It isn’t normally considered good form to call for the abolition of a body that may soon have the opportunity to cause severe embarrassment to a politician you happen to dislike. However, the Animal has been meaning to write about the Standards Board for England for some while now, and the story about the complaint being made against Boris Johnson has prompted me to get on with it.
The Standards Board was created through the Local Government Act 2000 by the erstwhile Department for Environment, Transport & Regions, as a recepticle for allegations of serious misconduct on the part of councillors. The rationale behind the Board’s creation was reasonable enough: a combination of the long-running and inconclusive Shirley Porter saga and the equally long-standing allegations of corruption amongst Doncaster’s Labour councillors (‘Donnygate‘) convinced the incoming Labour government that the existing channels for policing standards amongst councillors were unsatisfactory.
So, in the time honoured tradition of post-war politicians (and not just Labour politicians, as some would have you believe) the government established a quango. Its purpose was to sit in judgement on errant councillors whose cases had been referred to it by local authorities. And therein lies the problem: the membership of the Standards Board is unelected, composed of individuals such as retired council chief executives and the like. Not normally a problem for a quango – indeed it is par for the course. However, most quangos do not have the power the overturn the expressed will of the electorate, as the Standards Board does. Amongst the punishments in its arsenal are suspension and disqualification (potentially permanent) of sitting councillors and other elected officials.
And this is where the democratic defecit point comes in. The iniquity of unelected officials removing elected politicans from office of course came to the public attention particularly strongly at the time of the Livingstone-Finegold case where the Standards Board officers took it upon themselves to seek the four week suspension of the Mayor of London on the grounds that he had brought his office ‘into disrepute’. Regardless of what the rights and wrongs of the case in question, the judgement that was reached was highly subjective and the nature of the penalty was criticised by commentators from all sides of the divide – indeed even a certain Boris Johnson defended the right of Ken Livingstone to be judged by the electorate rather than by a quango.
Whilst the Livingstone case is the best known of its sort – and indeed the suspension was eventually overturned by the courts – it isn’t alone, with other councillors having been subjected to suspension or disqualification on subjective judgements. I’m not for one moment suggesting that where elected officials are found guilty of a criminal offence, whether that be the misuse of council resources, car theft or incitement to racial hatred, that they shouldn’t be subject to disqualification if the matter is serious enough. But that, surely, is the remit of the courts, not of a quango.
When I was living at a previous address, one of my ward councillors was subject to a Standards Board hearing following what appeared to be pretty malicious complaints against him by council officers on rather obscure planning issues, a matter that could easily have been dealt with by the councillor’s peers through the internal disciplinary measures. Instead, at great cost to the public purse, emotional distress to the councillor and the loss of service to his constituents due to the time consuming nature of the case, he was dragged before a multi-day Standards Board inquiry. All of this was, perhaps inevitably, to serve no purpose at all: the case was dismissed on all but one count, and that latter was so trivial that the Board recommended no sanction. The whole episode was unnecessary and unedifying.
Not only is the Standards Board basically undemocratic in its operations, it is increasingly pointless, as a direct result of the Livingstone case. With the eventual judgement that quashed Livingstone’s suspension incorporated into case law, it became the case that the activities of a councillor or anyone else subject to the Standard Board’s rulings outside of their official activities (in Livingstone’s case this was considered to be when he put on his coat and left City Hall) could not be considered for the purposes of an office being brought into disrepute or other non-criminal matters. This severely limited the Board’s remit – and to a degree removed some of the issues over its non-democratic nature. However, the Board remained something of an out-of-control monster, which needed a Dr Frankenstein in the government to realise the nature of the monster it had created.
In 2007, the government had the opportunity to get rid of the Standards Board, given its patent failure to achieve its stated aims. Indeed, the Local Government & Public Involvement in Health Act 2007seemed to recognise some of the issues arising from the Boards remit, by moving more decisions on cases to Local Standards Committees rather than the Board. Attempts were made by a number of MPs, with Livingstone’s backing, to introduce an amendment which would have scrapped the Board completely. Sadly, without government backing, this got nowhere.
The Board has proved itself unnecessary. Where matters of criminal law are concerned, then the criminal courts should decide if a councillor should face any sanctions against their political career. Where matters of ‘bringing an office into disrepute’ are concerned, then this is a matter for the electorate to decide. Its existence cannot be justified. I therefore sincerely hope that the case against Boris Johnson, well founded as it is, does not get to the Standards Board. There is no criminality (so far as I can see), rather a potential mis-use of office. This is a matter best resolved by the GLA’s internal disciplinary proceedings and, if necessary, through a vote of confidence at the Metropolitan Police Authority’s next meeting.
What do I think of Boris’ conduct over ‘Greengate’? Quite simply, cack handed in the extreme. I have refrained from discussing the case itself too much, because where leaks are concerned, there is a great danger of hypocrisy from all sides. Of course I recognise the deep concerns about the arrest of an MP and the search of his office – but I don’t recognise the public interest argument in most of what was apparently leaked: but then Her Majesty’s loyal opposition, of whatever colour, is going to be pretty sure that something that embarrasses the government or allows them to upstage a government announcement is firmly in the public interest. There is no such thing as a single ‘public interest’ and its very hard to decide who should be the arbiter of such a thing. I’d also be a lot more tolerant of Conservative ‘outrage’ over Green, if the last Tory government had been more tolerant of Sarah Tisdall, who leaked political strategy documents over the arrival of Cruise Missiles in Britain. The link to national security in the Tisdall case was as flimsy as it is in Green’s, but that didn’t prevent a prosecution.
And as for Boris – well, if he can’t work out for himself that the chair of the MPA contacting a suspect who has been arrested in a Metropolitan Police inquiry isn’t decidedly dodgy, then he’s still got a lot of learning to do. Perhaps the lesson on due process can take place immediately after the lesson on recruitment?