Localism Bill — Report (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:39 pm on 14th September 2011.

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Photo of Lord Bichard Lord Bichard Crossbench 8:39 pm, 14th September 2011

My Lords, I first thank my noble friend Lord Lytton for allowing me to lead on this group of amendments. The amendments that I shall speak to today go to the heart of effective and credible local governance. In others words, they are neither technical amendments nor desirable but non-essential. That is why they have obtained support from across the House. Without them there is a serious risk that the progress on standards of conduct that has undoubtedly been made in local government in recent years will be lost. If that happens, it will damage not only local citizens and the reputation of local government but the Government and Parliament.

As currently drafted, the Bill proposes placing a new general duty on councils to promote and maintain high standards. At the same time, it proposes to abolish the standards board for England and the national code of conduct. It proposes to let each council choose whether to have a code of conduct and, if they do, what to include in it. It proposes that the current requirement for standards committees with independent members should be removed. It proposes removing the powers to suspend members who have breached the code. Finally, it would introduce a new criminal offence of failing to register or declare a pecuniary interest.

The amendments before the House in my name do not seek to perpetuate either a national standards board or a centrally prescribed national code of conduct. I accept that a prescribed national code would run counter to the Government's avowed intent to devolve more responsibility to local communities, which I thoroughly welcome. I also accept that the standards board, in spite of some excellent work and some very dedicated staff, has just not made a strong enough case for its retention. While I accept those changes, the impact of the other proposals will, I suggest, be seriously damaging. 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. A sceptical public will otherwise assume the worst. This is all the more important as local councils are rightly and belatedly given more power through elected mayors and changes in the planning regime. It is absolutely essential in these circumstances that the public have confidence in the people who will take responsibility for those powers if those powers and that devolution are to be sustained as we all want them to be.

However, a discretionary system will have other dis-benefits. Inevitably, it will mean that standards are discretionary and that they are not a priority. As councils adopt different arrangements across the country, and they inevitably will, the public and business will find it difficult to understand what is to be expected from their particular authority or the authority with which they are doing business. Worse still, the authorities that do not take standards seriously will of course be least likely to adopt a code with any kind of rigorous content. That will result in damage not just to the reputation of that particular council, but to the reputation of local government as a whole. There will be some who argue that all councils would naturally and voluntarily adopt a code, so we really do not need a mandatory requirement. But in my recent research I have found a number of councils already showing great willingness to jettison any sort of code. We need to take account of that.

For all of those reasons, a national code of conduct is necessary. Not one prescribed by the Secretary of State and imposed on local government, but one developed by local government in accordance with the principles of public life and adopted by all councils. That is the purpose of my Amendment 175.

If we are to have a mandatory code, there does need to be some leverage to ensure that it is taken seriously. The proposal to remove the current requirement for a local standards committee with independent members, to monitor the implementation of the code and, where necessary, to suspend members who are in breach, will take away an important influence. In addition, it will further feed the scepticism of those members of the public who believe that councillors are, frankly, in it for their own good. Amendments 177 and 178 therefore seek to reinstate a local standards committee with a right of appeal for members found to have fallen foul of that code. There is scope for discussion of the precise nature of those standards committees, so as to reflect the particular characteristics of a local area or local authority, but standards committees must be reinstated.

My Amendments 179 and 188 concern the proposed introduction of a new criminal offence for failing to register or declare a pecuniary interest, which is also the subject of further government amendments. The problem with this proposal as it stands-and this is not resolved by the several amendments on the Marshalled List-is that it applies only to pecuniary interests, and covers only the elected member and their spousal partner. Consequently, councillors will only need to declare registered pecuniary interests where they or their partner directly benefit financially. If they fail to do that, no matter how minor the interest, they will have committed a criminal offence. However, elected members would not need to declare non-pecuniary interests or the interests of other members of their family. To put this in context, an elected member could vote for their son's planning application with impunity. The proposals, as they stand, leave unregulated most of the previous examples of malpractice where there have been attempts to manipulate the planning, licensing and housing systems. One of the consequences of this will, I have no doubt, be that councils will run a far greater risk of legal challenge over decisions that are perceived to be biased.

I have been heartened by the widespread support that I have received for all these amendments-not just across the House but outside too-from the independent Liberal Democrat and Labour groups on the Local Government Association, the Law Society, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives of which I used to be a member, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors, the Society of Local Council Clerks and the National Association of Local Councils. Let us not forget that these same issues affect town and parish councils, as the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, will I am sure remind us shortly. All those respected organisations support these amendments. However, they are also tellingly supported by Sir Christopher Kelly, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, who said recently that the Government's proposals as they stand,

"risk lower standards and a decline in public confidence".

As I said at the outset, a great deal of progress has been made in recent years to improve the standards of local governance, but that is not to say there have been no transgressions-there have been-and none of us should ever be complacent. Thirty years ago I was the chief executive of the London Borough of Brent-not something that I widely advertise but many Members of the House will recall it. There I witnessed at first hand some of the most serious failures of conduct and behaviour. Of course, at that time they were not confined to the London Borough of Brent. None of us expects to see the return of such things, but explicit transparent codes are critical parts of the machinery to prevent that ever happening again.

You can-and I have long argued that you should-devolve decisions about the level of services. You can and you should devolve decisions about the cost of services and the way in which the needs of local communities are met. However, you should never ever devolve the question of whether probity is a priority. You should never make standards discretionary.