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Comment and Analysis Masthead

Standards matter

jane martin 146x219The Committee on Standards in Public Life is carrying out a review of local government standards. Dr Jane Martin explains what this involves, and sets out some of the key lessons learned so far.

Having followed local government standards closely for some years, the Committee on Standards in Public Life launched its review in January. We have already received over 100 submissions to our public consultation, which remains open until 18 May. We have been reading and analysing the responses so far, but also wanted to test out some of what we are being told and the themes that are beginning to emerge from our evidence gathering. Last month we held two roundtable discussions on standards in local government, to hear directly from the experts: both academics and think tanks, and from those who work ‘at the coalface’ as Monitoring Officers and Independent Persons handling standards issues in a range of local authorities across the country.

Our conversations ranged across the detail of the current standards arrangements through to the bigger questions of how to create a culture of transparency and accountability in local government.

At our session with Monitoring Officers and Independent Persons in Birmingham, we heard about the day-to-day operation of the current standards regime from those who must advise and make decisions within it. Since the 2012 Localism Act, codes of conduct now vary widely between councils in England. We heard that this variation can at times be confusing for the public who encounter it, and also confusing for councillors, particularly if they serve on two councils with different rules on registering and declaring interests. Codes of conduct also vary considerably in length and detail - some codes only contain principles, rather than specific rules, which may then be problematic to apply consistently and fairly to individual cases. We also heard that the current laws for registering and declaring interests in local government are narrower than the pre- 2012 requirements, and don’t always reflect what the public would expect - for example, under the current law a councillor doesn’t need to declare financial interests of a close associate or of their parents or children even if they are discussing something that could directly affect them.

The Monitoring Officers and Independent Persons were united and emphatic that the vast majority of councillors want to serve their communities and maintain high standards in office. As they described it, the standards ‘problem’ is limited to a small number of councillors who are not deterred by the prospect of a censure or may even regard it as a ‘badge of honour’, and a small number of parish councils who, due to a lack of organisational resource, formal structures and external oversight, create a disproportionate standards workload for their principal authorities.

We also heard about the tensions that Monitoring Officers face, in needing to maintain the confidence of councillors, and being able to advise them effectively, whilst potentially having to oversee an investigation into their individual conduct. The Independent Person role is an advisory one with no formal power - but we heard that when councils properly support and value this role, and when there is a good relationship between the IP and the Monitoring Officer, the independent perspective they provide is extremely valuable to local authorities.

Participants in Birmingham were unanimous that a lack of strong sanctions, such as suspension or disqualification, undermined the credibility of the current system. However, we did hear about councils making maximum use of the existing powers to levy effective sanctions, for example, by withdrawing facilities or barring individuals from council premises. The question of sanctions raised the broader issue of where ultimate responsibility for standards lies. The strong view that emerged was that councillors must be responsible for setting the standards to which they are held, and need to be given the tools to uphold those standards properly in their local authorities.

The academics and experts we spoke to later at our roundtable in London raised broader questions about governance and oversight in the local government sector. While larger institutions usually tend to have more formal structures, smaller ones commonly have less formal structures. There are advantages and disadvantages to each: smaller organisations - like parish councils – might lack structural checks and oversight, but often retain a strong element of flexibility that can be lacking in larger organisations. Participants also spoke about a changed environment for local government: local authorities have always had to make big spending decisions, and have always been responsible for important service delivery, but councils are now engaging in more external procurement and taking on large economic development and renewal projects which are undeniably more commercial. Does this mean importing private sector systems of governance, or does local government need different structures that take into account the unique representative function of councillors?

Both sessions raised the importance of maintaining an ethical culture. Not just the absence of scandal, but a culture which recognises the importance of ethical standards to the work of local government at all levels. Decisions within local government are often taken between people who all know each other, who work closely, and who need to maintain good working relationships. Where there is a culture of high ethical standards, this working culture can work very positively. Where this culture is lacking, this closeness can become a problem. In particular it is too easy to maintain a culture of secrecy that resists taking decisions in an open way, for the public to see, understand and scrutinise.

Both groups were also clear that the statutory officers need to show leadership. Responsibility for standards cannot be left to the Monitoring Officer, but needs to be shared by the Head of Paid Service, the Section 151 Officer, and the Monitoring Officer. The Monitoring Officer needs to have the support and confidence of the Chief Executive and other senior officers in order to undertake their role effectively and manage the competing pressures that can easily exist.

In the absence of an ethical culture, we heard that structural safeguards need to be in place, to protect the public interest. At the moment, those safeguards are primarily internal: the oversight of the Monitoring Officer and the councillor Code of Conduct. Participants at both roundtables were clear that a four year test at the ballot box is an insufficient check on ethical standards in local government - a range of effective and proportionate sanctions are needed, as is an element of robust independent oversight.

We will be looking in more detail at all these themes throughout our review. The evidence we have received so far is clear that formal standards arrangements are a vital and central part of ethical standards in local government, but need to be an integral part of the culture within the organisation, and give sufficient local flexibility to prevent or resolve emerging issues without having to immediately resort to formal structures.

Our public consultation is on our website and we are keen to hear from anyone involved in local government standards. We want to source the widest possible evidence for this piece of work so that we can produce practical, proportionate recommendations to help maintain and promote the highest standards in public life, and build confidence in the important work being done in councils across the country.

Dr Jane Martin CBE is a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and is leading their review into local government ethical standards.

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