Councils called to account

As the dust settles on local elections, Paul Gosling looks at proposed laws to cut corruption
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Last week's local government elections were something of a milestone. They were possibly the last ones to be conducted under existing anti-corruption rules, with new, tougher regulations likely to be introduced later this year aimed at preventing a recurrence of the problems of Doncaster, Westminster and elsewhere.

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has had a busy spring, publishing a sequence of important consultation papers, each on the theme of modernising local democracy. Last month saw its proposals for "a new ethical framework", targeted at councillors while also dealing with possible corruption among employees, based on recommendations from the Nolan Committee on standards in public life.

At the heart of the proposals is a much more rigorous code of conduct, including clearer obligations on councillors to declare personal interests. It will be backed by a new law being drafted by the Home Office creating a general offence of corruption in public life, which will cover the behaviour of MPs and officials as well as councillors, but which will take longer to put into place.

Nolan suggested that each council should set up a standards committee to enforce the code of conduct, but this has been amended by the Government, which instead proposes regional standards committees. This would mean councillors will be judged by peers from other councils. The Government recognised that party whips and informal pressure on councillors and an authority's monitoring officer might make a purely internal system unworkable.

However, opposition parties are not convinced by the Government's proposals. The Liberal Democrats make the point that in some regions Labour has a near monopoly of councillor representation, and that a regional standards committee might still be swayed by party loyalty. The Conservatives suggest that each council could establish an audit committee, containing representation from independent experts.

A possible weakness of the code of conduct is where it deals with relationships between councillors and officers, which has been central to many of the allegations of council maladministration over the years. The proposed new code merely says relations should be based on mutual respect. This sidesteps the issue of how to deal with personal relations between members and officers which become close. It also fails to resolve the problem raised by Sir Norman Fowler MP, shadow environment spokesman, who says some Doncaster councillors have bullied officials. But the new proposals have support from many within councils.

The Local Government Association endorses the suggestions, and hopes they will be implemented by the end of this year. And John Sinnott, chief executive of Leicestershire County Council and a critic of the existing system, says that the new regulations would overcome the problems his authority has had in taking action against a member for allegedly failing to declare an interest. The Crown Prosecution Service had determined that a conviction was possible only if a non-declaration came to light within six months.

Paul Burstow MP, the Liberal Democrats' local government spokesman, emphasises that legal changes will not in themselves eradicate corruption within councils. He argues that proportional representation, which might eliminate one-party local states, would be an important step towards improving financial probity. Mr Burstow adds that all the parties need to do more to ensure that only good calibre candidates stand for election.

The Labour Party also wants better candidates, and its Project 99 is designed not only to prevent corrupt people standing for election, but also to ease problems of illiteracy and indiscipline among councillors. Next year all Labour candidates will have to pass literacy and numeracy tests, demonstrate an understanding of how local authorities operate, and commit themselves to the Best Value programme of council improvement.

Although Labour's drive is not directly connected to its desire to make councils more representative of their local populations, the party does expect it to reduce the average age of its councillors and increase the proportion of ethnic minority candidates. The Conservative Party is also examining ways of raising the standards of its candidates.

But some of the proposals contained in the "ethical framework" document are less strict than the current rules. The Government believes some elements of the existing audit regime are unfair. Among the changes recommended are the abolition of the right of electors to object to the signing-off of a council's annual accounts because of opposition to a council's decision, and ending the obligation on the District Auditor to examine every complaint even when a similar objection has already been investigated. Another change that is warmly welcomed inside local government is the Nolan proposal to abolish the surcharge of councillors and officers where they have exceeded their legal powers. While the exact new arrangements have not been decided, the Government believes that when a new public corruption offence is in place the need for a separate surcharge system is no longer necessary.

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