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Grip and grill
Local Government Chronicle – 14 January 2005

Slow, Stalinist and ineffective. Mark Smulian asks what it's like to be on the receiving end of the Standards Board

Being interrogated is never pleasant. But since the Standards Board for England began to investigate complaints from the public, council officers and colleagues in 2002, plenty of councillors have had uncomfortable experiences at its hands, even if it does not use the rack and thumbscrews.

Allegations about breaches of the councillors' code of conduct (see box) have ranged in seriousness from financial impropriety to, famously, whether a row in a pub constituted bringing a parish councillor's 'office' into disrepute.

Investigations are led by the four ethical standards officers, and the most serious cases are passed to the Adjudication Panel for England to decide whether a penalty should be imposed.

Controversy about the board's performance has centred on the length of time it has taken to tackle cases, with delays of sometimes more than a year before decisions are made.

But what is it like on the receiving end, having to spend time and sometimes money assembling a defence when one's reputation is at stake? This is what happened to four councillors.

Case 1 David Hamilton

David Hamilton (Con), a Surrey Heath BC councillor, was caught up in a series of cases around planning matters. In one case, the board took 13 months to decide that, while he had failed to comply with the code of conduct, no penalty should be imposed because council procedures were at fault.

The case concerned a decision to approve a temporary marquee at a garden centre, contrary to recommendations from officers who felt this would harm the green belt. The ethical standards officer concluded that inadequate reasons were given for rejecting the officers' view.

Mr Hamilton recalls: "My case took 10 months, during which I was interviewed for four hours solid and all I had done was vote against an officer's recommendation. It hardly seemed a serious breach of the green belt to me.

"I had to turn up to this very long meeting. I'm a solicitor and so I could handle it but some of the more delicate council members might have been concerned and found it a little offensive."

He considered using his legal knowledge to seek judicial review but "I chickened out because if [the board] employed lawyers and I lost, I would have to pay the bills".

Contrary to his party's line, Mr Hamilton does not think the board should be abolished.

He says: "If there are proper safeguards and it handled its work more expeditiously, it would have a role.

"An allegation was made and then nothing happened for months on end, during which I did get adverse publicity with members of the public and the opposition referring to 'discredited councillors'."

Case 2 Andrew McKinlay

Andrew McKinlay (Lib Dem), leader of Cheltenham BC, was cited in many of the 36 complaints made to the board by council managing director Christine Laird. She is locked in a lengthy dispute with the council and has been suspended since last summer.

Mr McKinlay and other councillors were exonerated by the board, but this took 18 months, during which, he notes, related cases taken to the police, civil courts and the council's grievance procedure came and went. "One has to ask why," he says.

Mr McKinlay says the board's officers "were efficient and had a good grasp of the issues but it took eight months to get there from the original complaint and there were long gaps where nothing was happening".

After an investigation in January 2004, it was June before a draft report was made and November when the board published its conclusions.

"Mrs Laird made allegations which circulated for 18 months, and you have that hanging over you all the time," says Mr McKinley. "Anyone can make an allegation about a councillor and publish it but you cannot rebut it under the rules."

He adds: "My feeling is that the board should be scrapped. Of the complaints it gets, 95% are trivial and the other 5% need to be clarified as soon as possible but they aren't."

Case 3 Jim Middleton

Jim Middleton (Lab) has served 16 years on Tameside MBC and is a former mayor. "Being a councillor is my life," he says.

He was taken to the board as a result of a neighbour dispute. It was alleged that he failed to act on a complaint because he was a friend of the person complained about.

The board concluded he acted properly in refusing to become involved because he was representing that person in another matter and had asked the relevant department to intervene the next day.

"It took 15 months to resolve, which was far too long. I was interviewed initially by telephone but I insisted it was done face-to-face and travelled to London for a two-hour meeting," Mr Middleton says.

Although he was exonerated and incurred no legal expenses, the case affected him badly.

"Above all, it hurt me that [it] could happen when all I was doing was trying to help someone," he recalls.

"I felt it was hanging over me. I was accused of not helping someone, but helping people is what I always do."

Case 4 Chris Jarvis

Chris Jarvis, leader of the Independent group on Kingston-upon-Hull City Council, is something of a Standards Board veteran, having been exonerated after 10 months in one case and referred to the panel on two others after investigations lasting nine and 19 months respectively.

He says: "It has all had a really detrimental effect on my health and my doctor has ordered me to rest for two months. This has been going on for more than 18 months and [hampers] my ability to represent my constituents properly."

Mr Jarvis believes the board failed to contact witnesses favourable to his case and that its officers "take a very personal view".

He says: "Unless you are very rich, you cannot challenge the Standards Board, because you can only do it by judicial review.

"The pressure takes over your whole life. It is like Stalinist Russia where you could be denounced, and if the board accuses you, that's it."

Not only does he think the board's processes are too slow, but also that its officers lack sufficient experience in local government to carry out their tasks effectively.

"It should be abolished," he says. "You need some mechanism but there is no reason why these local standards committees could not do it."

Case for the defence

David Prince, former chief executive of Leicestershire CC, took over the same post at the Standards Board for England last spring with a brief to speed up its operations.

He says: "I am much more confident now than when I came here that we are doing the right things and that the right cases are being investigated.

"Around 70% of allegations are now from members of the public or from officers, and are not political tit for tat between councillors. Fewer are from parish councils, though I must stress that not everything from a parish is trivial."

The regulations that allow local standards committees to handle less serious cases took effect on 4 November, ending the situation where the board had to probe every case itself. By the end of 2004, some 30 cases had been referred to local monitoring officers.

He points to a halving to 11 days of the average time taken for board investigators to decide whether there is a case to answer.

Mr Prince has put a new emphasis on recruiting people with local government experience to the board's 30-strong investigative team, adding that the team also needs people with regulatory experience and skills in assembling cases for tribunals.

He says the board's main task is propagating good ethical practice, which, he believes, is fundamentally linked to good service standards because it creates an authority in which councillors and officers trust each other and so the public can trust the council.