The Committee on Standards in Public Life Review on Local Government Ethical Standards Released today.Publish date: 30/01/2019
The 20th report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, on the subject of ethical standards in local government released its review today. The report identifies some specific areas of concern noting a minority of councillors who engage in bullying or harassment, or other highly disruptive behaviour, and a small number of parish councils giving rise to a disproportionate number of complaints about poor behaviour. The report also identifies a number of risks in the sector: the current rules around conflicts of interest, gifts, and hospitality are commented on as inadequate; and the increased complexity of local government decision-making has been found to place governance under strain.
The report, which can be viewed here sets out a number of recommendations and best practice points to revamp the standards regime and support those engaged in democracy.
Of note within the report includes a statement by the Committee that "Maintaining an ethical culture day-to-day relies on an impartial, objective Monitoring Officer who has the confidence of all councillors and who is professionally supported by the Chief Executive" and further, that "The Local Authorities (Standing Orders) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 should be amended to provide that disciplinary protections for statutory officers extend to all disciplinary action, not just dismissal"
Suki Binjal, President of LLG commented on the report; "The current standards regime with its lack of sanctions has been a toothless tiger. For too long, unacceptable standards of behaviour from a (thankfully) small number of councillors has had a negative impact on decision making, committee cohesiveness, and culture. The long-awaited recommendation for a power to suspend is warmly welcomed by LLG as a first step; as is the recognition of the need for increased statutory protection for Monitoring Officers as the lynchpins of the standards regime"
LLG shares the view that an ethical culture requires an MO who is professionally supported by the Chief Executive. LLG knows that the downgrading of Heads of Legal from the top tier places considerable strain and conflict on MO's and can leave them susceptible to targeted campaigns. It is our mission to elevate the status of all local government lawyers and ensure the protection of MO's in their statutory role to uphold the governance of their authorities. We are also keen to ensure a direct input with the LGA in producing a model code of conduct given our expertise in this area and professional credibility in drafting codes, (acknowledged last year by the Supreme Court). It remains to be seen on sanctions however, whether the ballot box reflects continuous repeat offenders as historically, this has not always proven the case.
LLG hopes that the proposals will be implemented without undue delay. Will they be enough? Only time will tell whether at some point the power of disqualification will be in the reform program. For now, however, the focus should be on turning these sensible recommendations into a positive agenda for change"
Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said: We welcome today's report and support its call for a greater degree of transparency and independent oversight of a strengthened framework for local government ethical standards, particularly in circumstances where it has not been possible to resolve issues at a local level. Currently, our role in investigating councillor conduct complaints involves considering how a council has dealt with such complaints. Although we recognise that many complaints are rightly and successfully resolved locally, we have seen some instances of councils unreasonably delaying taking action, failing to take into account relevant information in reaching a decision, or where councils have not had proper procedures in place. As the committee has recognised, we have more than 40 years' experience of investigating most complaints about local authorities and our oversight of the sector as a whole puts us in an ideal position to ensure such independent scrutiny. This possible extension to our role would not only complement our existing work but also help ensure such complaints are dealt with in a proportionate way. "Should a decision be made to create a route for councillors who have had a sanction imposed against them to appeal to the Ombudsman, we stand ready to work with the Committee and Government to determine how this might be achieved in practice."
Main outcomes of the report:-
- No centralised body to oversee to govern and adjudicate standards
- LA's retain responsibility for applying the Seven Principles of Public Life in local government.
- An updated Voluntary Model Code of Conduct
- Rebuttable presumption that Councillors Public Behaviour in Official Capacity
- Register of Interests to include categories of non-pecuniary interests.
- Current rules on declaring and managing interests should be repealed and replaced with an objective test (in line with the devolved standards bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).
- Local Authorities should maintain a standards committee with voting independent members.
- Independent persons to have fixed terms and legal protection
- LA's to be given the power to suspend councillors for up to six months. This is to include parish councillors. A right of appeal is given to the LGO. An independent member must agree to the suspension.
- The criminal offences relating to Disclosable Pecuniary Interest should be abolished.
- Parish councils should be required to adopt the code of their principal authority (or the new model code), and a principal authority's decision on sanctions for a parish councillor should be binding.
- Monitoring Officers should be provided with adequate training, corporate support and resources to undertake their role in providing support on standards issues to parish councils. Clerks should also hold an appropriate qualification.
- Employment protections for statutory officers should be extended, and statutory officers should be supported through training on local authority governance.
- Standards risks, where they are not addressed, can become risks of corporate failure. This underlines the importance of establishing and maintaining an ethical culture.
- Political groups should set clear expectations of behaviour by their members, and senior officers should maintain effective relationships with political groups.
- Political groups should require their members to attend code of conduct training provided by a local authority and write this into national party model group rules.
Best practice 12: Monitoring Officers' roles should include providing advice, support and management of investigations and adjudications on alleged breaches to parish councils within the remit of the principal authority. They should be provided with adequate training, corporate support and resources to undertake this work.
Best practice 13: A local authority should have procedures in place to address any conflicts of interest when undertaking a standards investigation. Possible steps should include asking the Monitoring Officer from a different authority to undertake the investigation.
Best practice 15: Senior officers should meet regularly with political group leaders or group whips to discuss standards issues.