This is our truth, tell us yours
Sam Phripp resigned as a councillor this week.
I know only what Sam has told the world about his resignation.
However, I know a little about the organization of local councils, and a little about the experiences of councillors.
The formal processes of councils can be utterly useless to defend councillors against bullying from their colleagues. All too often the few investigations that do take place are shrouded in secrecy, and, in England, the power to disqualify the worst offenders was removed in 2011 by Eric Pickles in one of his ideologically bizarre moments.
The confusion around the regulation of councillors conduct didn’t start with Pickles though. It started much earlier, with the Blair governments trying to regulate councillors conduct in a way that was an implicit recognition that the electorate frequently elects obnoxious, unpleasant people to local councils. There again, Eric Pickles exists to prove that that isn’t just the case with local councils. The problem is that, when you look at leading cases involving errant councillors, the people complaining about them are often their peers, politically motivated and deeply cynical in their motives, or officers of local authorities, using codes of conduct to discipline and control councillors who are seen as outside the pale.
A fine example of this is the Heesom case.
There is no doubt that Cllr Heesom is a thoroughly unpleasant character. The bulk of the complaints against him, however, came from council staff who were in any case protected by employment law. The cat was let out of the bag, in the appeal judgement, when it says
imposing a sanction upon a councillor who has breached the Code of Conduct has a proper objective, namely the public interest in good administration and in fostering of public confidence in local democracy. That interest may be adversely affected if a councillor conducts himself improperly, for example by undermining the relationship of mutual trust and confidence between council members and officers that is crucial to local democracy,
For a councillor like Sam Phripp, that obsession with defending officers against councillors, with good administration and public confidence a central objective, is a reminder that the conduct of their fellow councllors, and political opponents, is much less regulated than the critics, like Eric Pickles, would have you believe.
All too often what goes on between councillors is unregulated, and provides compelling evidence of how unrepresentative local councillors can be of the community they serve. All too often what is punished is not bad behaviour per se, but behaviour that is not congruent with the organizational culture.
It’s also deeply ironic that, whilst the claim is that the standards regime, even in its slimmed down post Pickles form can end up in investigatiosn that take years and cost tens of thousands of pounds to deal with complaints that often could be resolved by other means. Is it really in the public interest to take three years to decide that it’s wrong for a parish councillor to fall out with their clerk? Yet that is exactly what the current system does, while councillors resign rather than face the poisonous atmosphere in the members room, or stand down after one term and never return.
It’s common ground in local government that the average group of councillors is too male, too pale and too stale. A genuine debate about how to persuade councillors not to drive away those who are not like them isn’t going to start while we all sit by and don’t care if councillors like Sam Phripp walk away with a sense of relief.