Judge and jury in local government standards

4 May

From today’s Midweek Herald website: from Carole Newton, Chairman, East Devon Constituency Labour Party

In view of the many letters expressing grave concerns over planning decisions which have been made locally, I am sure that readers will be interested to hear about the powers, or lack of them, which councils have when investigating possible breaches of the code of conduct.

I was recently very surprised to read the views of Mark Williams, CEO of East Devon District Council, about the council’s own standards committee and its lack of powers to discipline elected members where breaches of the code of conduct may have occurred.

He explained that a recent case was referred to the police because the council’s standards committee has very limited sanctions available if breaches of the code of conduct are found and that the Localism Act 2011 reduced the committee’s powers.

Incredibly the Localism Act introduced by Eric Pickles (Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government) virtually abolishes any meaningful level of accountability and sanction, replacing it with a toothless watchdog.

The old system – Standards for England – had statutory powers and a statutory code with powers to suspend, to enforce training and to require public apologies in cases of breaches after appropriate scrutiny, investigation and quasi judicial hearings.

In serious cases, a higher level of enquiry and sanction was available at national level.

Under the previous system, there were three independent voting members of the committee and one of these, by statute, had to be chairman of the committee and its sub-committees, yet under the new system, all the independents are co-opted and have no votes. I understand that the full members are all elected councillors and the chairman is ex officio chairman of the council!

This means they judge themselves and fellow councillors.

The new code is voluntary and virtually without sanction and so we have a situation where Mr Pickles, in an age of suspicion about expenses scandals and planning frauds, has eliminated a very important system of public accountability.

The original system provided the public with confidence that wrong doing would be investigated and dealt with fairly.

It also protected councillors against unsubstantiated accusations.

No one can have confidence in the present system.

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