“The risks of standards in local government being breached have increased since 2010 while many of the mitigations that were in place have been weakened or removed, Solace (the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives) has warned.
In its submission to the Committee for Standards in Public Life’s Review of Local Government, Solace said that since 2010 much had changed in local government which it believed was likely to have had a significant impact on the risk of poor ethical standards.
“For example, the financial environment has, over time, raised the stakes of councillors’ decision-making. Pressure on individuals has significantly increased as the consequences of their choices have become stark and more difficult. This pressure leaves individuals more vulnerable to inappropriate influence themselves or subjecting others to that type of behaviour. In a broader political environment which, as the work of the committee has already identified, sees increased intimidation of politicians and the demonization of experts, these risks are only heightened,” the submission said.
Solace also pointed out that local government was now operating in a significantly more complex operating environment.
“Every council has a wide range of strategic partners, commercial contractors and arms-length bodies. The governance picture is incredibly varied with individuals often required to act within different legal structure performing different roles.”
Solace highlighted how the simple client/contractor model of commissioning had been replaced by a multitude of business models operating in different services, to different geographies with different governance arrangements.
“While these innovative approaches are to be welcomed, for example, in the way they have enable additional investment to be unlocked or more system-based approaches to be utilised, this does risk arrangements becoming unclear, less transparent and blurred. Without continuous and consistent advice and counsel, innocent individuals can be left susceptible to crossing the ethical line, while others can take advantage of such ambiguity to operate inappropriately and unseen.”
On the weakening or removal of mitigations, Solace said the most significant change was the abolition of the Standards Board and the national Code of Conduct as part of the Localism Act 2012.
At that time the organisation recommended that its members worked with their elected members “to ensure a robust and proportional local systems were put in place, that the local codes of conduct which underpin each regime are clear, unambiguous and appropriate to local circumstances. Such an approach should ensure any code is practical while able to minimise the risk of external challenge.”
Although it has not conducted detailed research, Solace said a short review suggested that many local codes of conduct stuck tightly to the Nolan Principles but in a way that left little room for further explanation or context setting.
The submission continued: “In addition to a local code of conduct, a clear and transparent local process should be in place to administer complaints relating to the code. During the Localism Bill’s consideration in Parliament, Solace argued that a councillor panel with independent involvements was the most appropriate model for this. While the legislation has removed the requirement for such a body, Solace see no reason to change its view and would recommend a member panel should support the statutory ‘independent person’ in performing their duties.”
Solace also noted that the abolition of the Standards Board was not the only significant change that removed checks and balances relating to local government standards. “The abolition of the Audit Commission and a reduction in the ‘public interest’ activities of local external auditors have also removed an independent mechanism through which standards issues had historically been identified and dealt with.”
It meanwhile argued that the campaign to remove protections for senior officers, remove employment rights and recent senior figures undervaluing professional leadership in council had “eroded individuals’ ability to effectively speak truth to power”.
Solace argued that without adequate protection, senior officers in local authorities were “less likely to feel able to raise issues of governance and hinder openness and transparency within their authority, and that it was an erosion of the balance of local accountability which ensures high standards in local government on behalf of local tax payers”.
It suggested as an example that it was unlikely that successful criminal proceedings for corruption, as in the 2004 Lincolnshire County Council Cllr Speechley case, would have been successful if employment protection had not been afforded to the chief executive or monitoring officer.
The submission claimed that England had been left with a light touch approach to local government standards reliant on local codes, implementation and sanction. “Unlike the rest of the UK, there is an absence of national oversight, an inconsistency of sanction and a weakening of a range of mechanism that might reduce the risks of a decay of standards in other ways.”
However, Solace said it would not like to see a return to the “pernicious and over bureaucratic approach” of a national Standards Board. It did argue, though, that greater independent monitoring was required. “In an environment where evidence is unclear or anecdotal it is too easy to turn the other way and allow important challenges to remain out of sight.”
It argued that that inconsistency between different levels of Government was also unhelpful. “Parliament has done a great deal of work exploring the appropriate sanctions for elected politicians and it would seem appropriate that powers, including the power of recall, within local government mirror those introduced in Westminster.”