In the acclaimed BBC comedy The Office, David Brent had rather a hard time trying to conduct an appraisal with Keith from accounts, who came across as a less-than-helpful appraisee. However, Standards for England (SFE) appeared to have less trouble with its appraisal of the local government standards framework, for on 5 March 2010 it was able to issue a 37-page appraisal report entitled Local Standards 2.0 – the proportionality upgrade?
As might be expected in the circumstances, its verdict was positive. SFE found the framework to be working, in the sense ‘that it is both having a positive influence on behaviour and generating confidence that bad behaviour will be dealt with’. However, SFE equally acknowledged the presence of ‘bugbears and glitches, both for those operating the system and those regulated under it’, and that these raise ‘questions about the proportionality of the framework – its timeliness, cost and fairness to all’. So the recommendations (helpfully listed in appendix 1 alongside relevant statutory and other references) aim to improve effectiveness and redress proportionality ‘to offer a better alignment of nature of behaviour, degree, cost and clarity of process and sanction or outcome’.
The recommendations seem generally positive and (if they manage to swim across a formidable political Hellespont) would make some sensible and streamlining changes. Key ones are listed in the executive summary, including: Time will tell if the recommendations manage to harden into law. The present administration has apparently always been reluctant to allow council officers to take decisions concerning elected members, and the recommendations do envisage an enhanced role for local authority monitoring officers. If the Conservatives win the forthcoming general election they have said they will ‘scrap’ SFE. But politics is a pragmatic business, and between the pronouncement and the reality can often fall TS Eliot’s shadow.
- arrangements more easily to dismiss trivial and less serious complaints, saving time, money and burdensome process;
- an enhanced role for independent chairs and vice-chairs in the assessment of complaints and the progress of investigations, with a counterbalancing extra power for the national regulator to investigate and, if necessary, remove poor performing or partisan chairs;
- a new power for standards committees to be able to halt investigations, if they have good reasons;
- a commitment to greater transparency for members who are the subject of complaints; and
- the need to develop an approach that allows better understanding and management of costs associated with the operation of the framework.
Nevertheless, SFE needs to make sure it avoids any unnecessary regulatory intrusiveness. There was apparently some alarm expressed by many delegates at a recent London monitoring officers’ conference about the nature of some proposals floated at the event. While ‘streamlined’, ‘light-touch’ and ‘proportionate’ are current ‘play-well’ buzz words, ‘Stalinist’ is not. SFE will therefore no doubt wish to tread carefully in this area in future.
Dr Nicholas Dobson is a lawyer specialising in local and public law. He is also communications officer for the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors