Friday, February 04, 2005

The Standards Board for England

Here is today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News. It owes something to an earlier posting on this blog. Simon Titley has also taken up the cause, but I did not feel Lib Dem News was ready for a phrase like "a large festering vat of rancid goat semen".

Fighting talk

Labour came to power pledged to wage war on sleaze. In part because the last days of John Major’s government made Sodom and Gomorrah looks like genteel Cotswold villages. But more because there was little to differentiate them from the Tories on policy and they needed something else to talk about.

One of the fruits of this war is the Standards Board for England. Set up in March 2001, it describes its role as ensuring that “members of local authorities are seen to live up to the high standards the public has a right to expect from them”.

But there are increasing concerns that the Board is being used by local politicians and activists as a weapon against their opponents. Three or four thousand complaints are made about councillors every year.

More worrying is the suggestion that councils use the Board to discourage scrutiny. On Tuesday in Westminster Hall Peter Bradley raised the case of Paul Dimoldenberg, the leader of the Labour opposition group on Westminster. Dimoldenberg was reported to the Board after leaking an e-mail which countered claims that Dame Shirley Porter was unable to pay a £42m surcharge because she was down to her last £300,000. He also exposed the council’s unenthusiastic approach to recouping the lower settlement it finally reached with Dame Shirley.

Instead of being awarded the freedom of the borough, Dimoldenberg was reported by his own officers and has already run up more than £6000 in legal costs.

Most cases the Board handles are not this dramatic, but there are many where councillors are facing investigation or sanctions for what sounds remarkably like doing their job.

What is happening stems partly from our exaggerated modern concerns for others’ feelings. Politics, local politics included, thrives on conflict and strong argument. If something is worth saying, it is likely to offend someone.

And partly it arises from the centralisation of government. Local politics in Britain is now a form of community management where councils deliver the initiatives and crackdowns decreed from above. Councillors who insist on acting as representatives of the people are viewed with suspicion.

The Board clearly needs reform. In the mean time, anyone reported to it for fighting on behalf of the electors should wear the distinction with pride.

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