HL Deb 30 March 2001 vol 624 cc585-7

2.13 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 26th March be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, Part III of the Local Government Act 2000 provides for a new ethical framework to govern the conduct of members and co-opted members of relevant local authorities in England. A key element of that framework is the general principles of conduct which are the subject of the order before the House today. This contains 10 principles which will provide a touchstone for councillors' behaviour and conduct. They require members to behave selflessly and serve only the public interest, to discharge their duties with honesty and integrity and to take decisions on merit. They stress that members should be open and accountable to the public and should treat people with respect, regardless of their race, age, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability. The principles also require members to uphold the law, ensure the prudent use of council resources and to act in a way that preserves public confidence. In short, they provide a core set of values which exemplify the public service ethos. I commend them to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 26th March be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the order and for bringing to the House the general principles that will govern the model code in due course. I want to ask about the model code. I am not clear whether the model code will be introduced by regulation or whether it will simply be introduced by consultation. I should like to draw to the Minister's attention the great necessity that the model code should not be too prescriptive. What is laid down in the general principles is self-evidently how someone in public life should behave. Therefore, the principles are really not controversial. But there is a danger with model codes that they become so prescriptive that people either ignore them or they do not have any benefit.

I hope that the model codes will leave room for local authorities to put forward their own regulations that are germane to their areas and that the model codes will just rely on the general principles laid out in the order and not go into too much extended detail. The more detail and prescription there is, the more vulnerable councillors and those in public life will feel. After all, what we are trying to do with all the legislation is to ensure that councillors feel that it is a job they want to do, that they are supported and that it is not something by which they will be harried in the future.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I agree very much with what the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, has just said. One could not object to the order, although it would come better from both Houses of Parliament if they had accepted explicitly for themselves the Nolan principles on which the order is based. I agree that it is sad that there has to be a statutory set of principles of what, as the noble Baroness said, is self-evident. As soon as one begins to codify certain principles, others, by definition, are regarded as excluded when perhaps they should not be.

I have a specific question about the paragraphs that are to have effect in relation to the activities of a member undertaken other than in an official capacity. In other words, what is to be regarded as applying in private life? People in public life are too often expected in their private affairs to have standards of conduct which those criticising them are often not capable of achieving for themselves. I hope that I am not being thought to be overly pious, but it strikes me that paragraph 7, which is headed Respect for Others and refers to not discriminating unlawfully, and paragraph 10, which refers to supporting these principles by leadership, and by example, and acting in a way that secures or preserves public confidence, are ones that one would wish to observe at all times and are relevant to public perception as well as to private life.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, in response to both noble Baronesses, the general principles will provide the basis for the national model code of conduct and it will contain key mandatory provisions that every local authority will be required to include in codes of conduct that they will be required to draw up later this year. Once councils have formally adopted their own codes of conduct, all their councillors will be required to sign up to them. Any allegations that a councillor has breached the code will be investigated by a new independent body, the Standards Board for England, and where it thinks there is a case to answer, an adjudication panel will be convened to consider the evidence. If a councillor is found to have breached the code of conduct, that person could be censured, suspended from office or even disqualified for up to five years in the most serious of cases.

The model code will be introduced by regulations subject to negative resolution. We shall keep the model code as simple and straightforward as possible. Furthermore, as I have said, local authorities will be able to add to the model. At the moment we are still consulting on the code. The closing date for comments is 24th April 2001. We aim to lay the regulations by the end of May so that they can come into force by the end of June. I thank both noble Baronesses for their comments.

On Question, Motion agreed to.