It’s the all too familiar tale. At South Tyneside MBC the Labour leader, Iain Malcolm, is at the centre of an external independent investigation after bullying accusations were made by two senior officers. The chief executive and president of SOLACE Martin Swales is on leave, with the council not commenting on reports that he is on sick leave.
Another chief executive is tending her garden following a whistleblowing allegation against the council leader. This is well trodden ground in local government.
Senior officers will have gone through their own private tortuous emotional and intellectual journey, discussed with colleagues and the political leadership before going public or adopting last resort measures. Advice will have been freely given, but when the chips are down the choice facing chief executives is his/hers to make alone. Essentially this is when senior executives earn their crust or reach a fork in the road where they leave under agreed terms with the appropriate gagging order in place.
Life then returns to normal, with those remaining no more than prisoners of the ruling administration. Politicians have been seen to assert their power to their party and the search begins for a more compliant chief executive. Nolan’s seven principles of public life embodied in every councils’ model code of conduct count for naught.
This malaise has been present throughout the many years of local government history. A disconnect from the electorate is also familiar ground, with the majority of councillors being elected by a minority of voters. One would think that this would drive politicians to demonstrate their worth and accountability at every opportunity. Far from it. The mandate is self-preservation at all costs. Witness the code of conduct consultation from the Local Government Association (LGA), which closed last month. In the introduction signed by all the leaders it states :
‘The role of councillor in all tiers of local government is a vital part of our country’s system of democracy. In voting for a local councillor, the public is imbuing that person and position with their trust. As such, it is important that as councillors we can be held accountable and all adopt the behaviours and responsibilities associated with the role.’
In asserting the vital role local government plays in the ‘country’s system of democracy’ they omit to explain that in terms of accountability there isn’t any independent mechanism to achieve this. Unless a criminal act has taken place and been discovered, the judgement as to how a member conducts themselves is left to themselves. Any ruling administration can ensure the outcome it wishes is secured, with the Independent Person a useful piece of window dressing. If the LGA actually believed its own rhetoric it would have proposed as an absolute minimum the adoption within England of what already exists in the devolved nations. There would be no cosy chat with the leader to clear up any ‘misunderstandings’ if the subject matter relates to the leader, with his/her party closing ranks to suffocate any independent scrutiny.
Outside England matters are referred to an independent body for investigation and hearing. It is self-evident that those who put themselves forward for public office should be protected from malicious or politically inspired complaint, that complaints should be heard swiftly and not heard during an election process. The other nations appear to have overcome these hurdles. All the LGA offers however is more of the same, yet those very same politicians would be the first in line to advocate independent accountability in Parliamentary select committees, inquiries such as that being undertaken into the Grenfell tragedy or perhaps even the inevitable post COVID-19 enquiry. But not when it comes to themselves.
If the LGA really is interested in local democracy and accountability it should be using every tool in the box to connect with the public, boost electoral turn-out and make local politics a credible and vital matter for every citizen. One mechanism is surely the introduction of independent accountability that engenders respect in the political process and politicians that can and will be called to account, that the citizen can observe or participate in such proceedings as a panel member and that politics is taken out of the proceedings by simply excluding politicians from hearing panels.
Such steps would enhance the necessary burden placed on chief executives and leaders to ensure that their council’s dignity and respect policies do actually include their own conduct and the governance of the political/officer interface. It would also embolden officers to seek and find resolutions to local issues in the confidence that the option of independent scrutiny is there while also carrying the discipline that mitigates against frivolous and politically motivated complaints. The LGA can and should do better; less navel gazing and living its own rhetoric on principles of local democracy and accountability would be a good first step.
Donald Graham is the former chief executive of Hertsmere BC