2013 – 024 How Prescott muzzled the democratic local councils.

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 
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.

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