By Max Clarke
The lack of a national code of conduct and an independent complaints mechanism in the proposed new regime for standards in local government risks lower standards and a decline in public confidence, Sir Christopher Kelly, Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said today.
Following the publication today of the Decentralisation and Localism Bill, which includes provision for the abolition of Standards for England, the body which oversees the ethical standards regime in local government, Sir Christopher said:
"The Committee has long argued for proportionate ways of upholding strong ethical standards at local level and we recognise the problem in the existing regime of vexatious or politically motivated complaints. But the proposed stripping back of the current structure to virtually nothing loses sight of some important principles.
"The proposals go well beyond the abolition of Standards for England. They involve the abolition of the national code of conduct for local authority members and remove the obligation on local authorities to maintain standards committees, chaired by independent people, to monitor standards and sanction aberrant behaviour. in future it appears that the only way of sanctioning poor behaviour between elections will be the criminal law or appeals to the ombudsman where someone's interests are directly affected by a decision.
"The Bill refers to a duty on local authorities to promote and maintain high standards. If this is to mean anything, in the Committee's view it is essential that there remains a national code of conduct so that both councillors and - most importantly - the public can judge what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. Leaving it up to each local authority to decide whether to have their own code and - if so - what it should contain, risks confusion. National codes of conduct govern the behaviour of MPs, civil servants and others in public life. Why are councillors judged to be different?
"Nor is it acceptable that the new regime leaves no independent mechanism for dealing with complaints about the behaviour of an individual Councillor aside from the criminal law- which will leave no way of responding between elections to behaviour which is seriously in breach of acceptable limits but not appropriate for criminal prosecution.
"The Committee welcome the intention to make regulation more proportionate. But we believe that a national code and an independent complaints mechanism - however achieved - need to be retained to ensure that the public can have confidence in the integrity of the behaviour of our locally elected politicians."