Recently, the Local Government Association published a ‘model’ Code of Conduct, which it advises the approximately 21,000 elected Council representatives in England and Wales to follow. Guest blogger and Independent Councillor Paul Millar argues that, rather than setting a ‘gold standard’ for conduct in local authorities, the Code is less strict than many councils’ existing codes and includes a significant loophole.
The Local Government Association, the representative body of Councils in England and Wales, in December 2020 published a ‘model’ Code of Conduct. It includes some really progressive changes such as promoting equalities and not discriminating unlawfully against any person. This is welcome: too many Councils still offer no maternity pay protection for Councillors in senior positions.
But the new advised codes regulating gifts and hospitality do not go nearly far enough.
As well as being a proud University of Sussex politics graduate, I have served as an East Devon Councillor since 2019, following a three-year period as a parliamentary researcher for Paul Flynn MP, a parliamentarian who spent much of his career trying to find ways to rid Parliament of opportunities for MPs to make decisions on behalf of friends in high places rather than the public interest.
Since becoming a District Councillor, it has been saddening to find that local government often provides an easy breeding ground for the corruption in public life that Paul Flynn spent his parliamentary career trying to root out. This is particularly evident in the planning system. In the absence of national regulation, many Councils lack any interest in tightening the rules supposed to prevent gifts and hospitality from corrupting decision-making.
It would have been a good opportunity for the LGA to set a gold standard. Transparency International UK (TI-UK) recently published recommendations that Councils should increase transparency over gifts and hospitality, after collecting evidence that the risk of undue influence is very high. In a review of 50 councils, TI-UK found that 32 councillors (across 24 councils) held critical decision-making positions in their local planning system whilst simultaneously working for property developers.
Despite this, the LGA’s model Code of Conduct advises that Councillors need only categorically declare any gift or hospitality with a value of at least £50 and within 28 days of receipt.
As I said in a speech at my Council’s meeting to discuss the new Model Code last week, this £50 threshold is weaker than many Council’s existing Codes of Conduct. More worryingly, it contains – as many current Codes of Conduct do – a glaring loophole which corporate lobbyists and less scrupulous Councillors can exploit.
If a single corporate lobbyist made an individual donation of £40 a day to a Councillor, over a year this would result in that Councillor receiving £10,000, and yet under the ‘model’ Code of Conduct, they would have no obligation to declare it. With Councillor allowances being in my view perilously low relative to the physical and intellectual demands of the role, a drip-feed of cash gifts might be tempting for Councillors seeking to supplement an income which is well below the minimum wage.
TI UK recognised this loophole and wisely recommended that there ought to be a strong clause in Council Codes of Conduct requiring Councillors to register gifts received over a year from a single source which total over £100. Despite various Councillors pointing this out in consultation sessions, the LGA has failed to provide a strong framework.
However, Councils need not follow the LGA advice. Able to design their own Codes of Conduct, it has been left up to Councillors themselves to strengthen and tighten their approach to gifts and hospitality. I will be lobbying Councillors across local authorities to do that over the coming months ahead of their respective Annual Councils.
Adopting the spirit of TI-UK’s third recommendation from the Permission Accomplished report would be a firm step in the right direction. Councils might then begin to gain a reputation for being local democracies, helping to defeat a widespread perception among the general public that many of them function more as local chumocracies.