Given the weakening of oversight of elected Cllrs, rules and tools to regulate the conduct of elected members are increasingly important. Such rules should establish how members can use expenses or allowances, how to respond if offered gifts or hospitality, as well as requiring them to register interests, disclose potential conflicts of interest and, where necessary, recuse themselves from debates or decisions where conflicts arise. And to be meaningful, the rules should be enforced. They should be supported by a way of monitoring members’ compliance, investigating complaints or allegations of misconduct, and imposing penalties on those who violate the rules. The institutions responsible for this monitoring and enforcement need significant powers, independence and determination to challenge entrenched local power networks that often seek to evade scrutiny.
Such institutions were, by and large, established in 2000 and, whilst not always working perfectly, were valued by those working in local government However, since the passage of the Localism Act, the standards framework for local government in England has been weakened considerably. Shepwayvox can identify eight areas where the new system is deficient:
There is no longer a universal national code of conduct, although authorities are required to have a code based on the Nolan principles. This potentially allows local authorities to relax the rules for elected members, creates confusion about which rules apply, and sends a signal that the code is less important.
There is no longer a specific 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. Such tools are an important deterrent to corruption and a significant way for the public to monitor potential conflicts of interest.
There is no longer a statutory requirement for a council to have a standards committee.
There is no longer any sanction for members that violate their local authority’s code. Again, this is harmful partly because of the signal that it sends that standards are not important. Reliance on party discipline to punish misconduct is haphazard
Without Standards for England, there is no national standard-setter, or national external body that can investigate allegations of misconduct. This important supervisory role is delegated to the local authorities themselves, placing huge trust in their ability to self-regulate.
Some local authorities may struggle to appoint independent persons of the appropriate calibre and legitimacy to perform the new role that has been created under the self-regulation system.
The system relies too heavily on the new offence of failure to declare pecuniary interests, despite serious concerns that the offence is unenforceable and misses the point that transparency does not necessarily deter corruption.
The ability of chief executives, financial officers and monitoring officers to challenge elected members would be compromised by proposals to abolish their statutory employment protection and to remove the requirement for a Designated Independent Person to investigate in the event of allegations being made about their conduct.
In England, the tools for regulating the conduct of elected members are assessed to be insufficient to ensure accountability and deter corruption in our view.
The Electoral Reform Society report states that one party councils such as Shepway District Council are more prone to corruption and weak electoral accountability.
“One-party dominated councils are of roughly 51% higher corruption risk than competitive councils in the rest of England”
SDC is a one party dominated conservative council
See: Report page 18
Is it unsurprising when there are so few, if any, Codes of Conduct to abide by that some Cllrs abuse the rules especially when they know there is little or no deterrent to deter them?
Finally Council leaders can be extremely powerful individuals, able to appoint members to positions of special responsibility, exercising influence through the party over who gets selected to stand in elections, and sometimes holding office for long periods unchallenged. This means that council leaders often have great monopoly and discretionary power, while accountability is weakened by the fact that people around them may be disinclined to challenge their authority. The consequent risk that council leaders will be involved in corruption is underlined by research findings that misconduct often involves the leadership of local authorities.