#77: Standards Matter. Really? (Or: ‘What’s your problem?)

As you do, in lockdown (now there’s a word now in everybody’s vocabulary) in the middle of a pandemic, I was recently reading ‘Standards Matter 2: Independent Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL)’, September 2020. [https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/standards-matter-2-public-consultation-and-public-sector-survey]

Oh to get out more!!

Promoted as a ‘landscape review of the institutions, processes and structures in place to support high standards of conduct in public office’, it struck me that the whole canon of published standards could have been written with Shropshire Council in mind because escape clauses abound, and we all know that where Shropshire Council is concerned it is escape clauses that matter not the bulk of whatever they appear in, although I doubt the authors saw them as loopholes for Shropshire Council’s Executive to squeeze through.

But at least Shropshire Council didn’t take this one at its word…

There should be mechanisms in place to investigate breaches of the Code, although these can vary depending on the processes put in place by the local authority; these might include the creation (or maintenance) of a Standards Committee, but this is not a requirement.

…because Shropshire Council does have a Standards Committee, even though it takes the bit highlighted in red as the start and end of its commitment, in a sort of: “Oh, OK, thanks, we’ll take that and interpret it in the loosest way possible” which, in Shropshire Council’s book, means relaxed to the point of indolence.

Likewise, as if the report’s authors were familiar with Shropshire Council’s approach to minor irritants like literal interpretations of standards and codes of conduct, the adoption of a Standards Committee was done with fingers crossed behind backs because…

The presumption that hearings should be held in public.

Well you can forget that!

Not only do SC hold their hearings in closed session, they won’t even identify who the action is being taken against, as evidence the case of a Member who was “alleged” to have lobbied one of the planning committees on behalf of someone she knew!

So what price the expectations enshrined in ‘The Seven Principles of Public Life’ (also known as the Nolan Principles)?

…integrity, objectivity, selflessness, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership – were first articulated by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1995. The principles are not a general moral code, but a set of ethical responsibilities that outline the expectations of public office.

Well, what about them?

In the case of Shropshire Council, where those expectations are quite low, the presumption is that in the absence of outright criminality (and even then at a push) the presumption of innocence should prevail, and that even when found guilty the accused should not be expected to carry the burden of that guilt by being named and – heaven forbid – shamed into mending their ways.

In fact the presumption goes further, in that unless the outright criminality involves aggravating factors that can’t be ignored, then the presumption is to give the benefit of the teeniest weeniest doubt, however arguable.

For the record, “aggravating factors” are when financial or other personal loss is involved, which sort of rules out those pesky nebulous ethical responsibilities that the general public still naively take to be the expectations of public office because, after all, whilst it’s alright pointing the finger, if you can’t actually put your finger on something and squash the life out of it, it doesn’t count for much. It certainly isn’t something the police would get out of bed for. (see #24. When the burden of proof is on trial.)

Well, it’s a view that certainly makes for a quieter life for Monitoring Officers, even those who, in what were once regular briefings on ‘Standards’, insisted that regardless of any arguments to the contrary, what should always be uppermost in the minds of Elected Members is “public perception”.

Attending a number of briefings given by the Monitoring Officers of neighbouring Local Authorities, I (used to the reality not quite meeting what was being said) asked if they genuinely believed what they were saying in this regard and was asked why I asked that question. I cited a number of instances (all of them related in these blogs over the years) and eyebrows were raised, but my query was answered in the affirmative, quite strongly actually. Answering the question what local authority I was from, in one case got the response: “For god’s sake don’t repeat what I’ve just said!” That got a knowing laugh from some of those present.

And it isn’t just Shropshire Council (although it does tend to get a mention quite often). Every edition of Private Eye has pages of the stuff in its regular feature ‘Rotten Boroughs’.

One issue that is particularly irritating is the failure of Monitoring Officers (and Shropshire’s isn’t alone in this) to insist that councillors give details of political sponsorship in their legally required ‘declarations of interest’, some local authorities do and some don’t, and the reason given by Shropshire Council – that a councillor’s “political sponsorship is obvious from their stated political allegiance” – is disingenuous to the point of being downright dishonest, because every candidate standing for election for a named political party is sponsored in the form of their election expenses and back-office support.

NOTE: As an Independent I am indebted to NO ONE except the voters who continue to re-elect me on the basis of my constituency record.

Again, we find ourselves talking about what’s true within the letter of the law but NOT the spirit of the law: that nothing should be taken for granted, especially not when it comes to public perception, something that Shropshire Council’s legal department makes much of in public but are a bit coy about when challenged.

Still, they do come into their own at election time, except…

I recently circulated an email asking a general question of all Members about what they thought the prospects were for our seeing the regular local elections in May this year (2021), particularly whether anyone saw the prospect of a wholly postal vote to get around the logistical problems presenting by the Covid pandemic.

I got a response from Council Leader (of the Ruling Group) Peter Nutting which said that they were waiting on confirmation from central government on the form any such election would take. A postal vote wasn’t ruled out and therein lay the concern that had prompted my question – except that it wasn’t just concern, it was bloody real fear of a repeat of what had happened at the 2017 local elections!

My response to Peter Nutting’s reply was…

Thanks Peter, the point was to at least open up the subject in order to inform the decisions of current and potential Shropshire Council members.

I’m glad I did because it’s obvious from the replies so far that there has indeed been an exchange of conversations which, if shared at the time, would have gone some way (albeit not very far) to inform everyone likely to be involved in this year’s local elections, even if it was just to confirm the uncertainty that we now all take for granted.

As I intimated to Pauline (Dee, leader of the Independent group at the late Shirehall) in an earlier email, I have particular concerns about the administration of the 2017 local elections which I don’t want to see repeated – nothing to do with my own election because I was re-elected with a significantly increased majority – when there was confusion in some (particularly but not exclusively the elderly) postal voter’s minds over what to do with the parish council voting returns; I had empirical evidence of voter’s having been so confused by the lack of clear instruction on how to return the parish voting forms that they simply threw them away.

Voters had been told to put the county council voting slips into the envelope clearly marked for that purpose and seal it. There was no such instruction for the parish council voting slips and so, rather than enclose that slip with the voter ID form in the larger, clearly marked for anything but a postal voting slip return envelope, they threw it away.

The result for the Highley Ward was so close that recounts were held. One parish councillor of 30 years standing lost his place by 2 votes!

I was first made aware of what had happened in an informal discussion over the outcome. The person I was talking to said they hoped what they’d done hadn’t affected the outcome.

Puzzled, I asked why.

They’d opted for a postal vote because they’d been away on holiday during the elections and, in the absence of clear instructions and unsure of what to do with the parish return they’d thrown it away. OK, I dismissed it as of no consequence, it was one vote. It happens. But in the context of a losing margin of two votes? Hence their concern. This was an intelligent, professional woman in her 40’s.

Now, as exceptions often do prove the rule I decided to ask around. I didn’t have to spend too much time asking because when I asked if she knew how the elderly residents in her care had coped with the postal vote, the local Housing Support Officer said that one of her elderly residents was worried that they’d “get into trouble” for having discarded their parish voting slip because they had, following the “clear” instructions about what to do with the county council envelope, been left with nowhere else to put the parish slip, that I realised there could have been a real issue. It proved not to be the only instance.

So I looked into it and found clear guidance to Monitoring Officers on the Electoral Commission website advising them that, in their instructions to voters, they should not assume that everyone would know what to do and how to do it. I forwarded that guidance to Claire Porter (Shropshire Council Monitoring Officer with responsibility for elections) who did not take kindly to it.

So if we do end up with a postal vote across the board I’d like to see the instructions to voters couched in plain English in terms that allow no possibility of doubt because the 2017 outcome should not be allowed to happen again.

Regards,

Dave Tremellen

Member for Highley Division of Shropshire Council

Answer came there none. At the time of bringing to her attention that serious flaw in the way that postal votes had been administered, Claire Porter more or less accused me of lying in order to make ‘political capital’. And as for the clear guidance to Returning Officers by the Electoral Commission (hardly the most political of government institutions), which I’d produced to support my case, she dismissed it, ‘summarily’ comes to mind!

Begs the question: ‘OK, so if standards do indeed matter, is it really a question of by how much and to whom?’

Appears so.