Tower Hamlets case highlights toothless standards regime

By Mark Hynes | 09 April 2014

The recent BBC Panorama programme focused on the role of the mayor at Tower Hamlets and the alleged lack of probity and governance concerning a number of decisions taken by him, particularly around the award of additional grant funding to local Bengali community groups.

The allegation was that the mayor took it upon himself to award far greater sums to these groups than was recommended by the officers and that there appeared to be no proper explanation detailing why these additional funds were being paid.

The inference was that the mayor was looking to find favour with his local Bengali electorate in advance of the local elections in May.

I was struck by the contributions of both the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) and secretary of state, Eric Pickles and disappointed that Lawyers in Local Government was not approached for a view.

Rob Whiteman, chief executive of CIPFA, said that if what was being alleged were true, then these were very serious issues which would need to be investigated.

Eric Pickles said he would consider whether there was a need to intervene in the running of the council, should the allegations be true.

What was not mentioned was how limited the sanctions are when dealing with alleged breaches of the code of conduct.

Prior to the implementation of the Localism Act 2011, we had a robust regulatory regime run by Standards Board for England, which had the power to disqualify members from holding public office for up to five years if it were proven that they had breached the code of conduct.

These sanctions would only be used in the most serious of cases, but the Tower Hamlets matter, if proven to be true, may merit a sanction of such magnitude.

Not only did the secretary of state seem unaware of the true implications of the toothless standards regime that we now have, but he is considering reducing further the statutory protection afforded to chief executives, finance directors and chief legal advisors.

Without such enhanced statutory employment protection, there is a likelihood that the only deterrent to members failing to comply with upholding proper standards in public life will be the ballot box.

We will have a better idea of how effective public perception is in dealing with allegations of breaching the members’ code of conduct following the local elections in Tower Hamlets, but I am not holding my breath.

Mark Hynes is director of governance and democracy at Lambeth LBC and outgoing president of Lawyers in Local Government

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