A Code of Conduct for Local Councillors?
No, a stab in the back for local democracy!
In 2001, New Labour thought it would be a good idea to introduce a code of conduct for local councils and their councillors.
Also provided were monitoring officers embedded within the council structure to offer advice on interpretation of the code (and to record complains) and a Standards Board for England (with its own kangaroo court) to oversee the whole business.
[The Welsh Assembly established a similar structure in Wales.]
Strangely, New Labour did not think the same system should apply to the conduct of MPs, which is a contributory factor to the swamp of sleaze, in which New Labour and its hangers-on currently find themselves.
The Standards Board rapidly became a joke organization. While it did cramp the style of a few rogue councillors, who tried and failed to get away with criminal conspiracies, it became mainly an accessory after the fact to petty political vendettas, and a support system for council officers when their decisions were challenged by councillors, who failed to see any benefit for the public in the decisions.
This perversion of intentions came as no surprise as the man in charge of the whole mess is, himself, a political joke of a particularly unpleasant type John Prescott, the deputy prime minister.
His rules for local councillors also failed to achieve their object. Instead of an instrument of regulation, they have become a means of suppressing democracy at a local level.
They forbid councillors from speaking or voting when they have a ‘personal or prejudicial interest' in the matter in hand. This is fair enough when financial interests and other benefits are concerned. But under Prescott, the rules have been taken to ridiculous extremes.
Now, councillors are not allowed to speak or vote if someone might just think that the councillor could possibly have taken a position on the issue before the discussion. Now, just knowing something about an issue is taken as evidence that the councillor has made up his/her mind on it with no possibility of change.
The ethical guidelines for local councillors are supposed to prevent conflicts of interest. Instead, they in disqualify any councillor from making a contribution to a debate if he/she knows anything at all about the issue before the council. Council officials have perverted the guidelines to ensure that both debate and informed decision-making are impossible, and that the wishes of the ruling party, or council officers who are leading the Cabinet by the nose, are always implemented.
New System, New Crimes!
New Crime 'having a personal or prejudicial interest'
Not just financial interests and material benefits are concerned. A councillor may also be excluded from a meeting if the outcome of the debate will affect his/her ‘well-being’. The Standards Board was established in 2001 but it was not until November 2003 that an official definition emerged as "anything that could be said to affect a person's quality of life, either positively or negatively, is likely to affect their wellbeing. The 'wellbeing' is not restricted to a person's financial position."
New Crime 'predetermination'
Joining a debate when the councillor is thought to have made up his/her mind already on the issue constitutes 'predetermination'.
Note: No proof is required that the councillor has made up his/her mind. The accused is assumed to be guilty automatically.
Some Consequences . . .
• Banstead, Chester And Reigate Councils
During the 2006 local council elections, senior officials of all three councils wrote to all of the candidates to warn them that if they mentioned any controversial local issues during their election campaigns, they would not be able to speak at meetings on these issues as they would be deemed to have a 'prejudicial interest', and if they did speak, it might lead to legal action being taken against the council.
• Derwentside Council, Co Durham
A councillor, who was elected to represent the 80% of the people in his ward opposed the building of further wind turbines, was excluded from meetings on the matter because he had a ‘personal or prejudicial interest'.
• Glen Parva Parish Council, Leicestershire
Two councillors declared an interest, and did not speak or vote, when the council gave a grant of £300 to a village club, of which both were members. They did stay in the room during this part of the meeting, however. After a nine-month investigation, which wasted thousand of pounds of taxpayers' money, they were found to have breached the code of conduct.
• Oswestry Borough Council
A councillor who wanted to speak on the siting of a mobile phone mast was told by the council's officers that the mere act of representing the views of her constituents proved that she had a ‘personal or prejudicial interest'. Even worse, they added that as a councillor, it was her duty to support the council and not offer the inconvenient view of her electorate.
• Rushmoor Borough Council
A councillor elected as an Independent with a mandate to oppose turning Farnborough aerodrome into an executive jet centre was told by council officials that he could not attend planning committee meetings on the issue, or vote on it, because his position was 'predetermined'.
• North Shropshire District Council Council members were warned that if they wanted to speak about plans to impose charges at three car parks, they could not make comments in 'public forums' about the plans, or discuss them in any way, if they did not want to be excluded from meetings for having a 'predetermined' position.
• South Cambridgeshire District Council I
The council's monitoring officer has told councillors that they might be disqualified from discussing the siting of mobile phone masts if they own a mobile phone, they cannot speak on park-and-ride schemes if they drive a car and they cannot speak on the issue of a proposed wind farm if they have previously made known their doubts about wind power and established a 'predetermined' position.
• South Cambridgeshire District Council II
The councillor for a community affected by a plan by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to create a new town of 8-10,000 homes was told that he could not speak on the issue because of his 'predetermined' position, and he must leave the room when it was discussed. The councillor was elected specifically to represent the views of his constituents on this issue.
Sir Anthony Holland, the chairman of the Standards Board, has said that the rules on pre-determination are there to ensure that people are not allowed to take part in discussions if they have a closed mind and they are not willing to consider the alternatives. But council officers with closed minds assume that a councillor with knowledge of a subject has views set in stone and that the councillor is not open to persuasion by a reasonable argument.
It is clear that officers are the problem, not local councillors.
[Note: the above excludes party politics, which require councillor to vote for the party line no matter what they think.]
"The Code of Conduct (for local councillors) . . . is being used as a blunt instrument to suppress democracy in local government."
Dissent is futile. Worse, dissent leads to being messed about the the Standards Board and its kangaroo court.
|Further reading: A Question of Standards Prescott’s Town Hall Madness|
A Cornerstone Paper by Owen Paterson MP and Gerald Howarth MP