In 2013 the well respected anti-corruption charity Transparency International produced a report called Corruption in UK Local Government: The Mounting Risks. The report identifies a number of areas of local government activity where the risk of fraud and corruption was high, such as, outsourcing services, procurement, planning etc. The report also looked at the totally unacceptable, but widespread practice of allowing elected Councillors to accept gifts & Hospitality from constituents, lobbyists and business. It described this practice as a “channel through which individuals or interest groups might seek to corruptly influence members (Councillors)” and argued for stricter controls to reduce the payment of “backhanders” to councillors.
In 2016 the Government’s National Audit Office launched and “Investigation into the acceptance of Gifts & Hospitality” which although looking at Whitehall civil servants is equally applicable to local government Councillors. The investigation report said that the acceptance of gifts & hospitality by civil servants “may create real or perceived conflict of interests” and that accepting gifts & hospitality “creates a perception of biased decision making, even if they have no bearing on judgement”. This is a view I agree with and it’s relevant to local councillors too. The report concluded that whilst low value hospitality such as a drink and sandwich whilst at a meeting is reasonable, more lavish gifts and hospitality such as a three course meal and drinks in a swanky restaurant was not. The investigation also said that declaration systems for recording of gifts and hospitality were not very effective and should be tightened up across the civil service.
All of this makes perfect sense to me and I agree with both Transparency International and the National Audit Office that to avoid perceived, or actual, corruption by civil servants or local authority councillors, there must be very stringent rules and tight monitoring system in place to prevent abuse and the spread of a “backhander culture”. But it doesn’t look as though Kent County Council have got the message. According to the KCC Constitution whilst council staff are strictly prohibited from accepting anything but the smallest value gift, benefit, or hospitality councillors, on the other hand, are freely able to accept any “gift, benefit or hospitality” with an estimated value of less of than £100 without the need to make any sort of declaration. And don’t even think you can FOI that, as they do not need to declare it, so you can’t won’t know about it.
The rule applies to gifts, benefits or hospitality from a single associated source over the course of a period of 12 month period. So it’s quite acceptable for a councillor to accept gifts of up to £100 during the course of the year from, many different, but non-associated, constituents, lobby groups or business, for services rendered without any need to make a declaration.
Now I don’t know about you, but £100 is not a small amount of money. It would buy a good meal in a decent restaurant, tickets for a gig, or some coke, spliff, or sexual services if that’s your inclination. Procuring kickbacks from multiple non-related people or organisations for supporting and helping their causes could provide a councillor with a pretty decent social life, especially if that councillor had important responsibilities and influence. And this could well be the situation which could, and perhaps in some cases already does, exist because of Kent County Council’s ridiculously lax and totally out of touch rules about councillor’s gifts and hospitality.
In my opinion KCC’s current policy on gifts and hospitality for Councillors is irresponsible. It leaves the door open to widespread corruption and brings KCC into public disrepute. Apart from a cuppa and a sandwich at a meeting KCC Councillors should be banned from accepting any form of gifts & hospitality whatsoever. To do otherwise is to promote corruption in public office and facilitate dodgy payment for favours culture. If elected to KCC in May I will be fighting to have the current policy overturned and a ban on Councillors accepting anything other than a cuppa and a sarnie.
Here’s the rule which some people would probably say is charter for corruption in KCC’s Constitution (pg 172)
Gifts and Hospitality
7.(1) You must before the end of 28 days beginning with the day of receipt/acceptance, notify the Monitoring Officer of any gift, benefit or hospitality with an estimated vale of £100 or more, or a series of gifts, benefits and hospitality from the same associated source, with an estimated cumulative value of £100 or more, which are received and accepted by you (in any one calendar year) in the conduct of the business of the Authority, the business of the office to which you have been elected or appointed or when you are acting as representative of the Authority. You must also register the source of the gift, benefit or hospitality.
Now the Irony or rather contradiction here is that on page 173 it goes to talk about THE SEVEN PRINCIPLES OF PUBLIC LIFE. One of these is Integrity
Integrity. Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might seek to influence them in the performance of their official duties.
We cannot know if KCC Councillors are receiving sums under a £100 from constituents, lobbyists or business, as there is no need to declare it, nor as I have said could an FOI establish the facts, If I am elected on May 4th I will table a motion to reduce the amount in the constitution to zero. Vote Rylands – May 4th
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