Friday, October 01, 2004

Tribunes of the people?

My old friend the Shropshire Star provides something a little more serious today.

For some time I have been worried about the rise of "standards" in local government. I take the view that if someone is elected by the people then, short of outright corruption or criminality, he is responsible to them for his behaviour in office and to no one else.

Yet here is a case from a Shropshire authority where a Conservative councillor is charged with "failing to treat others with respect" and "bringing his office or authority into disrepute".

The Star reports the facts as follows:
The situation dates back to 2001 when a Labour councillor was found to have been making fraudulent expense claims worth about £1,000. He was not reported to police after it was agreed the matter could be dealt with internally. He later resigned.

A Conservative councillor was then found, after voting on the annual rate, to have unwittingly been £37 in arrears with his council tax. Police were called in to investigate but the Crown Prosecution Service said there was no case.

Councillor Allen then wrote a letter, published in the Shropshire Star, saying the cases showed the council had "double standards".
If the facts of the case are as reported, then it seems to me that the councillor's view is a reasonable one to express. He may be wrong; we may not agree with him. But it seems bizarre that he should be haled in front of a panel for expressing it.

What is happening stems partly from an exaggerated concerns for others' feelings. Politics, local politics included, thrive on conflict and strong argument, but both are thoroughly our of fashion at the moment.

And partly it arises from a desire to reduce local politics to a form of community management. If councillors are seen as part of a "team" involving council officials, rather than as the representatives of the people charged with holding those officials to account, then it is not surprising if they come to be judged by the same standards as those officials.

I do not know anything about the councillor in question, but I shall be alarmed if any action is taken against him.

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