There could be major changes ahead to the regime for monitoring the standard of conduct of members of local authorities in England if recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life are implemented.
The Committee carried out a review of current arrangements and reported on its findings in January 2019. It found that the majority of councillors want to maintain high standards of conduct but that a minority engage in bullying, harassment or other disruptive behaviour. It also found that a disproportionate number of complaints relate to a small number of parish councils. The Committee thought that arrangements for local management of standards should continue but that these needed to be supported by robust safeguards.
The Committee’s recommendations for change included:
- The Local Government Association should produce an updated model code of conduct, which can be used by local authorities in developing and updating their own codes. However, the Committee recognised the importance of authorities having ownership of their codes and so did not recommend that adoption of the national model should be mandatory.
- There should be a rebuttable presumption that a councillor is acting in an official capacity in their public conduct.
- The Localism Act 2011 should state that a local authority’s code of conduct applies when a member claims to act or gives the impression that they are acting in their capacity as a member or representative of the local authority.
- The categories of disclosable pecuniary interests in the Relevant Authorities (Disclosable Pecuniary Interests) Regulations 2012 should include: unpaid directorships; trusteeships; management roles in a charity or body of a public nature; and membership of any organisations that seek to influence opinion or public policy.
- Local authorities should have the power to suspend councillors, without allowances, for up to six months.
- A number of recommendations are made relating to independent persons. The report recommends that independent persons should be appointed for a fixed term of two years, which can be renewed once. It says that the Local Government Transparency Code should be updated to provide that the view of the independent person relating to a decision on which they are consulted should be recorded in the decision notice or minutes. It recommends that a local authority should only be able to suspend a councillor if the authority’s independent person agrees both with the finding of breach of the code of conduct and the proposed suspension.
- It also recommends that local authorities should give indemnities to their independent persons if their views or advice are disclosed. It will be interesting to see if the increase in the prominence in the role of independent persons and the limit to the length of their service has an impact on the ability of local authorities to recruit independent persons.
- Councillors should have the right to appeal to the Local Government Ombudsman if their local authority suspends them for breach of the code of conduct.
- The criminal offences in the Localism Act 2011 relating to disclosable pecuniary interests should be abolished.
- Protection for statutory officers should apply to all disciplinary action, not just dismissal.
There has been concern among English local authorities for some time about how effective the current legal framework is in regulating standards of conduct. In particular the lack of sanctions has caused local authorities to feel powerless in addressing breaches of their codes of conduct. By introducing the prospect of fundamental changes, the report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life has taken an important step in addressing these.
However, some of the recommendations will require legislation, which will need time to progress through Parliament. In the meantime, the report also makes recommendation of best practice, which local authorities could apply immediately, whilst waiting for legislation to be made.
Tiffany Cloynes is partner and Clare Hardy is professional support lawyer at Geldards