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Councillor Paul Buchanan

Volume 491: debated on Tuesday 21 April 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Helen Goodman.)

I am delighted to have the opportunity in an Adjournment debate to talk about Mr. Paul Buchanan. This is a short debate with a short title, but I am here to tell the House of some extraordinary events in the life of an elected councillor for the county of Somerset.

Mr. Buchanan is not a constituent of mine; nor, by any stretch of the imagination, is he is a supporter of my party. He is a Liberal Democrat, so we ought to be classified as sworn political enemies. However, sometimes there are bigger things in life than party loyalty, and when a man is made to suffer without good reason and has no right of redress, it matters not a jot what his party loyalties may be.

I became interested in the case of Paul Buchanan partly because his own political leadership disowned him. It puzzled me that a man should have a grievance that nobody was prepared to hear. Even his local Member of Parliament refused to take up the case. I am pleased to say that this House has a long and proud tradition of defending the weak and standing up for those who have no voice. Parliament, after all, is supposed to be the highest court in the land.

Tonight I bring before the House the strange case of Paul Buchanan. His world has been turned upside down, his career prospects have been badly damaged, his political ambitions in local government have been ruined and his good name has been rubbished, all because of the actions of one highly placed, highly paid and quite unscrupulous public official—the chief executive of Somerset county council, Mr. Alan Jones. This is a true story. Mr. Jones is guilty of deliberate deceit and victimisation. He deliberately set out to destroy Paul Buchanan. The tactics that Jones used make Damian McBride look like an angel.

I have the evidence right here. To his credit, Mr. Buchanan has at no time broken any confidences to me. All my information has come from available transcripts which were deemed by the Adjudication Panel for England to be “in the public domain”. The documents that I have collected were part of recent hearings against Paul Buchanan. I attended one of the proceedings.

The evidence against Alan Jones is damning. On 4 April 2007 Alan Jones composed a six-page letter of complaint about Paul Buchanan and sent it to the Standards Board for England. At that time Mr. Buchanan was deputy leader of his party and hoped to be the new leader. Without the intervention of the chief executive, he would probably have succeeded, but with a very poisoned pen Jones totally undermined him.

The letter is a bizarre piece of writing. Jones attempts to play the reasonable father-figure, describing Mr. Buchanan as “young, able and enthusiastic”. Then the venom starts to flow. Paul Buchanan is accused of secretiveness, undermining staff, aggression, threatening behaviour, rudeness, intimidation, anger, disrespect, fraud, sexism, racism, homophobia, and abuse of his office as an elected councillor. There is barely concealed hatred of the man in every sentence. It is the ultimate hatchet job. Indeed, if there was a prize for the black arts, Alan Jones would win it, hands down.

Jones did not want the Standards Board to investigate. He wanted an instant political execution. He asked for Buchanan to be suspended there and then. I can only hazard a guess at the reaction when his letter was received. The Standards Board would have been forgiven for thinking that Paul Buchanan was an unstable nutcase with homicidal tendencies. In fact, the really unstable character was the one who made the complaint—Somerset county council’s most senior officer. Unfortunately, the Standards Board does not investigate complaints against officers; there is a gaping hole in the justice system. It is manifestly unfair that no legal process has yet been created by which officers can be independently investigated—unless, that is, they commit actual crimes. I invite the Minister to comment on that vital general point when he responds, and to see whether he can do anything to help.

The Standards Board had very few options. It was obliged to launch a full-blown inquiry into Mr. Buchanan, even if it doubted the wild complaints about him that Alan Jones had brought. The board went about its task relentlessly for two years. It conducted literally hundreds of interviews and produced thousands of pages of transcripts. When it rejected Alan Jones’s first batch of complaints, Jones wasted no additional time disputing its findings. I sympathise a little with the Standards Board; it was dealing with a deranged obsessive. The first investigator, or ethical standards officer, as the board calls them, retired halfway through the tortuous process—probably exhausted. Lawyers came and went, and it dragged on. Heaven only knows what it cost—and the result? Eventually, 16 of the original complaints were rejected completely and four others were referred to a higher court—the Adjudication Panel. That meant more delay and more uncertainty for Paul Buchanan.

The panel, with a bench of barristers in tow, finally met in Somerset over recent weeks. Key witnesses were called to give evidence again—remarkably few, actually, because most did not want to have anything to do with it. The panel had access to all the original documentation and threw out three more complaints. One tiny charge was upheld. Paul Buchanan had been heard swearing under his breath. He was deemed to have been a little careless and ticked off with a censure—the mildest possible sanction. That is mad. Frankly, after two years in limbo, my language would have been extremely fruity and very loud indeed.

My fascination with the case, however, is with what really lies behind it. Why on earth did a chief executive, earning £160,000 a year, with 17,000 staff and huge responsibilities, go to so much trouble to make complaints about a young, ambitious councillor? Mr. Jones’s explanation was beyond belief. He said that Mr. Buchanan’s behaviour was

“capable of damaging the council’s continued improvement and external reputation.”

That statement would stack up only if the charges against him were proved, but they were not. Paul Buchanan has been acquitted of everything serious. Let us remember the allegations: secretiveness, undermining staff, aggression, threatening behaviour, rudeness, intimidation, anger, disrespect, fraud, sexism, racism, homophobia—and, I suspect, leaving the toilet seat up.

It is not credible that Alan Jones made an innocent mistake in complaining about Buchanan. Mr. Jones’s charges were too specific, and they were backed up with too much detail and too much personal bile. It was a wholly personal vendetta. It is open to anyone—fellow councillors, council employees and ordinary members of the public—to make complaints to the Standards Board, but Jones extracted statements from junior staff who were perhaps too scared to go against the boss.

So, why on earth did Jones want to get Buchanan? And, what had Buchanan got on Jones? I am sorry if it sounds conspiratorial, but there is a big hint of conspiracy in all this. Mr Buchanan unfortunately knew too much for his own good. Back in 2005 there was gossip about Alan Jones having an affair with a member of staff called Jenny Hastings. Everybody at county hall knew about it; it was no secret. What Buchanan did not know, however, was that when the affair came to an end, Ms Hastings made very serious allegations of harassment against Alan Jones.

Obviously, engaging in such harassment is a sackable offence. The allegations had to be dealt with by a confidential panel of elected members, including Councillor Cathy Bakewell, the lady who led the council at the time. The panel did not reach a quick conclusion; everything was delayed because Mrs. Bakewell was taken seriously ill halfway through. These things happen. Paul Buchanan was then deputised to take on many of her responsibilities, but Cathy Bakewell never told him about the Alan Jones inquiry. Alan Jones, however, did tell him—and in lurid detail. Perhaps he wanted to curry favour with the man most likely to be the next leader of the county council. Until that moment, Paul Buchanan was unaware of any allegations and did not know about the confidential panel either; he was not even on it. Jones pleaded with Buchanan to help. Buchanan rightly told Jones that he could not. Big mistake: Alan Jones has a long memory and, as we will see, bears grudges.

By the time Councillor Cathy Bakewell returned to work, it was deemed too dangerous to punish Jones by sacking him. At that time, Jenny Hastings was threatening an industrial tribunal—a very public way of exposing the antics of her erstwhile lover. Meanwhile, the Audit Commission was due to inspect the council. There is nothing like a four-star sex scandal to scupper a council’s chances of an “excellent” four-star rating. Behind closed doors and with the help of ACAS, a deal was sealed to buy off Ms Hastings. It cost £140,000 of taxpayers’ money—slightly less than Alan Jones’s annual salary. Somerset county council thought that it had got everyone involved to sign a confidentiality agreement, but it carelessly left at least one person off the list, which is why I know how much she was paid. There were also some very large extra payments. In the next couple of years, millions of pounds were spent on mysterious “staff restructuring” at Somerset county council. Did any of that money help buy the silence of those on the inside who knew the gory details? Were those in the know given golden goodbyes when they retired?

Life at the county council limped on, however. Paul Buchanan continued as deputy leader, taking a particular interest in two projects close to Alan Jones’s heart. Both men wanted Somerset to be transformed into a unitary authority, taking responsibility from the five existing district councils. In my opinion, it was a mad idea, but Mr. Buchanan is a Liberal Democrat, so we have to allow for a certain degree of woolly-headed lunacy. Both Buchanan and Jones also wanted to see improvements in how services were delivered. So, in a peculiar fashion, Jones and Buchanan looked like peas in a pod. Jones was the go-getting chief executive, albeit with a weakness for women; Buchanan was business-savvy and energetic. What a team! Except that the go-getting chief executive much preferred compliant pussycat politicians who sit quietly in the corner and purr when officers tell them what to do. Mr. Buchanan had a failing: he was apt to ask too many questions. Furthermore, he came equipped with a brain.

The Minister may know of my close interest in the development and malfunction of a joint venture company involving Somerset county council, Avon and Somerset police and IBM.

The Minister is nodding; he is aware of that.

The outfit is called Southwest One, and it is busy making a total hash of everything in the county. Its computer system does not work, it cannot place orders or pay bills and it is certainly not saving any money. Southwest One is the dubious end product of Alan Jones’s desire radically to improve services—mad. The Jones philosophy is “anything goes”, which explains how he was able to hire the wife of Avon and Somerset’s chief constable to set it all up. Sue Barnes became Somerset’s project director without any kind of formal interview. Her hubby, Colin Port, is now on the board of Southwest One. Funny old world, isn’t it?

Paul Buchanan was involved in assessing the merits of the commercial bidders back in 2006. He was, after all, deputy leader and he knows a thing or two about business. There were three rivals: Capita, which, as we all know, is a big player in local government; British Telecom, for which Alan Jones got a consultancy in Somerset; and IBM. With millions at stake, such companies spend hundreds of thousands of pounds polishing their bids. They twitch if anyone speaks out of turn because there is so much at stake.

On 12 February 2007, Sue Barnes went to London with Paul Buchanan to meet IBM representatives. My sources in the industry tell me that IBM was badly rattled. It had heard rumours that Alan Jones had been singing the praises of BT during a late-night drinking session at a conference of chief executives. I forgot to mention that Mr. Jones likes to unwind with a glass in his hand—but this time, unfortunately for him, he was overheard. Sue Barnes and Paul Buchanan, to their credit, had to pour oil on IBM’s troubled waters; otherwise, the whole project would have gone belly up.

Within a day or two of that meeting, Jones’s attitude changed completely; it was the trigger that launched the campaign to destroy Buchanan. Jones sent a letter to Councillor Cathy Bakewell, the leader, about Buchanan’s behaviour and persuaded his four most senior directors to sign it. Then Bakewell came to talk to the management board—that is, Jones and his four toady directors. She promised to “deal with Buchanan”. In fact, she called in the leader of the Lib Dems on the Local Government Association as a kind of mediator. Bad call. That particular individual, Richard Kemp from Liverpool—Jones’s home town; they may even be mates—is known in Liberal circles as the Jackal. Assassination is his speciality, and Jones went to London to give him ammo—signed statements from people in and around Jones’s office alleging Buchanan’s “unspeakable” behaviour. Jones is a bully; his staff probably signed those statements in their own blood, for all I know.

I apologise to the House, because I am forced to go into great detail in order to explain the way in which the chief executive has immersed himself in party politics and the political process. Chief executives, I had always thought, are meant to leave politics to the politicians, but at Somerset county council, with a weak leader on her way out, anything goes for Mr. Jones.

The Jackal came to Somerset with a cunning plan: if Buchanan quietly resigned as deputy leader, promised to shut up and be a good boy, and accepted “mentoring” from Jones and the Jackal, then the charges would be dropped. Mr. Buchanan was not playing. If he had agreed to the Jackal’s plans, he would have been accepting his own guilt—and, as we all know, he was not guilty of anything except swearing, once, under his breath. Mr. Buchanan suggested another mentor, a far more respected and accomplished figure—the former leader of Somerset county council, Sir Chris Clarke. Mentoring in local government is a semi-official process. A contract is drawn up between one of the major local government quangos and the council involved. Somerset did agree to sign up Sir Chris to mentor Paul Buchanan, but that did not stop Jones’s campaign to destroy the man.

On 27 March 2007—the very day that the Government announced a shortlist of councils seeking unitary status—the Jackal e-mailed Lib Dem leaders, copying it to Jones, urging a full complaint to the Standards Board. He said:

“It is an ideal time to deal with this because of the Unitary News”.

Sound familiar? A good day to bury bad news? Now we know why Richard Kemp is called the Jackal. No serious attempt was ever made to deal with Jones’s complaints in-house—and that was what was meant to happen. Instead, Jones used the sledgehammer of the Standards Board, and the depths to which he and his henchmen have stooped are beyond belief.

This is a passage from a transcript of evidence to the Standards Board, which seems to be a deliberate attempt to blacken Paul Buchanan’s name by suggesting that he was romantically involved with Sue Barnes, the project director and wife of the chief constable:

“Sue and Paul Buchanan were pretty much ensconced together at the back of the bus, sharing information and having a good time and having a laugh and a joke. I think what struck me was how close they were in terms of their body language...lots of whispers and laughter and what have you....I’m not suggesting for one moment it was inappropriate!”

Oh yeah? Pull the other one! The transcript was scored through, presumably by the man who gave the evidence—Roger Kershaw, Jones’s No. 2. It looks like, and is, an organised dirty tricks campaign: first, someone uses innuendo in evidence, and then they are allowed to correct their evidence before the other side sees it. Somebody close to Kershaw sent it, anonymously, to me.

The interview between Kershaw and the Standards Board was conducted in June 2007. It contains another glaring untruth. Mr. Kershaw states that after Sue Barnes and Paul Buchanan went to see IBM in February, Sue Barnes’s contract was terminated. In fact, Sue Barnes served the entire term of her contract until the IBM deal was signed in late September. What on earth was going on, and why in the name of sanity did it go on so long?

The Standards Board rejected the first batch of Jones’s complaints because they were plainly ridiculous—so Jones started complaining about its decision. By now, the chief executive of Somerset county council was behaving like Victor Meldrew with a Kalashnikov. It is no wonder that Southwest One is regarded as a dismal failure. Jones was obsessed with his vendetta. Next, he unilaterally severed the mentoring contract between Somerset and Sir Chris Clarke that was established to help Buchanan. Buchanan hit back with a letter to the council citing incidents of drunkenness, womanising and bullying by Jones. He could not take them up with the Standards Board, because there is no mechanism to do so.

Jones cross-volleyed with yet more complaints, this time claiming that Buchanan was bullying him by complaining about his behaviour. You could not make it up. It is a plot full of bureaucracy, bonking and a chief executive who has gone totally bonkers.

You have made some very serious allegations, and no doubt you believe them to be founded. May I ask whether under the umbrella of parliamentary privilege you have given the people whom you are accusing of very serious things—

I beg your pardon, Mr. Speaker.

Has the hon. Gentleman given the people against whom he is making accusations the opportunity to answer these points, and has he shown them his speech?

I thank the hon. Gentleman. He came in a little late, and if I may I should like to tell him that all this is in the public domain. It is all part of the transcripts that were given to the Standards Board. Everything that I am speaking about is in the public domain already, so the people involved have had ample chance to examine it. The Standards Board makes all its findings public, and all the information can be got hold of.

Can the hon. Gentleman tell me whether the people involved have seen the speech that he is giving today? Have they had a chance to digest it and comment on it before his using the privilege of the House in this way?

No, because quite honestly the information is already in the public domain. If it were not, I would have had no problem with that, but what I am saying is a catalogue of what is already known. I am putting it in chronological order and saying to the Minister that we need to have the ability to bring about investigation of senior officers by the Standards Board. The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, and the problem is that there is no mechanism for anybody in councils to criticise chief executives, including in his area’s unitary council.

As I said earlier, it is important that we can stand up for people whose lives have been blighted by a situation that is outside their control. Everything that I have talked about is already known, and I am trying to bring in front of the House the facts of how a man’s life can be ruined—he is a Liberal Democrat, so I have no truck with him—by one person demanding his head when the only thing that he is guilty of is swearing under his breath after two and a half years. That cannot be right. It is important that Members have the ability to stand up and defend people, and that is what I am trying to do. The House is, after all, meant to be the highest forum in the land. I have made all this information public on my website, although obviously not the speech, because I am just giving it. All the way through, for two and a half years, I have felt that the situation is out of control. At no stage have I held back from my beliefs. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, because it is important to say that all this is already in the public domain.

Before the final hearing, Jones was eagerly trawling county hall trying to persuade or threaten anybody to give any evidence against Buchanan. It was a waste of time. The proof came with the sensible, sober decision of the panel to acquit Mr. Buchanan. Paul Buchanan is still a Liberal Democrat, but his party will not have him as a council candidate in Somerset. He has been stitched up and, I am afraid, let down. The Liberal Democrats emerge from this sordid affair as weak-willed, mealy-mouthed and yellow—that is their party colour, after all. Alan Jones emerges as precisely what he is—a busted flush. Chief executives have a duty to behave like officers and, I would say, gentlemen. Jones is no gentleman, and he has certainly lost all moral authority to serve as an officer. I am afraid that the time has come for him to go.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) on securing the debate. I thoroughly enjoyed his speech, and it is not often that I can say that in an Adjournment debate. I am pleased that he was able to speak candidly about issues about which he feels passionate.

I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the conduct regime for local authority members, to which the hon. Gentleman alluded, and the work of the Adjudication Panel for England and the Standards Board for England and the valuable role that they play in ensuring that high standards of conduct are maintained by local authority members. I welcome the debate, which gives me a chance to put on record the Government’s support for the conduct regime for local authority members and allows me to discuss the treatment of misconduct in that regime. That goes to the core of the debate.

I should make it clear at the outset that I cannot intervene in individual cases—the hon. Gentleman knows that from discussions that we have had.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Ian Austin.)

It is right that I should not be able to intervene in individual cases, as that guarantees the impartiality of the conduct regime and investigation process. Although I am happy to discuss the work of the Standards Board for England and the Adjudication Panel in general terms, I will not comment on or engage in debate about any specific ongoing case.

As the debate’s title suggests and as the hon. Gentleman outlined, the case concerns Councillor Paul Buchanan, a former deputy leader of Somerset county council, but given that the Adjudication Panel is due to convene shortly to determine the outcome of several outstanding allegations, I will not comment on it. However, I should like to address briefly the conduct regime and the two points that the hon. Gentleman raised with which I can deal specifically later in my short speech.

In this country, we have naturally high standards of probity, accountability and objectivity—expectations of behaviour that demand a serious, reasonable, robust and fair conduct regime. It must be fair to the public and to all in public life. That applies equally to those elected to local authorities and to Members of Parliament. It is worth remembering that the conduct regime was introduced in the Local Government Act 2000 to promote high standards of ethical behaviour by local authority members. It gave a clear ethical framework for local authority members to work within, and made clear to the electorate the standards of behaviour that they could expect from those whom they voted into office.

In 2007, a revised model code of conduct for local authority members was issued, which was yet clearer, simpler and more proportionate. It removed barriers to members’ ability to speak up for those they represent, for example, on planning and licensing issues, and has been well received by local government. All local authorities have followed it in their own codes, by which their members must abide.

In May 2008, the Government fulfilled their White Paper commitment, as recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, to introduce a more locally based conduct regime for members and co-opted members of local authorities in England. Devolving responsibility for conduct issues to local authorities provides them with greater ownership of the conduct regime and local conduct issues, and boosts their role in promoting and maintaining a culture of high standards of behaviour. That belief is shared throughout the local government world.

The Standards Board for England, which until that point had been responsible for investigating alleged breaches of the code of conduct, has assumed its new role as the strategic regulator of local authority standards committees, responsible for monitoring their performance and issuing guidance on the conduct regime. The Standards Board continues to investigate the most serious allegations of misconduct.

Let us be clear: the regime accords with the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, including the recommendation to establish a more locally based decision-making regime for investigating and determining all but the most serious misconduct allegations, but with the Standards Board at the centre of the revised regime with a new strategic, regulatory role to ensure consistency.

The hon. Gentleman referred to serious allegations. It is a sad fact of political life that disagreement about issues can occasionally spill out of the correct channels for resolution and take on the form of remarks or accusations that suggest personal enmity. It is good to hear forthright views expressed vigorously—healthy debate is good for a healthy democracy and ensures that issues are thoroughly and publicly examined. That is true, whether in the Chamber, a council meeting or a parish hall. To some extent, we can also expect public figures to comment on issues in a private capacity—we are familiar with examples of that from our national and local media. For example, councillors with opposing views clearly express their opinions in the letters column of local newspapers.

As modern media have developed, so have the great opportunities that they afford for communication; indeed, the hon. Gentleman referred to his website. That is one of the reasons why my Department recently consulted on proposed changes to the code of recommended practice on local authority publicity. We want to remove barriers to communication between councillors and those whom they serve, by allowing, for instance, the local authority to host a councillor’s blog. However, with that freedom comes responsibility. There is no place in political debate for making hurtful, potentially damaging and unfounded accusations. That is why we take bringing the office of a councillor into disrepute so seriously and why doing so constitutes a breach of the local authority members’ code of conduct.

The other point that the hon. Gentleman made was about using the conduct regime as a political weapon. I am not insensitive in this context to the allegation that unscrupulous individuals may consider that the conduct regime can be used maliciously as a political weapon. I am conscious of that threat, but when we consider steps to halt what some might consider to be obviously false allegations intended to waste time and resources, we must take great care to ensure that in so doing we do not gag legitimate allegations.

Before the new regime, it was for the Standards Board for England to assess, and if necessary investigate, the some 3,500 allegations made about the behaviour of councillors every year. Under the devolved regime, the Standards Board investigates only the most serious allegations. One of the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman was about delay. Indeed, the facts of the delay are a source of serious concern. The Standards Board has a target of completing 90 per cent. of its cases within six months; he mentioned a period of two years and explained why there had been unfortunate problems in the case. The 90 per cent. target is a challenging target, but he will be interested to know that last year the Standards Board did not just meet it, but exceeded it, completing 96 per cent. of cases on target.

I realise that it can be trying for those who are subject to an allegation that takes some time to investigate and resolve. Investigations can become protracted for a number of reasons. Some cases are complex and require the collection of evidence from a number of witnesses. In addition, fresh evidence may come to light during the investigative process. We must also consider the fact that, unfortunately, the investigation can be protracted owing to malicious behaviour on the part of the subject or subjects of the allegation, or perhaps others who have reason to fear its outcome.

Let me turn to the issue of misconduct. The Adjudication Panel for England, the Standards Board for England and the standards committees of local authorities are all part of a conduct regime underpinned by the local authority members’ code of conduct. The code makes it clear to councillors and their communities what might constitute a personal or a prejudicial interest, for example, and it addresses issues such as gifts and hospitality, which are clearly not relevant to this case. However, the code also addresses fundamental issues of behaviour and conduct.

Founded upon the seven principles of public life, the code states, for instance, that councillors must not abuse their position as councillors and that they must not disclose confidential information in an inappropriate manner. The code directly addresses matters more fundamental still—not just those that are fundamental to public life, but principles so fundamental that I hope that we would all strive to meet them unconsciously in everyday life. The code explicitly states:

“You must treat others with respect”,

and says:

“You must not…bully any person”

or “intimidate any person”.

Let us take bullying as the most obvious example. Bullying, I hope we can all agree, is unacceptable. It does not matter whether bullying happens in the playground, the workplace, the Chamber or the barracks—any civilized society rejects it. That is why bullying is in the code—because it is a serious issue when it happens between individuals, damaging people, and because it is a serious matter when it happens in a local authority, damaging the working of the authority and, potentially, confidence in democracy if exposed, and the delivery of services if not. Simply put, unacceptable behaviour is not tolerated. Those who are guilty of misconduct are investigated and sanctions are brought against them. The conduct regime, underpinned by the members’ code, will ensure that that continues to be the case.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question whether the Government should allow standards committees to investigate, for example, allegations against local authority officials such as chief executives. He will be pleased to know that we recently held a consultation on whether there should be a model code of conduct for local authority officials, just as there is one for local authority members. We are currently considering the more than 1,000 responses to the consultation that we have received. The consultation included proposals to transport some aspects of the members’ code to senior officials. The code will form part of an employee’s terms and conditions of employment and could be used in any disciplinary procedures. I should just add that whether the standards committees or other bodies should have the authority to enforce the code is an issue on which we shall consult.

I thank the Minister and I welcome his words. I am delighted to hear that, but unfortunately it will not help this gentleman. Will the Minister give an indication of the time scale involved? I know that we are in the middle of the consultation, but he must have a thought in the back of his mind as to when this will happen. It is extremely important in trying, as it were, to even things out on both sides.

I think it is important to have political consensus in this area. I do not wish to make cheap political points, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that his party is committed to abolishing the Standards Board, so the idea of having a parallel system for senior officials would obviously not work if the Standards Board regime were abolished. I am keen to move forward as soon as possible. The hon. Gentleman’s example is not the only example of allegations—these are allegations—against senior officials, and the issue of public confidence is important.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, in the meantime, it is open to the employers of senior officials to take disciplinary action if they have breached express or implied terms in their contracts of employment. I nevertheless understand the point that he has raised and the sense of urgency, as we do not want examples of serious allegations against senior officials not being taken seriously or not being considered by a similar code.

Before concluding, I want to address another issue that the hon. Gentleman raised—Southwest One. My Department has no formal involvement in the development of Southwest One, but if allegations of corruption are made, they should clearly be viewed as a criminal matter requiring the involvement of the police. If there is any evidence of corruption in this case, it should be turned over the Serious Fraud Office.

There is no indication that there has been criminal intent, partly because Avon and Somerset police are involved, as is the hon. Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris). What has happened here is that there has been a desperation to do a deal for procurement, which neither side disagrees with. We agree in the House that efficiency is right. It is the undue haste and the way it was set up that has been the problem, but there is nothing criminal about that. It is just that the procedures were not followed and when somebody said, “Look, this is wrong,” they sacked him. Another illustration is that the union leader, Nigel Behan, who has also tried to lead on this, has been fired as well. He is seeking reinstatement at the moment, so the issue has deepened, but there is no criminal intent.

Let me conclude. I recognise that investigations into allegations of misconduct impact on reputations, careers and lives; they are not undertaken lightly. I recognise, too, that there are those who would try to twist the conduct regime—which is intended to give councillors an ethical framework to work within and to give the public a clear expectation of the standards of behaviour they can expect from those they voted for—for their own ends. I believe that the conduct regime is robust, reasonable and proportionate and that it provides a framework to work within and an enforcement method to address those who are guilty of misconduct, so helping to maintain confidence in democracy.

I would like to thank the hon. Member for Bridgwater for raising some important issues tonight and my hon. Friend the Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris) for his important interventions. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand why I have not gone into specific detail about the history of the case he raised. I know that the Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), was due to meet the hon. Gentleman today, and I am sure that he will be happy to reschedule the meeting in order to deal with the important issues raised about Southwest One.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.