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Lawyers in Local Government echoes concerns over standards regime

Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) has echoed a watchdog’s criticisms of the workings of the revamped local government standards regime.

In its annual report for 2012/13, published last week, the Committee for Standards in Public Life (CSPL) accepted that the new system – introduced through the Localism Act 2011 – required time to bed in properly.

However, it raised specific concerns about the new regime, namely:

  • 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.

Eleanor Hoggart, Assistant Practice Director at Legal Services Lincolnshire and LLG’s national spokeswoman on monitoring officer and governance issues, said: “We would resonantly echo the concerns of CSPL over local government standards. Indeed, the Committee has been made aware of our concerns both directly and indirectly.

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“The January 2013 revisions to the Seven Principles in Public Life were a valuable and luminous refresh which clearly highlighted the propriety standards expected of all who serve in public office. At local level, however, there are still some issues.

“For instance, as the CSPL report indicates, the new regime fails to catch ‘….inappropriate behaviour which would not pass the strict tests required to warrant a criminal prosecution, but which deserves a sanction stronger than simple censure'. Because 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’.”

Hoggart added: “LLG certainly doesn’t seek to promote unnecessary bureaucracy, nor has it any wish to exercise inappropriate controls. But if the public are to trust local government the regime does need to have the robustness the public would reasonably expect.”

Tony Kilner, LLG’s Policy and Development Officer, argued that the criminal provisions in the Localism Act and Regulations were very narrowly drawn, covering a limited area of the Nolan Principles, “namely the more obvious financial interests”.

He said: “They do not extend to many possible breaches of standards which in the past have been regarded as serious. The nominal sanctions available to local authorities are inadequate and (at a time when trust in politicians is at a low ebb) could well bring the new standards regime into disrepute.”

Kilner suggested that the absence of a single code of conduct for local government, following repeal of the statutory code, had led to wide variations in the standards required of councillors. “This absence of national coherence and consistency surrounding standards is in our view unlikely to promote a climate of continuous improvement in this area.”

He acknowledged that the operational flexibilities of the new regime were welcomed and would save some cost and time in dealing with complaints. “However, these could have been provided without the almost complete repeal of the former regime.”

Nicholas Dobson, LLG’s Communications Officer, said: “Local government standards exist for two key reasons, i.e. so that those: (i) elected to represent and serve the public behave in the way that the public would reasonably expect; and (ii) taking decisions on behalf of and affecting the public do so without any taint or perception of self-interest.

“Although many aspects of the previous regime may well have been over bureaucratic and cumbersome, we do nevertheless feel that the Localism Act changes weakened processes to such a degree as to render them unfit for their overriding purpose of promoting confidence in local democracy.”

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