The Standards regime - a Frankenstein monster

It's a pity that The Times have put their site behind a paywall, as I would like to be able to link to an excellent article which Danny Finkelstein wrote this week about the Standards Board regime which is meant to protect ethics in local government (and which the new government is pledged to replace).

He gives as an example the fact that Cardiff City Councillor John Dixon, who put a comment on Twitter inferring that Scientology is "stupid," has been referred to the ethics panel of that council following a complaint accusing his tweet of having "impinged on the right to religious freedom."

You can find another website which reports on the case here. Ironically, in the subtitle, Monica who runs that blog expresses the opinion

"I think it is safe to say that Scientology is stupid."

Apparently not if you're a councillor, it isn't!

One of the things I used to think this country stood for is that everyone was entitled to their views and everyone was entitled to disagree with those views.

Elsewhere on her blog Monica, who is an atheist, also refers to parts of the bible as "absurd". I am entirely relaxed about her opinions, which have no effect whatsoever on my ability to enjoy religious freedom. I disagree with her view but as Voltaire said, I would defend to the death her right to express them.

Similarly we should defend to the death both the rights of Scientologists to expound their faith and the right of anyone who disagrees with it to call them stupid. That isn't "impinging the right to religious freedom" but defending it. If Councillor Dixon had said something which a reasonable person could interpret as encouraging violence against Scientologists that would be an entirely different matter, but the law could, and undoubtedly would, have taken a hand at that point.

The fact that the Standards regime can be abused in an attempt to punish an elected councillor for a post on twitter calling something "stupid" is only one sign that the standards regime has grown miles beyond it's proper purpose.

We need a standards and ethics regime to ensure that councillors and MPs are not abusing their positions to put their own interests above those of the community and to ensure that there is transparency and honesty when conflicts of interest arise.

We do not need a system where people can be hauled before a kangaroo court merely for saying something which some fanatic disagrees with.

We do not need a system which encourages councillors to make a sport out of taking one another to the Standards Board at the drop of a hat.

We do not need a system where a candidate for election as a councillor who tries to be honest with his or her voters about a key issue in the ward takes the risk of finding if elected that the council solicitor tells him or her not to attend or vote at the meeting where that issue will be decided because those comments have "prejudged" the issue.

All these things are not just rare occurences but common events under the current standards regime.

I don't put all the blame for the fact that the Standards Board regime has developed these problems on the board themselves or their staff - a lot of it is down to some local politicians, and anyone else with an axe to grind, abusing the system.

But the fact remains that the system has gone beyond its laudable aims and all too often beyond common sense, from a means of keeping local politics clean to a bureacractic and anti-democratic nightmare which all too often creates a mindfield for people who are just trying to work for thy things they were elected to do.

The sooner the new government keeps the promise to change and simplify the system, the better.


Marsomega1 said…
Chris, while Cardiff City Councillor John Dixon's comments on Twitter may have elicted a complaint to the Council's Standards Committee, I would be surprised if that complaint ever got past the Assessments sub-committee whose job is to weed out vexatious, tit-for-tat or trivial issues at source. This is part of the new de-centralised standards regime and it works rather well. Eric Pickles is right to seek a reduction in centrally imposed nonsense, to reduce complexity, to free up people to say what they think etc, but the new Code pretty much does that now. The old regime did not, but what Eric suggests as an alternative will need a lot of effort to get it embedded at Parish level (we have 84 parish and town councils in this administration) and its at that level that David Cameron's Big Society needs to work. Upsetting the Parish and Town Councillors (which is what some of the statements may well do - criminal offence to fail to declare an interest...) will tend to alienate the very people who will make the Big Society work. The idea is right the method is a little blunt perhaps.
Chris Whiteside said…
We'll see in three days' time whether the complaint against Councillor John Dixon is taken any further: it comes up at Cardiff Council's Ethics committee at 3pm on the 28th of this month.

The council's ethics ombudsman has made a finding that in his view there is a case. I very much hope you are right and that the committee throws the whole matter out.

I agree that the current arrangements are not as bad as they were a few years ago, but I still think there is a culture in too many authorities (including Copeland) where people report one another to Standards at the drop of a hat.

Let's see what the details Eric comes up with are like.

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