduct in public life, the Triennial Review of the Committee and registered current risks to standards in public life.

In a general overview, the committee said it had reflected on what had been achieved since its first report in 1995. It found that while many of the original ‘Nolan Principles’ were widely understood and resonated with public expectations, the principles as a whole “were still not being lived out everywhere in spirit as well as letter”.

There needed to be more active implementation and embedding within the day-to-day business of many organisations, it argued.

“More disturbingly, the year’s news was dominated by stories of governance failures and other inappropriate behaviour in institutions previously enjoying high levels of public trust and confidence, and by the failure of leadership in others, both private and public, to inculcate a culture of high standards in tune with public expectations,” the committee said.

It added: “Many instances have involved deliberate attempts to get around codes of practice and conduct, and in some cases there are allegations involving covering up, concealment and even criminal activity. Moreover, when some individuals attempted to raise ethical issues or standards concerns they were prevented or inhibited from raising those concerns internally or speaking out on issues in the public interest.”

The committee warned that high standards were still not yet understood everywhere as a matter of integrity and personal responsibility. “Recent lapses have occurred not because individuals, often in key leadership roles, have been unaware of their responsibility and of what the public expects but because they did not find it expedient.”

The CSPL said: “We are in no doubt that standards of behaviour in many areas of public life have improved since this committee first reported in 1995, but there is still much to do and the evidence gives no grounds for complacency. New situations continually arise which raise new standards issues. Responses to standards issues often come too late and only in response to public scandals which by then have damaged public trust and confidence.”

In July this year Lord Bew was appointed chair of the committee, replacing Sir Christopher Kelly.

The committee also saw its budget cut from £504,000 in 2012/13 to £400,000 in 2013/14.

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