One of the key projects for the National Association of Local Councils is improving ethical standards in local government, so you might reasonably imagine that the publication of the Government’s response to the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s review of local government ethical standards would be studied very carefully.
And, at the end of last week, it arrived.
It would be fair to suggest that it didn’t receive much of a welcome from our sector. Cllr Keith Stevens, the recently elected Chair of NALC, said;
I am bitterly disappointed by the government's light touch, totally inadequate response to the CSPL report on local government ethical standards. It will do nothing to help stamp out poor behaviour in councils at all levels where it exists, and I would strongly urge ministers to have a rethink.
I am, I admit, not terribly surprised. After all, this is an administration whose collective stance on ethical and moral standards of behaviour is to see them as a potential barrier to eliminated rather than respected. The idea that there might be restraints upon their behaviour is something to be condemned rather than celebrated. Rules, it seems, are for other people.
But there is a debate to be had. Is it for central government to design a set of rules for conduct in public life and the sanctions to be imposed for breaking them? The Standards Boards weren’t exactly a roaring success. And sanctions are a weapon in the hands of a cynical majority group, enabling them to marginalise dissenters and opponents.
In an ideal world, a local authority, at whatever level, would publish its code of conduct for local councillors, make it easily available to the public and encourage them to challenge poor behaviour where they saw it. Voters could, and should, punish bad behaviour with the ultimate sanction of rejection at the next election.
I am, however, cynical about the likely outcomes, with partisan individuals and groups using the code of conduct to harass those who don’t agree with them. And, as for the prospects of voters punishing errant councillors by voting them out, we saw after the expenses scandal that, if you had a sufficient majority, you could ride out even the most egregious offences. The public anger is limited, as is voter interest in the behaviour of their public representatives, especially in terms of elections where two-thirds of eligible voters opt out.
Ultimately, well run councils will adopt codes of conduct that deter bad behaviour and encourage a wider range of candidates and potential councillors, whilst bad ones will pay lip service to the idea of behavioural standards and continue to underperform.
Here in Creeting St Peter, under my leadership, we’ve tried to engage with residents and, this month, invited all residents to consider whether or not they might want to be a Parish councillor. I want us to be inclusive, and knowing as I do that there is a range of skills amongst our residents that would help our community to be more effective, putting the idea into people’s heads that they might make good councillors seems like a means to that end.
But they are less likely to step forward if they think we’re irrelevant, or if we operate in an aggressive, disrespectful manner. So I’m torn. You need rules that people respect, but you also need people who respect rules and each other. And, you need effective sticks for those who don’t play nice whilst ensuring protection for minority or opposition perspectives.
There are obvious tensions there, and perhaps you can’t truly balance the competing dilemmas. But, ultimately, we’re spending public money and our behaviour should be above reproach, so there will need to be some properly independent body able to step in and deal with the more egregious abuses.
Just another example of how the unnecessary behaviour of a small minority leads to more bureaucracy for the rest of us to have to deal with…