Powers to suspend members recommended for councils
Date published: 08 February 2019
Number One Riverside
Badly behaved councillors could be suspended without pay by their councils under new proposals.
A review of ethical standards across local government says councils need more robust powers to address serious or repeated misconduct.
The lack of punitive options currently available is undermining public confidence in the system, the report adds.
More stringent rules around how elected members declare interests, gifts and hospitality are also included in the recommendations.
Concerns have been voiced in recent years by at least one GM authority that reforms to the standards regime in 2012 have left them ‘toothless’ in dealing with repeat offenders among their elected ranks.
Under the previous guidelines, councillors could be suspended for up to six months and were subject to a nationally imposed code of conduct.
Responsibility was passed over to individual town halls under the Localism Act 2011, but sanctions had to stop short of suspensions.
The new recommendations – from central government’s committee on standards in public life – has advised alleged conduct breaches should continue to be dealt with on a local level, but the power of suspension for up to six months without allowances should be included.
They will reignite the debate, however, on whether councils having suspension powers poses a risk to the democratic process.
Chairman of the committee, Lord Evans, said: “The evidence we received supports the view that the vast majority of councillors and officers maintain high standards of conduct.
“There is, however, clear evidence of misconduct by some councillors. Most of these cases relate to bullying or harassment, or other disruptive behaviour.
“There is also evidence of persistent or repeated misconduct by a minority of councillors.
“Introducing a power of suspension and a model code of conduct will enable councillors to be held to account for the most serious or repeated breaches and support officers to address such behaviour.”
Handing the power of suspension to councils has received a cautious welcome from those who are wary of suspensions undermining the democratic process.
Lord Porter, chairman of the Local Government Association, said: “A locally-led approach to standards – underpinned by a national framework – remains the right approach and the LGA is happy to play a leading role in updating a code of conduct to help guide our members.
“A number of adequate sanctions already exist to deal with the most serious issues and care needs to be taken to avoid adding to the current regime and causing unintended consequences.
“For example, suspending councillors for up to six months could see them lose their seat. This would pose a risk to the democratic process leaving residents without locally-elected representative.
“The way councillors conduct and behave themselves is important and communities will ultimately hold their local politicians to account at the ballot box.
“There is also a growing issue with unacceptable intimidation and harassment of councillors which also needs to be addressed by councils, the police and social media companies.”
Other recommendations include strengthening the role of the independent person – who are a requirement on standards panels – and promoting a model code of conduct that reflects guidelines for social media use.
Suspended councillors would have the right to appeal decisions to the Local Government Ombudsman, the committee has said.
The recommendations – compiled after a year long review – have been welcomed by Wigan council, whose lead officers have voiced their frustration with the standards system in recent years.
Sanctions currently available, such as barring members from committees or outside bodies, are not adequate for repeat offenders.
And the council has also been left to foot the bill for lengthy investigations into alleged code of conduct breaches, they have said.
A Wigan Council spokesperson said: “The council welcomes the report which, like the council, recognises the importance of high standards of conduct in local government and that the vast majority of councillors do maintain those high standards.
“However the report does note that there is clear evidence of misconduct by a minority of councillors and therefore makes a number of recommendations and suggestions of best practice to strengthen the system and improve ethical standards.
“The full report will be considered by the council’s Audit and Standards Committee.“
In Rochdale, opposition members criticised the standards process in the aftermath of a case in which council leader Allen Brett was adjudged to have breached the code of conduct.
Councillor Brett, Labour leader of the authority, apologised for remarks he made about withholding highways funding from non-Labour voting areas, that he said were ‘banter’.
A town hall sub-committee found he had breached the code of conduct although it was said the leader had not attempted to manipulate highways funding.
He was ordered to undertake further training.
At the time, Councillor Andy Kelly, leader of the Liberal Democrats group, called the standards committee ‘toothless and archaic.’
In reaction to the latest recommendations for councils to have the power of suspension, Councillor Kelly said: “It’s better than nothing, it would be start. I think the whole thing needs looking at in terms of who is on (the standards panels), irrespective of whether it’s my party or someone else’s.
“I think councillors chairing a committee meeting that makes decisions on members of the same party doesn’t make any sense.
“There needs to be a separate independent panel made up of members of the public, not councillors.
“At the moment there are no consequences, so I would welcome any move that opens that up and I would stand by that if it was a member of my group that had said or done something.”
Complaints about the behaviour of elected members are in most cases overseen by a council’s monitoring officer with an independent investigator used, if required, to collate an advisory report about the allegations.
The findings are then considered by the authority’s standards panel, aided by an independent person who represents the ‘eyes and ears’ of the public.
The government committee on standards on public life includes Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat representatives and will present their recommendations for consideration by ministers.
Chairman Lord Evans said: “We believe that the benefits of devolved arrangements should be retained, but that more robust safeguards are needed to strengthen a locally determined system.
“We are also clear that all local authorities need to develop and maintain an organisational culture which is supportive of high ethical standards.
“A system which is solely punitive is not desirable or effective; but, in an environment with limited external regulation, councils need the appropriate mechanisms in place to address problems when they arise.
“Our recommendations would enable councillors to be held to account effectively and would enhance the fairness and transparency of the standards process.
“Strengthening the role of the Independent Person and introducing a right of appeal for suspended councillors will enhance the impartiality and fairness of the process, which is vital to ensure that councillors are protected from malicious or unfounded complaints.
“And greater transparency on how complaints are assessed and decided in a system which is currently too reliant on internal political party discipline will provide a safeguard against opaque decision-making and provide reassurance to the public.”
James Illingworth, Local Democracy Reporter
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