Prescott The signs are that Prescott's code is completely cracked When Bridget Hobhouse was deputed to the planning committee of Sedgemoor district council in Somerset to represent her parish council's views on a contentious planning issue, she was amazed to hear the councillors being advised that any of them who knew her must leave the room, because this gave them a "personal" or "prejudicial interest". Because she had been on the district council herself for years, this meant that eight of the 11 councillors present had to consider whether they should leave. When five nevertheless remained, the chairman eventually suggested that only those who had "shared a meal" with her should be excluded. Similarly farcical but often much nastier scenes have been unfolding in Councils all across the country since John Prescott imposed his new Code of Conduct in 2001, enforced by a "monitoring officer" in each council and ultimately by the Standards Board for England and its teams of "ethical standards officers" (on more than £60,000 a year). Such a climate of fear and confusion has been created in local government, where over-zealous monitoring officers egg on councillors to lodge complaints against each other, that councillors don't know whether they are coming or going. In one council alone, South Cambridgeshire, no fewer than 11 complaints have been lodged with the Standards Board. If these are upheld they can lead to suspension (as in the recent case of Mayor Ken Linvingstone) and even permanent disqualification. In Aylsham, Norfolk, Alan Quinn, a former Ofsted inspector, has resigned as a town councillor after a row about the design of a new Tesco. He was excluded from discussing it, on the grounds that he had opposed the original proposal. The Standards Board decided it would be "unreasonable" to say this meant he had a "prejudicial interest" in how the store itself should look - but its ruling was sent back to the monitoring officer of Broadlands district council who had recommended Mr Quinnn's exclusion in the first place. She has chosen to interpret the board's opinion as confirming her original judgment. One of many MPs who have expressed concern over the chaos created by this regime is Gerald Howarth, who last summer wrote to David Prince, the Standards Board's chief executive, about two cases in his Aldershot constituency. Two councillors had been excluded from debates because they wished to express the very views on which they had been elected, and these were deemed to constitute a "prejudicial interest". Mr Prince's response was wonderfully equivocal. Although he did not wish to rule out the possibility of councillors putting the views of their electors, this must not contravene the principle in common law that councils must reach their decisions impartially, having taken account of all points of view. But this is just the point. Unless councillors who represent a particular view are allowed to be heard, the council cannot be said to be observing the very principle the Standards Board claims to be upholding. The truth is that Mr Prescott's system, based on confusion over the law, bullying and sneaking, is creating havoc, poisoning the atmosphere of local government and making a mockery of democracy. To see its self-defeating absurdity, as Mr Howarth pointed out, one has only to imagine what would happen if the same rules were applied to MPs. The Commons would end up being empty - as our council chambers soon may very well be.