or The Long Slow Death of Accountability
Under the Localism Act, there is no longer a requirement for members to declare gifts and hospitality and no legal requirement for either a standards committee or the monitoring officer to check any register on a regular basis. SDC could thus decide to cease requiring gifts and hospitality to be registered. Although there is a new offence of failure to declare an interest, it is not specified that a gift or hospitality might represent such an interest; it is up to SDC to define what constitutes an interest. Without transparency about gifts and hospitality, there can be no serious scrutiny of an important channel through which individuals or interest groups might seek to corruptly influence Cllrs.
The Localism Act has also removed supporting institutions which made it possible to monitor and enforce compliance with codes of conduct.
First, there is no longer a statutory requirement for SDC to have a standards committee. Whereas allegations of misconduct by a Cllr would, under the old system, have been referred to Standards for England to conduct its own investigation, it is now the responsibility of the council to constitute a member conduct panel, for which normal committee rules of political balance apply. 22 Conservatives rule the SDC Chamber. Cllrs of the majority party may be advantaged in this new system by the fact that the majority of Cllrs on any panel investigating their conduct will be their political allies.
Second, there is no longer any sanction for Cllr’s that violate the non-criminal parts of the code. They cannot, as was previously the case, be suspended from office for violating the rules set out in the code. The only formal sanction for violating the code is now censure, which is far less likely to deter misconduct. The absence of sanctions sends a signal that the code need not be taken seriously.
In cases where allegations of misconduct arise repeatedly and are extensively covered in the press, political parties sometimes threaten to impose sanctions through de-selection or a vote of no confidence. Even the threat of such actions can prompt an individual to resign (see box below). However, party discipline is unreliable for several reasons, for example:
• Parties may not wish to draw attention to their own members’ misconduct, since this could damage the party’s reputation;
• Different parties may have different expectations of their members;
• Not all councillors are members of political parties; and
• Parties might abuse the power to de-select and seek to remove a Cllr for political reasons. Party discipline is not a substitute for formal sanctions imposed as consequence of a formal investigation.
The Localism Act introduces a new criminal offence for one specific type of misconduct, failing to declare or register a pecuniary interest. It is punishable with a fine of up to £5,000 and disqualification from office for up to five years. The Government has described this as the key mechanism by which it will “ensure that corruption in local life is prevented”. Councillors should declare that they have an interest before a relevant debate or decision occurs, and may decide to recuse themselves from the debate or decision entirely. They should also register any pecuniary interests in a formal register on an ongoing basis, so that the public can check for conflicts of interest after decisions have been taken. This transparency enables the public to trust elected members to take decisions on the basis of merit.
There is, by and large, a strong culture of declaring interests by SDC Cllrs. However, a a recent scandal involving Cllr Johnson [Conservative Harvey Central] suggest that some councillors are failing to declare interests, either because they are unaware of the rules or because they seek to deliberately contravene them.
Cllrs already have a tarnished reputation and the further erosion of rules which govern them will only add to the public’s perception, that being a Cllr is an easy way to make a buck on the sly.