Jonathan Werran 18 January 2013

Watchdog questions town hall standards

A government watchdog has cast doubts over the adequacy of new town hall standards arrangements put in place following the introduction of the Localism Act.

Slimmed-down procedures introduced by the Coalition ‘have yet to prove themselves sufficient to their purpose,’ the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

‘We have considerable doubt that they will succeed in doing so and intend to monitor the situation closely,’ the committee’s 14th annual report, entitled ‘Standards Matter’ asserts.

According to the committee, the new arrangements, which took effect last year, ‘place a particular onus on the Local Government Association to provide leadership for the sector and to ensure that they work in practice’.

Elsewhere, the review of best practice in promoting good behaviour in public life warns councils now lack ‘sufficient’ powers to discipline elected members for poor behaviour. Under the new scheme, the only sanctions aside from party discipline are censure or criminal prosecution for deliberately misrepresenting a financial interest.

The committee noted the last few years have seen numerous instances of inappropriate behaviour, which although not deserving of criminal prosecution, would merit a stronger sanction than censure.

‘Bullying of other members or officers is one category of offence which will be difficult to deal with adequately,’ the watchdog warns.

New and untested town hall procedures for independent disciplinary procedures mark another major concern raised by the committee.

Sir Christopher Kelly, who chairs the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said: ‘The report concludes that the need now is not necessarily for more principles, codes or regulators but rather for the existing arrangements to be more consistently and actively implemented.’

Speaking at the launch in Westminster, Sir Christopher also said new ways of delivering public services through commissioning schemes - shaped by political philosophy and budgetary pressures – meant companies with no previous experience in delivering community services were now serving people who lack the choice of going elsewhere.

‘It is critically important that those setting up new commissioning routes for free schools, police and crime commissioners, or purchasing them on the public’s behalf, whether in central or local government, establish standards issues at the beginning of their procurement process and monitor how they are working in practice.’

Clive Betts, chair of the Commons communities and local government committee, said the report contains a lot of implications for the accountability of free schools and academies - which lack the oversight schools run by the local authority sector are subject to.

Betts added there are transparency issues around private finance initiative projects, which are not subject to Freedom of Information disclosures.

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