New Ethical Framework for the Council
To consider report LD.429 relating to a new ethical framework for the Council.
Cllr Molyneux, Leader of the Council, presented report LD.429 after adding his thanks to Tony Elkington. He reminded members that in addition to being considered by Constitution Working Group and the Standards Committee, the issue had been discussed at an all-member briefing earlier in the week. He said that there were some elements that the council were obliged to operate and he agreed that successive governments had tinkered around the edges of the standards issue. He urged all members to encourage more people to stand for election to parish councils, since currently many seats were uncontested. To address responsibilities from the Localism Act would need good people, who would be judged on their work at the ballot box.
As a result of comments from members at the briefing session, Cllr Molyneux proposed and Cllr Martin seconded the seven recommendations set out in the report with an addition to the original recommendation 3 as follows
Adopt the proposed Code of Conduct set out at Annex A but record its concern at the new requirement to publish on the council’s website details of “Disclosable Pecuniary Interests” relating to members’ spouses and partners. Council is also concerned at the duty on members to disclose and register their spouse’s or partner’s interests in public meetings and requests the Monitoring Officer to seek the advice of the Information Commissioner as to the lawfulness of such action under the Data Protection Act.
Speaking to the Motion and the additional change, Cllr Molyneux said that the matter involved a simple principle regarding the publication of information about a third party through another party.
Cllr Martin confirmed that the Labour group had discussed the amendment. She recognised the legal obligation to sign the code, but members had not been happy. Spouses were not elected members and had not chosen to be involved.
Cllr Evans congratulated the Solicitor to the Council, as Monitoring Officer, and others for their work in producing the report. He declared that the specific mention of trade union support on agenda page 37 was discriminatory, in that no other organisations were mentioned. He asked why trades unions had been singled out in this way.
Cllr McMahon agreed with Cllr Molyneux’s comments and he asked if the code applied to officers in a different form. He also asked if the requirements did not have an impact on members’ liberties. He believed that sadly the requirements regarding spouses’ interests would discourage people from standing for election.
The Solicitor to the Council replied that officers were subject to a separate code of conduct. She added that the regulations stipulated the need to register sponsorship from trade unions and that the register of members’ interests had always been available for inspection and that the difference under the new code was that it had to be published.
Cllr Osborne asked whether a councillor whose partner forbade them to disclose any details would be automatically disbarred.
The Solicitor to the Council replied that this would not be the case and that the new criminal offence would have to apply high standards of proof considering the evidence test and the public interest test. No one yet knew how courts would react, and the Director of Public Prosecution had also not yet given an opinion. The new duty was to declare interests of which the councillor was aware.
Cllr Osborne believed that this would lead to secrecy between partners or excellent councillors stepping down.
The chairman commented that he had read a report about a whole parish council in Herefordshire resigning over the issue.
Cllr O’Neill said that membership of freemason organisations needed to be declared, as they were organisations with a charitable purpose and asked how they were treated under the new code.
The Solicitor to the Council replied that they came under ‘other interests’ and so declaration was voluntary. She added that since the council had become used to declaring what used to be ‘personal interests’ the report suggested that members continue to do so.
Cllr Hogan believed that sufficient regulation was already in place and that the new regulations were ‘over the top’. Members already had to declare donations as election expenses. Members already had to declare an interest if they were debating an issue that might affect a spouse’s financial interest.
Cllr Gardiner agreed that to single out trade unions was discriminatory, particularly in the light of standards recently questioned regarding elected representatives at Westminster and bankers. He suspected politicking.
Cllr Hiett, as a trade unionist, believed that it was madness to have to declare funding from a union, but not from a freemason organisation. The issue regarding spouses’ interests would be tested in the courts and he thought that the government would need to rethink the matter. He also believed that anybody involved with spending public money should be subject to the same code as elected members.
Cllr Pugh gave several examples of when he was accustomed to declaring an interest and believed that it was a slur on the trade unions to single them out in the code.
The Solicitor to the Council confirmed for Cllr Birch that MPs and members of the House of Lords had their own code, published on the parliament website. She would arrange to send a link to it to all members.
Cllr Thomson explained that he and his partner kept their finances separate and his financial relationship to his children was much closer. He thought that the requirement regarding spouses was illogical. Given that there were no sanctions available in the new code apart from those associated with the new criminal offence, he saw little point in having anything else in the code.
Cllr Bill Evans said that his question still needed to be answered and asked how anyone would know whether a candidate was sponsored by the freemasons.
The chairman replied that it was the responsibility of all members to declare all such interests and sponsorship.
The Solicitor to the Council explained for Cllr Ede that there were dispensations and exemptions covering such interests that might be covered by the Official Secrets Act. There would be a more detailed briefing for members on the new code later in the year.
Summing up, Cllr Molyneux said that he had great sympathy with the many sensible comments expressed in the debate and completely understood the feelings expressed about singling out trade unions. At the beginning of the process he thought that Eric Pickles MP had made two sound points, namely that if elected members broke the rules with sufficient severity, they should be dealt with by the criminal law, and that any other misdemeanours should be rectified at the ballot box. However since then, the code seemed to have been become a rambling edifice. He believed that the more rules, the more onerous and the more opportunity for loopholes. He highlighted recommendation 7, which referred to a countywide code and system, into which members’ concerns would be fed.
RESOLVED – To
1. Note the views of the Standards Committee set out in this Report
2. appoint the current three independent members of the Standards Committee (Tony Elkington, Richard Cockcroft and Alan Robertson) to act as the Council’s Independent Persons on a transitional basis for the next 12 months
1. Adopt the proposed Code of Conduct set out at Annex A but record its concern at the new requirement to publish on the council’s website details of “Disclosable Pecuniary Interests” relating to members’ spouses and partners. Council is also concerned at the duty on members to disclose and register their spouse’s or partner’s interests in public meetings and requests the Monitoring Officer to seek the advice of the Information Commissioner as to the lawfulness of such action under the Data Protection Act
2. Agree to set up a Standards Panel of three members to deal with the more serious conduct complaints and requests a further report on the detail of the process to be followed to the next meeting of full Council.
3. Agree the consequential amendments to the Constitution to substitute the Standards Panel for the Standards Committee and sub-committees and the new Code of Conduct.
4. Note that an initial briefing for members on the new arrangements was held on Monday 9 July 2012 and request that a further training session be arranged in the near future
5. Note that work is in progress to create a county wide code and system for handling complaints
Voting was as follows.
For (34) – Norman Stephens, Roger Yeates, Jim Conmnell, Gethyn Davies, Brian Jones, Brian Edwards, James Bevan, Judy Davis, Carole Allaway Martin, Marrilyn Smart, Len Lawton, Peter Ede, Gabriella Kirkpatrick, Roy Birch, Arthur Thomas, Julia Gooch, Ian Whitburn, Dave East, Maria Edey, Philip Burford, Clive Elsmore, Andrew Gardiner, David Thomson, Bruce Hogan, Val Hobman, Bernie O’Neill, Di Martin, Helen Stewart, Terry Hale, Diana Edwards, Martin Quaile, Patrick Molyneux, Brian Robinson, Jane Horne
Against (8) - Paul Hiett, Graham Morgan, Max Coborn, Frank Baynham, Bill Osborne, Paul McMahon, Bill Evans, Don Pugh,