“New MP’s EXPENSES SCANDAL: MP’s fiddling the books will be allowed anonymity”

“MPs who are accused of cheating on their expenses will be able to remain anonymous under rules it has emerged, just after a record ban was handed to Ian Paisley after he went holidays funded by Sri Lankan Government.

The Government has been accused of trying to push through the change under the radar.

It would hide the names of all MPs under investigation and the Government has been accused of “protecting the sensitiveness of politicians”.

Since the expenses scandal in 2008, all MPs under inquiry are automatically published on the website of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

The new system would mean the process would be anonymous.

Further, the commissioner would not be required anymore to automatically publish the verdicts.

However, the Commissioner could decide to make decisions and complaints public if it is deemed to be in the public interest.

Ian Paisley was handed a record 30-day suspension from the House of Commons after it was revealed by the Daily Telegraph he went on two family holidays funded by the Sri Lankan government.

If the new change was already implemented the public may not have found out about the case of Mr Paisley.

Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the Commons, published the results as she is also head of a cross-party group set up last year after the sexual harassment scandal.

The Committee on Standards, that analyses complaints made against MPs, has said it does not agree with the decision and opposes it.

It aims to table an amendment to block the changes before a vote by members.

The Committee said: “Any decision to step back from this will be perceived as conducting investigations in secret and a radical departure from a commitment to openness and transparency.

“It is important to publish at least a summary of each case she has concluded so that it can be shown that justice has been done and that MPs are accountable.”

Kevin Barron, the chair of the Standards Committee, said: “It would be a huge step backwards in terms of transparency to block the publication of all disciplinary cases, including cases outside of the new code for things, such as incorrect use of stationery or abuse of their expenses.”

The commissioner’s inquiries this year have included Jeremy Hunt and Craig Mackinlay.

Sir Alistair Graham, the former chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said it would “seriously undermine our democratic system”.

https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/991074/MPs-anonymous-expenses-new-plans

“How to maintain high ethical standards in local government: a perspective on the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s review so far”

Professor Colin Copus is a specialist advisor to the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s review into local government ethical standards. He writes here in a personal capacity:

“As academic advisor to the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s review into ethical standards in local government, I’ve been reflecting on the evidence I’ve heard so far.

The aim of the review is to test the robustness of the current system for maintaining high standards of public behaviour in local government. It is not a hatchet-job on councillors or intended to identify a problem where there is not one. Rather, the review will assess evidence to enable a judgement to be made about what, if any, changes are required to the current regime to ensure the maintenance of the highest ethical standards in local government.

My impression so far is that there are two competing themes emerging that pose a challenge to anyone considering how best to create the environment for strong ethical behaviour in local government. Those themes result in the question: do we nationalise or do we localise ethical standards in local government?

The danger in any review in local government is for rose-coloured spectacles to temper one’s view of past systems. It is nowhere more the case than in the ethical standards debate.

The evidence received by the Committee so far has highlighted some difficulties with the effectiveness of localising standards that came with the abolition of the standards board and the past regime associated with the board by the Localism Act 2011.

Concern has also been expressed about placing control over the ethical regime (and code of conduct) with councils themselves and about the apparent weaknesses in the sanctions available to councils when dealing with ethical and behavioural issues.

Moreover, the review has heard that local codes of conduct can result in councillors who sit on county, district and parish councils at the same time potentially being subject to three different codes. We do not yet know how widespread this issue is or if it generates regular and intractable problems for councillors and officers.

But the review has also heard that there is a recognition that centralising and nationalising ethical standards can result in a system that is remote, anonymous, lacking in appreciation of local differences of culture, tradition and behaviour.

Nationalising the system also prevents flexibility and responsiveness to specific local issues and at worse can result in councillors feeling on ‘trial’ and subject to a remote and bureaucratic system, which in itself can damage local democracy.

The issue of sanctions also looms large as does the role of independent input or oversight of the local process of assessing standards issues.

Sanctions pose a particular problem, not least because under the current arrangements, a party in power may be tempted to misuse their majority when imposing sanctions, but also because there is a line between what is appropriate for councils to be able to require and impose as sanctions and what is appropriate that the electorate themselves have at their disposal.

The question of sanctions is closely tied to that of oversight: even the power to suspend councillors from committees, council meetings or council premises and restrict resources for a short while may be subject to misuse. Robust safeguards and rights of appeal must, therefore, be available to councillors whose behaviour is not the real problem – but instead find themselves the subject of a complaint when they are an effective and vocal opponent of the ruling administration.

We also do not yet know how widespread such a problem may be. It is clear that the issue of sanctions, the system by which they are imposed and independent oversight and involvement, will be a key theme of the Committee’s assessment of the evidence in this review.

The hazard with any ethical regime – local or national – is how the political parties in local government respond to that regime.

Given that over 90 per cent of all councillors in England are from the Conservative and Labour parties and the Liberal Democrats, the temptation to use a set of rules and regulations designed to control councillors’ behaviour for party political advantage or to silence councillors from other parties, is considerable.

Any ethical regime must not provide a system that can be misused for party advantage or by officers to restrain troublesome councillors as both can damage free speech within local democracy.

It must also be remembered that ethical standards in English local government are among the highest across Europe and that results in a commitment by the overwhelming majority of councillors to public service and the public wellbeing.

The Committee has a difficult tightrope to walk to make observations and recommendations that provide an opportunity for all local authorities and the central government to finesse and reform the current system, to ensure the highest standards of ethical behaviour are maintained and strengthened in local government. It is well worth the walk.”

http://www.democraticaudit.com/2018/07/10/how-to-maintain-high-ethical-standards-in-local-government-a-perspective-on-the-committee-on-standards-in-public-lifes-review-so-far/

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

The swamp, the sleaze … coming to a government very near you

“The vetting process by which Toby Young was appointed to the board of the new higher education regulator was flawed and rife with political interference, according to the results of an investigation by an official watchdog.

The commissioner for public appointments’ report castigates the Department for Education (DfE) and regulator the Office for Students (OfS) for failing to delve into Young’s controversial writings and social media postings, and uncovers a high degree of direct meddling by ministers and No 10 Downing Street.

The commissioner concludes that the OfS’s board appointments, including Young, showed a “clear disparity” in the treatment of different candidates, and that parts of the process “had serious shortcomings in terms of the fairness and transparency aspects” under the code governing public appointments.

The report reveals Jo Johnson, who was then the universities minister, contacted Young about applying for the post and that his nomination was later queried by Justine Greening, the education secretary at the time.

The commissioner also detailed the involvement of Downing Street special advisers in blocking nominees for the “student experience” role on the OfS board, who were blacklisted because of previous involvement with student unions and their expressed opposition to the government’s Prevent counter-extremism programme.

“The evidence presented to the commissioner indicates that the decision on whether or not to appoint one candidate in particular was heavily influenced, not by the panel but by special advisers, notably from 10 Downing Street,” the report concluded.

Emails and memos “show that there had been a desire amongst ministers and special advisers not to appoint someone with close links to student unions, such as the National Union of Students”.

Young’s appointment was announced by the DfE at midnight on New Year’s Eve, when the powerful new higher education regulator was formally launched.

Young’s inclusion on the board immediately attracted sustained public controversy, with critics highlighting Young’s Twitter account, containing salacious and crude comments about women, and Young’s writing in support of what he dubbed “progressive eugenics”. Eight days later Young announced he would withdraw.

The commissioner found that while the DfE said it conducted online vetting of the candidates, “by its own admission, it did not delve back extensively into social media so it was not aware of the tweets by Mr Young”. The report adds: “However, the social media activity of the initially preferred candidate for the student experience role was extensively examined.”

The commissioner also revealed that departmental emails referred to “No 10 Googlers” in highlighting social media comments by the student candidates. “Notably, no such exploration or research was made on other possible appointees, including Mr Young,” the report states.

“Mr Young’s reputation as a controversialist, in itself hardly a secret, should have prompted further probing to examine whether what he had said and done might conflict with his public responsibilities and standards expected on the OfS board.

“Second, the rapid disclosure of what were described as offensive tweets in the days after his appointment suggests that it was not that hard to find them, that not much delving was required,” the report added.

The OfS and its chair, Sir Michael Barber, also came in for criticism for their part in the proceedings. Barber sat on the appointments panel, alongside two DfE officials. “Regrettably, and contrary to best practice, the panel for the generic non-executive roles was all male,” the commissioner noted.

The report also details the DfE’s repeated efforts to minimise or delay requests for information about the appointment process from the commissioner’s office.

Peter Riddell, the commissioner for public appointments , said: “My investigation uncovered a number of areas where important principles in the governance code were breached or compromised in the appointments to the board of the Office for Students.

“In my experience, this episode is unrepresentative of the hundreds of public appointments that take place each year, but it is important that lessons are learned – not least so that talented people from a wide range of backgrounds are willing to put themselves forward to serve on the boards of public bodies.”

https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/feb/26/no-10-advisers-meddled-in-toby-young-getting-ofs-role-finds-report

“Wine and dine democracy is now on trial – and about time”

There wasn’t a paragraph in this article that could be edited out – truly we are in The Swamp:

“Each time a US gunman goes berserk, the British media erupts in fury at the money the gun lobby can devote to its lethal interest. To be sure, big time lobbying is the occupational disease of American politics. In the US, it can have murderous consequences. Still, on matters of principle, Britons would do well to watch their hypocrisy.

The sums spent by property companies on lobbying Westminster city council’s planning committee – revealed in Tuesday’s Guardian – may be dwarfed by those spent across the Atlantic. But the hospitality showered on the committee’s chairman for 16 years, the amiable Robert Davis, was breathtaking. Five-hundred freebies, including 10 foreign trips, in just three years. At least 150 of these were from a who’s who list of property industry figures. Even Harvey Weinstein is on the list. Entertaining Davis was clearly a Westminster cottage industry. He can hardly have had time to down one glass of champagne before raising another.

Everywhere money is at stake, those regulating it will be open to temptation
Meanwhile in the planning committee, the London Evening Standard’s Jim Armitage – there as a local resident objecting to a planning application – watched planning approvals get ticked off mechanically. He noted that not a single objection was upheld. Members “looked at the ceiling, buffed their nails and scratched their noses” as each was nodded through.

Westminster council asserted this week that all hospitality was received during “meetings”, and the idea that any of its councillors “could be bought by the property lobby was demonstrably untrue”. The meetings apparently took place at Wimbledon, at a performance of the musical Hamilton, and in the south of France. There is nothing wrong in this, provided gifts and hospitality are declared. But this assumes that what is declared cannot be considered, under the 2010 Bribery Act, a “financial or other advantage” offered or accepted to secure “improper performance”. Transparency is not enough.

Davis’s most extraordinary case was that of the late Irvine Sellar’s 72-storey “Paddington Pole”. This required the demolition of an Edwardian baroque sorting office and the erection of a gigantic tower, within the boundary of a conservation area and towering over Brunel’s Paddington station. Proposed in 2016, it breached every conceivable principle of good planning, but Sellar entertained Davis and apparently secured his approval for the pole Davis later described as a potential masterpiece. Sellar added seven more storeys to his plans. A public outcry led eventually to plans for the pole being withdrawn, but only to be replaced by a proposal for a bigger in volume but lower glass box. This was waved through the planning committee against all local opposition after Davis had publicly hailed it as a “game-changer”.

What is highly questionable is what happened next. Protesters pleaded for a meeting with the council but were ignored. Despite the obvious unsuitability of a vast box in a conservation area, Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, declined to intervene. That decision was followed by a similar refusal by the planning minister, Sajid Javid, who declined to give his reasons for doing so. This is most unusual for such a controversial project. The Shard, also developed by Sellar, was, in contrast, subject to a lengthy public inquiry. Protesters are trying to take Javid’s refusal to explain why he declined to intervene to the court of appeal.

British planning is a mess. It is awash with political donations and lavish lobbying as the construction industry wrestles to capitalise on the Conservatives’ “let-rip approach” to urban and rural development. Before the 2010 election, the Conservative Property Forum is recorded as donating £500,000 to the party.

The Cameron government duly dropped proposals for local appeals against development from its planning framework document. Lobbyists from the British Property Federation and others were effectively invited to rewrite the framework for themselves. The industry then donated a further million pounds to stave off higher council tax banding in response to Labour’s mansion tax.

This is hardly unique to planning. The NHS is awash in inducements to doctors to prescribe branded medicines. Arms company boards are stuffed with generals. The banks that fund private finance initiatives keep the Whitehall doors revolving. Declarations of interest by members of the House of Lords read like a lobbyists’ congregation. It clearly pays companies to lobby. The irony is that it was David Cameron who made great play of curbing this in his Lobbying Act. It was, he said, “the next big scandal waiting to happen”. Yet the only scandal was how the act was watered down, and how Cameron’s transparency register for lobbyists was lobbied to oblivion.

British lobbying is not as blatant as Washington’s infamous “Gucci Gulch”, where interest groups stuff the pockets of congressional lawmakers. Corruption in Britain is rarely through payments to individuals, and public officials seldom indulge in the log-rolling – legislators trading support for each other’s pet projects – seen in American politics. But the risk of bias and partiality exist in parts of the public sector. Of these, property planning, where huge sums of money can be involved, is the most obvious.

Everywhere money is at stake, those regulating it will be open to temptation. That is why oversight is crucial. But oversight of British local government is currently on a par with a banana republic. The Standards Board for England was abolished in the course of Cameron’s “quango cull” in 2012. It supposedly monitored the ethical performance of officers and councillors in local government. It was criticised as cumbersome, meddlesome and bureaucratically intrusive. Few mourned the board’s passing. Each local council was then expected to make its own arrangements.

The minister at the time said there was a need “for a light touch”. Westminster council took him at his word. It might have been a good idea to see the Standards Board go, but it should have been replaced with something. Even the most ardent localist cannot expect councils to float free of any oversight. Millions of pounds can turn on a planning decision. Anyone who knows these local controversies will attest that many stink to high heaven.

Davis has denied any wrongdoing and nobly referred himself to Westminster’s own “monitoring officer”. It is hard to see how this meets any plausible test of independence. Much now rests on the shoulders of this officer, as it does on the judges reviewing the Sellar glass box decision. The Paddington horizon will be their memorial. Everyone is now on trial, not least local democracy.”

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/23/wine-dine-democracy-trial-westminster-city-council-planning-committee