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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Giving Councillors the freedom to be political

Dissatisfaction with the role of the local Government Ombudsman in censoring local Councillors is growing across all political parties.

This morning's Western Mail has a report on the views of the former Labour Leader of Bridgend Council who wants the reforms in England, where the code of conduct is being overhauled and the Standards Board scrapped, replicated in Wales.

He has a valid point. The example referred to in the article is that of Cardiff councillor, John Dixon who has been told that he is in breach of the code of conduct for tweeting that the Church of Scientology is “stupid”, a throwaway comment that would be thrown out of libel courts for being common abuse and which John has subsequently justified in great detail.

However, there are other examples across Wales. The most bizarre was the ruling that a Swansea Councillor had broken the code of conduct for not properly declaring an interest because in one instance she had an unconscious bias against an individual. Given that a declaration of interest requires a conscious decision this sets an impossible standard that no elected politician can meet.

Jeff Jones and others are absolutely right, Wales needs to reform this system as well. It sets a different standard for Councillors, AMs and MPs and it is open to abuse. Politics is about robust debate. We cannot have an unelected civil servant arbitrating in this way as to what is acceptable and what is not. That is the job of voters.
The same criticism could be extended to standards committees, which can easily be rigged to produce a majority favouring a council's ruling group.
So what is your view of the action by Wendy Fitzgerald and Mary Jones for reporting Rene Kinzett when he stated that most Swansea councillors were "past it" and the decision by the Ombudsman to uphold the complaint?
It is ridiculous that the local Government Ombudsman seeks to restrict free-political-speech. This is so outrageous the local Government Ombudsman should be stripped of his/her powers. It is simply not on. Defamation laws in the UK are there for those who feel they have been defamed.
For once I agree with you Peter. The current system has been used to prevent legitimate criticism and yet has virtually done nothing about dishonest of corrupt councillors or individuals it must be replaced. Standards are one thing, censorship of reasonable political debate another.
I think most people involved in local government and the PSOW would agree with this post Peter. But it seems that many councillors deliberately employ these terrible rules for their own political advantage.

They tend to be Liberal Democrats.
In Swansea.

Could you try and get your own party's house in order please, before jumping on the bandwagon?
That is my point but if you want to get partisan about this then you won't change anything, you will lose my support and that of others. So you have to decide, do you want to change things or do you just want to score points from the sidelines.

Councillors of all parties play this game on all Councils. I cannot prevent members of my own party doing it any more than any other Councillor can restrain members of their party.

The only way to stop this is to reform the law and that is what I am concentrating on. There is no bandwagon to jump on, I have just expressed my view on my blog. I am happy to try and start a bandwagon though.

Shambo, see above.
I think I am correct in stating that you personally reported a Labour councillor to the Ombudsman for revealing that a former Swansea Council chief officer had been allowed to take early retirement whilst still under investigation.

Furthermore, you pressed the matter when the Ombudsman initialy said there was no case to answer.

It is entirely dishonest for you to portray yourself as a non-participant in these political games - which I suspect was the purpose of your post.
I am sorry but that was not the purpose of my post and you are entirely wrong about the Ombudsman referral I made. That had nothing to do with a Councillor expressing a political view and everything to do with him passing confidential information regarding a disciplinary inquiry to the local newspaper, an act that would have compromised the Council's position and could potentially have cost local taxpayers a lot of money. It was a lot more than the fact that an officer took early retirement. If I recall correctly it related to details of the committee's proceedings and may have involved details of financial offers.

I pressed the case because the Ombudsman had clearly not looked at it properly. When he did he found the Councillor to be in breach of the code of conduct only for the Standards Committee to take no action. That was a matter for them.

However, this is an entirely different scenario to those described in my post.
My contribution to the debate:

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