Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Time to rethink the Ethics rules

The vast majority of people in public life in Britain are honest, decent people who have stood for office at least partly to help other people or promote something they believe in. Most of us would be financially considerably better off if we devoted the time and money we spend on politics to other things. That applies to people of all mainstream political parties – Conservative, Labour, Lib/Dem, Scots & Welsh Nationalists, and Greens – and to most though not all of the fringe parties.

Unfortunately the conduct of a minority of people in all political parties has convinced large sections of the public that no politicians can be trusted, and this in turn has had two damaging effects. The first is that maligning the integrity of your political opponents has become a routine part of politics. Sadly, nobody should stand for election to public office in the present climate unless you are prepared to cope with the possibility that at some stage you will be falsely accused of corruption. Naturally this has an impact on the quantity and quality of the candidates who are prepared to put up for election.

The second problem is that the “standards” structure which has been put in place to support ethical behaviour in local governments having the unfortunate side effect of interfering in the ability of elected councillors to fight for the legitimate interests of the people they were elected to represent.

My main concern about this is not the time wasted and distress caused by the large number of politically motivated, malicious, or erroneous complaints which are now regularly made, and most of which are rejected, although there have in my opinion been a small number of cases where innocent councillors have been unjustly criticised or punished. That is bad enough, but the worst problem is the much larger number of instances where councillors have reluctantly accepted legal advice not to take part in debates in which the people who elected those councillors would have wanted them to be putting their case, or where the very knowledge which would have allowed those councillors to make a useful contribution to the debate becomes a disqualification from taking part.

Just so you can judge whether I have an axe to grind, let me make clear that I have been the subject of two complaints to the Standards Board over the past five years. In both cases after an initial assessment the Standards Board decided that no evidence of a breach of the rules had been presented, and they declined to investigate the allegations further.

So perhaps it is not surprising that I have concerns about what I see as unjustified complaints, and about the system, without wanting to criticise the people who have been landed with the job of operating it.

Indeed, the last thing I wish to do is treat the Standards Board in the same way the Labour government treated the parliamentary standards commissioner, Elizabeth Filkin, who investigated conscientiously all the allegations made to her against MPs, and ended up being by constructively dismissed for being too effective. (See my contribution to “The Little Red Book of New Labour Sleaze.”)

Nevertheless, there is a case to answer that the present “standards” system is doing more harm to local democracy by restricting the ability of councillors to represent their constituents than the good it is doing by driving up standards of ethics.

An extreme example was the case last November when 26 members of Cumbria County council were advised to withdraw from a debate about nuclear issues. The legal advice was that not just councillors who themselves work at Sellafield or had close relatives who do, but any councillor who even had a friend who works at Sellafield might be “prejudiced.” As Tim Knowles, a Labour councillor, rightly pointed out, “Virtually everybody in West Cumbria has a friend working at Sellafield.” And “West Cumbria needs to be represented on what is a key issue for its wellbeing.”

I dare say that for those of us who live in a community where 17,000 jobs depend directly or indirectly on civil nuclear power, this might influence our views on nuclear issues. But isn’t that exactly the sort of interest which democracy is supposed to reflect ?

The Sellafield advice may be an extreme case but problems of this kind are not at all unusual. Other examples of similar problems over the last year or so have included the following.

● A planning application for hundreds of houses on a former school playing field aroused strong local concern. A councillor representing the ward concerned was advised not to attend the planning committee which was considering the application because she was also secretary of the local residents association, which was campaigning against the application.

● A Barrow councillor was suspended for several months for supporting his constituents who were campaigning for road safety measures in their street, because he lived in the same road himself.

● A senior councillor who lived opposite a planning application site submitted, in an open and transparent manner, his concerns about the
proposal. The developer complained to the standards board, who investigated, found that the councillor had not abused his position and imposed no penalty on him, but criticised him for not doing enough to avoid creating the impression that he might have abused his position. From what I saw of the sequence of events the councillor concerned bent over backwards to avoid seeking undue advantage for his position, at some personal cost, so this criticism struck me as unfair.

The people involved in the cases described above included Conservative, Labour, and Lib/Dem councillors. In several instances I totally oppose their political views or have had other serious disagreements with them. But I am convinced that it must be possible to find a system which will check genuine corruption while making it possible for elected representatives to put forward their views without running into the kind of problems which these people hit.

I do have some suggestions.

The wording of the National Code of Local Government Conduct already says that if an issue affects everyone in an area, it does not constitute a prejudicial interest, and only interests which particularly affect a councillor more than other residents need to be declared. This sentence should have prevented many of the problems which have arisen with the code, but it needs to be strengthened and given more weight.

Second, there are procedures for obtaining a dispensation in cases where a relatively minor conflict of interest should be over-ridden by the needs of democracy to give people a voice. These should be publicised better to councillors, made easier to use, and probably more broadly available.

For example, take the Sellafield case referred to above. It is extremely probable that even if the advice to councillors was right, Cumbria County Council’s own standards committee had the power to give dispensations to the councillors with an interest to take part in the debate.

Thirdly, councillors accused of misconduct should be entitled to the same right which the criminal law gives to everyone else – to be considered innocent until proven guilty. If a complaint is made and no material evidence is produced to support it, or an investigation does not establish any wrongdoing or breach of the code, the Standards Board should issue an unequivocal statement that the person who had been accused in the complaint has been cleared.

Finally, it would be helpful if some disincentive could be applied to those who make malicious or politically motivated complaints. This is easier said than done. In my experience the most common source of unjustified or unreasonable complaints to the standards board is people who were unhappy with the result of a planning application. I cannot see a way of discouraging this which would not also deter people with a genuine complaint.

However, the second most common source of unjustified complaints is political opponents trying to score party propaganda points. And this would be relatively easy to do something about.

Knowingly making a false statement in a complaint to the standards board should be a criminal offence, just as knowingly making a false statement on most other official forms is. Complainants to the standards board should have to state whether they are a member of a political party.

If a member of a rival political party, or an independent councillor, makes a complaint against somebody and produces no material case to support it, then unless there are special circumstances the Standards Board should “name and shame” the complainant by putting a note in the local paper announcing that he or she has been censured for misusing the system by making unsubstantiated complaints.

Some people reading this may ask if there is a danger that justified complaints might be deterred by such a system. If it were applied to the public in general, there would be. But if it only applies to politicians and members of political parties, the effect would be to make them check their facts more carefully before attacking the integrity of their opponents. And that would be an entirely good thing for the health of local democracy.

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