“Parish and town councils overwhelmingly support single code of conduct”

“Some 90% of parish and town councils surveyed would support a single, mandatory code of conduct, research by the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) has revealed.

The NALC survey also found that nearly 70% of local councils would like new powers to impose additional sanctions.

“At the moment sanctions used by local councils include apologies and training. However, around 60% of local councils believe these are neither sufficient to punish breaches of the code of conduct or deter future breaches,” the association said.

Almost 40% of local councils meanwhile stated that their members had not received any training and 20% reported that most members did not understand the rules around declaring interests.

Cllr Sue Baxter, chairman of NALC, said: “NALC does not believe the current ethical standards arrangements are working as well as they could and a review of the regime is something we have long called for. We would like to see stronger sanctions available to local councils, including the power of suspension and disqualification.

“In light of our research, we are also asking the government to invest £2m towards a national training programme that would see all new councillors undertake training on ethical standards and the code of conduct as part of their induction.”

The research comes as the Committee on Standards in Public Life is conducting a review into local government ethical standards. The committee is due to report to the Prime Minister by the end of the year.”

http://localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=36290%3Aparish-and-town-councils-overwhelmingly-support-single-code-of-conduct-nalc&catid=59&Itemid=27

Council behaviour standards falling – says Society of Local Authority Chief Executives

“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.”

http://localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=35433%3Arisks-of-standards-breaches-have-increased-while-mitigations-weakened-solace&catid=59&Itemid=27

EDDC has second-highest number of complaints about councillors and staff in Devon

North Devon Council recorded the most complaints at 87, with Exeter City Council recording the least with just two.

https://www.devonlive.com/news/devon-news/revealed-330-complaints-made-devon-1309919

“Westminster councillor resigns after receiving nearly 900 gifts and hospitality packages in six years”

Owl says: what is happening to Westminster council’s Monitoring Officer, Leader and Standards Committee? Nothing, so far.

And NO-ONE should be Chair of a Planning Committee for SEVENTEEN years!

“The deputy leader of Westminster city council has stepped down after it was revealed he had received nearly 900 gifts and hospitality packages over six years.

Robert Davis, a Tory councillor, was the chair of the borough’s planning committee until last year.

He has stepped aside as deputy leader and cabinet member for business, culture and heritage as an independent QC investigates his conduct.

Councillor Robert Davis has referred himself to the City Council’s monitoring officer and has decided to stand aside as Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Business, Culture and Heritage while the investigation is undertaken,” said Nickie Allen, the leader of Westminster City Council.

“Our residents need reassurance that the planning process is not only impartial, but is seen to be impartial,” she said, adding she had “asked the council’s chief executive to look at all aspects of the decision-making process to ensure planning is, and is seen as, an independent and impartial process.”

The Guardian revealed Mr Davis had received gifts and hospitality invitations 893 times over the last six years, which frequently came from property developers who were seeking planning permission.

Gifts and hospitality packages worth more than £25 must be declared and some of the items and invitations received by Mr Davis exceeded the figure.

The Cambridge graduate is the longest serving member of the council, having been elected in 1982. He was voted Conservative councillor of the year in 2014 and given an MBE in 2015 for his service to local and government planning.

“I think it’s important to recognise Robert Davis remains a candidate for the May election,” Adam Hug, leader of the Labour Group, told The Independent. “He remains a councillor.

“This move has been described as standing aside, with a clear view that if no legal wrongdoing is found he may return to his post. As he remains a candidate it is clear that the Tories believe what is known and not disputed is acceptable for them.”

He added: “Westminster Tories knew this was going on, did nothing for decades, and it is clear that unless legal wrongdoing is found, he may return to his post.”

In a statement, Mr Davis said: “Due to the ongoing interest and wrongful assertions regarding my time as chairman of planning I have decided to step aside from my roles as deputy leader and cabinet member for business, culture and heritage whilst the council investigates.

“In 17 years as chairman of planning committees which granted hundreds of applications and resulted in the council receiving substantial sums for affordable housing, public realm and other public amenity, I have at all times acted with the independence and probity required by my role.

“My desire to rigorously declare all meetings and hospitably, regardless of its nature, underpins this transparency and independence. It is trite to confirm that within these 17 years, I have got to know many of the developers and associated professionals who work in the city and help to develop Westminster into one of the most important economic centres in the country and home to over 280,000 people. Any suggestion or implication that I have done anything other than to further the interests of the city and its residents are baseless and strenuously denied.”

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/westminster-councillor-robert-davis-gifts-hospitality-bribery-investigation-corruption-planning-a8245626.html

Commons committee urges greater council scrutiny

A subject close to this East Devon’s heart and the cause of many sleepless days …

“A report by the Commons Communities and Local Government Committee has warned that a lack of effective scrutiny of the decisions of council leaders and elected mayors risks contributing to “severe” failures in public service provision.

The study found that funding cuts have reduced the resources and staff available to help councillors examine and challenge their activities.

The committee urges changes to Government guidance and increased funding to ensure proper oversight arrangements are in place. It also says a change of culture in local authorities is needed to prevent executives using issues of “commercial sensitivity” to hide details of deals with private companies from councillors.”

Source: Yorkshire Post, Page: 1

Council fraud: never get complacent or assume auditors know what they are doing

Here are three examples, accessed within 5 minutes on Google.

EX-PLYMOUTH:

“A former Plymouth council official has been arrested as part of a long-running fraud investigation.

Geoff Driver, treasurer and chamberlain at Plymouth City Council in the early 1990s and now Conservative leader of Lancashire County Council (LCC), was held as police probe financial irregularities at LCC. …”

http://www.plymouthherald.co.uk/former-plymouth-council-official-arrested-in-fraud-probe/story-30449451-detail/story.html

CHESHIRE EAST:

A SECOND member of Cheshire East Council’s senior management has been suspended as a result of an internal disciplinary investigation.

Bill Norman, the council’s director of legal services and monitoring officer, has been absent from his post since April and has now been officially suspended.

The decision follows the suspension of council CEO Mike Suarez on April 27.

A CEC spokesman said: “The Investigation and Disciplinary Committee reconvened on Friday, July 14, 2017. The committee is considering allegations relating to the conduct of senior officers.”

http://www.knutsfordguardian.co.uk/news/15416114.Second_senior_management_suspension_as_Cheshire_East_Council_investigates_misconduct_allegations/

ABERDEEN:

A councillor has been suspended from certain duties for six months.
Sandy Duncan, who represents Turriff and District, contacted Aberdeenshire colleagues who were due to consider a planning application for a wind turbine from a firm he was partner in.

He was found to have breached the code of conduct for councillors.
The Standards Commission for Scotland found he had acted inappropriately by using council facilities having been expressly warned not to do so.”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-north-east-orkney-shetland-40366506

Voting processes need tightening (and scrutiny) urgently

Why shouldn’t our council’s Scrutiny Committee check in its Electoral and Returning Officer’s procedures – even if the Monitoring Officer doesn’t like the idea because it MIGHT be considered political (by him)? A clean bill of health would reassure voters surely?

“The list of Brexit campaigners done for breaking the rules is getting lengthy.

Following the record £12,000 fine for breaches of spending rules, the pair of £1,000 fines for other offences, the company fined £50,000 for illegal text messages and the 11 anti-EU campaign groups struck off for breaking referendum rules, there’s now another £1,500 fine on a different Brexit campaigner:

The Electoral Commission has fined Mr Henry Meakin, a registered campaigner in the EU referendum, £1,500 for failing to submit his spending return on time. It is an offence not to deliver a spending return by the due date.

Though Mr Meakin reported spending of £37,000 in the campaign, the return was received more than 5 months late.”

https://www.markpack.org.uk/150816/henry-meakin-european-referendum-fine/