Tories in call to abolish councils watchdog

Members 'denied right to speak on key issues'

Rob Waugh

LEADING Tories have attacked a local government watchdog created by John Prescott's former Department, and called for its abolition.

The Standards Board for England is accused of overseeing a regulatory system which denies councillors the right to speak on key issues affecting their communities because of a tough interpretation of rules governing personal interests.

A report drawn up by Owen Paterson, Tory Shadow Transport Minister, and Gerald Howarth, Shadow Defence Minister, details a series of instances where councillors have allegedly been barred from speaking out because of the monitoring system and Code of Conduct brought in by Mr Prescott's former Department, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Much of the issue revolves around the interpretation of a councillor's personal interest in an issue.

The Tories contend that the current Standards Board regime is encouraging a nonsensical view which effectively could stop councillors doing the job they were elected to do.

It also involves so-called "predetermination", under which councillors are expected to have an open mind before reaching a decision, apparently precluding the expression of any strongly held opinions prior to then.

The report cites the example of senior council officials in Chester and Reigate and Banstead councils, who wrote to all candidates standing for election earlier this year telling them that they must avoid mentioning any controversial local issues during campaigning because, if they were elected, it would it disbar them from taking part in any discussion of those issues in council.

And in one of the more bizarre examples, the report says that members of South Cambridgeshire District Council have been told by their monitoring officer that they might be disqualified from discussing the siting of a mobile phone mast if they themselves used a mobile phone. Neither could they pronounce on a park-and-ride scheme if they drove a car, the report adds.

It concludes: "This would appear to negate the very basis of representative democracy. Voters, it would appear, cannot expect a councillor to hold fixed views on anything or to represent their views in the debating chamber."

Last night, a spokeswoman for the Standards Board said: "A lot of the report seems to concern the common law principle of bias and predetermination as it has been interpreted by the courts and the Court of Appeal.

"This predates the Standards Board for England and the Code of Conduct by many years.

"We have recently consulted with local government and put forward proposals for a revised Code of Conduct suited to modern community based local government. We expect the Local Government Minister to put a revised code to Parliament very soon.

"We receive around 300 complaints a month, the majority from members of the pubic who feel their elected representatives have, in some way, fallen short of their expectations. We believe they need the confidence of an independent body that ensures that their concerns are addressed."

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05 September 2006

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