Councillors should be freed from restrictions that prevent them from championing local issues, Ministers have asserted today.
Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has today set out plans to clarify the law so that councillors are able to get on with the job of representing their residents without fear of being challenged or their decisions being overturned because of accusations of inflexibility or unreasonable bias.
Ministers believe that the rules on bias, which councillors are expected to navigate and interpret, have left many councillors uncertain about whether they have the freedom to speak and vote on the very issues on which they campaigned and were elected to represent their constituents.
For example, councillors fear that if as a candidate they have opposed increases in car parking charges during their election campaign, they might be prevented from speaking or voting on the issue once in office because of accusations that they had a closed mind.
Ministers are looking to inject common sense back into the system. The forthcoming Localism Bill will clarify the law to give councillors the assurance they need to feel confident about campaigning on local issues and championing the rights of residents.
At the same time, Mr Pickles has suggested a strong new deterrent of criminal sanctions to prevent genuine town hall corruption. This would mean that failing to register or disclose a personal interest that impacts on council business could result in a court case, criminal conviction, fine or a ban on serving as a councillor.
Ministers believe these proposed sanctions will prove a far greater deterrent than those that might have been handed down under the old Standards Board Regime - such as being required to make an apology or suspension. The proposed changes are in addition to the abolition of the Councillors’ Code of Conduct, which has already been announced by Ministers.
Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, said:
This unnecessary bureaucracy restricting freedom of speech and preventing councillors from championing local issues like opposing damaging developments or higher parking charges is being replaced with real openness and transparency in how councils spend taxpayers’ money and how decisions are made.
Grant Shapps, Minister for Local Government, added:
The changes will be a shot in the arm to local democracy, give councillors the certainty they need to get on and do their job, and give the public confidence that if corruption does occur it will be tackled. People who abuse their public office for personal gain should be brought before the criminal courts.
Notes for Editors
- The Model Code of Conduct, enforced by the Standards Board for England, was established in 2000, it sets out rules governing elected members’ activity and bars them from taking part in decisions where they had campaigned or expressed a predisposed view. Recent guidance issued by the Standards Board last year, even discouraged councillors from travelling in the same car when driving to a planning meeting to avoid “appearance of bias. “Scrapping the £8million a year Standards Board for England was announced earlier in the year: www.communities.gov.uk/newsstories/newsroom/1719944.
2. Coalition Government reforms
- Ministers believe councillors are entitled to have and express their own views, as long as they are prepared to reconsider their position in the light of all the evidence and arguments. But both predetermination and bias have proved to be difficult and controversial issues for many local authority members and the local authority monitoring officers that advise members.
- Predisposition is where a member holds a view in favour of, or against, an issue. For example an application for a planning permission. It includes having a preliminary view about how the member will vote before they attend the meeting and/or expressing that view publicly. They may even have been elected specifically because of their views on a particular issue. A member may make their view, and voting intention, clear in meetings, conversations, communications or campaigns or to the press, constituents, the public or officers of the local authority. And they may meet with those proposing or opposing a planning application to discuss their view on the matter.
- Ministers believe a member should be free to seek to influence the views or decisions of other members by lobbying them. This attempt to influence the views and hence decisions of other members may be prompted by views that the member holds themselves, or if the member taking such steps to represent the interests of his ward or his constituents.
- These proposed legislative changes will mean councillors can be very clear and discuss freely their view and voting intention and publicise their views as they see fit. However, councillors must be prepared to listen to arguments and evidence before making their decision. These changes will reduce the threat of challenge.
- Councillors will have to conform to the highest standards of conduct. At present if a councillor abuses their position for personal gain it may result in a complaint to the local authority’s standards committee with the councillor simply having to apologise. New proposals will make failing to register an interest, or deliberately seeking to mislead the public about an interest a criminal offence, overseen by the police, Crown Prosecution Service and the courts.
Keep up to date with the Department by following us on Twitter (external link).
Visit our newsroom contacts page for media enquiry contact details.