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Time called on Standards for England

September 22nd, 2010 by Louise Humphreys

Posted In: Local Government

Tags: councillors, Standards, code of conduct, ombudsman

Communities Minister Andrew Stunell has confirmed that the whole Standards Board regime will be abolished in the forthcoming Localism Bill saying:

"The Standards Board regime ended up fuelling petty complaints and malicious vendettas. Nearly every council had investigations hanging over them - most of which would be dismissed but not before reputations were damaged and taxpayer money was wasted. Frivolous allegations undermined local democracy and discouraged people from running for public office."

(read the full announcement here)

As part of the same Bill, legislation will be introduced to make serious misconduct a criminal offence which will be dealt with by the courts rather than committees or Standards for England. Councillors will be required to register certain personal interests in a publicly available register, and this could include anything that could reasonably be regarded as likely to influence or affect their actions, conduct when on business for the authority or voting.

As with all pronouncements of this nature, what is lacking is the detail. What will happen to any complaints that may be under consideration at the time of the legislative changes and will local authorities have to pick up those cases referred to or retained by Standards for England for investigation? Does this mean an end to the role of Monitoring Officer? Will Councillors still be required to declare those personal interests at each meeting? Will there be any sanction for Councillors who refuse to register their interests? What does serious misconduct actually mean? How will the changes affect, if at all, the concept of "predetermination"?

In addition, will these changes actually reduce the number of frivolous or malicious complaints and actually encourage people to stand for election? It could be argued that the possibility of criminal sanctions may have the opposite effect to that intended.

The Government will also legislate to make it clear that Councillors can campaign and vote freely on their issues. For example, Councillors who have been elected on an anti-development ticket will no longer be prevented from expressing their views. This will undoubtedly be welcomed by Councillors and members of the public alike.

On a related note, and as part of the same announcement, the Local Government Ombudsman, the established body for investigating public complaints over the way they have been treated by their council, is to be given greater powers. Currently, a local authority is not legally obliged to implement the Ombudsman's findings and this has always seemed very strange to many people, not least those affected by maladministration. Whilst many local authorities do comply with the findings, there will always be exceptions to the rule for whatever reason. However, all this is set to change with authorities being compelled to implement the Ombudsman's findings.