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Rene Kinzett

Abolish this kangaroo court

August 24th, 2010 by René Kinzett

This post first appeared on WalesHome and is an update to my previous post on the subject

THE case of Cardiff Liberal Democrat councillor John Dixon has highlighted yet again the mess of the bureaucratic and undemocratic local government standards regime here in Wales.

The office of the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales has been in existence since 2006 and it is charged under the Public Services Ombudsman (Wales) Act 2005 to investigate breaches of the Code of Conduct by members of local councils in Wales. Before the PSOW came into existence, it was the Commission for Local Administration in Wales which had the duty to investigate complaints against elected members. The Local Government Act 2000 introduced the Code of Conduct of Local Government Members and it is under this code and its rules of expected behaviour by elected members that so many councillors are now being investigated.

The Code of Conduct should have been worded to prevent the kind of bullying, abuses of power and damn near corruption that has in the past blighted some of our local councils. Instead, the vague, catch-all language has been misused by citizens with a grudge, politicians with thin skins and incompetent council officers to try to gag, bully and emasculate elected councillors up and down the UK. Anyone can make a complaint about any councillor; you don’t have to live in the ward/division or even the local authority area that the councillor serves. You can be a fellow councillor who has taken umbrage at something said in the Council Chamber, the press or in a leaflet. You can be a resident who does not like the fact that the electorate chose someone other than their favoured candidate. You can even be a phenomenally wealthy group of individuals who believe that:

75 million years ago a tyrant named Xenu ruled the Galactic Confederation, an alliance of 76 planets, including Earth, then called Teegeeack.

To solidify his power, Xenu instructed his loyal officers to capture beings of all shapes and sizes from the various planets, freeze them in a compound of alcohol and glycol and fly them by the billions to Earth in aircraft resembling DC8s. Some of the beings were captured after being duped into showing up for a phoney tax investigation.

One might think that John Dixon’s tweet, that he hoped the “stupid” wouldn’t rub off on him as he passed a Church of Scientology, may have been a wise and protective mantra. One may also charitably believe that his remarks may have been insulting to the Scientologists and their frankly – for most of us – leftfield set of beliefs. However, what on earth is this to do with an unelected and unaccountable bureaucrat? If the content of the tweet was libellous, then let the Church of Scientology muster their considerable wealth and sue Cllr Dixon. If the tweet was likely to cause a breach of the peace or else fell foul of the various incitement or other criminal laws, then let the police investigate the matter.

However, it was left to a complaint (by the Church of Scientology) to the “whingers post box”, AKA the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales. Don’t get me wrong, there is most definitely a need for an office to investigate claims of maladministration brought by members of the public who feel that the local authority, the local NHS or other public bodies have not followed procedures properly or else have shown them extremely poor levels of service. But why do we need a whole raft of public servants to investigate the bizarre claims of politically-motivated individuals who, not content with losing the argument at the ballot box, want to try to undermine elected representatives via the Code of Conduct?

The Code of Conduct for Local Government was a knee-jerk reaction by the previous Labour Government. The aim may have been to prevent corruption, to ensure that elected councillors did not misuse or abuse their positions in terms of offering help to applicants for lucrative planning schemes and so forth. But the provisions of the Code and the resultant investigative apparatus (in Wales the PSOW and Standards for England the other side of Offa’s Dyke) take this well intentioned proposal and has turned it into a Kafkaesque nightmare, where elected officials can have their every utterance taken down and used against them in some quasi-judicial process. A process which defies rules of natural justice and denies defendants the usual protections of a tribunal, including the denial of the right to confront one’s accusers in public forum. Indeed, in a recent decision concerning the accusations levelled against 32 members of the opposition on Swansea Council, the PSOW wrote to the accused telling them that while the proceedings has been dropped, the case would be kept on file and would be taken into account and used against any member should further allegations be made against them.

Before the John Dixon case blew up and was even reported in The Times by Danny Finkelstein, I was wondering whether the Ombudsman had something of a fixation on Swansea, given the number of odd complaints the office has decided to investigate over recent years. Back in 2004, the Ombudsman investigated the nonsense claims against the leader of the Labour opposition for being beastly to the newly-elected LibDem-Con-independent administration during the first council meeting following the elections. More recently, my own comments regarding the age profile of Swansea Council has put me in hot water and I am now facing proceedings following the complaints from a Liberal Democrat and an independent councillor. Not only am I to face questioning as to whether I am guilty of age discrimination, but the use of the term “useless” to describe the performance of two less-than-successful Swansea Council cabinet members, has been judged to be unacceptable by the Ombudsman.

Why can we not get to a sensible situation whereby each local authority in Wales is given responsibility by WAG, perhaps through the new Local Government Measure currently being consulted on, to set up more powerful, visible and proactive standards committees? The current role of a standards committee on any of our 22 local authorities is to basically hear cases against councillors after the Ombudsman has investigated the matter and then only if he thinks that the standards committee is the right body to judge the matter. The standards committee does not write the Code of Conduct, it is not currently the recipient of complaints under the code and it has no power to investigate or consider any complaint against a councillor save for the direction of the Ombudsman. The committees have no real role in promoting good governance within their authorities and their make-up (with more “administration” members than opposition and the independent members appointed by majority voting by each council) can often lead to cries of “foul” by those judged harshly by the committee or else by those who feel undue leniency has been shown to others.

There seems to be a glimmer of hope on the horizon for the future of our local democracy. The Conservatives pledged to abolish Standards for England in their pre-election Green Paper on localism and decentralisation called Control Shift. The pledge has been reiterated by the Minister for Local Government Andrew Stunnell MP in the House of Commons. My hope, and indeed my public call, is that the Welsh Assembly Government and Westminster can agree to end the power of the PSOW to interfere in legitimate political debate as soon as possible by stripping it of the duty to investigate Code of Conduct complaints.

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100 days and counting!

August 18th, 2010 by René Kinzett

The nation celebrated today at the joyous news that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government had survived marked its first 100 days in office.

The first peacetime coalition government has come through an early Cabinet resignation; controversy over scrapping a pet project of the previous government; the intervention of the Sandal Brigade over “new” policy development and the question mark over whether the Deputy PM is “in charge” or “holding the fort” during the Cameron family’s fortnight on hols in Cornwall. All exciting stuff, but what do these last three and a bit months tell us about either the achievements of the Government or the future prospects for the Coalition?

Of course, the more observant will have noticed my deliberate mistake in the first sentence of the second paragraph. The Coalition Government is is not the first peacetime coalition administration on UK soil. The Scottish Parliamentary elections in 1999 and 2007 produced back-to-back Labour-Liberal Democrat governments and the National Assembly for Wales elections have resulted in “hung results” and there have either been minority Labour administrations or coalitions between Labour and the Liberal Democrats (2000 – 2003) or Labour and Plaid Cymru (2007, onwards). Each time during the period of a coalition, in both Cardiff and Edinburgh, the arrangements have lasted the course and seen the two parties through to the next set of elections. Indeed, the only times that administrations in Cardiff have looked week has been during the periods of Labour minority government. When Alun Michael was toppled as the first ever First Secretary of Wales, his successor Rhodri Morgan’s first act in office was to reach out to the Liberal Democrats to form a more stable administration until the next elections (and his second act was to change his job title to the more impressive “First Minister”).

In Scotland’s case, the incredibly stable arrangements between Labour the Liberal Democrats led to some interesting legislative reforms, including PR for local government elections and free personal care for the elderly. No matter what one may think of the shortcomings of the various measures enacted under that coalition, no one can doubt that it was a well managed and efficient operation, even in the face of some tough times and fierce criticism. It is only now, with a minority Scottish Nationalist Party Government in power in Holyrood that questions are being raised about the longer-term stability of an administration. As Jack Straw said today, it is perhaps preferable to be in opposition than scrabbling around for votes and with the ever-present fear of defeat hanging over you.

Given the experiences of our Welsh and Scottish cousins, what weight should be given to the soothsayers predicting calamity for the Coalition at Westminster?  I rather suspect that they will be proved wrong. The signs of unity within the Coalition are clearly visible and appear to be very strong indeed. There is a unity of purpose, aided by the Coalition Agreement, which gives a clear agenda for the Government. The memorandum issued by Cameron and Clegg the other week also shows that the number one concern facing the Coalition – the size of the budget deficit – is being pursued with vigour and in real partnership. The spirit of unity within the Coalition is also helped by a palpable “bond of trust” between the Prime Minister and his Deputy. Much nonsense can be written (and frequently is) about the Cameron-Clegg axis, from the psycho-babble of the Sunday supplements (all the “we’re all Clegerons now” lifestyle article rubbish) to the loud alcohol-fuelled rants of former high-fliers with a fixation on homo-erotica. But its not all pure Polly Filler drivel or Pub Landlord bile, there are serious criticisms of the Coalition, from both left and right, that we (who care for its future) need to take on board.

The right are concerned about the future direction of the Conservative Party, that “traditional” values are being drowned out by a soggy liberalism and that Ministers are weak-minded pawns of the all powerful cult of the Cleggeron. I find the criticisms from these quarters as, frankly, a bit rich. One only needs to look at the experiences of the left of the Party during the worst excesses of the Thatcherite purges to see how an all-powerful leadership can effectively silence and sideline a whole wing of a party. Ask our friend Jerry Hayes for a first-hand account from one who remained a vocal and popular exponent of an alternative vision of conservatism during Thatcher’s reign.

I also want to reassure the right that they really have nothing to fear from Cameron and Coalition. For what we are witnessing is nothing less than the strange rebirth of liberal conservative England (with apologies to George Dangerfield) and the Conservative Party returning to its traditional place as the champion of moderate, considered and pragmatic polices. Championing evidence-based policy making over policy-based evidence making. Dealing with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. Treating all communities equally, with tolerance and respect. Governing in the interests of the nation, not the Party. Indeed, it is the mix of election winning strategies from Disraeli, through Baldwin and Churchill, from Macmillan to Major. Even Thatcher, who the right hold up as their patron saint, would be on the modernising wing of the Party if she was now a young politician on the rise. For her legacy, although objectionable to some, was a product of its time and she a creature of her surroundings. Transplant the young Maggie to today’s scenario and you would not get a hair’s breadth between her and Cameron or, dare I say it, even Clegg.  The rejection of ideology, the embracing of pragmatism and the rethinking of traditional One Nation values through the Big Society theme are all part of Cameron’s agenda to take the Conservatives back to the future and to firmly re-establish ourselves as the natural party of government.

The rolling back of the Surveillance State (as big an enemy today as the excesses of the Welfare State tackled by Thatcher), the triumph of liberty over suspicion and the reawakening of a spirit of responsibility and inter-dependency are all, for my money, the most exciting things to come out of this Coalition thus far. From scrapping ID cards, getting rid of the National Identity Register, abolishing the “ContactPoint” child database and even the outlawing of the clamping of cars on private land are welcome early initiatives from the Coalition. The revolution in terms of school organisation with the introduction of Free Schools, bringing real choice and diversity of provision into every community (in England only, sadly), is to be much celebrated by those that matter: parents and children and opposed by the vested interests of the teaching unions, and Labour (and possibly even Tory or LibDem) local government barons. Ken Clarke’s sensible hand on the tiller as Lord High Chancellor will ensure a more just and equitable administration of justice that we’ve seen from a hoard of reactionary and populist Labourites. NHS reforms, led by the eminently fair-minded Andrew Lansley will replace bureaucratic mess with simple, streamlined administration of our health service and put it back in the hands of doctors and patients. Clegg himself has been given the task of dragging our creaking constitution into the 21st Century, renewing trust between the governed and the government, establishing a more democratic Upper House, offering the voters the chance to chose a new electoral system and handing back powers from Whitehall to town and shire halls.

I was also interviewed on BBC Radio Wales “Good Morning Wales” programme at the ungodly hour of just gone 6am, so for those not wide-eyed enough at that time of the day, or else don’t have ready access to the delights of the public service broadcaster for Wales, please feast your ears on this  and listen in from 8min 10sec.

As much as I am, obviously, greatly impressed with the clear purpose, conduct and future prospects of the Coalition, I do feel that there is most definitely a role for the progressive wing of the Conservative Party to keep a watch on developments, especially as we head towards the spending review announcements planned for the autumn. Organisations such as the Tory Reform Group (for which I serve as Deputy Chair in Wales) will need to keep a close eye on the effects of cuts in public spending on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. At the very start of this Coalition and during the election campaign, Cameron pledged that it would be those with the “broadest shoulders” who would bear the brunt of the cuts and that the very poorest would be protected from the worst effects. Policies such as limiting public sector pay freezes to those who earn over £21,000 are laudable, but it won’t be until sometime into next year that much of the impact of spending decisions will be felt. It will then be for the Tory Reform Group and others to be less the Cameron Cheerleading Team and more critical friend, watching out for the poor, the sick and the old. Ensuring that our guiding principles remain in tact and that the Coalition stays the course until the general election of 2015.

The Coalition has some real challenges to face. Next year’s referendum on electoral reform; the elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly; the legislative battle over equalising constituency sizes; and the reforms to the calling of general elections through Commons votes of no confidence, all offer early and serious pitfalls. However, if the same degree of common purpose and commitment to the national interest remains as strong, there can be little to doubt that this Coalition will stay the course and really change Britain for good.

Scientologists, stupidity and old duffer councillors

August 5th, 2010 by René Kinzett

The case of Cardiff Liberal Democrat Councillor John Dixon has highlighted yet again the mess of the bureaucratic and undemocratic Local Government Standards regime.

John Dixon’s tweet may have been insulting to the Scientologists and their, frankly, bizarre and cranky set of “beliefs”, but what on earth is this to do with an unelected and unaccountable bureaucrat? If the content of the tweet were libelous, then let the Church of Scientology muster their considerable wealth and sue Cllr Dixon. If the tweet was likely to cause a breach of the peace or else fell foul of the various incitement or other criminal laws, then let the police investigate the matter.

However, it was left to a complaint to the “whingers post box”, AKA the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales. Don’t get me wrong, there is most definitely a need for an office to investigate claims of maladministration brought by members of the public who feel that the local authority or other public bodies have not followed procedures properly or else have shown them extremely poor levels of service. But why do we need a whole raft of civil servants to investigate the bizarre claims of politically-motivated individuals who, not content with losing the argument at the ballot box, want to try to undermine elected representatives via the Code of Conduct.

The Code of Conduct for Local Government was a knee-jerk reaction by the previous Labour Government. The aim may have been to prevent corruption, to ensure that elected councillors did not misuse or abuse their positions in terms of offering help to applicants for lucrative planning schemes and so forth. But the provisions of the Code and the resultant investigative aparatus (in Wales the PSOW and Standards for England the other side of Offa’s Dyke) take this well intentioned proposal and has turned it into a Kafkaesque nightmare, where elected officials can have their every utterance taken down and used against them in some quasi-judicial process. A process which defies rules of natural justice and denies defendants the usual protections of a tribunal, including the denial of the right to confront one’s accusers in public forum. Indeed, in a recent decision concerning the accusations levelled against 32 Members of the Opposition on Swansea Council, the PSOW wrote to the accused telling them whilst the proceedings has been dropped, the case would be kept on file and would be taken into account and used against any Member should further allegations be made against them.

Before the John Dixon case blew up and was even reported in The Times by Danny Finkelstein, I was wondering whether the Ombudsman had something of a fixation on Swansea, given the number of odd complaints the office has decided to investigate over recent years. Back in 2004, the Ombudsman investigated the nonsense claims against the Leader of the Labour Opposition for being beastly to the newly-elected LibDem/Con/Independent Administration during the first Council Meeting following the elections. More recently, my own comments regarding the age profile of Swansea Council has put me in hot water and I am now facing proceedings following the complaints from a Liberal Democrat and an Independent Councillor. I have written in more depth about this matter over on Wales Home.

There seems to be a glimmer of hope on the horizon for the future of our local democracy. The Conservatives pledged to abolish Standards for England in their pre-election Green Paper on localism and decentralisation “Control Shift”. The pledge has been reiterated by the Minister for Local Government Andrew Stunnell MP in the House of Commons. My hope now is that the Welsh Assembly Government and Westminster can get talking about ending the power of the PSOW to interfere in legitimate political debate as soon as possible.