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Standards Board For England

Volume 669: debated on Thursday 24 February 2005

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11.16 a.m.

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied with the operation of the Standards Board for England.

My Lords, we consider that the Standards Board for England is undertaking the important job of promoting high standards of conduct for members of local authorities in an effective way.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that councillors are being suspended from office after investigation by the Standards Board for misdemeanours no greater than the zealous representation of constituents' interests or minor lapses of judgment? Some of those suspensions are taking place for up to a year. Does he agree that an unaccountable quango suspending from office the democratically elected representative of a community is a gross interference with democratic processes and should take place only when the most serious breaches of conduct occur?

My Lords, my answer to that has to be: in general, yes. I do not know all the details and it would obviously be inappropriate to discuss individual cases. But such suspensions cannot be right if someone is overzealous in representation, including being criticised for involving the relevant Member of the other place; that, I believe, is unacceptable. That is my personal view and I think that it is the view of any reasonable person. I draw an analogy with the other place. If something really serious happens there, a Member might be suspended for a fortnight or, for something really, really serious, a month. But being suspended from public office for a year and leaving people unrepresented is a problem. But those are the rules that currently operate with the Standards Board and the Adjudication Panel that follows. I understand that some people have been suspended for longer than a year.

My Lords, can the Minister tell me why more than half the Standards Board's time is spent on investigating parish councils? Does he not agree that it is hard enough to get people to serve on parish councils now and that it would be better to take some of the pressure off them? How long does he think it will be before the Standards Board can investigate the failure to implement the hedges policy?

My Lords, I take the noble Baroness's point about parish councillors, and I know that that matter has been raised many times in this House. In principle, if people are in an elected office, I cannot see why they should be excluded from the normal rules of standards of probity. There is no evidence that that has been a major problem since parish councils were covered by the rules. However, I accept that of the complaints made to the Standards Board—the board does filter them out—more than 70 per cent have so little merit that they are not even investigated. I understand that half the complaints relate to parish councils and that, of those investigated, only one in eight is sent to the Adjudication Panel. So there is an attempt to filter out ludicrous complaints, and it is not a very good sign that so many complaints are raised at this level.

The inability of local government, or indeed central government, to implement the provisions of the High Hedges Bill is a matter that I am actively looking into, bearing in mind that the noble Baroness was a key promoter of the legislation. We are very concerned that this issue has not been fully dealt with. I am not sure whether it is a matter for the Standards Board; it is more a matter for my department.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his positive reply. But how does he suggest that local councillors who feel aggrieved in this way can proceed further? At the moment, the only option open to them is the High Court. I am sure that the Minister will accept that that is very expensive and is an impractical option for most local councillors.

My Lords, I agree but I cannot come up with any suggestions. There is no argument about the process by which councillors are lawfully suspended. Those who have been lawfully suspended, although they are going to court to appeal, are excluded, I understand, from all public office, whether they are a councillor for one or more levels of councils; they are also excluded from being a candidate for a council. There has been evidence in the past that people who were not qualified to stand stood for election, were elected and then got suspended in order to draw attention to an issue. In fact, that sounds like the way in which life Peers came about.

I am not suggesting that the councillor does that, but these issues are worth raising. Ours is a democratic system and, by and large. if major issues are caused by people who have been elected, the answer is with the people through the ballot box. On the other hand, we must have a system of raising standards and improving probity.

My Lords, I understand that my noble friend does not want to get into individual cases, and so I shall not pursue him about Westminster City Council, but would he agree in general terms that public interest should exonerate a local councillor who has raised an issue from the disciplinary effect of the Standards Board? In fact, public interest ought to be a key test of whether conduct has been proper.

My Lords, I cannot comment on Westminster Council. I understand that, surprisingly, there is no public interest defence for councillors in this situation. Notwithstanding that, the Freedom of Information Act is now law, which it was not when this first started. A review of the Standards Board is being conducted and people can express their views about it until this summer.

I understand that one of the key criticisms from councillors—quite fortuitously it was raised with me yesterday in a completely different context—related to a case that was ongoing for three years. It is unacceptable conduct of public administration for an issue to take three years. It does not matter whether it is in the health service or in local government; issues should not take that long to resolve.

My Lords, I am sure that the House will welcome the approach of the Minister on this issue. Does he think that the statutory framework is too highly centralised?

My Lords, I do not understand that question. The Standards Board exists, and we fund it. There is a small number of staff doing a job, and they have the code of conduct to implement. Their only role is to police the code of conduct. I cannot comment on individual operations. The board is up for review this summer.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in many places reference to making a complaint to the Standards Board is becoming a totally unjustified political tactic to attempt to smear political opponents? The person complained against is not informed by the Standards Board that the complaint has been made until it starts to look at it, and that might not be for several months. Meanwhile, the whole matter might have been dragged through the local press in a totally unfair and unacceptable way.

My Lords, I deplore that, and I would have hoped that steps would have been taken early on to ensure that that is not happening. The board is a new body but with two or three years of operation we ought to be able to snuff out that kind of misuse and abuse of the system, because that is what it is.