The Future of the Standards Regime - Amendments to the Localism Bill (Agenda Item 8)
Extracts from the House of Lords debate on 7 November are attached for information.
A briefing note had been circulated to Members by e-mail and an extract from the Localism Bill was tabled.
The Bill had received Royal Assent on 15 November and there was a lot of detail to be digested. Some commentators had made interesting comments about the new provisions and the Standards Consultant referred to some of those during his presentation.
The commencement date for the new Standards provisions was not yet known, but when it came into effect the old Code would end and transitional provisions would come into effect.
Under the new provisions every Council (County, District and Parish) must adopt a Code which had to be consistent with the seven principles of Standards in Public Life. Having adopted and publicised the Code, arrangements had to be put in place to investigate allegations.
Arrangements for investigations included the appointment of at least one Independent Person whose views had to be sought after the complaint had been considered. The Independent Person could also be consulted by the Member subject of the complaint.
The Independent Person could not have had any connection with the Council for the past five years or have family or friends on the Authority.
There was no requirement to have a Standards Committee and if there was one it would be governed by the usual Committee rules and be politically balanced with only Members having voting rights. It might be possible to have the Independent Person as an advisor on the Committee.
All the current assessment, consideration, review and hearing procedures would cease. The Council would be able to set its own procedures for investigating complaints and could also delegate some powers if it chose.
The Independent Person would have no powers to make a determination, but their views must be taken into account when considering a complaint.
The arrangements for investigating allegations made about town and parish councils were more complicated as there was no provision for the District Council to have any powers over town and parish councils. In fact all sanction powers had been removed and the Council had no power to enforce its decision, other than censure.
The new Code would require the registering of interests. The Register must be held by the District Council and published on the website. Councillors would be required to disclose their pecuniary interests within 28 days of taking office. Those interests should also include those of their spouse/partner.
The Bill also referred to Members disclosing their interests at a meeting if they were not on the Register. It appeared that if they had registered their interests they would not be required to declare them at a meeting and could stay, although under Section 10 of the Act it referred to Standing Orders providing for Members having to leave.
Attention was drawn to Section 31(4) which said that Members with a pecuniary interest should not participate in a meeting. It was unclear what participation meant and it might not preclude Members from remaining in the room. It was acknowledged that their presence might influence the decision.
It appeared that dispensations would be dealt with in the same way as presently but with additional grounds added and the facility to delegate powers to the Monitoring Officer.
There was concern at the ‘catch all’ provision in Section 33(2)(3) to grant a dispensation when the authority “considers that it is otherwise appropriate to grant a dispensation” and the Solicitor agreed that it would be unfortunate if granted for inappropriate reasons. It was another area that might cause complications and a lot of guidance would be needed for its implementation.
The Chairman noted that there had been a universal set of rules which had not been perfect but had at least provided a framework for everyone to work to. Now, nothing was clear.
Moving on to offences, on page 45 of the handout, the Solicitor pointed out that if a Member failed to declare a pecuniary interest proceedings could only be instituted by or on behalf of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Sanctions could be a fine of up to £5,000 and/or disqualification for up to five years.
A Member asked whether the police would be expected to investigate such offences and was also concerned that during a Hansard debate there had been mention of an appropriate defence being a reasonable excuse for not disclosing an interest.
The Chairman felt that it was necessary to get the debate started at a political level to determine which direction the Council was going, whether it was considering a County wide or just Breckland system. He hoped that the Standards Committee could be involved in that debate.
A Member suggested that the Council should be looking even wider than the County in view of the exiting partnership with South Holland.
The Solicitor was keen to see what the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors would provide as a model Code. He suggested that a copy of the existing Code could be produced on the next agenda to provide a starting point.
Members felt that a political steer was required and it was suggested that an Executive Member should be invited to the next meeting.
The issues for consideration at the next meeting were:
· the wording of a new Code
· the form of any new Standards Committee
· arrangements for dealing with breaches of the Code; and
· appointment of Independent Persons
It was agreed that if an Executive Member would be available and sufficient further details had been received, an additional meeting should be scheduled in December if possible.