I write in a personal capacity as a member Scarborough Borough Council’s Standards Committee, and as someone with experience of Parliament during the MP’s expenses scandal, when a lot of lessons were learnt the hard way.
A few months ago, most members of Scarborough Borough Council received a letter from Robert Goodwill MP – a close colleague of Andrew Mitchell MP (of ‘pleb’ fame) – lauding the new standards regime for councillors introduced by the government. The government abolished the national standards board, which was generally welcomed since the board was widely viewed as a case of overkill. But in its eagerness to undo a Labour ‘quango’ the government went in quite the opposite direction, leaving us with a standards regime for councillors that is both toothless and practically denuded of wider independent engagement.
The first significant test of the new system in Scarborough came with the hearing of a complaint stemming from an allegation that eight ‘twin-hatted’ County Councillors who were also Borough Councillors from 2009 had received two sets of allowances to pay for the same thing – I.T. services . The total amount each year amounted to about £750 and it was alleged that to be given taxpayers’ money twice without necessarily having to have two broadband connections, etc. to justify the allowance was wrong.
Prior to the changes to the system, a member could be suspended from the Council. The most the new Standards Committee can ask for now if a member has been found to break the code of conduct is an apology, and suggest the member be given some training. If the member refuses, he or she can be reported to their group leader, who can be called upon to in effect remove the whip – meaning the member could lose a chair or position on a committee. A reasonable person may say ‘big bloody deal’ and they wouldn’t be far wrong.
This relates to a code of conduct – which stems from the ‘Seven Principles of Public Service.’ These principles set a higher expectation on behaviour than simply not breaking the law, or simply not being dishonest. As far as the former goes, that would be a matter for the police in any case. The principles start with the concept of selflessness, and finish with the concept of leadership. They assume that all public officials are leaders – and must be seen to implement the principles. During the Westminster scandal, many MPs despite having broken no rules found their pleas of ‘having done nothing wrong’ met with a hail of criticism. People expected a higher level of responsibility than merely obeying the rules – which were in any case seen as self-serving. Parliament now has an independent body to oversee things.
In some ways we now have the reverse in local government. Councillors have been told that they can pretty much police themselves. Before the changes, the Standards Committee had several voting members who were not members of the authority. Now there are none. The new arrangements mean there is officially just one independent ‘advisor,’ who along with the Council’s Monitoring Officer can sift complaints before they even get to the Standards Committee. This function was previously carried out by the Standards Referrals Sub-Committee – a body with a wider membership.
The Committee found that there was no evidence of dishonesty (or illegality for that matter) but I wanted the Committee to recognise the ‘Seven Principles’ issue – which meant that the strict legal defence of ‘I have done nothing wrong (by the rules)’ could not be the end of it.
I certainly agreed with the conclusion that there was no dishonesty and the rules had not been broken. But does that necessarily mean that in the wider scheme of things – and in the eyes of the public – that the right thing had been done? The simple solution would have been for the Committee to suggest to the members involved that if they thought that the identifiable sums paid (I won’t go into the arcane details of how the sum is calculated and paid) were excessive, then the difference could be repaid. I know one member said his I.T. costs exceeded the level of the combined allowances. Fair enough – there would be nothing to repay. Another member insisted that she paid for all her I.T. needs out of her own pocket, which rather begged the question of what she spent the allowances on.
Another issue which emerged out of this hearing was that a County Council official appears to have provided at least four of the eight members with a paragraph long statement which those members then used in response to the County Council’s own investigating officer’s inquiries. This would be like a detective providing you with the answer to his own questions, and clearly this has muddied the essential independence of the officer – councillor relationship. It is a matter which warrants further investigation.
My view is that we do have a weaker standards regime – and that is a view shared by many on the Council. We therefore have to ensure that the Standards Committee at least seeks to uphold not just the rules, but the Seven Principles which underpin the integrity of public officials.