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Standards Board for England

Volume 495: debated on Tuesday 30 June 2009

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

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to debate the Standards Board for England. For those hon. Members who have never come across it, let me say with great sincerity, “Lucky you!” The board is supposed to promote high ethical standards for local government, but in my experience it is an inefficient, expensive and woefully unfair outfit that should be confined to the history books as quickly as possible.

The Standards Board was established on a whim of political correctness. The driving force behind it was that master of oratory, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott). He wanted local councillors to behave properly. That is a perfectly worthy goal, but the right hon. Gentleman could be clumsy; he loved to interfere in the natural order of things—and I suspect he still does. So instead of leaving it to the common sense of voters not to elect lunatics, or the common sense of the police to get involved when they had to, the right hon. Gentleman decided to reinvent the wheel. It was a triumph; the wheel was completely square. That is the sad story of the birth of the Standards Board.

It was guaranteed to malfunction because it was designed by idiots. It has turned the act of complaining about councillors into a fabulous spectator sport. Imagine the centre court at Wimbledon where anyone can take a pot shot. That is the system the right hon. Gentleman created: “Complaints are free; why not make one now?”

Several councillors from Bideford in north Devon are still under investigation because they want to scrap prayers before meetings to save time—hallelujah! Do we need to learn the lesson? Even in this place, where one would think we would all know better, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) recently reported a Lib Dem councillor to the Standards Board for the appalling act of removing a petition from a local post office.

Last year, there were 3,500 different complaints—one for every waking hour of every single day. We are getting this wrong. If there are too many complaints, the staff cannot handle them, which means more people have to be hired and everything slows down. There is only one thing worse than slow justice, and that is no justice. The Standards Board offers both in heaps. It has become an overblown, bureaucratic kangaroo court. It pretends to operate like the Old Bailey, but people should not expect a fair trial, or any help in defending themselves.

The Standards Board has set new standards, and they come in at gutter height. I could illustrate this argument with any number of high profile cases, but I prefer to stick to the one I know best. It concerns a former Somerset county councillor called Paul Buchanan. Adjournment debate groupies may recognise his name—I am sure the Minister does. The case of Paul Buchanan has dragged on for more than two painful years. I have raised it in this House on several occasions. Paul Buchanan was deputy leader of Somerset council’s Liberal Democrats. What happened to him speaks volumes about what is wrong with the Standards Board.

The board was bamboozled and brow-beaten into investigating Paul Buchanan, and all because of one unscrupulous public official: the chief executive of Somerset county council, Mr. Alan Jones. 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. It was the work of a deliberate assassin. Paul Buchanan was 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; not bad for one man—he is almost unique. There is barely concealed hatred of the man in every sentence. Jones did not just want the Standards Board to investigate; he wanted an instant political execution. He asked for then Councillor Paul Buchanan to be suspended there and then, but he did not get that.

The jobsworths at the Standards Board might have been forgiven for thinking that Paul Buchanan was an unstable nutcase with homicidal tendencies. In fact, the really unstable and unsavoury character was, and is, the complainant: Somerset county council’s most senior officer. However, wrongly—inexcusably—the Standards Board does not investigate complaints against officers; it cannot. That is another ridiculous gaping hole in its half-baked interpretation of justice.

If anyone’s local chief executive is caught bullying staff or paying off his mistress from public funds, the Standards Board will rightly say it is none of its business; it can only investigate councillors, and it was obliged, because of the rules, to launch a full-blown inquiry into Mr. Buchanan. Hundreds of interviews were conducted and thousands of pages of transcripts were churned off the printers, and when it rejected Alan Jones’s first batch of complaints, he wasted extra time querying its decision. It was dealing with a deranged obsessive. The first investigator retired, exhausted, halfway through and lawyers came and went. Heaven knows what the cost is—we certainly do not. What was the result? Eventually, 16 of the original complaints were chucked out, four others were referred to a higher court, not a proper court, but another quango; a panel with the pomp of the legal system, but—I say this in this place—none of the fairness. That meant even more uncertainty for Paul Buchanan.

The panel— with a new bench of barristers—finally met in Somerset, and I went along to watch this gladiatorial sport. Key witnesses were called, but few, if any, turned up—most, understandably, did not want to have anything to do with it. The panel upheld one tiny charge: the heinous charge for which Paul Buchanan should have been dragged out and hung was that he had been overheard swearing under his breath. Is that pathetic or was it the crime of the century? I shall let you decide that one, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

What was really behind all this? Why on earth did a chief executive who was earning £160,000 year and who had 17,000 staff and huge responsibilities go to so much trouble to make complaints about what was seen as an ambitious councillor? Mr. Jones’s explanation to the Standards Board was beyond belief; he said that Paul Buchanan’s behaviour was

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

Whoop-de-doo!

That statement would stack up only if the charges against Mr. Buchanan were proved, but they were not and he was acquitted of everything serious, other than the crime of the century of swearing under his breath. We should recall what he was accused of: secretiveness, undermining staff, aggression, threatening behaviour, rudeness, intimidation, anger, disrespect, fraud, sexism, racism, and homophobia. He was probably accused of leaving the loo seat up too. This was simply a personal vendetta.

So why did Jones want to “get” Buchanan and what had Buchanan “got” on Jones? I am sorry if that sounds conspiratorial, but there is a big hint of conspiracy in all this. Mr. Buchanan knew too much. 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 this—it was no secret. What Buchanan did not know was that when the affair came to an end Ms Hastings made a serious complaint of sexual harassment against Alan Jones. That is, of course, a sackable offence, and rightly so. The complaint had to be dealt with by a confidential panel of elected members, including the lady who led the council at the time. Halfway through she was taken ill—legitimately so—and Paul Buchanan, the acting leader, took over but he was never told about the inquiry. It was Alan Jones who let the cat out of the bag and he came to plead with Mr. Buchanan to help, but Mr. Buchanan rightly told Mr. Jones that he would not and could not help—big mistake. Unfortunately, Alan Jones has a long memory and he bears grudges.

By the time the leader returned to work it was deemed too dangerous to punish Jones by sacking him—that is perhaps just one of those quirks. Unfortunately, Jenny Hastings was threatening an industrial tribunal, which is a very public way of exposing the antics of her lover, and the Audit Commission was due to inspect the council. There is nothing like a five-star sex scandal to scupper one’s chances of an excellent four-star rating, as they say in the best adverts. So, behind closed doors, and with the help of ACAS, a deal was signed to buy Ms Hastings off—that cost £140,000, which is slightly less than the annual pay cheque of the chief executive. Some very large extra payments indeed were made, and in the next couple of years millions of pounds were spent on mysterious “staff restructuring” at Somerset county council.

I do not know the answer to this and I know that the Minister does not either, but I wonder, and we must speculate, whether any of that money helped to buy the silence of those who knew the gory details. Were they given a golden goodbye when they retired?

Paul Buchanan continued as deputy leader, taking a particular interest in the projects that were close to the chief executive’s heart, but Mr. Buchanan is no fool. He was apt to ask too many difficult and complicated questions.

The Minister will know of my interest in the development of a joint venture company between Somerset county council, Avon and Somerset Police and IBM—it is well known. The outfit is called Southwest One and I am afraid that it has made a complete hash of things in the county. The computer system does not work, and it cannot place orders or pay bills, let alone—and most importantly—save money for the county. Southwest One is a nightmare, and is the product of Alan Jones’s dream of radically improving services.

That is why the incoming Conservative administration—we had great success down there—immediately announced a full inquiry a few weeks ago into the whole sorry mess. They did so independently. The Jones philosophy was “anything goes”, which explains how he was able to hire the wife of the Avon and Somerset chief constable to set the thing up in the first place. Sue Barnes, the chief constable’s wife, became the Somerset project director without a formal interview and her hubby, Colin Port, is now on the board of Southwest One. I ask the House—is that right?

Paul Buchanan was involved in assessing the merits of the commercial bidders back in 2006. He was—let us remind ourselves—the deputy leader of the council, and he does know one or two things about business. He is a successful businessman. There were three rivals: Capita; British Telecom, for which Mr. Jones got a consultancy in Somerset; and IBM. With millions at stake, such companies spend fortunes polishing their bids. Guess what? They twitch if anybody speaks out of turn. I am sure that we have all had experience of that.

On 12 February 2007, Sue Barnes went to London with Paul Buchanan to meet IBM. My sources in the industry told me at the time that IBM was badly rattled—it thought that it was going to lose the bid. It had heard rumours that Alan Jones had been singing the praises of BT at a late-night drinking session at a conference of chief executives. I forgot to mention that “Big Al” likes to unwind with a glass in his hand and, dare I say it, a pretty woman, but this time he was overheard, unfortunately for him.

Sue Barnes and Paul Buchanan had to go and see IBM and to pour oil on troubled waters so that IBM did not walk away. Otherwise, the whole project would have gone belly up. I have no problem with procurement projects—neither have the Government or the Opposition. We all agree on that point. Within a day or two of that meeting, Jones’s attitude to Buchanan changed. He set out to destroy this man’s opportunities.

Jones sent a letter to the leader of the council about Buchanan’s behaviour and persuaded four senior councillors to sign it. Then, the Lib Dems called a mate—Councillor Richard Kemp—from Liverpool, Mr. Jones’s home town. Kemp, as a Liberal, is known as the Jackal. He is deadly, and Jones went to London to give him the ammunition—signed statements from people in and around his office alleging Buchanan’s “unspeakable” behaviour. They were probably signed in their own blood, too, for all I know.

I apologise to the House that I am forced to go into detail to explain this yet again, but I do not understand—and I am sure that the House does not—why a chief executive should be immersing himself in the political side of any council. That is not the job or the role of chief executives. They are meant to leave politics to the politicians—and rightly so. Somerset council, with a weak Lib Dem leader on her way out, thought that Mr. Jones could get away with anything and do what he liked. However, the Jackal came to Somerset with a cunning plan. If Buchanan quit as deputy leader, promised to shut up and to accept “mentoring”, the charges would be dropped. Mr. Buchanan rightly said, “I’m not going to play.” If he had agreed to the Jackal’s plan, he would have been accepting his own guilt. As we have proved, he is not guilty of anything other than swearing under his breath.

On 27 March 2007, the Government provided the assassin with a convenient smokescreen. It was the day that they published a list of councils that wanted to become unitary authorities. Unfortunately for us, Somerset was on the list. The Jackal reached for his weapon, fired off an e-mail and went to the Standards Board right away. This was where things came full circle. He wrote:

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

Does that sound familiar? The Jackal was using the old adage, “It is a good day to bury bad news.” No serious attempt was ever made to deal with Jones—that was what was meant to happen. Jones wanted to go to the Standards Board; the Jackal pulled the trigger. How times change.

I am sure that many hon. Members will have read the letter from the Jackal that was sent to the relevant Minister some time ago. It is required reading. It is from a Lib Dem, in his own words. He said of the Standards Board:

“There is no evidence that any of these boards have had any effect in improving behavioural standards. There is some evidence that they have encouraged people to make malicious claims about councillors.”

That is the Lib Dems’ top man, the Jackal. It is a miracle—the very man who specialised in malicious claims against Paul Buchanan has suddenly been converted, falling off his ass on the road to Taunton! At last the Jackal has seen the error of his ways, but it is too late for Paul Buchanan. The very outfit that the Jackal now wants scrapped is still turning the screw.

On 13 July the high court of the Standards Board, the adjudication panel, will meet to have another go at the allegations brought by Alan Jones. The nature of those allegations is quite extraordinary. We must remember that chief executives are immune from the Standards Board, so Mr. Buchanan decided to complain about the behaviour of his chief executive to Somerset county council. He wrote to the county solicitor and detailed a long list of shortcomings—womanising, drunkenness, bullying—and he gave chapter and verse, with all the dates and places. So what does “Big Al” do? He complains about the complaints, to—yes, the Standards Board!

It is true. He says that he is being bullied because someone has complained about him being a bully. It gets better: the Standards Board was obliged, yet again, to call in more lawyers, do more interviews, produce more transcripts and waste more time and money.

The House will be glad to hear that it will all come to a head on 13 July, at the Holiday Inn in Taunton. If people want to see a kangaroo court in action, there is space available and they should head down to Taunton. However, anyone expecting that the chief witness in this case would be none other than “Big Al” himself would be wrong. Mr. Cowardy Custard from county hall does not fancy being cross-examined, and I wonder why. He would much prefer to avoid all questions, about basically anything. He has reduced a tough TV producer to tears. I know, because she worked for ITV and she stopped on the motorway to ring me and complain.

I am afraid that Mr. Jones’ reputation is bad, but this time the kangaroo court that is the panel will not be asking him to attend. I think that that is appalling. In other words, Mr. Buchanan is expected to prove that he did not bully the chief executive without the chief executive showing up in court to give evidence, because he cannot be forced to do so. The panel might as well go back to the days of the ducking stool, and I think that we know what that feels like. A person is tied to a chair and lowered into a pond: if that person drowns, he or she is innocent; if not, he or she must be a witch and so gets executed. Good old Somerset!

What makes it doubly ridiculous is that Paul Buchanan is no longer a councillor and never wants to be one again. And what is the worst punishment available to the panel? They can ban him from being a councillor, even though he is not one. This is all too much.

The Standards Board has become a joke, and a very bad joke at that. It is about as much use as a fireproof match or an inflatable anchor. In a dotty effort to improve its awful public image, many of its powers have now been handed back to local councils, and that has made things much worse.

If Paul Buchanan were a councillor today and fresh complaints were made about him by Alan Jones, then the judge and jury would be Alan Jones himself. Personally, I would not want to be cast away on a desert island with Mr. Jones. I quote again from the Jackal, who said:

“The standard of decisions that are made by council officers…relating to standards issues is diabolically low”.

I shall leave it there, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I need say no more.

This debate gives me the opportunity to discuss the conduct regime for local authority members in general, and the work of the Standards Board for England and the Adjudication Panel for England in particular. It allows me to make clear the vital roles that both bodies have in ensuring that high standards of conduct are maintained by local authority members, and it also affords me the opportunity to put on record once again this Government’s support for the conduct regime for local authority members, the Standards Board for England and the Adjudication Panel for England.

The views of the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) about the Standards Board for England are a matter of record. Indeed, on 21 April he secured an Adjournment debate in which he spoke at length about the board. It is obviously a body that he feels strongly about, as he has taken the trouble to secure another Adjournment debate to discuss it again.

I want to speak about the work of the Standards Board for England and the Adjudication Panel for England, but I should make it clear from the outset that I am not able to intervene in individual cases. It is right that this is so, as it guarantees the impartiality of both the conduct regime and the investigation process. Equally, I am not going to comment on, or engage in debate about, any specific ongoing issue.

In this country, we have naturally high standards of probity, accountability and objectivity. Our expectations of behaviour demand a conduct regime that is serious, reasonable, robust and fair—fair to the public, and to all in public life. That applies as much to those elected to local authorities as it does to Members of this House.

The conduct regime is underpinned by the code of conduct for local authority members, enforced through local authority standards committees and regulated by the Standards Board for England. It gives a clear ethical framework for local authority members to work within and makes clear to the electorate the standards of behaviour that they can expect from those whom they vote into office.

In 2007 a revised model code of conduct for local authority members was issued, providing a yet clearer, simpler and more proportionate code for members. This code removed barriers to members being able to speak up for those whom they represent, for example on planning and licensing issues, and has been well received by the local government world. It is this code that all local authorities have followed in their own codes by which their members must abide.

Late last year, my Department consulted on proposed revisions to the code of conduct. We have received over 1,000 responses to the consultation, clearly indicating the level of interest in this subject. We are in the process of finalising our consideration of the consultation responses, and the Government will be making their response to the consultation in due course. This same consultation asked for views on the possible introduction of a code of conduct for local authority employees, and I know that the hon. Gentleman showed interest in this matter the last time the conduct regime was debated here, as he has done again this evening.

Of course, many local authorities already have their own codes of conduct, but introducing a model code, which would effectively be built into the terms and conditions of each local government employee, is not something to be done lightly or without extensive further consultation with the local government sector. I will not say more on this issue because I do not wish to prejudge the outcome of the consultation process.

In May last year, the Government fulfilled their White Paper commitment to introduce, as recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, 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 in local authorities. This belief is shared by the local government world.

The Standards Board for England, which until this point had been responsible for investigating alleged breaches of the code of conduct, assumed its new responsibility 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. So let us be clear that the regime in place accords with the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, including its recommendation of establishing a more locally based decision-making regime for the investigation and determination of all but the most serious of misconduct allegations, but with the Standards Board at the centre of the revised regime with a new strategic, regulatory role to ensure consistency of standards. If hon. Members are challenging this, they are challenging the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which recently approached the Standards Board for England for advice on how a successful, robust and transparent conduct regime operates.

The Standards Board for England continues to grow in its new role as strategic regulator. Earlier this month it was granted powers to engage with local authorities where there was a problem with how the conduct regime is operating. The board has the ability to suspend the operation of a local authority standards committee, either taking on its operation itself or asking another local authority to do so, while the board works with the authority to resolve any problems prior to allowing the standards committee to begin functioning again.

If, following the investigation of alleged misconduct, the allegation is founded and misconduct has occurred, it is usually the case that the standards committee of the local authority concerned determines how the misconduct is dealt with and what sanction to apply. Measures can extend from training for the party involved or having to make a simple apology, through to being suspended from office. If it is determined that the breach of the conduct regime is serious, then the standards committee or the Standards Board for England may refer the case to the Adjudication Panel for England for sanction.

The Adjudication Panel for England is an independent judicial tribunal established by the Local Government Act 2000 as a disciplinary body to hear and determine references concerning the conduct of local authority councillors. The sanctions available to the panel include suspension from office or disqualification from office for up to five years. The panel may also simply choose to censure a councillor who has breached the code.

Let me turn now to the subject of investigations. Prior to the introduction of 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 of allegations. I realise that the process 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. Unfortunately, we must also consider the fact that investigation can be protracted by the malicious behaviour of the subject or subjects of the allegation, who may have reason to fear the outcome of the investigation.

Serious allegations merit thorough investigation, and where the finding is that there has been a serious breach of the code of conduct, the Adjudication Panel for England will issue the appropriate sanction. Since December 2008, an ethical standards officer at the Standards Board for England has had the power to withdraw cases that have been referred to the Adjudication Panel for hearing in certain specific circumstances. They might do so, for example, when the matter is revealed to be less serious than it had first appeared. Of course, circumstances may change between a matter being referred to the Adjudication Panel and a hearing of the panel. For instance, a local authority member may stand down or may lose his or her seat in a local authority election. However, that in itself is no reason to not go ahead with a hearing by the panel.

There is a clear public interest argument to be made. If a local authority member breaks the code, they should not be able to walk away from the consequences of their actions simply by resigning, or losing, their seat. The Adjudication Panel has powers, including the power to ban a person from being a local authority member in any local authority for up to five years, for a reason. Such a sanction prevents somebody from simply standing down and then standing elsewhere, or indeed standing again in the same authority. In addition, that power gives an assurance to whoever brought the allegation that they will see redress if the case requires it. Let us also remember that the panel deals with serious breaches of the code. Issues such as bullying can have a real impact on people’s lives, and it is right that such behaviour should be addressed.

It is important that a member who ceases to be a councillor should have the opportunity to clear their name of a serious allegation. That is why we consider it important that an investigation into allegations should move to a conclusion, unless there is a good reason why the process should cease. An essential part of investigation is the collection of evidence, and I would like to take this opportunity to address the issue of evidence and the public domain. To be clear, evidence transcripts are not in the public domain. Witnesses will have the opportunity to check their transcripts, and the member who is the subject of the investigation will have the opportunity to see all transcripts, if they form part of the evidence bundle, in order to check for accuracy.

When the evidence is provided, all those concerned are reminded of their obligations under section 63 of the Local Government Act 2000, which requires that information obtained by the Standards Board’s ethical standards officers during an investigation is not to be disclosed unless one or more specific conditions, such as consent by the individuals concerned, are met. Anyone disclosing information in contravention of the Act is guilty of an offence. At a hearing, the public are not given transcripts. If they make a request, they are given a summary of relevant evidence, and some of the information from the transcripts may be in that summary. The summary itself will be referred to in open hearing.

Let us be clear that the vast majority of local authority members observe the high standards of behaviour that the electorate rightly expect from them, but a robust conduct regime is absolutely necessary to provide redress when the code of conduct is not observed. The Standards Board for England needs to be there not just to provide regulation for the standards committees that enforce the code of conduct, but to continue to supply advice, support and training to local authority members to ensure that they continue to work within the conduct regime.

Finally, we absolutely understand that investigations, and their outcomes, affect the lives of all those concerned in them. We know that politicians trade in the currency of trust, and that trust is hard to build and harder to regain. However, we are also convinced of the need for a conduct regime that is robust, reasonable and proportionate, and that provides a framework to work within, and an enforcement method to deal with those who are guilty of misconduct. A robust, fair and transparent conduct regime is vital to maintain confidence in democracy, just as the Standards Board for England is vital to the conduct regime.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.