Rules bring whole code of problems

ALL elected members of local authorities are subject to a code of conduct. It lays down the sort of high standards of behaviour and probity expected of our elected representatives. It also details how any behaviour that might seem at variance with that c

ALL elected members of local authorities are subject to a code of conduct. It lays down the sort of high standards of behaviour and probity expected of our elected representatives.

It also details how any behaviour that might seem at variance with that code should be investigated and by whom.

Interestingly enough, it was imposed upon the local authority world by none other than John Prescott. Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first afflict with delusions of sexual adequacy.

If (merely for the sake of argument) a Cambridgeshire County Council cabinet member were to be accused of violating that code, the matter would almost certainly be referred to an independent body called the Standards Board for England. They would decide whether the code had been breached and what sanction, if any, should be applied to the member being investigated.


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Our code has its critics. Many very competent parish councillors are no longer prepared to hold that office because of the extent to which their private lives and finances have to be placed in the public domain to conform with the code.

Most of the criticism centres on the code's insistence that we must not only avoid actual breaches of probity, we must avoid giving the impression that there might be a breach in the offing. The most criticised section is the one concerning declarations of interest.

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Obviously, I should not be allowed to vote on a planning application for a building in which I (or a close relative or acquaintance) had a financial interest. Some people could even extend that to accept that I should not be allowed to vote on any matter that might affect the village in which I live and which might, therefore, affect my own life.

Where I believe it goes too far is on that last point. Suppose that I was a new district councillor and that my election campaign had all been about opposing the idea of placing a wind farm at the edge of my village.

When the time came for the matter to be debated and voted upon in my district council, the code of conduct would decree that I could not even stay in the room while the issue was being debated, let alone vote on it. To my simple mind, that is disenfranchising the people who had voted me in primarily to oppose the matter.

That does not sit very happily with the rules applied to MPs and ministers in Whitehall. To the best of my knowledge, MPs are allowed to vote freely on matters that affect the constituency where they live. More importantly, Scottish MPs are allowed to vote to continue charging the elderly for personal care in England when the Scottish Parliament manages to arrange for its citizens to get said care for free. I wonder how they manage to afford that without having to invoke their separate tax-raising powers?

When it comes to standards of behaviour and probity, I will have to be a little careful what I say, but I bet you can all guess where my thinking is going. The ministerial code is freely available on the internet and demands the highest standards of behaviour. However, it says that only the Prime Minister can judge what are the acceptable standards of behaviour for ministers. Thus, the Committee for Standards in Public Life (the Westminster equivalent of the Standards Board for England) can only investigate things if the Prime Minister asks them to.

Let me just leave this subject with an entirely hypothetical question. Supposing it was drawn to my notice that one of my cabinet members had been caught in flagrante delicto with a county council officer of the opposite sex. And supposing this had happened in a council office during working hours. And suppose that I, as leader of the council, had decided this did not violate the standards of behaviour that I considered appropriate for my members (and my officers).

Would the Standards Board for England accept that without argument? I think not.

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