The British government’s decision to sweep away the ethics framework for local councils has left the country without an adequate system for ensuring that corrupt and inappropriate behaviour is dealt with, according to a visiting academic.
Gary Hickey, who had formerly worked for the UK’s Standards Board and is now an academic at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London, was giving a lecture to the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies.
He said the ethics framework had been set up in the 1990s following scandals in both local and central government, and because people increasingly recognised that ethical standards were vital in maintaining the public’s faith in local democracy.
The first ‘phase’ of the ethics framework had involved a national code of conduct for local politicians, creating the Standards Board as a national watchdog, and setting up standards committees for each local council, which were staffed by councillors and members of the public.
However, this system was seen as “too centralised” because the dominance of the Standards Board marginalised the committees, and the system became clogged up with “trivial” complaints, as when a parish councillor complained about another one “digging up their carrots”.
The second ‘phase’ responded to these concerns by giving the standards committees a greater role to play.
However, this process was seen as being too cumbersome, as complaints had to be dealt with by an array of sub-committees, Hickey said: “There were far too many committees involved.” It also still dealt with too much trivia and was “quite costly”.
Nonetheless, there was growing public support for the code of conduct, and the behaviour of local councillors had improved measurably under the framework. “The framework, for all its flaws, was doing something – and it was working.”
However, in 2010, the Conservative-led government swept away most of the framework, including the Standards Board, the committees and the national code of conduct. In its place were put “monitoring officers” who were supposed to watch over councils, and codes of conduct for each local council.
However, a 2012 survey of a small number of monitoring officers had showed that most doubted the new system would allow poor behaviour to be adequately punished. A number of scandals had already arisen, including one in which councillors were allegedly working as consultants to advise firms on how to get around council planning rules
Instead of sweeping away the system, the government should have been reformed it by making clearer its principles and how it was supposed to function, Hickey said.
That would have involved a commitment to dealing with complaints more quickly, local councils taking responsibility for their own arrangements, using a greater range of tools – including mediation and informal resolution of disputes – and setting the bar for complaints higher to discourage trivial complaints.
“I think that would address all the criticisms of the previous framework,” Hickey said.