Local Government Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 6th December 1999.

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Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Labour 6:00 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, it was a great honour to be part of the team from your Lordships' House which served on the Joint Committee to examine the draft Bill this summer. I join with others in saying what a pleasure it was to serve on a committee so excellently and capably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Bowness. Two of my fellow members of that committee have made contributions to today's debate: notably, the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, with whom it was a great privilege to serve and from whose perspective I gained a great deal, as did the committee; and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, whom I sat next to several times. I confess to shamelessly cribbing from her greater knowledge of these matters. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Smith of Leigh on his maiden speech. He will bring enormous experience and practical intelligence to your Lordships' House and to our consideration of the Bill.

As some of your Lordships may be aware, I am an unashamed moderniser of the new Labour variety. I am keen to see our public institutions and democratic bodies tested against the criteria of whether they match up to the needs of today's world and are fitted to be flexible in the rapidly changing economic and social context in which they inevitably exist.

The Bill seeks to address long-overdue reform. However, whatever structures are found to be most appropriate, in whatever setting, the one constant which has to apply to all and which cannot be found wanting is that of proper standards, probity and ethics. I therefore intend to address my remarks to Part III of the Bill, which deals with the conduct of local government members and employees. The Joint Committee made a number of recommendations in that regard. I welcome the fact that many of our recommendations appear already to be taken on board; indeed, they are referred to in the Government's response.

Nothing discredits more the work of the vast majority of local councillors and officers in their legitimate public service than corruption and abuse of public trust by a small minority of councillors and officers. I welcome the measures in Part III of the Bill which establish a new ethical framework for local government. It will help to improve the standing of local government in the community and ensure that councillors and officers have the tools to get their own house in order and, indeed, clean up local politics.

This is not a party political matter. I do not wish to dwell upon, nor intend to mention, the antics of any particular authority, be it Conservative, Liberal Democrat or Labour. We have all been diminished by the activities of a handful of councillors who have failed to live up to the high standards of probity and integrity. The important point I welcome is that this Government are taking action to deal with the matter, to reassure the public and ensure that the strongest possible framework is in place to ensure higher standards in local public life. It is clear that the existing measures set out in the Local Government Acts of 1972 and 1974 and the 1989 legislation along with the National Code of Local Government Conduct have not been sufficient to deal with the small number of abuses we have witnessed.

Under the Bill every council will be required to adopt a new code covering the behaviour of elected members and officers. Every authority will have to create a standards committee. More importantly, the new standards board for England and the standards board for Wales will appoint ethical standards officers to ensure that the allegations of misconduct are thoroughly and, most importantly, independently investigated.

I am pleased to see that Clause 43 of the Bill enables ethical standards officers to investigate allegations even if the person concerned is no longer a member of an authority. That will help to ensure that councillors cannot evade an investigation by resigning from the council having already brought it into disrepute. It is vital that the ethical standards officers have teeth. The Bill gives them the teeth they need to carry out their work effectively.

Clause 44 gives wide scope to the ethical standards officer to conduct an investigation as he or she sees fit. It also sensibly ensures that the investigations need not give local authorities excuses for not acting while matters are being investigated. Clause 45 is particularly important in that regard. It will ensure that ethical standards officers have access to all the information they need to investigate the allegation. Fines will be imposed for failure to provide them with the information they need to further their investigations.

It is important that the process is transparent from beginning to end. Clauses 45, 47 and 48, which govern the publication of reports in the local media, will be welcomed. It is also vital that action can be taken quickly where interim findings of the investigations of the ethical standards officers are damaging. Clause 48 enables the ethical standards officer to conclude that the person being investigated should be suspended from being a member of the authority for up to six months with a possibility of extension, if necessary.

That will help to ensure that if it is felt by the ethical standards officers to be in the public interest to prevent a councillor from continuing to participate in decision-making, they will have the powers to do so. We might say that this "sin bin" approach is a further reassurance that the issues are being properly addressed.

I imagine that councillors will welcome the provisions in Clause 53 for regulations regarding the disclosure of pecuniary and other interests as this area requires clarification. It is right that councillors should declare such interests. However, as my noble friend Lord Smith illustrated so well in the example of which he spoke, under the existing arrangements there are anomalies. It is indeed the case that as a result of councillors representing their council on one body they cannot report back and carry out their public duties. That is plainly absurd and does not make for effective local policy-making. I look forward to the regulations which will tidy up the situation.

In conclusion, I welcome the approach of the Government to this issue, upon which the credibility of local representation rests. The approach is holistic, can even be said to be "joined up" and greatly enhances the Bill.