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ASSOCIATION OF HAMPSHIRE AND ISLE OF WIGHT AUTHORITIES
29 May 1998
MODERNISING LOCAL GOVERNMENT - GOVERNMENT CONSULTATION PAPER ON A NEW ETHICAL FRAMEWORK
Report by the 'Ethics' Sub-Group of the Chief Executives' Group
That the response to the Government's consultation paper on a new ethical framework be approved with members' comments taken into account.
The Government proposes a new ethical framework for local government which broadly meets what the Association has been seeking. The Association's proposed response to the Government builds on the extensive agreement between member authorities before and since re-organisation in 1997.
1. The Government's consultation on a new ethical framework forms part of its "Modernising Local Government" series, and is a response to the "Nolan" Committee's recommendations. Responses are requested by 12 June 1998, following which a White Paper will be drawn up for publication "this Summer".
2. The Government proposes:-
(a) a model code of conduct backed by general principles, with local authorities having discretion to adopt a local code in line with the principles and national model
(b) that each local authority should appoint a Standards Committee with outside representatives co-opted
(c) that there should be an outside monitoring and appeals body, the "Standards Board".
RELATIONSHIP OF THE CURRENT PROPOSALS TO EARLIER COMMENTS BY THE ASSOCIATION
2. The Association welcomed the "Nolan" proposals last year, and it was noted that they were broadly in line with the joint submission in 1996 from fourteen Hampshire authorities. In particular Nolan proposed a "Local Government Tribunal" to act as an independent arbiter and hear appeals. The Government proposes just such a tribunal, called a "Standards Board".
3. The Association has argued that the surcharges should be abolished and has welcomed the idea of a new offence - Misuse of Public Office - to cover the whole of the public sector. These proposals are now adopted by the Government in this consultation document, and are to be welcomed.
4. The Government is also minded to apply the "standards" proposals to parish and town councils as requested by this Association. The Association in its earlier comments, felt that parish and town councils should be encouraged to be the foundation of democracy in less urban areas and a training ground for local authority members. The same standards should apply to local councils and local authorities.
COMMENTS ON THE GOVERNMENT'S PROPOSALS
5. The Government consultation paper asks 28 questions, and some member authorities will respond to every one. This joint response, however, sticks to the main proposals outlined in paragraph 2 above.
MODEL CODE OF CONDUCT
6. The proposed duty on councils to adopt the Code of Conduct is welcomed. The basis for the Model Code is outlined in the green paper, and promises substantially to improve on the current LGMB model code which the Association and others have found wanting. The role of the Local Government Association in developing the national model code is also welcomed as a manifestation of the central/local partnership approach.
GENERAL PRINCIPLES OF CONDUCT
7. General principles to underpin the Code of Conduct are set out in the green paper and are broadly acceptable. Member authorities will comment in detail, but in general the statements proposed are supported.
REGISTER OF INTERESTS
8. The Association has argued that the current distinction between pecuniary and non-pecuniary interests is unreasonable and misleading. The new proposals go a long way to remedying this. Councillors would be required to register "any direct pecuniary interest, and other interests which members of the public might reasonably think could influence their actions". This same approach is now taken in Parliament and with "quangos".
9. Only one point on the detail of the proposed register of interests is worth picking up: relating to appointments on outside bodies. It is accepted that members should register "positions of responsibility in societies, clubs, trades unions or other organisations" but an exception should be made where the member is appointed to the organisation by the local authority itself. Local authorities should be encouraged to appoint their Members to outside bodies, and the fact of the appointment should be in the public domain. However the resulting membership should not be registered as an "interest".
10. The Government's proposal that it should be for local authorities themselves to allow members with a declared interest to participate if appropriate is welcomed. "Dispensations" for such members in particular cases can be handled by the Monitoring Officer under the general guidance of the authority's Standards Committee.
11. The Government is aware that it would be a burden to apply all these processes to all parish councils. It is suggested that the County Associations of Parish and Town Councils could adopt a code for local councils.
12. The Government proposes a new duty on authorities to establish Standards Committees. This self-regulation regime is to be welcomed. It should be open to authorities to co-opt outside members to these committees. This will help remove any doubt as to their independence. The idea that outside members should be restricted to a list drawn up by the external "Standards Board" is too restrictive. It would however be acceptable for the Standards Board to vet potential outside members proposed by local authorities.
THE STANDARDS BOARD
13. The idea of a Standards Board responsible for monitoring, developing best practice and acting as a court of appeal is welcomed. However it is not thought desirable to set up local regional standards boards until experience proves that this really is necessary. The key requirements of the Standards Board will be:
(1) to handle cases quickly and cost effectively
(2) to develop a nationally consistent body of case law.
Ideally this should be managed by one Board at national level.
14. Allegations should be handled:
(1) by the Monitoring Officer
(2) by the Standards Committee
(3) via appeal to the Standards Board
The staff of the Standards Board should be able to reject vexatious appeals. However individual members of the public, or accused councillors, should be able to appeal to (3), if processes (1) and (2) have been exhausted.
15. It is considered that the process of handling allegations at all levels should not be too adversarial. Particularly at the level of the Standards Board, an Ombudsman-style investigative approach should be used.
16. The Standards Board should cover parish and town councils, but local Associations should be permitted to establish local arrangements (eg Joint County Standards Committees) to act as Standards Committees for local councils.
OTHER ENFORCEMENT AND DISCIPLINARY PROCESSES
17. The new disciplinary arrangements will run alongside the local government audit and the Local Ombudsman regimes. All these will continue to be set in the wider context of the criminal justice system, strengthened by a new offence: misuse of public office. This is to be welcomed and the Government is urged to remove the surcharge arrangements as quickly as possible, if necessary introducing interim arrangements as recommended by Nolan.
CONDUCT OF STAFF
18. The proposed statutory duty on councils to adopt an Employees Code is to be welcomed, as is the acceptance of Nolan's recommendation that this code does not require a separate statutory enforcement regime. Employees will continue to be subject to normal employment law.
19. The Association's Ethics Sub-Group of the Chief Executives' Group has already produced a model code for relations between Members and Officers. This is put forward to the Government for consideration and is shown in Annex 1. (This particular version in Annex 1 is drafted for Hampshire County Council).
20. The proposals require a development of the statutory role of the local authority's Monitoring Officer. Councils' discretion as to who should be Monitoring Officer should be retained. However it is essential for the Monitoring Officer to be able to report independently and directly to the Council's Standards Committee.
21. The Ethics Sub-Group has developed a code for the handling of fraud, corruption and probity (which we feel is a better title than "whistleblowing"). This code is now used by New Forest District Council and will be sent to the Government with this response. Copies are available for Members on request.
CODE OF PRACTICE FOR MEMBERS AND OFFICERS DEALING WITH PLANNING MATTERS
22. Special factors apply to the handling of planning matters. The Ethics Sub-Group has also developed a model code of practice based on current best practice and the Nolan recommendations. This is shown at Annex 2 and will be revisited when the Government proposals are finalised.
NICK GOULDER Policy Officer
NOTE: HARD COPY OF ANNEXES AVAILABLE ON REQUEST
|Author:||Nick Goulder, Policy Manager|
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