Monday, 14 October 2013

Ministers u-turn on slimmer standards regime

Ministers have been accused of politicising the standards regime after trade union members were singled out in a u-turn on the recently slimmed down standards regime. The Department for Communities & Local Government has issued new advice to councils emphasising that codes of conduct should require members to declare if they are members of a trade union just over a year after it scrapped the same legal requirement.

Announcing the new advice, local government minister Brandon Lewis (Con) said that “for too long residents have been kept in the dark about what union affiliations their councillors hold”. However, standards experts have pointed out that a requirement to declare trade union members existed as recently as 14 months ago but were scrapped by Mr Lewis’ government.

Paul Hoey, a standards adviser and the former head of strategic relations for the Standards Board for England, said it was incorrect for the government to herald this as a “new requirement”. He said: “It was actually a requirement under the previous code of conduct which the government got rid of last year.”

The national code of conduct which did require councillors to declare trade union membership, among other things, was scrapped last year along with the Standards for England board after ministers battled to introduce a lighter touch standards regime.

The government’s new guidance and illustrative code of conduct indicates a rethink on the part of ministers, although Mr Hoey warned that councils could ignore the latest advice. He added: “The government can say what it likes in guidance but people don’t have to do it. In fact, some councils did keep that requirement [about trade union membership] in and that was the sort of thing that Bob Neill was criticising as gold plated just a few months ago.”

DCLG’s official update aimed squarely at trade union members comes shortly after it lost a legal battle with the Public and Commercial Services union. The advice was also published two days before the opening of the Labour conference where the party’s links to trade unions are expected to come under scrutiny. 

One local government standards and legal expert who did not want to be named said the government was politicising the standards regime. Ministers were “compounding the standards mess with more confusion based again on political prejudice, rather than evidence based discussion”, he said. “This is simply bad governance from central government. Even to only the most mildly cynical, it suggests that this government is only interested in ethical standards if it suits their politics.”

A department spokesman could not tell LGC if there was evidence of councillors hiding their trade union membership. The spokesman said there was no link between the timing of the publication of the guidance and the Labour conference and he dismissed suggestions that the publication indicated a politicisation of the civil service.

Unions have criticised the government but also argued the move is meaningless because councillors were proud of their links to trade unions. Heather Wakefield, Unison’s head of local government, described the singling out of trade union members as “outrageous” and said it should apply equally to members of any trade body or pressure group.

Brian Strutton, GMB national secretary for public services, said it was a “damp squib” as it was “requiring councillors to declare their trade union membership seemingly oblivious to the fact that they already do. While this is clearly meant to be another Tory attack on trade unions it will achieve very little because trade unions and councillors have nothing to fear from openness and transparency, unlike the Conservative party who won’t even admit how few members they have.”

A spokesman for the DCLG described the standards board as a “a discredited regime that cost taxpayers millions and was the refuge for malicious trouble makers. The new guidance on councillors’ interests makes clear that trade union membership should be declared to avoid conflicts of interest when councils consider issues directly affecting trade unions, such as reviews of taxpayer-funded subsidies”.

Local government minister Brandon Lewis said residents had been “kept in the dark about what union affiliations their councillors hold” for too long. “All councillors should disclose all their personal and financial interests on a public register, including registering union interests. Given the public debate about ‘facility time’ and ‘pilgrims’ in local government, it’s vital that conflicts of interest are avoided. These transparency reforms will give local people the confidence that their councillors are putting residents’ interests before their own.”

Ruth Keeling, Local Government Chronicle