The new arrangements, imposed on councils by the Localism Act, allows councillors to take the lead in deciding the outcome of complaints against other councillors.
My proposal, which was classed as an amendment to the swathe of recommendations in tonight’s paperwork for the Special Meeting of the Council on the new code of conduct and standards arrangements, was the following:
“This council writes to the Department of Communities and Local Government expressing deep disappointment about the new regime and requesting that this matter – relating to the removal of independent members’ votes – is reviewed as a matter of urgency, if members of the public are to retain any confidence in the system.”
Arguing in support of my amendment I said: “Independent members of the standards committee bring qualities of impartiality. They are external to the council and this gives them a detached and objective view of proceedings. This is a vital aspect of standards committee work, which the new regime carelessly sweeps away.
“Members of the public have to have confidence in the complaints system. They have to believe it is just and not biased. Any hint of a decision which appears to be based on being in the right party, will go down badly with East Devon residents and destroy their trust in the system.”
Deputy leader, Cllr Andrew Moulding (con) felt it necessary to twice address the council insisting that it was not appropriate that this amendment was supported, on the grounds that the new rules were unchangeable.
Cllr Derek Button (libdem) asked for a recorded vote.
There were 27 votes against my proposal and 16 votes in favour.
Just two conservatives – Jim Knight and Mike Allen rebelled against the party line to vote in favour of my amendment.
Leader of the libdems, Geoff Chamberlain, proposed that the chairman of the standards committee should be independent, but chief executive, Mark Williams, said that this would not be permissible as the new chairman must be able to vote.
Cllr Chamberlain described the new regime as ‘protectionist.’
Cllr Derek Button told the council that ‘democracy had been taken away,’ with the removal of voting rights for independent committee members.
Currently, the standards committee process is independently led with an independent chairman (not a member of EDDC) and several other external members of the committee, all of whom have voting rights.
But from Monday, new Government rules dictate that the independent members of the committee must lose the right to vote on complaint outcomes against other councillors.
And the chairman can no longer be an independent person, it must be council’s chairman. In EDDC’s case, conservative councillor Peter Halse takes up the reins as chairman of the standards committee, from Monday.
As councillors on the committee will be mostly conservative (three), with only one libdem member, it leaves the door wide open for party politics to play a major role in determining complaints against other councillors.
This is particularly relevant in East Devon as out of 59 councillors, 43 are conservative.
I have been a substitute member of the standards committee but from Monday I will lose my place because there is not a ‘primary member’ of the independent group on the committee. This means that no independent councillors will have a place on the committee.
On other issues relating to the new standards regime, the idea that the monitoring officer, Denise Lyon will decide whether a complaint is worthy of investigation, in conjunction with the ‘independent person’ on the standards committee, clearly bothered some councillors.
It was clear to me that the legal team had proposed this procedure as a check to ensure that vexatious complaints about minority councillors, such as independents and libdems on EDDC, were not referred for investigation, as a result of party political grudges.
As there is now a possibility of prosecution for corrupt practices, Cllr Bob Buxton was worried what would happen if a councillor ended up in a police station, as a result of a referral by the monitoring officer, of a complaint for investigation.
He was informed that any referral to the police would not be directly from the monitoring officer.
Cllr Mike Allen took the opportunity to raise the issue of ‘lobbying groups such as Communities Before Developers’ (the campaign group against the Local Development Framework that myself and Roger Giles were involved with). He asked what if ‘someone told a member’ that they shouldn’t be partial but that member remained partial, who should intervene about this?
This of course, was a reference to me while on the Local Development Framework Panel and Cllr Allen’s continuing preoccupation with what he sees as a predetermined view of mine, despite being informed (repeatedly) that I was (and still am) allowed to hold views that are different from the majority view of committees that I serve on.
Rachel Pocock, deputy monitoring officer, said that this was a matter for the individual councillor, but another councillor was allowed to query declarations of interest.
Cllr Allen also wanted the council to launch a review of the issue of the monitoring officer making the decision on whether a complaint is investigated.
It was eventually agreed, after some debate, that this should be discussed by the standards committee, rather than another committee of the council, as proposed by Cllr Allen.
My final word on the subject is that it is quite incomprehensible that the Localism Act which was hailed as handing more powers to councils and bringing about greater democracy, has shamelessly abandoned democracy in the standards process and replaced it with a party political system.
The current system is not broken and does not need fixing but the Government has decided to dismantle it anyway.
I hope as many people as possible will write to their MP asking for an urgent review of this dangerous new system. I certainly will be, even if the majority of councillors serving on East Devon District Council refused my request to do so.