|Members considered a report that provided further details regarding the Localism Act standards provisions and requested the Committees views on new suggested arrangements for Stockton in response to those provisions.|
The standards provisions (other than those relating to the Standards Board which came into effect immediately on Royal Assent) had yet to be brought into effect. The Government had previously maintained its wish to see the provisions operational in April 2012. However, a key part of the new regime related to disclosable pecuniary interests (which had to be part of every code of conduct and were the basis for the new criminal sanctions in the Act) and the regulations establishing and introducing those interests had yet to be issued .as a result, the April commencement date had been extended to the 1st July 2012.
The key points of the new provisions were as follows:-
- The provisions relating to the abolition of the Standards Board regime had been enacted and all the current legislation would be repealed by means of commencement orders in due course.
- There would be a new general duty to promote and maintain high standards of conduct by members and voting co-opted members.
- Each relevant authority must adopt a code which deals with the conduct expected of members and voting co-opted members when acting in that capacity. It must be consistent with a new set of general principles and the rest of the new legislation, but there would be no national model. A code would need to include provisions about members interests, but most of the content would be for each authority to decide.
- Regulations would define disclosable pecuniary interests of members and THEIR spouse/partners. The monitoring officer would keep and publish a register of these as before, but the details of the duty to notify were different. Members would have to make an oral disclosure at meetings if their interest had not been registered. As before, sensitive information could be kept private if there was a risk of violence or intimidation.
- A member with an interest of that kind in a matter must not participate in any discussion of, or vote on, the matter at the meeting. Standing orders may require the member to leave the meeting. There was a similar rule for individual member decisions.
- It was a criminal offence to fail to notify the monitoring officer of an interest of that kind, or to participate in a meeting or take a decision without reasonable excuse. It was also an offence knowingly or recklessly to provide false or misleading information in that respect. Only the DPP could authorise prosecutions, and there were time limits.
- The authority could, however, grant dispensations permitting participation. The grounds for so doing were much wider than before.
- Authorities had to have in place arrangements under which allegations of breaches of the code could be investigated and decisions on allegations could be taken, with or without an investigation or a hearing. This could, but need not, include some kind of standards committee. However, there would be few sanctions available apart from, for example, censure and withdrawal of facilities. Removal of a member from a committee or sub-committee was another possible sanction, but would require a Group Leaders continuing support and removal of A member from Cabinet could only take place through a Leaders decision.
- If a Standards Committee was retained, it would have to be politically balanced and if it was a decision making Committee it could not include any voting co-optees.
- Authorities must appoint at least one independent person (IP). They must consult the IP after an investigation, and may consult the IP on other complaints. A member about whom an allegation had been made could also consult the IP. The IP could not be, or have been in the last five years, a member, co-opted member or officer of the authority. There was currently uncertainty about whether this ruled out current Standards Committee members.
- All of this applied to parish councils, with modifications, except that their principal authorities would make and operate the arrangements for them and they would use the principal authoritys IP. They would, however, make the final decisions in relation to complaints.
- The main differences to the present system were the absence of any national coordination or consistency, and the lack of any express controls over disrespect, bullying, intimidation, misuse of position or resources or breach of confidentiality, underlined by the omission of respect and stewardship from the new list of principles. An authoritys code may cover these issues, but this was optional.
The details of the suggested initial response to the Acts proposals were as follows:-
A new code of conduct to be drafted, based on the current ten general principles of conduct; including provisions equivalent to paragraphs 3 to 7 of the current code (respect, confidentiality and disrepute) and provisions regarding interests similar to the present code, plus the proposed disclosable pecuniary interests.
Procedure rules should be amended to require a member who declares a disclosable pecuniary interest to withdraw from a meeting room. Members were likely to be precluded from making representations before leaving in the way that they could at the moment.
An Independent Person, with one or two substitutes, should be appointed, to provide flexibility and minimise potential conflicts of interest under the new arrangements for dealing with allegations. Arrangements for dealing with member misconduct allegations should be developed on the basis of the following:-
An Officer (i.e. Monitoring Officer or authorised representative), in consultation with an Independent Person would determine whether or not an allegation should be the subject of further action, including local resolution, or an investigation, in accordance with agreed criteria (based on the current guidance). If considered appropriate a matter could be referred to a standards panel (of members) for determination.
An Officer (as above) would carry out any investigation, as currently. If a finding of no breach was proposed, consultation would take place with an Independent Person and with the Monitoring Officer (or authorised representative). No further action would take place where a no breach finding was confirmed. As above, if appropriate the matter could instead be referred to a standards panel for decision.
If a finding of breach of a code was proposed in the Investigating Officers report, the Monitoring Officer or authorised representative could still try to find a local resolution of the matter, or if this was not practicable a hearing would be arranged in front of a Member Standards Panel. The Standards Panel would have delegated authority to decide whether or not a breach had occurred and what, if any action should be taken. The Panel would consult an Independent Person before reaching a final decision. The outcome of consideration of allegations about the conduct of Town/Parish Councillors would be referred to the relevant Town/Parish Council for final decision.
The current procedures relating to investigations and hearings could be adapted for this purpose.
There would be no Standards Committee as such, but a politically balanced standing list of say ten trained Borough Council members from whom a hearing panel would be drawn to consider any investigation reports where a breach of a code had been found. There would be no appeal against a Panel decision.
The Committee questioned whether the IPs advice might be challenged and whether the IP might be the subject of claims as a result. In such circumstances, the Committee thought that protection ought to be provided under the Councils insurance and indemnity arrangements.