Nothing to declare. A troubled time for parishes?

Philip Whiteman

Chaddesley Corbett Parish Council is an ordinary local council like many others but whether its councillors’ decision not to sign a declaration of Disclosable Pecuniary Interest sets it apart will be of interest.  However, one suspects that their decision is not unique when considering the uncertainty and discontent amongst many that the new standards regime for the local tier of government is not fit-for-purpose.  Chaddesley Corbett Parish Council and others will soon start providing both Monitoring Officers and the Government with an increasing headache on what to do next. 

The declaration is difficult enough for principal councils let alone back-water parishes with minimal service responsibilities or budgets.  This is shame when considering the values of probity and good behaviour in all tiers of government as promoted by the late Lord Nolan.  Whereas councillors were previously required to declare personal and prejudicial interests, this requirement has now been extended to their spouses.  In a small parish, this may present a whole raft of problems. Unlike principal councils where elected members represent only one part of their council’s geographical ward, parish councillors generally have a representative role covering the whole parish.  This increases the chance that on many matters of fact, the interest of their spouses will prohibit those councillors from fully discharging their duties or voting on local decisions.  In Chaddesley Corbett’s case, the councillors expressed a belief that the new the declaration is an invasion of privacy into family life. Given parish councillor’s sense of voluntary contribution to the ‘good of society’, the requirements set out by the new Act are more likely to alienate than engage an interest in high standards.

As an advocate of standards in public life and the need for legislation to govern councillor conduct, one has to support some form of regime but the new requirements are excessive and ill-considered. Councillors should have been required to sign a code of conduct but the declaration is excessive. It is a mystery why government, whose earlier intent was to totally remove any form of standards regime, should then introduce such burdensome regulations.  

Figures have not been produced on how much the investigation of infringements at the parish level cost but one can suspect that the cost may exceed that of the parish precept where complex cases are raised. We can liken the new regime to the multinational firm that employs an army of auditors and tiers of bureaucracy to govern its employee’s expense claims.  Sometimes it is cheaper to ignore an employee’s claim of a few pence too many and not to instigate a heavy handed investigation.  The transaction costs of instigating regimes and investigations can often outweigh the benefits.  After all, some parishes do little more than award an annual hedge cutting contract!

Dr Philip Whiteman is Editor of Local Government Studies

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