War declared on corrupt councils

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TOUGH NEW ethics codes and elected mayors in every city are to spearhead a government drive to root out sleaze from Britain's town halls.

Ministers will publish a draft Bill later this month to create committees to safeguard standards in public life, and they will be armed with sweeping powers to remove rogue councillors from office, The Independent can reveal. In a clear move to bypass stubborn town halls, local mayoral referendums will be triggered if just 5 per cent of the electorate sign a petition backing the idea.

The Local Government Bill will force every council to create a standards committee to police a strict national ethics code covering the conduct of all councillors and officers. The code will force them to declare potential conflicts of interest, connections to businessmen and any gifts and hospitality, as well as obliging them to carry out their duties solely in the public interest.

Ministers stress that nearly all councillors are honest and hardworking, but they are keen to remove the minority whose corruption tarnishes the reputation of the rest. Labour councils have been dogged for decades by allegations of corruption and malpractice, with Doncaster, Liverpool, Glasgow and Monklands investigated by both police and party officials.

It is understood that the Bill will be "first in the queue" of reserve Bills to be brought before Parliament this session if the legislative timetable allows.

A ministerial source said: "In the long run, we hope this will help to improve the overall quality of councillors just by raising their status. We want the public to see councillors helping their communities, not themselves."

The standards committees, which will have some independent members, will draw up local codes based on a national model. They will be backed by more powerful regional standards boards, which will be fully independent and mirror the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life set up to stamp out sleaze in Parliament.

The regional boards will have wide-ranging powers to suspend councillors from office for a year after an investigation into their case. The worst offenders could be disqualified for up to five years.

Council whistleblowers and members of the public will be able to refer allegations to the board, which will order an inquiry if it deems the claims "non-trivial". The boards, staffed by local government experts, will be the centrepiece of the new drive to increase public confidence in local councils, though it is stressed that they would be used only for serious allegations.

Tony Blair has long been in favour of directly elected mayors and is keen to see them installed across the country to boost civic pride and increase interest in local democracy.

Many councillors of all three main parties still balk at the idea of powerful executive mayors, but they will have no choice but to hold a ballot if 5 per cent of residents back the move. Even if there is no petition, ministers will be able to insist on a referendum if they judge the council has not been making sufficient efforts to modernise its structures. "Local government is stuck with a system that was devised for the 1800s not the 21st century. We're determined to change it," the source said.