A large number of local authorities appear to be unprepared for the new standards regime that comes into force this weekend, the Committee on Standards in Public Life has warned.
Chairman Sir Christopher Kelly added that the Committee had significant concerns about the “inherent robustness of the new arrangements” and that there were "inherent risks".
The Committee wrote in early June to all local authorities in England to ask about their preparations for the incoming framework.
Some 73 out of the 159 authorities to respond (or 46%) had yet to adopt a new code.
Of those to have adopted a code, 27% had chosen a bespoke version, 14% were using their existing model code, and 9% had adopted the example produced by the Local Government Association and other stakeholders.
Just seven (4%) had developed a code based on the illustrative text produced by the Department for Communities and Local Government.
The Committee also asked authorities about their appointments to the ‘independent person’ role required by the new regime.
More than three-quarters (77%) said they were yet to appoint an independent person.
The rest were either using transitional arrangements (13%), appointing an individual who currently chairs or is a member of another local authority’s standards committee (5%), or appointing an individual with no previous experience of chairing or membership of a standards committee (5%).
Sir Christopher said: “The authorities’ responses can only provide a snapshot but the Committee is concerned that so late in the day, nearly half of those who responded have yet to adopt a new code and around four fifths have yet to appoint an independent person. The fact that the Regulations and Order which take effect from 1 July were laid only on 6 June cannot have helped their preparations.”
On the robustness of the arrangements, he said the Committee welcomed the introduction of a mandatory requirement for local authorities to adopt a local code of conduct based on the seven principles of public life.
“But the Committee has consistently argued that codes need to be supported by independent scrutiny to support internal systems for maintaining standards and by the promotion and reinforcement of standards,” he added.
“Guidance and training and the application of appropriate sanctions when those standards are breached are all crucial.”
Sir Christopher also argued that the reliance of the new arrangements on “relatively modest sanctions and significantly reduced independent input already carries inherent risks”.
He warned: “These risks will be compounded unless Leaders and elected mayors implement the new arrangements in a timely and effective manner. Unless local authorities have independent persons in place and they are seen to be effective, the new system will lack credibility and is unlikely to command public confidence.”
The Chairman of the Committee said he had raised these issues with the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles.
Sir Christopher’s comments came on the same day that Local Government Minister Bob Neill insisted that the new regime would take a tough stance on council corruption.
See also: Of special interest – Olwen Dutton and Peter Keith-Lucas cast a critical eye over the new standards regime.