Thursday, April 05, 2012

A sad day for freedom of speech at the ERYC

Yesterday I could not support the proposals for a new Standards Regime being put forward by the East Riding of Yorkshire Council.

I certainly feel our present bureaucratic standards system is broken; it wastes time and costs a fortune, this money could be better spent elsewhere. So why replace it with something almost exactly the same?

I support the principles regarding standards in the Government’s Localism Bill, those concerning pecuniary and non-pecuniary interests and accordance with the Nolan report’s 7 ‘Principles of public life’: Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty and Leadership. In other words I could support all those recommendations in the Council’s proposed new ‘Code of Conduct’ that dealt with probity and rooting out sleaze, and also those that dealt with interests, expenses, backhanders, cases of whiskey and brown envelopes, and bullying.

There is no mention of disrepute anywhere in those 7 Nolan principles and I could not support the inclusion of ‘bringing our office or authority into disrepute’ into a new Code of Conduct, something that seeks to control and curtail free speech – and gives an opportunity for members of the public, fellow members and council officers to harass elected Councillors – and, be in no doubt this is exactly what it serves to do, I and many others know this from bitter personal experience.

This was our chance to come up with a system that was radical and modern, simple to understand, fair to all and significantly more difficult to abuse then the present system. The Council should have looked at the cost to the taxpayer and devised something that was more efficient and cheaper to run by rooting out vexatious and frivolous complaints at the beginning of the process. One simple way of doing this was to not include ‘bringing our office or authority into disrepute’, the basis of many complaints.

There is no mention of savings to the Council in the report presented yesterday; I assume therefore that there are no savings. So when this new regime is implemented how is it to be paid for - from savings elsewhere?

The other and most serious concern was the startling omission of a ‘right of appeal’ – this could not be, and for me killed the proposal stone dead.

A working group including of members of the present Standards Committee (including Labour and Independent Group leaders) and Cabinet members was set up to look at the existing regime and come up with something different, in my opinion there did not appear to be the radical and creative thinking to come up with something new. I questioned the composition of the working group and if they were not too close to the trees to see the wood? (I had even volunteered to be part of the group)

The questionnaire sent to all my fellow Councillors with the answers already filled in by the working group of elite members - would have done credit to the pre-Glasnost Soviet Union.

I said that I felt it smacked of being overly top down, and it is likely Parish and Town Councils will have the same impression when this is put this forward as an example for them to sign up to. What the ERYC is recommending is that if a Parish or Town Councillor is accused of breaking the ‘Code of Conduct’ they will appear before a panel of ERYC Councillors who will determine their fate – and they will have no right of appeal.

This is exactly why I stated we must have full consultation, the Parish and Town Councillors must buy into this and for them to do so they have to have a sense of ownership – not for them to feel they are being dictated to.

I felt the Code must reflect the 7 Nolan principles of public life - nothing else, anything else is surplus and only included to unfairly restrict Elected Members right to freedom of speech, the right to challenge the Council’s officers and the executive, and to campaign on whatever cause or issue they choose. Unfortunately the new Code serves to do this.

I heard it said only last week from a member of the working group that if member didn’t misbehave they wouldn’t be subject to a complaint to the Standards Committee – unbelievable!

As many readers will know I’ve been subject to some 8 complaints over 4 years and yes one person has been behind most of them. I was bizarrely convicted on just one occasion - my crime ‘bringing my office and my authority into disrepute’ over allowing comments by others to be published on my blog. The overwhelming consensus is that I’d done nothing wrong - except speak out, speak up for, challenge, campaign and work for the people who elected me - Has all this affected how I’m viewed with the electorate? Yes it certainly has - they voted for me in such numbers to top the poll in Howdenshire at the last election.

Needless to say only Cllr Matthew Grove, Cllr Mike Whitehead, Cllr John Whittle and I voted against the adoption of the new Standards Regime as proposed by the working group – a sad day for freedom of speech at County Hall


Roy Hunt said...

Paul, standards in public life are important. You are absolutely right that getting the balance right between enforcing standards and allowing members to be persecuted by disgruntled people has to be right.

Nebulous things like bringing ones office into disrepute could mean anything at all to some people so opens the door for repeated frivolous complaints, each one needing to be investigated in full at substantial cost.

In my case some years ago I had made an honest mistake that I know many others had made. It didn't in any way affect my judgement or have any impact at all on the work of the council. As soon as the mistake was bought up I admitted what had happened in a letter.

There then followed a year long process during which I was interviewed five times to ascertain the facts. Then at the hearing, the only evidence they came up with was what I told them from the outset.

It seemed not to matter that I had resigned from the council some six months before the hearing took place so there was absolutely no sanction they could impose that would have any effect, but they still persevered.

The hearing must have lasted for more than an hour, and from a procedural perspective it was a complete farce because when the committee wanted guidance on an interpretation of the Code, what did they do but consult "in camera" with the person prosecuting me.

People may not know that the Standards Board for England produced over one thousand pages of guidance on the Code of Conduct. From what I recall I was hung on page six hundred and something.

Paul Robinson said...

I remember it well Roy - didn't you catch them out in respect of you not being offered training?

John in Gilberdyke said...

I believe there are "recommendations" that parish councils adopt the code offered by the monitoring officer. This is an excellent opportunity for the elected members at parish level to reject or modify what is being hoisted upon us.
As to the existing committee wanting to keep their situations intact, Mandy Rice-Davis words ring out clearly when she uttered the immortal line "well he would say that wouldn't he?"

Roy Hunt said...

Yes Paul, there is (or was) a legal requirement for the Standards Committee to arrange training on the Code of Conduct to every new Parish, Town and Ward Councillor. When I reminded the standards committee of this one member said "that's not right - is it?", to which a colleague responded "unfortunately it is.

Guess what, they didn't reprimand themselves for not complying with the law!!!

Roy Hunt said...

Interesting point here. As I understand it each Parish Council can adopt a different version of the Code of Conduct.

This will make training interesting and will mean that the Standards Committee will have to attune itself to each varioation when considering a case made against a councillor.

It might be helpful if somebody distributed round the PC's say three different options - Code of Conduct strong, medium and weak. I wonder which would be the most popular - I don't think many councillors would go for self flagellation!!

Roy Hunt said...

And of course, if you are both a ward and a parish councillor, can you choose under which code a complaint is heard under!!!!

"No, no, I was wearing my parish council hat when I told this objectionable character what I thought of him.

Yes, but you were in the East Riding at the time.

Yes, but the guy had just come out of a shop in my village.

No, No. ERYC code of conduct always takes precedence.

OK, where does it say that - prove it. In my village my PC rules apply - outside then ERYC rules apply.

It could go on for even - perhaps to a judicial review or even the European Court of Human Rights.