Should Standards in public life matter, and if so then to whom?

I was recently re-reading: ‘Standards Matter 2: Independent Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL)’, September 2020. []

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.

In the case of Shropshire Council the presumption is that in the absence of outright criminality (and even then at a push) even when found guilty the accused should not be expected to carry the burden of guilt by being named. (And I still say that, even with the threat of an intimidating – well, I assume it was meant to be intimidating – Code of Conduct Complaint hanging over my head!!)

So much for the idea that: “It is not merely of some importance but is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done”.

In fact, on Shropshire Council’s part, the presumption goes further, in that unless the outright criminality involves aggravating factors (someone has lost out financially) that can’t be ignored, then on the basis of “rank”, the presumption is to give the benefit of the teeniest weeniest doubt, however arguable.

I’ve had two Code of Conduct Complaints against senior councillors summarily dismissed despite, in the one case, the MP3 recording of the damning interview with a BBC reporter in which that senior councillor clearly lied. It was found that there was no case to answer! The verdict was delivered to me with a look that dared me to take issue, which of course I didn’t because, especially in the case of the more serious complaints, if you dare push for a more ‘helpful’ explanation you’ll find that the independent panel of three of your peers, having applied the wisdom of their broad experience, are of the opinion that your complaint was “politically motivated”. Think about that.

For the record, the “aggravating factors” that determine whether the police can be bothered to get involved, 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”.

I’ve attended a number of briefings given by the Monitoring Officers of neighbouring Local Authorities and, used to dealing with a form of reality not quite meeting what was actually being said, always asked those legal officers of neighbouring authorities if they genuinely believed what they were saying 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. Yes, of course they not only believed what they were saying but practiced what they preached. Answering the question what local authority I was from, in one case got me 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 our council did tend to get a mention quite often back in the day). 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.

Again, we’re talking about what matters within both the letter of the law and 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 always made much of in public but tended to be a bit coy about when challenged. It’ll be interesting to see if anything’s changed with the recent changes at the top.

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

Appears so.