Thursday, 16 December 2010

A matter of some interest?


I'm sure, my friends, that you are aware of my dislike for the "standards" system imposed on Councillors by Tony Blair's Labour Government. The intention was to deal with the scandals associated with Labour rotten boroughs like Doncaster but the result was onerous, officious, distrusting and, ultimately, a vehicle for political spite rather than the raising of standards.

The Code of Conduct enshrined in the 2000 Act contains many things to criticise but no-one seems to challenge the manner in which it treats what are called "interests". The Code requires that Councillors register interests and, where a matter of Council business concerns that interest, declare that interest. The problem here isn't the requirement for disclosure - that seems entirely right and proper - but the accompanying need to withdraw from the vote where the interest is "prejudicial". And the code places a pretty broad definition on "prejudicial":

A member of the public, who knows the relevant facts, would reasonably think your personal interest is so significant that it is likely to prejudice your judgement of the public interest.

Consider this for a moment - it could cover a huge array of considerations. And it has led to the most common of problems - predetermination in regulatory matters. It appears that the new Localism Bill intends to amend the regulations to allow someone elected to office on the back of opposing a proposed development to actually vote to try and achieve what it was that person was elected to do! However, there is a bigger problem and to illustrate this I will refer to a colleague on Bradford Council - Carol Beardmore.

Now Carol has a very specific personal interest that under some circumstances might be portrayed as prejudicial - she is the parent of a severely disabled person. So that member of the public referred to in the Code might perceive that, for Carol, the funding of services for disabled adults is a prejudicial interest. However, I believe that the Council's consideration of these matters is made worse by excluding Carol from debate - which is the requirement of the Code. Indeed, most Council Monitoring Officers would not even allow Carol to attend a meeting at which the matter of her prejudicial interest was discussed.

By way of comparison, let me speak of MPs. Just like Councillors MPs make declarations of interest and, in debate, it is custom and practice for a member to refer to an interest at the outset of a speech. However, no constraints are placed on the MP in terms of speaking, voting or attendance. Indeed, in many cases, MPs with the sort of deep personal interest that Carol Beardmore has are listened to attentively and carefully because what they say is usually better informed and has the weight of personal knowledge and experience.

It seems to me that the majority of "interests" act to enhance the knowledge and understanding of the Council rather than to compromise decision-making or promote some form of corruption. The problems in Doncaster were about Councillors taking backhanders to fix planning not those Councillors voting on issues where they have a personal interest. In the end the electorate - a wise old bunch in the main - are capable of distinguishing between Councillors using their position to promote personal interests and Councillors whose interests coincide with those of the place and people they represent.

There should be no requirement beyond declaring the interest - if Councillors are daft enough to vote on their own house extension or their farm's new barn then the public (and I suspect the local party too) will rumble them and show them the door. We do not need complicated Codes of Conduct and phalanxes of expensive lawyers to manage such a process.


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