Standards for standards, and whether we need to revisit councillor conduct
It’s over five years now since the abolition of Standards for England (formerly known as the Standards Board). My first encounter with it was the faintly surreal training video which the Board produced way back in its early days. Connoisseurs will recall that it starred the actor Andrew Hall (he played one of Wendy Craig’s sons in the Carla Lane sitcom “Butterflies”) in an incidental role as a particularly difficult councillor.
As depicted in that video, in some councils heated political debate could often lead to threats that behaviour and activity would be referred to the Standards Board for action. Perhaps it was this that gave rise to the (I think unfair) conclusion that references to the Board were made for political purposes, and that it was overweening in how it used its powers. In the spirit of localism it was swept away and replaced with a strongly-held view that councils can manage the affairs and conduct of their own members adequately enough themselves.
There is no real interest in the sector in reviving the Board, or putting in place another body like it. A range of formal and informal mechanisms have grown up to challenge unacceptable behaviour.
Councils themselves have their own standards regimes – although these are subject to the natural suspicion that they are not independent. It is, however, the case that the new regime, put in place by the Localism Act 2011, requires that councils appoint an “independent person” to take an active part in the investigation of complaints. Political parties, locally and nationally, will also informally take disciplinary action against councillors thought to be behaving poorly or committing wrongdoing. On occasion, LGA corporate peer challenges have highlighted councillor behaviour as a concern in some authorities, and has recommended further action by the counils concerned.
On the formal side, councils may still issue censures against councillors, although councillors may not be suspended or disqualified. And there is of course a criminal offence around the failure to declare particular pecuniary interests.
CfGS thinks that the five-year anniversary of the Board’s abolition provides an opportunity for looking again at the way that the standards system for councillors works. There is by no means a widespread issue of malfeasance or poor behaviour in the local government member corps. There is also not really a case for re-establishing a top down system. But we have to ask ourselves whether, despite the presence of some independent safeguards, the present system would be sufficiently robust to deal with, for example, a similar set of circumstances to that of Donnygate or the Westminster “Homes for Votes” scandal – particularly in the absence of the district audit system which existed at the time of both of those debacles.
It might, for example, be time to see councils creating a (proportionate) systems for securing standards which is tied to the new public sector audit provisions under which local government now operates. A peer-based system, sector-owned, and linked to the LGA’s sector self-improvement work, might also be a realistic way of assuring, to councillors and the public, that local government is able to swiftly recognise, challenge and take action on unacceptable behaviour.
This issue is critical to good governance in local government and is particularly important in a world where new democratic systems and structures (through combined authorities) are being created and used to make decisions which will have a huge impact on local communities for decades to come. Now is as good a time as any for the sector to review this issue, evaluate properly whether the current system is robust and fit for purpose, and to put in train actions to strengthen it.