Parish Councils (Model Code of Conduct) (England) Order 2001

[back to previous text]

Dr. Whitehead: The requirement in paragraph 6 relates to the fact that many incidents of serious misconduct come to light only because individuals in an organisation are prepared to make known their concerns. It is clearly important for the maintenance of high standards of conduct in local government that individuals should report misconduct. Therefore, we accepted the advice of the Local Government Association, which consulted widely on the issue, that members should be placed under a duty to report misconduct by fellow members, and a suitable provision was drafted for inclusion in the code. That is a duty to report misconduct. If a member knew about a matter of serious misconduct and did nothing about it, questions may be asked. The important thing is the requirement to report serious misconduct, so that the matter can be investigated properly as set out in the code. That has been widely accepted in local government as important.

Mr. Moss: In his response, the Minister used the word ''should''. I agree that if a member knows of an irregularity, he should come forward, but the code uses the word ''must'', and the Minister failed to say whether that means that someone who does not report an irregularity commits an offence. What would be the implications of that for the individual?

Dr. Whitehead: As I have emphasised, if a case of serious misconduct came to light, and some council members had wilfully connived in trying to keep quiet, the conduct of those members could be called into question. Clearly, it is a matter of proportionality. The normal procedure that would apply under paragraph 6 is that an issue would be reported and investigated, and the member's duty would have been carried out.

The requirement in paragraph 6 also accords with the Waterhouse report into child abuse in North Wales, which recommended, among other things, that whistleblowing procedures in local authorities should be strengthened to help to prevent long-standing abuse from being left unreported in the future. I accept that the report was about child abuse in homes that were run by principal authorities. Nevertheless, the idea that such procedures should be part of a code of conduct is now generally accepted in local government. Therefore, it is appropriate that it should be applied to parish councils.

Mr. Mole: Does the Minister agree that it is entirely sensible to have consistency between principal authorities and parish authorities? Often, people are members of a parish council, a district council and a

Column Number: 16

county council. It is inordinately confusing for people to operate under different regimes at different levels of government.

Dr. Whitehead: My hon. Friend has made an important point. Indeed, the principle that a national code should apply across the board to various levels of local government was included in the 1990 code. I have already read out the section in that code that lists the councils to which it applies.

Mr. Moss: The Minister still has not answered the question. The word ''must'' implies that there is a penalty if someone does not do what they should. What is the penalty, and is it really an offence?

Dr. Whitehead: I think I have made it crystal clear that the implication of a wilful failure to disclose knowledge of misconduct is that the member may become a party to the misconduct. The issue then becomes one of proportionality. That applies in life generally. For example, if you as a member of the public observe a serious crime taking place and seek to conceal that it is taking place, you may be charged with being an accessory to the crime.

The Chairman: I do not think I would do that.

Dr. Whitehead: I am sorry. I should say ''one''. I am sure that that does not apply to you in any way, shape or form, Mr. Griffiths.

If one observed someone taking an apple from a market stall and did not report it to the police, one would not be an accessory to the crime of stealing an apple. There is proportionality in such matters, as in everything else. Including the requirement in the code covers the points that I set out. For all those reasons, it is important that parish councillors have and are seen to observe high standards of conduct. Local people have the right to expect it.

Finally, if anyone doubts that councillor misconduct is an issue in parish councils—the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire claimed that there was no evidence that it was—I refer them to recent research from the Institute of Local Government Studies entitled ''Parish Council Standards Cases: An estimate of their volume and nature.'' One of the main conclusions of that research is that the majority of complaints are likely to concern non-declaration or non-registration of interests and subsequent participation in parish council meetings.

There is an area of common ground. I must emphasise that overwhelmingly, in parish councils as in local government, councillors, be they parish, district, county, or metropolitan authority councillors, are honourable people who are disposed to undertake duties out of concern for their communities, public services and the well-being of their neighbourhoods. That applies to parish councils just as much as it does to councils at all levels; the principle is the same. However, in parish councils, as at other levels of local authority activity, there are complaints about standards, activities and declarations. Such complaints and concerns have been set out in recent

Column Number: 17

research. For those reasons, we have decided that the code should include legislation requirements. I urge the Committee to agree the motion.

5.26 pm

Mr. Sanders: A few weeks ago, there was a debate in the other place about what is known as fettered discretion. That is something that causes problems for many local authority members on higher-tier authorities—that is, those not parishes or town councils. The rules as drawn up are very tight. Paragraph 9 of the schedule to the order states that

    ''a member with a personal interest in a matter also has a prejudicial interest in that matter if the interest is one which a member of the public with knowledge of the relevant facts would reasonably regard as so significant that it is likely to prejudice the member's judgement of the public interest.''

That paragraph has prevented many councillors of different parties from taking part in decisions in higher-tier authorities. This is now going to go down to town and parish level, and the same confusion will reign there. The Government's plan is to enshrine those problems across every level of local government. They need to reconsider the matter. It is very different from what we do in this place. We declare our interests in the Register of Members' Interests, and when we speak we declare any relevant interest. We are able to carry on debating and voting whether or not someone outside the House would reasonably think that we had such an interest.

Mr. Bellingham: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the code of conduct is more draconian than the Register of Members' Interests that was in place 15 years ago?

Mr. Sanders: I am sure that that is right. I was not here 15 years ago, but it is probably more draconian than the Register of Members' Interests and other rules that apply to Members today.

Dr. Whitehead: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would be interested in paragraph 16 of the previous code of conduct, which says:

    ''(b) consider whether the public would regard your interest as so closely connected with the matter in question that you could not be expected to put your interest out of your mind (for example, the matter might concern a decision by the council affecting a close relative); if you think that they would, you should never decide to take part in a discussion of, or a vote on, the matter in question; and

    (c) consider any guidance which your council has issued on this matter.''

Mr. Sanders: I believe that that was designed for a situation in which an elected member is the relative of a member of staff. I remember from my short period in local government that when resources committee matters came up, one member always had to declare an interest because her son worked for the local authority. What we have now is a situation in my local authority where a Conservative member had to come to me as his Member of Parliament because he felt that the advice that he was given by the officers was so draconian that it could not be true. It was preventing him from taking part in decisions about a development around Torquay harbour side, where his sister was the

Column Number: 18

secretary of the action group opposed to the development. I wrote to the Secretary of State and, sure enough, the advice that he had been given by the officers was correct—he should not take part. It struck me as extremely bizarre to think that a brother and sister of mature age should be treated as somehow being in collusion and that it would be against the interests of the council if that man, as a member, were to vote.

Some of the things that the Government have done are quite right in trying to find best practice and share out the good things that happen. However, the best way to do that is often through guidelines, not a prescriptive code of conduct such as this. The Minister said that someone going out for a meal would not have to declare that. However, £25 is mentioned at the end as the amount for gifts and hospitality that would have to be registered. Why £25? I believe that the amount in this place is £125. What is the difference? Either one works on the principle that one declares a gift and therefore one declares every gift, however small, or there is a common code throughout public life, which should be whatever the amount is for Members in this place.

In a small village community with a parish council perhaps covering no more than 100 members, of which there are several hundred in the United Kingdom, it is perfectly possible that family ties would cause problems for members if they had to declare an interest because the matter being debated affected a member of their family. That goes right to the heart of the problem with the model code of conduct. I do not believe that the Government are making a distinction between a small parish council and what I can only describe as a large town council. The differences in scale are quite significant. A small parish council can cover fewer than 100 people, but a town council can cover 40,000, 50,000 or more people. A small parish council can have a budget that hardly goes into four figures, but a town council can have one in seven figures. There might be a parish council with volunteers who do not draw expenses or allowances, but a town council where full expenses and allowances are provided.

Given the precedent that has been set for the best value regime of a budget of £500,000, I wonder why that criterion was not set for this code of conduct. We could then have distinguished between quasi-principal authorities and the town and parish councils that go about their business with minimal interference from Government, as they should do and always have done.

My final point goes to the heart of what is in the model code of conduct, and returns to what I read out earlier about what someone would reasonably regard as so significant that it would be likely to prejudice a member's judgment. The danger is that we are opening the door to challenge—to the vexatious resident who does not like other people making decisions on his behalf and who will always see a conspiracy theory. We will go too far down that route with the model code of conduct. Yes, there should be disclosure and, yes, there should be information, but please can we get it into perspective? We should not bring in this blanket

Column Number: 19

measure and enshrine the problems that higher-tier authorities are already facing over better discretion by imposing them on lower tiers. We will be voting against the motion.

5.35 pm

 
Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index


©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 19 March 2002