Posted by: westlancashirerecord | September 17, 2017

Standards Without Transparency In Local Politics?

The Lancashire Tory councillor who was suspended and then expelled from his party for alleged offences including over-claiming circa £4,000 of council tax benefit raised eyebrows over the standards set in local politics. What “standards” you might ask. He was only exposed by a press article, not by his party .

Section 53 of the Local Government Act 2000 (the 2000 Act) provided a legal requirement for the Council to establish a Standards Committee. With the introduction of the Localism Act 2011 (“the Act”) this was repealed. But there is still a need to comply with the statutory duty to promote and maintain high standards of conduct and deal with standards issues and case-work. So WLBC agreed the establishment of a Standards Committee from 1 July 2012, probably the same one they abolished! Could you make it up?

The main role of the WLBC Committee is to “promote and maintain high standards of conduct throughout the authority and create a sense of “ethical well-being” whatever that is. Anyway, the WLBC Standards Committee will meet on Tuesday, 19th September, 2017 5.00 pm, in the Cabinet/Committee Room at 52 Derby Street, Ormskirk. Its report states “During 2016/17 three complaints were received of which two were concluded and one is on-going and the outcome will be reported in 2017-18. Additionally the 8 complaints, brought forward from the previous period were concluded. The arrangements also provide that where a formal investigation finds evidence of a failure to comply with the Code of Conduct, the MO, in consultation with the IP, has been authorised to seek local resolution to the satisfaction of the complainant in appropriate cases, with a summary report for information to the Standards Committee. Where such a local resolution is not possible the MO can report the investigation findings to a Hearings Sub-Committee of the Standards Committee for local hearing. One case has been referred to a Hearings Sub-Committee which is due to meet on 22 September 2017 and the outcome will be recorded in the 2017/18 annual report”. But more details on the issue are available elsewhere and will be published.

The Standards Committee must comprise at least six councillors. In 2016/17 six members were appointed to the Committee. The Chairman and Vice-Chairman are appointed at Council and, respectively are the Leader of the Council and Leader of the main Opposition Group, himself no stranger to standards complaints. In fact he leads a party that nominated for election to Aughton Park the former Halsall councillor Stephenson, also no stranger to the process. They included various complaints of her alleged failure to comply with the Code of Conduct; alleged breach of the Principles of Openness and Accountability; alleged lack of Accountability and Integrity; alleged lack of Honesty, Openness and Integrity. These incidents allegedly occurred in July, August, September, and October 2013 at parish and public meetings and were witnessed. They became the subject of a formal complaint relating to four issues.

In essence, the formal complaint was relative to the Councillor’s alleged conduct as parish and borough councillor and her alleged attitude and responses to the public. It sought removal of the Councillor from all public office. At the October meeting of the Halsall Parish Council it was alleged, recorded, and reported the Councillor shouted “I am glad that woman has left” in response to the Complainant being upset by a previous alleged remark that “I will not be pushed out and if you had all handled the situation differently the outcome would have been different” in reply to a question in respect of her not representing residents’ views.

In the Official Response there is included a particular reference made by the Monitoring Officer that “…however, the comment that the Subject Member is alleged to have made when the Complainant left the room is likely to be a breach of the respect provision in paragraph 3.1 of the Code”. “I do not consider that the four issues raised in the complaint could reasonably be dealt with by local resolution, e.g. by way of an apology or other remedial action. “Having regard to the Complaint, the seriousness of the allegations as set out at (i) and (ii) above, balancing the interests of good governance in undertaking or completing an investigation into these four issues in the complaints and all relevant matters the Monitoring Officer in consultation with the Independent Person has decided that no action should be taken on these allegations. “In determining this, regard was had to the significant cost of an investigation against the “value” of a finding of breach which, in these circumstances under the current standards regime, would provide limited available sanctions to the Standards Committee. “It is noted that the remedy sought by the Complainant is not a sanction that is available to the Standards Committee under the current regime”.

And we asked “Does that mean our councillors should pick their offences carefully so as to avoid a sanction, apart from the ballot box whenever that might be for them as individuals and could be one/two/three years away?”. As for the “Standards Without Transparency”, they are alive and well and  in Lancashire and West Lancashire.


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