Incomprehensibly, the government has ruled that independent members (external to the council) of standards committees must have their voting rights removed.
Changes, rushed in by the government under the Localism Act, must be in force from Monday 2 July.
It will mean that decisions on complaints against councillors, will now be determined largely by EDDC’s ruling conservative party, which holds 43 out of 59 seats.
Sanctions for councillors who breach the code of conduct will be weakened, with fewer and less serious options available as punishment.
The implications of the new rules have alarmed EDDC standards committee members to the extent that monitoring officer, Denise Lyon wrote to both Hugo Swire and Neil Parish MPs seeking their help in retaining voting rights for independent members who sit on the standards committee.
Unfortunately, Neil Parish replied too late to help and Mr Swire simply backed the government’s line.
The outgoing independent chairman of East Devon District Council’s standards committee described new monitoring arrangements, as ‘a big stick replaced by a feather.’
Ted Butt, chaired his last EDDC standards committee meeting earlier this week, following eight years of service.
EDDC conservative chairman, Cllr Peter Halse is expected to take on the standards committee chairmanship from next month.
Currently there is one standards committee and one assessment and hearings sub committee.
The assessment and hearings sub committee considers and determines complaints against parish and district councillors in East Devon.
At the moment there are three members on this powerful sub committee – an independent chair, a parish council member and a member of EDDC who is a conservative. All have voting rights when considering and determining complaints.
Under proposals up for debate at next week’s special council meeting the numbers of the standards committee have been increased from three to five – two independent members and three councillors.
It is currently unclear whether the three councillors on this committee will be three conservatives, or two conservatives and a libdem member.
Either way, the ruling conservative group will now dominate the outcome of complaint decisions against other councillors because the three councillors will be the only committee members with voting rights.
Complainants or councillors unhappy with the outcome cannot take their case to an independent body. The government scrapped the independent Standards Board for England some months ago.
A special meeting of EDDC will take place next Wednesday (27 June at 7pm), to consider the new changes to the code of conduct and the standards committee.
The government has trumpeted loudly how it is tightening up the rules on councillors so that corruption will now carry a prison sentence.
What they neglected to mention was that in every other respect the standards system was being dramatically weakened – and heavily politicised.
How many corruption cases will ever make it as far as prosecution? The number likely to reach such a conclusion, especially with a depleted cash-strapped police force, is bound to be tiny.
I am worried that party politics – especially in councils such as EDDC’s with its enormous conservative majority – could now feature significantly in decision-making on complaints against councillors.
Councillors who regularly challenge the ruling party may find themselves particularly vulnerable.
And those members of the ruling party subject to complaints may find themselves safer than they would have previously been.
What has the government done?
NB. When I refer to independent members of the standards committee, I mean members who are not councillors, but are individuals from outside the council.