Sanctions against councillors who express an opinion are overzealous. Finally, a judge has stood up to such nonsense
This article was originally published in The Guardian on Wednesday 9 May.
Last year, I was reported to the standards board of Lewisham council for tweeting concerns that last summer’s riots were spreading to our area (which they did – you can read my tweets here). I was bizarrely accused of inciting riots.
The intervening weeks weren’t much fun. I wondered whether the board would publicly reprimand me, leading to my possible suspension from my political party, or whether I’d be banned altogether from the council chamber for six months – unable to vote on issues directly affecting my constituents. In the end, the claim against me was thrown out. But every year, claims are brought against councillors. One individual made 170 complaints about their local authority and elected members, at a cost to taxpayers of £160,000. Not a single one of their complaints was upheld.
You’d expect councillors would be encouraged to speak out on behalf of their voters. But over the past decade a new culture encouraging “standards” has deadened lively public debate in local government. In 2007-08 of 3,547 allegations investigated by the now abolished Standards Board of England & Wales, only nine ended up with sanctions applied against councillors. The investigations weren’t just a complete waste of £10m a year of taxpayers’ money; the threat of investigation and subsequent negative publicity had a negative effect on free speech.
The code of conduct, written by the dead hand of bureaucracy, pays little thought to the importance of free speech. Councillors are expected “not [to] conduct yourself in a manner which could reasonably be regarded as bringing your office or authority into disrepute”. And to “show respect and consideration for others”.
These clauses are so broad as to be meaningless. What they do is give your opponents a powerful toolkit to use against you. Across the country, where councillors have been reported to local boards, their opponents have printed mischievous leaflets saying that an “investigation” was under way into their behaviour. Many complaints taken through the Standards Boards don’t come from voters, but from other political parties that use these boards for their own advantage.
Since the abolition of the Standards Board of England & Wales by the coalition, local boards comprising of independent members and councillors have overseen the conduct of the elected. It has saved money and weeded out some of the most ludicrous cases, but confusion continued as to the boundaries of free expression. One of the most infamous cases concerned a tweet by former Cardiff councillor John Dixon while shopping in London: “I didn’t know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off.”
After being reported for a breach of the code of conduct (from a Scientologist living in East Grinstead, Sussex), Dixon was cleared as his tweet was made in a private capacity, not as a councillor. Yet, the public services ombudsman for Wales who referred the case to Dixon’s local board for judgment, said Dixon “may” have breached the code. The ombudsman’s witless judgment is worth quoting from: “I am, however, concerned that a member who has served his community for over 10 years and has recently attended training does not appear to understand the provisions of the code, particularly paragraphs 2(1)(b), 4(b) and 6(1)(a). I also note that Councillor Dixon has not shown any remorse for his actions.”
Finally, a judge has stood up against this type of nonsense. Mr Justice Beaton’s decision in the high court declared that elected politicians should “possess a thicker skin and greater tolerance than ordinary members of the public”. His ruling that political speech is protected under article 10 of the Human Rights Act is a judicial rebuke to these inquisitions.
This case concerned Councillor Lewis Malcolm Calver’s blog, which contained sarcastic comments on the council chairman. Hardly the most scurrilous blog written about local government, but it landed Calver in trouble with the Adjudication Panel for Wales, which ordered he undergo training and publicly admonished him for “snide comments” (no, really). Thankfully, Calver’s victory will now establish a higher threshold for cases against councillors to proceed at standards boards.
There has for years been an extremely effective way for citizens to express their concerns about a councillor’s language or behaviour: by not voting for them. And no one would question that there should be locally set standards for those in public office. However, enforcing the nebulous concept of “respect” is a charter for those who oppose a particular policy or party to drag local politicians through the mud of an official investigation. The sanctioning of penalties against elected officials, for behaviour that is not illegal, has gone on for too long. It has taken the judiciary to finally stand up for the free speech of those elected by the public.