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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 February 2007, 08:48 GMT
Council sleaze watchdog faces cut
Mayoral robes and chain
The Standards Board investigates town hall corruption
A sleaze watchdog is to be scaled back in a shake-up of the way local councillors' conduct is regulated.

The Standards Board for England will take a more "strategic" role after complaints it was being over-zealous.

Many of the Board's 14 full time investigators will lose their jobs as more cases of alleged misconduct are dealt with at a local level.

The changes mean it will be able to concentrate on more serious allegations of corruption, the Board said.

The Standards Board was set up three years ago to root out corruption and misconduct in local government.

But it attracted criticism that it was spending too much time and money on petty complaints motivated by party political point scoring.

"If you give people an opportunity to complain, then to a certain extent that's what they will do," said Paul Hoey, the board's head of policy and guidance.

"We want to take the lessons of the past three years and make it more relevant and responsive."

Loophole

More initial assessments of misconduct allegations will be carried out by local standards committees, under the proposals.

And most investigations will be carried out locally, with the Standards Board playing a more "strategic" role.

But the board says more resources will be targeted at serious allegations.

"We are becoming smaller, but much more intensively focused," Mr Hoey told the BBC News Website.

The rules on members' interests will also be relaxed, to allow councillors to speak and vote on issues unless their interests in them are greater "than those of most other people in the ward".

Moves to outlaw bullying by local councillors are also included in the proposed new code.

And a loophole allowing local councillors convicted of sex offences and other crimes to keep their seats is also set to be closed.

Livingstone

At the moment, no disciplinary action can be taken against councillors if they have been sentenced to a jail term of less than three months.

When the Standards Board was set up, councillors could be investigated for any action that might be thought to bring their council into disrepute.

But the guidelines were changed after a High Court case last year involving London mayor Ken Livingstone, who said he was not on official duty when he compared a journalist to a Nazi concentration camp guard.

Mr Justice Collins overturned the Adjudication Panel for England's decision, that the Labour mayor's comments breached the Greater London Authority's code of conduct.

The ruling led to a narrower interpretation of the Standards Board code of conduct, which mean it does not apply when councillors are off duty.

Assault

Councillors jailed for more than three months are still automatically barred from holding public office.

But those convicted of lesser offences or, like Mr Livingstone, not charged with a criminal offence at all, are not now investigated by the Standards Board.

In one recent case, a councillor who attacked his former wife and mother-in-law at a birthday party was allowed to keep his seat by his council despite being convicted of assault because the case was a "personal matter".

But Mr Hoey said it might have been a different story under the old guidelines when the Standards Board would have been able to investigate the case.

Sex offenders

He said concern had also been expressed about councillors convicted of other offences, such as housing benefit fraud or downloading child pornography.

He cited the case of a councillor who admitted downloading child pornography in February 2005 and was placed on the sex offenders' register.

The man was banned from being a councillor for four years after the Standards Board found he had " brought his office and his authorities into disrepute".

But Mr Hoey said: "If that case had happened under the current rules, we would not be able to take action."

Under the proposed new rules, councillors convicted of any offence, however minor, would be investigated by the Standards Board, whether it was committed while on official business or not.

But behaviour that did not result in a prosecution would still be allowed under the code.

The proposals, which are due to become law later this year, as part of the Local Government and Public Involvement Bill, were included in a consultation document published last month.


SEE ALSO
Sleaze watchdog 'out of control'
27 Jul 05 |  UK Politics

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