The forthcoming Localism Bill will clarify the law to give councillors the assurance they need to feel confident about campaigning on local issues, but it will also include tougher penalties to prevent corruption.
The Bill will clarify the law so that councillors are able to get on with the job of representing their residents without fear of being challenged or their decisions being overturned because of accusations of inflexibility or unreasonable bias. The current rules, which councillors are expected to navigate and interpret, have left many councillors uncertain about whether they have the freedom to speak and vote on the very issues on which they campaigned.
The Model Code of Conduct, enforced by the Standards Board for England, which was established in 2000, sets out rules governing elected members’ activity and bars them from taking part in decisions where they had campaigned or expressed a predisposed view. One effect of the Code is that councillors may fear that if as a candidate they have opposed increases in car parking charges during their election campaign, they might be prevented from speaking or voting on the issue once in office because of accusations that they had a closed mind. The proposed changes will mean councillors can be very clear and discuss freely their view and voting intention and publicise their views as they see fit.
The Bill will also propose sanctions which will prove a far greater deterrent than those that might have been handed down under the old Standards Board Regime. At present if a councillor abuses their position for personal gain it may result in a complaint to the local authority’s standards committee with the councillor simply having to apologise. New proposals will make failing to register an interest, or deliberately seeking to mislead the public about an interest a criminal offence, overseen by the police, Crown Prosecution Service and the courts.