Who Watches the Watchers?

Cllr David Lee's experience with Standards for England shows up some of the problems, but the response should be reform not abolition.

This week’s Wokingham Times contains on page 2 an article which caught my eye almost immediately: “Council chief in the clear over bullying allegations“. This is the latest development in a rather unhappy episode for Wokingham Borough Council which last month saw the leader, Cllr David Lee, and another councillor were placed under investigation by Standards for England.

At the time no specific allegations were mentioned, so I’m presuming that the “bullying” revelation is as a result of the investigation being dropped. Cllr Lee was, at the time, understandably angry about being accused, and being unaware both who had made the accusation and what it was, and was quoted article as saying:

“I find the whole thing rather offensive to say the least and I think the only good thing in all of this is Standards for England is now being abolished.”

Which, as I said at the time, I felt was a bit strong really. Within local government and politics circles, standards committees are a bit of a touchy subject. They tend to arouse emotion and hyperbole left right and centre. My issue here is that according to the latest article:

“The investigation into Cllr Lee was dropped this month after Standards for England, the national body for upholding the code of conduct for councillors, decided that it could not contribute anything of value to the investigation in the short period of time before it is scrapped on Tuesday, January 31.”

Which worries me a little. I first met Cllr Lee at the vote count for the Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe by-election, and thought it was a nice, polite man. I disagree with him politically, and I wish he’d be a little less combative and engage a little more with the issues at council meetings, but that opinion of him personally hasn’t changed. However, regardless of my, or anyone else’s, opinion of him, the investigation seems to have been stopped less because of his innocence and more because Eric Pickles has scrapped the investigators.

The way it worked was that if a local standards committee didn’t feel that they could adequately investigate an allegation, they would refer it on to Standards for England to investigate but not to adjudicate. That is left to the local standards committee. So although Cllr Lee’s ire was directed at the national body, the allegations must have been such that his fellow councillors saw fit to refer it to them.

The standards committees are flawed.  A group of councillors sit in judgement of one of their own- the opportunity for politics to intrude is too great. Unlike the esteemed Brighton Politics Blogger, who counts this as one of his pet subjects, I don’t think that standards committees should be abolished. True that the electorate have ultimate control, through elections, but they are four years apart.

Most councillors are conscientious public servants, but some will…misbehave, and there must be  recourse for that. I don’t think that councillors should sit in judgement of each other. Maybe local judges? Maybe a jury-style system? I don’t know, but with the effects of the Localism Act soon to be felt we’ll need to decide something soon.


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