Not Saussure

September 4, 2006

Prescott’s legacy… councillors can’t vote

Filed under: local democracy, Politics, standards board, UK — notsaussure @ 12:36 pm

Via Tim Worstall

Councillors have been banned from discussing local park-and-ride schemes if they own a car under an ethical watchdog created by John Prescott. The Deputy Prime Minister is accused today of undermining local democracy and stifling free speech by imposing “draconian” rules on thousands of councillors. A damning report reveals how local authority members are being barred from speaking or voting on subjects simply because they are perceived to have taken a position on the issue. Even councillors who have been elected specifically to fight a particular issue have fallen foul of the rules and found themselves told they cannot speak or vote on it

Telegraph | News | Prescott’s ethics fiasco ‘hampering democracy’

The report is by Owen Paterson, the shadow transport minister, and Gerald Howarth, the shadow defence minister, for the Conservative Cornerstone Group (might not yet be on their website) and tells the story of how some of the Standards Board‘s ‘monitoring officers’, both national and local, have been giving councillors utterly bizarre advice on what constitutes a ‘personal and prejudicial interest’ in a matter — and thus prevents them not only from voting but from participating in any discussion of it — and on what the ‘monitoring officers’ take to be the common law principle of ‘predetermination‘, sometimes leading to absurdities such as this:

A reductio ad absurdum of the Board’s argument came during the 2006 council elections, when all candidates for election to Chester council were sent a letter by the city’s monitoring officer Charles Kerry. This stated that any prospective councillor who had expressed a ‘pre-determined’ view on any issue could not, ‘as a matter of law’, take part in any decision relating to that issue. This covers ‘any expression of opinion in any election material, newsletters, letters of press coverage’. The only way a candidate could refer to contentious issues, Mr Kerry advised, must be along the lines of “From what I know at the moment, I am concerned by…”.

and advice like this

When the Council is making a decision on whether to impose charges on its car parks and if so which ones and how much it should charge, it is exercising a discretion. Whenever the Council does this you as a Member of the Council should under no circumstances reach a final conclusion on the matter before you come to a decision on it. This is the common law concept of predetermination that has always applied to local authority decision-making and is also enshrined in guidance on Members Code of Conduct issues by the Standards Board for England.

Members of the District Council should therefore resist making comments in public forums that could be interpreted as your having already committed to making a particular decision about the introduction of the revised car parking enforcement regime. If this could be interpreted from the comments you have expressed and you subsequently speak at a Council meeting at which the decision is being taken, I do not believe that the decision would be flawed. However should you then proceed to vote on the matter the decision could be open to a legal challenge.

(Quotes taken from the report).

Note, by the way the advice is ‘the decision could be open to a legal challenge’; this is the same sort of thinking that gets things banned, or not insured, on Health and Safety grounds because there could be a compensation claim, so it’s safer not to risk it; the fact that ‘this is the common law concept of predetermination that has always applied to local authority decision-making’ and has never yet been interpreted in such a manner might have given someone a clue that it’s a ludicrous fear. As it happens, when the Chester case was reported earlier in the year, I asked a councillor friend of mine — Conservative — what he made of it, and he said the monitoring officer for his council reckoned the advice was nonsensical. Seems to depend very much on where you live.

The report also raises some more sinister manipulations of the Standard Board’s Code of Conduct, whereby complaints are lodged — and investigated at vast expense — by political opponents and, worst of all, where Central Government appears to use the code to stop councillors voting against projects — building programmes, for example — that Central Government want.

One rather strange omission, though; I can’t anywhere find a reference to the Standard Board’s dealings with Ken Livingstone; seems a bit odd. Anyway, it’s hard to disagree with their conclusion that

The Standards Board and all it represents has been a disastrous move in the wrong direction. It is a centralising agency which diminishes rather than strengthens local government and puts far too much power in the hands of unelected officials. It is a drain on the taxpayer. It should be abolished without delay.

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