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Standards in Public Life: Local Authorities

Volume 707: debated on Monday 24 January 2022

2. What steps he is taking to ensure standards in public life are upheld at local authority level. (905175)

The Government champion high ethical standards in local government. On 14 January, I supported the important Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) to disqualify sex offenders from local office and, before Christmas, I met the Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to reaffirm that we will shortly be responding to the Committee’s report on this important issue and will set out further steps to improve the system.

I am sure that you of all people, Mr Speaker, would agree that standards of politicians at every level are not always observed. On Wyre Forest District Council, a local councillor has been sanctioned for not the first, but the fourth time, for standards breaches. In this case, it was the leader of the Liberal Democrat group, but I think that we would all agree that frequent offenders who see sanctions as an occupational hazard of being a controversial councillor come from every political party. It is three years since the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life on local government ethical standards were published. Can the Minister confirm if and when the Government will legislate to implement their recommendations and that any legislation will equip councils with more robust sanctions for serious or repeated breaches of the code of conduct, an example of which could be a ban for six months?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue and for his recent letter on the matter, which I shall respond to shortly. I am actively considering the recommendations set out in the report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and will respond shortly. It is of the utmost importance that local authorities have the right tools to make the system work.

Last summer, the senior Conservative councillor in my Angus constituency was unmasked as being behind an anonymous anti-SNP Twitter troll account, and for peddling misogynistic commentary on the appearance of female politicians, with flagrant attacks also on local councillors and parliamentarians. Conservative bosses in Scotland have mandated that he goes on a social media course, thereby paving the way for him to stand again in the May Scottish council elections. Does the Minister think that this is an acceptable way for Scottish Conservative councillors to behave?

I am afraid that I do not know the details of that case specifically. Although I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is raising a very important issue, what I would say is that he looks at the recommendations in the report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I think that he will find some things there that will address the situation to which he refers.

Standards, such as openness and honesty, are indeed important, and I do hope that the Prime Minister will soon agree to that. Despite the language and rhetoric of levelling up, the reality is somewhat different in our communities. How can we have local authority funding in the north of £413 per person over 10 years and spending of just £32 per person and it be classed as levelling up? The Secretary of State is quickly getting a reputation for himself in the Wirral as the Minister for closing down, laying off, and hollowing out, with libraries, leisure centres and public sector workers facing the chop? At what stage does he intend to get a grip and level up local government finances?

I am not sure whether that is a question specifically on the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The hon. Gentleman will know that the provisional local government settlement was published and that he and I have had discussions about that, which show that there is a significant increase in core spending power.

I start by agreeing with the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) about openness and transparency. Last week, the energy company in which Warrington Borough Council bought a 50% stake collapsed. My constituents are rightly concerned that £50 million of public money was invested in a loss-making company. Will the Minister meet me to look at what steps we can take to protect local services and what lessons we can learn from governance in local authorities.