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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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