"Bitter disappointment" with government over lack of sanctions for poorly behaved councillors
Three years of consideration by government have resulted in no planned changes to the standards regime for parish and town councillors, it was confirmed on Friday (18th March).
Cllr Keith Stevens, chair of the National Association of Local Councils, said he was "bitterly disappointed by the government's light touch, totally inadequate response" to the Committee for Standards in Public Life's report into strengthening the local government standards regime. "There were high hopes that the government would implement the committee's recommendation on enabling councils to apply sanctions to councillors found to have broken Local Government Association's model code of conduct. 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", said Cllr Stevens.
The full story from the LGA is copied below.
Senior figures have expressed bitter disappointment over the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities' refusal to allow councils to punish members for misconduct.
DLUHC finally responded to the Committee for Standards in Public Life's report into strengthening the local government standards regime on Friday, more than three years after the recommendations were published.
There were high hopes that the government would implement the committee's recommendation on enabling councils to apply sanctions to councillors found to have broken Local Government Association's model code of conduct.
Currently this code has little teeth, and the LGA is understood to frequently receive concerns over this issue from council representatives.
But the recommendation was rejected, with local government minister Kemi Badenoch saying in her response that "all councillors are ultimately held to account via the ballot box".
Jackie Weaver, chief officer of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, compared the situation to "cutting off someone's left leg and saying you will give them a painkiller in four year's time".
Ms Weaver said: "There is no other example except perhaps marriage where you would be stuck with the same person for four years.
"The levelling up white paper wants to increase community cohesion, but you are not going to get cohesion on a council with a disruptive councillor."
Ms Weaver, who was catapulted to stardom two years ago as acting clerk during a meeting of Handforth Parish Council, a recording which went viral, told LGC she was "beyond frustrated" by the government's response.
She said that the cost of the investigation into abuse at Handforth Parish Council before the video of the meeting went viral was £85,000.
"If we [as a nation] are saying money is tight at the moment, then why in God's name are we spending money on things like that?
"When you have extremely disruptive councillors it happens over and over again, not just the once – so there is investigation after investigation. Why are we wasting that money?"
Ms Weaver was also concerned the "toxic environment" created by disruptive councillors made others "more reluctant to stand in elections".
She claimed one reason "the Handforth situation got so bad" was because sanctions could not be applied. "There was absolutely no reason for any of those people to change how they behaved," she said.
Ms Weaver added that in her position, she was "constantly having to deal with bullying of employed staff by elected members".
"If these were paid employees, there would be clear rules set out. They would not be able to say to the victim 'you have to just put up with it' – but that's exactly what we are saying."
Ms Weaver is advocating for councillors to be stripped of their status for three months, increasing to six months for more serious offences such as those with racial connotations.
She believed the investigations process itself was "fair and proportionate", but took "far too long" and with "no meaningful sanctions at the end of it".
One policy expert on the issue claimed DLUHC had been "hamstrung" by the fact it abolished the requirement for councils to have a standards committee in 2011.
This means new sanctions stopping councillors from standing or ending their term of office early would have had to be enforced by a chief executive or other councillors, which would have been "tricky".
Ms Badenoch said in the government's response that it would be "undesirable to have a council body sitting in judgment on the political comments of fellow councillors".
Ms Weaver believed DLUHC was also influenced in its decision by concern that allowing councils to apply sanctions could lead to calls for the same rules to be applied to MPs. "The bigger concern for the government is if you introduce new rules for councillors, will the public be asking for it for MPs next?" she said.
Cllr Keith Stevens, chair of the National Association of Local Councils, said he was "bitterly disappointed by the government's light touch, totally inadequate response". "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.
"It is only by taking the committee's recommendations forward as a complete package, rather than simply a commitment to further work to support local government, will we be able to continue to promote and uphold the high standards of conduct we all expect and to tackle poor behaviour where it exists."
The committee's chair Lord Evans said: "While we note the government's commitment to further work to support local government, the committee is disappointed that many of its careful recommendations have not been accepted.
"It was clear from our evidence that the sector backed our call to strengthen the arrangements in place to support high ethical standards, whilst respecting the benefits of a localised approach."
Middlewich Town Council local government clerk Lisa Benskin tweeted that the response was "absolutely disgusting". "So many good clerks leaving the profession due to bullying and the government does nothing. Probably because they would also be expected to comply with any tighter requirements and sanctions."
LGA chair James Jamieson (Con) gave a fairly positive response however, welcoming in particular the government's decision to look at rules on publishing the home address of councillors.
But in a separate statement on the upcoming local elections, the LGA raised "growing concerns about levels of public intimidation and toxicity of debate in local politics, both online and in person" which it said "undermines the fabric of local democracy".
Posted: Tue, 22 Mar 2022 13:41 by Jake Atkinson