Improving standards in public life (hint: a good few of our councillors fail the suggested tests!)

“On 30 January 2019, the Committee on Standards in Public Life published its long-awaited report on local government ethical standards, reflecting evidence obtained via a consultation exercise carried out from January-May 2018.

The report makes 26 recommendations.

Below we highlight the top five that will be of interest to local authorities, in particular to monitoring officers.

Some of the recommendations could be implemented quickly without the need for primary legislation – most important of these is the recommendation concerning amendments to registrable interests.The wide-ranging report, which runs to over 100 pages, finds that while the majority of councillors and officers maintain high standards of conduct, there is clear evidence of misconduct by some – mostly bullying, harassment or other disruptive behaviour. The report also raises concerns about risks to standards under the current rules governing declaring interests, gifts and hospitality.

The report provides an excellent review of the current framework governing the behaviour of local government councillors and executives in England and then makes a number of recommendations to promote and maintain the standards expected by the public. While it identifies numerous points of best practice, it makes 26 separate recommendations for improvement.

Top five recommendations

The top five recommendations, likely to be of most interest to those in local government, are:

Updating the model code and extending it to parish councils: the report finds considerable variation in the length, quality and clarity of local authority codes of conduct. It therefore recommends enhancing quality and consistency by requiring the Local Government Association to create an updated model code. In a bid to help ease the burden on principal authorities (who must investigate code breaches by parish councillors), the report also recommends requiring parish councils to adopt the code of conduct of their principal authorities or the new model code.

Presumption of official capacity: perhaps the most arresting suggestion, the report recommends combatting poor behaviour by presuming councillors to act in an official capacity in their public conduct, including statements made on publicly-accessible social media. This arises from the perennial concern that the current understanding of public and private capacity is too narrow, undermining public confidence.

Extending the list of registrable interests: the report considers that current arrangements for declaring councillors’ interests are too narrow and do not meet public expectations, so it suggests refining the arrangements for declaring and managing interests, including extending the list of registrable interests to include two categories of non-pecuniary interest:

(1) relevant unpaid commercial interests such as unpaid directorships; and

(2) trusteeship or membership of organisations that seek to influence opinion or public policy. As this does not require primary legislation to be implemented, this is one recommendation which may soon be acted upon. We are particularly pleased to see written evidence submitted by members of Cornerstone Barristers was cited in relation to recommendation (iii): see more below.

A new “objective” test for when councillors must withdraw or not vote:

monitoring officers will be particularly interested in the discussion in the report about the need to update the test for when councillors are forbidden from voting or participating in discussion on matters in which they have an interest.

The report recommends the test be overhauled and that councillors be required to refrain from voting or withdraw whenever they have any interest at all – whether registered or not – that a member of the public would reasonably regard as so significant as to likely prejudice the councillor’s decision-making.

Strengthening the sanctions system:

the report considers the current sanctions insufficient and so recommends allowing local authorities to suspend councillors without allowances for up to six months, with suspended councillors enjoying a right of appeal to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman for investigation and a binding decision on the matter.

Other conclusions and recommendations

The report further concludes that there is no need for a centralised body to govern and adjudicate on standards and that various benefits exist to local authorities maintaining their responsibility for implanting and applying the Seven Principles of Public Life.

A number of other recommendations are likely to be of interest, including:

Assisting local authority monitoring officers, the “lynchpin of the arrangements for upholding ethical standards” (p 81), by extending disciplinary protections and offering additional training for the statutory officers who support them.

Giving local authorities a discretionary power to establish a standards committee to advise on standards issues and decide on alleged breaches and/or sanctions for breaching the code of conduct.

Abolishing the current criminal offences in the Localism Act 2011 relating to disclosable pecuniary interests, which are said to be disproportionate in principle and ineffective in practice.

Requiring local authorities to take a range of steps to prevent and manage conflicts of interest that can arise when decisions are made in more complex and potentially less transparent contexts such as Local Enterprise Partnerships and joint ventures.

Fostering an ethical culture and practice by requiring councillors to attend formal induction training by their political groups, with national parties adding the same requirement to their model group rules.

The report recognises that many of its recommendations would require primary legislation and therefore be subject to parliamentary timetabling. The remaining recommendations – in particular those relating to registrable interests (as mentioned above), statutory officers and formal training for councillors – could however be implemented relatively quickly.

The Committee intends to monitor the uptake of its suggestions in 2020.”

Robin Green, Estelle Dehon and Dr Alex Williams, all members of the Cornerstone Planning and Government teams, submitted written evidence item 281 to the committee. Their evidence was cited at p 45 of the report in relation to recommendation (iii) above, on registrable interests.

Robin and Estelle are also contributors to Cornerstone on Councillors’ Conduct (Bloombsury Professional, 2015), which identifies and explains the law following the changes implemented by the Localism Act 2011 in relation to the standards system governing the conduct of elected members in local government.”

https://www.localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/governance/314-governance-a-risk-articles/39908-improving-ethical-standards

EDDC: “Relocation cost, No Deal Brexit, electric charging points and climate change motions rejected from being discussed”

Owl says: remember, the Chief executive, Mark Williams, is supposed to be a NEUTRAL civil servant and yet ALL of the refused motions are from ALL the minority groups ONLY……!

“Motions to support recycling, to call for a new property ombudsman to streamline complaints against shoddy builders, and for East Devon to get its fair share of the police precept rise will be discussed at next Wednesday’s full council meeting.

But motions over the full relocation costs of the move from Sidmouth to Honiton, to put electric charging points in all car parks, what to prioritise in a ‘No Deal’ Brexit and on climate change will not be discussed.

Various motions that councillors had put forward for debate at East Devon District Council’s full council meeting on Wednesday, February, were rejected by the council’s chief executive, as either the agenda already provides the opportunity for debate or the wording of the motions were inaccurate.

RELOCATION

Cllr Cathy Gardner had proposed a motion calling for the council to commit to publish an annual ‘summary of accounts’ for the relocation project until break-even is reached as relocation from Sidmouth to Honiton was proposed and predicated on the basis that the project would breakeven within 20 years and deliver cost-savings to the council tax payers of East Devon.

Cllr Gardner said: “Whilst some of this information is already available we feel it is vital for the ongoing costs to be published to show confidence that this project will breakeven. A majority of Councillors voted for relocation on the basis that money would be saved on energy bills. We are left unsure of whether breakeven will ever be proven.”

But an EDDC spokesman said: “The rejected motion contained inaccuracies and omissions that had the potential to mislead councillors and it was also premature. It is however proposed to bring a report to the next meeting of the Cabinet that will summarise the position reached with regard to the sale of the Knowle and the relocation. Cllr Gardner can raise the matters she is concerned about as part of the debate into that report.”

The motion would have called for the accounts to include

energy costs for the Knowle for the past 20 years (for comparison);

energy costs for both Blackdown House and Exmouth Town Hall per year;
the capital receipt for the sale of the Knowle;

a Red Book valuation of Blackdown House as of 1 March 2019;

the full costs for the relocation project since its inception, including: project management; removal, furnishing and equipment;

staff retraining and travel expenses;

new-build costs for Blackdown House; refurbishment costs for Exmouth Town Hall; and any other associated costs.”

CLIMATE CHANGE

Cllr Matthew Booth’s motion had called for the council to recognise that Climate Change and Global Warming are the key issues of our time, to acknowledge the strong concerns of young people in particular the recent walk out of school children and for the council to commit to introducing a policy of carbon measurement and reduction within all aspects of its own activity.

He said: “I personally do not care how we begin to do this, or who does it, but that we act now not wait for some planned strategy in the future.”

An EDDC spokesman said that the issue of climate change emergency is acknowledged to be of critical importance but that it would be appropriate to wait to see what Devon County Council decides. They added: “Currently, however, the County Council is considering its position and will shortly debate the matter. As we are in a two tier area it is appropriate for the District Council to assess the position taken by the upper tier authority and then respond accordingly. The public would expect us to work in partnership with the County Council rather than unilaterally.”

ELECTRIC VEHICLE CHARGING

Cllr Eleanor Rylance had submitted a motion calling for the council to plan for and implement over the next five years a full rolling renovation programme of its car parks estates to fit and bring into operation electrical charging points at every space for domestic cars, and cycle parks with charging points for all types of cycle and that there should be mandatory EV charging points for the parking spaces of every new-built house in East Devon.

She added: “This council should approach the future of electrically-powered domestic vehicles with enthusiasm and proactivity, play a positive role in helping develop the use of electrical and should make this infrastructure, that will be a necessity within the next ten years, available in advance of full electrification of domestic vehicles in 2042.

But an EDDC spokesman said: ““The agenda already provides an opportunity for this issue to be raised so this motion was inappropriate.”

BREXIT

Cllr Rylance had also submitted a motion that said in the event of a No Deal Brexit or a version of Brexit that causes significant disruption, the council should approach this event as a situation of emergency in respect of its most vulnerable residents, dedicating any available human, material and financial resources required to palliate any negative outcomes for these groups, but the motion was rejected.

Talking about all the motions, a council spokesman said: “The council agenda for February contains the most important annual decision, namely the setting of the budget and the approval of the Council Tax for the forthcoming year. The process leading to this meeting has included several meetings where members were encouraged to raise all items of future relevance so these could be assessed as part of our service planning process and for assessment as part of the budget.

“It is unfortunate that some members did not take these opportunities and have chosen instead to submit their proposed motions.

“It is also noted that the wording of the motions was not checked in advance with relevant officers who would have been able to give timely advice as to their wording.”

But motions on the police precept, protection for new home owners and supporting recycling will be discussed.

POLICING

Cllr Tom Wright’s motion says: “In view of the £24 per band D property increase in policing precept, this council urges the Chief Constable to recognise the needs of East Devon when deciding how to allocate extra resources. East Devon residents are the biggest contributors to the police budget in Devon, other than Plymouth. It is only fair that we should get a fair share of the larger cake.”

NEW HOMES

Cllr Douglas Hull’s motion says: “The Government has stated that it would therefore be introducing as a priority a new property ombudsman to streamline complaints against shoddy builders. As a council that not only provides an excellent and highly regarded building control service but also has seen significant levels of new building in its district, we call on the government to fulfil its pledge to provide this much needed remedy for homeowners as a matter of the highest priority.”

RECYCLING

Cllr Peter Burrows’ motion says: “This Council continues to support the fine work done by the EDDC Recycling team in achieving the best results in Devon and to support and encourage local Organisations and voluntary groups who are involved in trying to reduce the amount of single use plastics used in their communities & beaches by making resources and expertise available, where appropriate. The order of priority should be – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. To actively help promote such activities through the Councils social media platforms.”

The full council meeting will be held at East Devon District Council’s new Honiton Heathpark HQ on February 27 at 6pm.”

https://www.devonlive.com/news/devon-news/relocation-cost-no-deal-brexit-2557565

“Knowlegate”: Del-Boy and the Trotters spring to mind – but just the fools (no horses that we know of)

“East Devon District Council’s senior management team have been rebuked by scrutiny councillors after failing to consider the public perception over the sell-off of assets from their former Knowle HQ.

The council this week completed its move from its former Sidmouth home at the Knowle, to Exmouth town hall and the new Honiton Heathpark HQ, and as part of the move, they had to find homes for various items that are unsuitable for its new building.

But a furore erupted just before Christmas when it was first revealed that council staff and members, but not the general public, were given the chance to bid on various items, and then when an email was leaked claiming a councillor managed to buy a large mahogany dining table and 20 chairs for £50 at the internal staff auction, instead of allowing it to be publicly auctioned for the best possible price.

A council spokesman had said that this leaked information was totally incorrect with the bid being for £400 and only including some of the chairs, and that the bid was withdrawn when Exmouth Town Council, who initially declined the offer of the table originally, changed their view just before Christmas and are now expected to take ownership of the table.

Cllr Ian Thomas, Leader of East Devon District Council, had previously said in a statement: “Our council relocation team has been working with professional auctioneers, Sidmouth Town Museum, charities and clearance specialists, to value and dispose of a wide range of items from our old East Devon District Council offices at The Knowle in Sidmouth.

“As part of this process, we offered our staff and elected members the chance to bid for items that may be of sentimental interest or practical use, but are of negligible commercial value.

“The value of items to be disposed were identified based on the view of experienced professionals. They included the large table from the Members area, which attracted little professional interest with one valuer estimate of just £50.

“All proceeds from this sale and those raised from other sales will go to the Chairman’s Civic Fund, to be donated to nominated charities.”

East Devon District Council’s scrutiny committee considered the disposal of the contents of the Knowle at their meeting last Thursday.

Richard Cohen, the Deputy Chief Executive, produced a report that outlined the process of disposal of items from the Knowle prior to handover to PegasusLife for demolition.

He said: “As part of that process and prior to the handover of the old office buildings to the developer, the council needs to clear the buildings. In total there are just over 2,600 separate items in the Knowle.

“The vast majority of these are office furniture: desks, chairs, cabinets etc of varying ages, condition and size. There are also a number of particular items of varying antiquity and value: these involve both furnishings and fixture and fittings. From a perspective of bulk disposal the estimated total weight of all these items is 45 metric tonnes.”

He outlined that Sidmouth Museum and Sidmouth Town Council were both interested in re-home various items, multiple local auction houses were invited in to look over items but that the majority of items were not of interest to them, and that for remaining items an opportunity was offered for council staff and members to bid for items whether for practical or aesthetic reasons.

He said: “These were items that had been attributed little or no sale value by the various professional auctioneers and ranged from standard office furniture items to cupboards, upholstered furnishings, tables, curtains for example. This element of the disposal process involves around seventy separate items and is likely to raise of the order of £2,000 for the Chairman’s chosen charities.”

Mr Cohen added that groups such as Action East Devon, Green Furniture Aid and Hospicare who are all either networked with voluntary groups or can sell furniture via charity outlets were asked whether they had an interest in some of the for the more generic items such desks, chairs and tables, but the response has been largely muted.

Town and parish councils will also be contacted asking them whether they have an interest in any items with the requirement that they transport said items away themselves, he added.

But councillors said that contrary to what Mr Cohen said, a full list of the items for disposal had not been circulated to them.

Scrutiny committee chairman Cllr Roger Giles said: “There has not been a list that we have seen so could someone produce a list that will be circulated very soon.” He also asked wat do town and parish councils know about the process, as the answer he had heard from them is nothing.

Cllr Cathy Gardner added: “Why was the full explanation of the process not circulated to members before we were given the chance to bid for items? The reason there was a furore around the subject as the offer of sale of items internally was offered in isolation and the lack of communication meant there was a lack of understanding of the wider process that this sat.”

Her recommendation, which the scrutiny committee backed unanimously, was that they remind the senior management team of the council to always consider the public perception of actions taken, particularly when it is involves public assets, and the disposal of public assets.

https://www.devonlive.com/news/devon-news/council-management-team-rebuked-over-2545040

Councils relied too much on informal cabinet briefings: contract legality now being probed

“A CATALOGUE of errors detailing how two district councils were run have been exposed in a ‘gobsmacking’ report.

Initial findings from an investigation into contracts signed by Vale of White Horse and South Oxfordshire district councils between 2010 to 2016 show councillors’ knowledge was stymied by a ‘lack of information’.

The two councils are conducting reviews into several contracts after fears were raised last year that contracts could have been handed out improperly.

All of them have a value of or more than £10,000. Between the two councils, there are 162 of those in total.

A report also highlights there was an ‘over reliance’ on briefing cabinet members informally, rather than decisions being made at public cabinet or council meetings.

‘A lack of detail’ was also found to be a problem in papers for those cabinet briefings and at cabinet meetings.

The review also found there was ‘poor procedural compliance by officers and members, most notably in documenting decision making’.

Debby Hallett, Lib Dem councillor on Vale council and former group leader, said the ‘gobsmacking’ papers seemed to indicate a ‘culture of sloppiness and shortcuts’ over key contracts.

But she added: “The thing that surprised me is [the councils] have promised to have this done by March, which is putting this in the public domain before the local elections [in May].”

That, she said, showed the councils’ willingness to conduct the reviews in a spirit of ‘transparency and integrity’.

Adrianna Partridge, the councils’ head of corporate service, notes in the report: “This review has identified a significant risk that the councils have incurred expenditure that has not been adequately approved in accordance with the councils’ constitutions, which could have both financial and reputational risk.”

In the report which will go to the councils’ joint audit and governance committee on Monday, she states: “Action has already been taken to address and strengthen the decision making process on individual projects, and it is acknowledge that a greater transparency is needed, including an increase in the number of formal papers taken to cabinet and full council which the senior management team is enforcing.”

The councils have set aside a budget of £30,000 for legal advice if they need to take any action over contracts in the future.

Confidential papers will be discussed next week.

They are understood to refer to specific details of the councils’ eight to 10 contracts which are being reviewed.

https://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/17377868.gobsmacking-errors-in-how-oxfordshire-councils-awarded-contracts/

Community group sues council over secret contract

“A community group is taking Gloucestershire County Council to court over the award of a £600m incinerator contract. Community R4C, a non-profit mutual society which has had support from celebrities including Jeremy Irons, Jonathon Porritt, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and Kevin McCloud, claims the contract was unlawfully awarded, resulting in a massive rise in costs to taxpayers and a breach of procurement law. They filed a lawsuit with the High Court on Friday.

Campaigners have been opposing the waste incinerator at Javelin Park for years, saying the project wasted taxpayers money, was bad for health and the environment and that there were cheaper and better alternatives. Requests to see the contract, the largest the county has ever entered into, were consistently refused until a tribunal forced its disclosure in 2017, by which time a revised contract had been signed. This was only released on 20th December 2018.

“It was a very difficult decision to take this course of action when so much taxpayer money has already been spent on legal battles”, says Patricia Watson, a waste consultant and volunteer director of the group. “The underhand behaviour of the council and contractor has led to a far higher price than anywhere else in the country for the lowest possible environmental benefit.”

Board member Sue Oppenheimer says: “The contract has increased by a staggering £150m making it 30% more expensive. By law, it should have been retendered. Instead Gloucestershire County Council has spent around half a million pounds keeping this information secret. With the support of the community, we had been working on a much cheaper waste processing plant and would have bid for the contract. Our plant would have increased recycling, reduced pollution and would have been a better deal for the environment and the taxpayer.”

Tom Jarman, another board member says: “There is a strict 30 days limit to bringing this sort of claim and it seems to us that the council timed the disclosure of the relevant information strategically, just before Christmas, so to make it almost impossible for anyone to bring legal action in time. Keeping a 30% increase in cost secret from the public and its own audit committee is not the way we expect a public authority to conduct itself.”

https://www.unitynews.co/people-of-gloucestershire-have-to-sue-their-own-council/

“Academy schools ‘not accountable enough’ “

“Academy schools are not “sufficiently transparent or accountable to parents and local communities”, MPs have said.

Half of all children in English state-funded schools are educated by academy trusts, the Public Accounts Committee noted, in a report out today.

Academies have greater freedoms than local authority-maintained schools and can set staff pay and conditions, determine their own curriculum and are directly responsible for financial as well as educational performance.

But the PAC report said that parents and local people “have to fight to obtain even basic information” about trusts, and they do not explain decisions on how they are spending public money.

PAC chair Meg Hillier said: “When things go wrong in schools, pupils can be badly affected. We have seen the troubling consequences of poor governance and oversight of academy trusts government must raise its game to ensure the failures of the past are not repeated.

“Parents and the wider community are entitled to proper access to transparent information about their local academy schools. They must have confidence that when issues arise, robust measures are in place to deal with them.”

Academies have been criticised in recent years for paying excessive salaries to members of staff.

The Education and Skills Funding Agency had tried to tackle this issue, on the PAC’s advice, the committee noted.

The ESFA wrote to 29 single academies in November 2017 asking for justification of salaries over £150,000.

But, the committee said, the ESFA action alone would not prevent academy staff being paid excessive salaries.

The PAC also noted that Ofsted and ESFA are not able to assess the impact of funding pressures on the quality of education and the outcomes schools achieve.

It recommended the ESFA should require academy trusts, in the academies financial handbook 2019, to make financial information more readily available. The guidance should also require academies to be more transparent about governance and decision-making at all levels. …”

https://www.publicfinance.co.uk/news/2019/01/academy-schools-not-accountable-enough

“Outgoing NHS digital chief wrote ‘puff piece’ for future employer in ‘jaw-droppingly inappropriate’ behaviour”

“NHS England’s outgoing chief digital officer has been criticised for “jaw-droppingly inappropriate” behaviour after she announced her departure for a health technology start-up she had praised in a “puff piece” article without disclosing she was joining its payroll.

Juliet Bauer is currently serving out her notice period after announcing she was departing from NHS England last week, and faced criticism for leaving the NHS to join a health tech firm— days after the long-term plan called for a major NHS expansion in the sector.

Bauer, one of the top officials who worked on the NHS Long-Term Plan, is accused of a conflict of interest after she wrote a high-profile article in The Times newspaper praising Kry, a video appointment app, without disclosing she had been hired by the company.

In the article last week, and under her NHS title, Bauer wrote that data provided by “Europe’s biggest video GP consultation provider” showed “high levels of patient and GP satisfaction.”

She said that from April she would taking up a new job at “one of the largest and most trusted digital healthcare providers in Europe,” but did not specify that she would be joining Kry, leading to NHS England distancing themselves from the article.

Speaking to the Financial Times (FT), Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee (PAC), labelled the article a “puff piece advert for the new employer,” and said she was “shocked at the lack of judgement.”
“This revolving door of senior officials going into businesses they have worked with has long been an issue but this is brazen,” Hillier added, arguing that the move was “jaw-droppingly inappropriate.”

As reported in the FT, the chief clinical information officer for health and care Simon Eccles defended his former colleague and said she was a “fantastic” during her time at the NHS, but acknowledged that the article had been inappropriate.

He said: “I think muddling that (view) with any individual commercial provider, which that piece did, was a mistake.

“There’s nothing wrong with saying ‘I now work for a company who’s trying to do this and I think that this company will do great things’ once you’ve left us, but that’s not what happened.”

Bauer announced her departure days after the long-term plan she helped to develop was published, but Eccles emphasised that she could not have had any undue influence over the tech-focused NHS Long-Term Plan.”

http://www.nationalhealthexecutive.com/Robot-News/outgoing-nhs-digital-chief-wrote-puff-piece-for-future-employer-in-jaw-droppingly-inappropriate-behaviour