Headlines: September 7th, 2005

The head of the Committee on Standards in Public Life believes a move to a locally based system for investigating complaints against councillors would improve the ethical culture within local authorities and would improve public trust. Sir Alistair Graham believes it would also lead to a more proportionate system that would cut the number of minor, vexatious and politically motivated complaints against elected members.Sir Alistair told the annual Assembly of Standards Committees there was evidence that local Standards Committees were under-used and at risk of falling into disrepair. He said a locally based system of investigation would be more effective and would give local Committees the chance to end the abuse of the current system for political ends and for petty point scoring.

He pointed to what he saw as the link between an ethical organisational culture driving increased public trust and improved performance and service delivery, and he said this ‘virtuous relationship’ should to be a goal for local government. He urged the Government to bring forward changes to legislation to enable complaints to be handled by local Standards Committees under a national framework overseen by the Standards Board for England.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life, which Sir Alistair chairs, first recommended this change earlier this year in its 10th Inquiry report but so far the Government has not responded.

Today, Sir Alistair praised the Standards Board for the progress it had made in resolving some of the operational problems that had caused unacceptable delays and backlogs in resolving complaints.

He rejected concerns that a locally based investigation system would lead to an unreasonable burden on local committees. “The evidence we received is that Standards Committees are under-used and in danger of falling into disrepair. If complaints were spread evenly across the country it would mean each authority having to deal with less than 10 complaints per year. Of course the spread is not even, but there are already provisions allowing for a wide range of assistance and joint working by neighbouring authorities.”

The present framework, he said, appeared to be encouraging minor, ‘tit for tat’ and politically motivated complaints as a way of discrediting political opponents sometimes for long periods of time while complaints were investigated.