Headlines: December 16th, 2005

The Government has issued a discussion paper on ways to promote good conduct and so build public confidence in local authorities. The paper incorporates responses to a number of recent recommendations for the local government conduct regime.It sets out a number of changes in relation to the conduct of both council staff and elected members. For councillors it proposes that the initial assessment of any allegation of misconduct should be undertaken by standards committees, rather being responsible for investigating and determining most cases.

At the same time it proposes improvements to the operation and composition of the committees, with independent chairs and the inclusion of independent members who have a balance of experience. The Standards Board, meanwhile, would adopt a more strategic, advisory and monitoring role while still having responsibility for investigating the most serious allegations of misconduct. The discussion paper also puts forward plans for a clearer and simpler code of conduct, including changes to rules on personal and prejudicial interests. The amendments would allow a councillor who is a member of another public body to speak at meetings dealing with issues affecting that body but not to vote. At the moment a councillor in that position would have to withdraw from the meeting.

The paper proposes issuing a code of conduct for local government employees, maintaining the current principle that senior and sensitive posts should be politically restricted, but limiting that restriction to only the most senior and sensitive posts. It also includes plans to do way with the post of the Independent Adjudicator and to provide for local standards committees to make decisions on posts exempt from restrictions. Finally it proposes to raise the current pay for political assistants by Statutory Instrument, with further increase being linked to local government pay scales.

Local Government Minister Phil Woolas said public confidence in the conduct of local authorities was paramount, and it was vital that councils were given appropriate responsibilities and the right tools to manage the conduct of councillors and officers alike.

Mr. Woolas said recommendations put to the Government had been considered carefully and it now believed that a locally based process for considering misconduct allegations against local government members was the most appropriate way of addressing local issues and ensuring local ownership of standards.