Draft Relevant Authorities (General Principles) Order 2001

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman is raising a serious point. He will be aware of examples where someone who has a grudge against a councillor finds some evidence against that councillor, but the evidence is pure hearsay. Such evidence may have no validity or the councillor may consider that the evidence has no validity. What action should be taken in such cases?

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is right. Clearly, the whole issue of vexatious and malicious complaints needs to be addressed.

I am aware that some of the points that I am raising relate more appropriately to the code. However, I hope that, in finalising the advice that will be sent to councils, the Minister will take note of my concerns, which have also been expressed by many people in the Local Government Association and other bodies. I genuinely believe that these 10 principles should have our support. I hope that the Minister can give me an absolute assurance that, in accepting them, we will not put councillors or councils in a situation where they could be in breach of the human rights legislation.

4.59 pm

Ms Armstrong: We have had an interesting debate. I felt for the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson): he was not too sure how to deal with this statutory instrument. There was the whole issue of whether we should have a code of conduct, whether we should have principles, whether this was part of the nanny state and whether it was licensing activities that should not go on.

During the previous Government's reign, the Conservatives enjoyed demonising and undermining local government by bringing up examples of allegations of corruption, but they never dealt with allegations of corruption in councils for which they were responsible. They loved to raise the spectre but, even when we offered to collaborate on legislation, they never dealt with the issue. I always believed that that was because they were only happy with local government when it could be undermined and they could throw brickbats at it: the hon. Gentleman has confirmed that today. I am disappointed because I thought that the Tory party was moving on. I suspect that once again I was being generous rather than realistic.

Mr. Waterson: I am sure that the Minister was thinking of higher things, but she obviously did not hear me when I made the point that the vast majority of those of all parties who went into public service did so from the highest motives and already operated these principles in their daily lives. On reflection she might remember me saying that.

Ms Armstrong: I agree with that entirely. Of course the hon. Gentleman said it, but that is precisely why we must be sure that those who do not cannot get away with it. No one can come into public office in local government and pretend that they did not understand what the basic principles were. That is the basis of this order. In one sense, if the hon. Gentleman really believes that, he should have been prepared to push that to its logical conclusion when his party were in government. That is what the Local Government Act did and this is how we will develop it.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the model code of conduct. It is out for consultation and the consultation has another four or five weeks to run. The model code is available and copies are in the Library if any hon. Member has not seen it. We consulted widely on the principles that are before the Committee today. I am happy to confess: we started with nine principles and following the consultation we were pressed to adopt a 10th.

Mr. Waterson: There were seven.

Ms Armstrong: The seven principles were those from the Nolan Committee. Before we circulated principles reflecting the decisions of the Act, we had nine and when it was pointed out that there was nothing firm enough on equalities we added the 10th.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) had some difficulty with some of the principles. Again, I am sorry about that. He asked why two of the principles referred to more than simply the acts that local councillors were engaged in. However, those are the most difficult cases. The private lives of members of local authorities are more closely scrutinised than those of ordinary members of the public. All those in public office are subject to such scrutiny, and the actions of members who behave badly in their private lives or who break the law are likely to be the subject of media comment. That can affect public confidence in that member. It could also undermine the standing of local government.

Mr. Don Foster: I understand what the Minister says, but I still have a difficulty. I ask her a specific question. If a councillor is prosecuted for significantly exceeding the speed limit, the offence could be deemed to be a breach of principles 2 or 8. According to the draft code, breach of those principles is a criminal offence, which could lead to various steps being taken. Does she believe that it is right that such a person should be convicted twice, or does she agree with me that it should be for the electorate to decide whether the speeding offence should determine that person's suitability to continue acting as a councillor?

Ms Armstrong: The hon. Gentleman raises a difficult issue. The Department has had long discussions about it, and I and the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes), debated the matter at great length. We believe that such matters should be considered by the Standards Board for England. It may be not a simple speed conviction, but a conviction for speeding and being above the alcohol limit. If the member had responsibility for children's services, it would place him in a difficult position. It the election had been held only a month previously, such a person would not be subject to the electorate for another four years.

I can give the hon. Gentleman other examples. I heard of a councillor who resigned because of pressure from his party who, many years before, when he was working as a residential care worker, had been implicated in a child abuse case. It was so long ago that the Crown Prosecution Service was not sure of getting a firm conviction, but it was clear that he was involved, and he did not deny it. In such circumstances, it would be perfectly proper, given the responsibility that council members have for children in care, that the Standards Board for England investigated such matters.

It was consideration of such episodes that led us to believe that a code should be introduced, and that those cases should be examined by the Standards Board for England. It is a difficult area and we may have to come back to it. The question is how to ensure that the public can have confidence in their public representatives, and how can they know that councillors are not using their position to cover up abuse—or other aspects that are not necessarily pertinent to their public duties.

Mr. Don Foster: I am grateful to the Minister for putting on record her understanding of the complexity and difficulty of the issue. Section 7 of the draft code makes it a requirement for one councillor to report on another councillor for potential breaches of the 10 principles. If I as a councillor spotted another councillor travelling at 32 mph in a 30 mph restricted zone, it would be against the code for me not to report it. I accept that that is an absurd example, but the problem with the order is that, if we are not careful, it will lead to such stupid cases being raised. What measures have been built into the procedures to prevent that?

Ms Armstrong: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is an absurd example, because he would not know whether the other councillor was travelling at 32 mph; he would not have the means of knowing. On the other hand, if he had seen him or her abusing a child, he would report it to the police. We are not dealing with the procedures today, but with the principles. The procedures will come later and they will be debated. They will be part of the unfolding of the ethical framework. We now have the Standards Board for England—the core membership has been appointed. It must be able to engage in discussion with those in local government, so that they get the model code of conduct right in relation to the principles.

I am concerned that we are perhaps being over-prescriptive or absurd in our demands. However, we are seeking to establish principles to act as the basis of the public's confidence in those who represent them. It is as simple and straightforward as that. We want to ensure that we are able to move forward.

The remarks of the hon. Member for Eastbourne on openness were extraordinary. I wondered if he was using the same speech that he delivered at the beginning of the consideration of the Local Government Bill. I have yet to visit a council where the rules on openness are considered to be so strict that we have gone too far. That applies to Conservative and Liberal Democrat councils as well. We are demanding far greater openness than was required in the past. We certainly demand far greater openness of local government politicians than we ever demand of ourselves.

It is absurd to ask whether members who do not know everything because they are not in the cabinet will be in breach of the openness principle by default. No one can be held to account for things for which they are not responsible. In any case, a cabinet will publish its reasons for having taken a particular decision. The hon. Gentleman continues to try to fight old battles, probably because he cannot find much in the current regulations to disagree with.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister will have heard my intervention on the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). One of the principles contained in the Human Rights Act is the right to a fair hearing. Will the Minister assure the Committee that councillors who are allegedly in breach of the code will get a fair hearing? What rights of appeal will they have against any judgments?

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