Whilst giving a lecture to a group of councillors at a summer school last year, I explained how the Localism Bill could result in some authorities abandoning their codes of conduct for reasons of despair with the standards regime. The response from councillors was enthusiastic and comments included ‘expensive, time consuming and irrelevant’. Some predictably expressed the view that the ultimate judgement of what constituted poor behaviour would be subject to the ballot box.
Walk on stage, Baron Bichard of Nailsworth who took a very different view when introducing an amendment to the Bill in order to save the code.
“At a time when the public’s trust in politicians is at a low ebb, it is important that all public bodies have explicit standards of conduct, which make transparent how they will carry out their business and provide benchmarks against which they can be held to account.”
Bichard’s intervention and proposal was timely albeit rather late during the Bill’s progress through Parliament. Without his amendment, local government would have made a backward step of forty years. Quite why the government objected to the code is unclear but they clearly had a very short memory span. The code was introduced following the Poulson corruption scandal of the early 1970s and eventually became a statutory requirement. It is true that the code did not rule out further scandals whether they be Donnygate, Shirley Porter orWalsall, but it has given existing councillors a handle on what is acceptable or unacceptable behaviour – a situation further reinforced through the standards regime and most recently, the inclusion of the Nolan Principles into statute.
The Act is quite original in that it is probably the first piece of legislation that lists the Nolan principles, which must be adopted by each authority. However, the rest of the code has to be determined by each authority in the spirit of localism. This is particularly problematic for authorities not willing to ever make a decision without receiving central government guidance, many of whom will have been waiting for some months by now.
So, from stage left and four months after the Act becoming statute, welcome the Local Government Association and Department for Communities and Local Government along with their new illustrative codes of conduct. Both of their anticipated documents arrived during April and within a week of each other. This may be coincidental but it did rather resemble a rather unsightly race of one-upmanship or desperation between the two institutions.
Unfortunately, neither code is likely to generate much excitement and seem to be rather ‘motherhood and apple pie’ and lacking in substance – probably a result of disagreement and a rush to publish.
When comparing both documents, one could easily question whether the institutions are addressing the same legislation. Just taking three examples:
- CLG’s illustrative code fails to list the Nolan principles (remember that was a requirement under the Act).
- The LGA acknowledges that others should be treated with respect but the CLG code does not.
- CLG incorporates narrative on the new Disclosable Pecuniary Interest – but this totally ignored within by the LGA
And the list could go on.
Monitoring Officers and their councillors have gained a tremendous experience over the past few years from the work in developing standards codes. They will know what works and what does not. True, existing codes will need to change and reflect the legislative requirements but my recommendation is that they reconsider the own existing codes rather than unquestioningly adopt the vagaries of either the CLG or LGA models.
Returning to my discussion with the group of councillors and their opposition to codes of conduct. When challenged on how they would determine a breach of standards and how they would tackle an errant councillor, there was quick realisation that a code of conduct provides an essential framework for assessing poor standards and breaches of acceptable behaviour. Unfortunately, I think those councillors will be sorely disappointed with the LGA or CLG examples.
Philip Whiteman is a Lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies. He has research interests in the impact of central government and regulators on the role, service delivery and performance of local government and other local bodies. He is currently looking at developing a case for researching how guidance is an important instrument for steering local government over and above legislative instruments. He is also Editor of the journal Local Government Studies.