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Local Authorities: Standards

Volume 735: debated on Tuesday 28 February 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what impact the new arrangements for monitoring standards in English local authorities will have on the incidence of vexatious and frivolous cases and on potential whistleblowers.

My Lords, the Standards Board regime actively encouraged vexatious complaints, often for political point-scoring. Councillors were often put through a lengthy investigation process before the matter was resolved. A councillor should not be found to be in breach of the code of conduct if, in highlighting fraud, waste or incompetence, they do so in a proper way. Our reforms will enable councils to deal with complaints expeditiously, and require them to seek the views of an independent person.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for her very helpful response. During the Committee stage of the Localism Bill, I referred to the particular case of Councillor Esmond Jenkins, who was pursued to the Standards Board for England after he had blown the whistle on corruption in Cotswold District Council. Does my noble friend recall that the Minister then responsible, our noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach, rightly said that such complaints to the board could be petty, malicious, vexatious or politically motivated? I am grateful to my noble friend for reiterating some of those points.

I have already established that the Standards Board for England spent in excess of £63,000 of taxpayers’ money on that case. Can my noble friend assure your Lordships' House that the replacement regime to maintain the standards of integrity and behaviour in local government will avoid wasteful expenditure on persecution of that sort? In particular, is she satisfied that councillors who investigate and expose wrongdoing will not be accused of bringing their authority into disrepute?

My Lords, the changes we made to the standards committees and standards support were made, as the noble Lord will recall, as a result of concern in this House. Our thrust has always been to ensure that this matter is run at a local level so the decisions made on how the system is set up will be left to local authorities. But I assure the noble Lord that we will be monitoring what happens as a result of those changes and looking to see how local authorities are dealing with allegations about the conduct of councillors—just to avoid, we hope, the problems that he mentioned and to find out the views of councils about the new arrangements.

My Lords, has the noble Baroness had a chance to reflect on the recent High Court decision in the case of Bideford Council? Does not she agree that it is “vexatious and frivolous”—the words in the Question—when local authorities are taken to court for arranging voluntary sessions before council meetings where members are invited to say prayers, as we do in this House?

My Lords, that was a legal decision which was interpreted, I think, as part of European Union law. It is clear that councillors can voluntarily attend prayers if they wish. There is no compulsion on them to attend, but council authorities can have prayers out of the chamber if people wish to have them before a meeting.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that under the new legislation the sanctions being considered and imposed by local authorities are only as draconian as asking the leader of the group to have words with the offending member? Has my noble friend any observations as to how the sanctions can be more biting than those being imposed by a cross-section of councils that I have been observing?

My Lords, I think the noble Lord slightly underplays what the sanctions can be. There can be censure. If it is a trivial matter, it can be dealt with by the leader of the group. It can be much more seriously dealt with. It can be taken to the council for formal censure. Someone who is found to have transgressed can also be removed from a committee for a certain length of time. We have not allowed local authorities to suspend councillors as a result of such decisions, but I think we have put forward a perfectly reasonable set of sanctions.

As the noble Baroness has suggested that the genesis of this legal judgment was European, will she given an undertaking to write to me to explain precisely which part of European legislation is alleged to have been breached?

My Lords, perhaps coming back to the issue, I am sure that the noble Baroness is right to say that the Standards Board did not fulfil the task in the way that it was thought that it would, but there are instances where action should be taken against councillors where they have behaved inappropriately. The noble Baroness mentioned monitoring. Can she give more substance on that? Will there be a review after a certain period of time so that we can see whether the new system is working? There need to be some safeguards for the public interest on this.

My Lords, the impact assessment for the new arrangements on standards provides for a review within three to five years. That will take into account all the matters that the noble Lord has mentioned.