Express & Star comment: Unbiased panel vital for control
Any elected representative has a duty to uphold the standards expected in public office.
This is particularly true of our politicians, who we rely on to make decisions on our behalf that we presume will be made in good faith.
At local government level, councillors are entrusted with millions of pounds of taxpayers money. Their behaviour must always adhere to the members’ code of conduct.
When this does not happen, they must pay the price.
However, as we have seen with recent examples in the Black Country, that ‘price’ can often mean no more than attending a few sessions on a training course.
Such laughably weak penalties make a mockery of the entire ethics system, and send the wrong message out to the public.
Councillors know that even if they do step out of line, the worst that can happen to them barely even qualifies as a slap on the wrist.
It is little wonder that in private moments, a good many councillors will admit that they view the entire standards process with complete disdain.
With that in mind, it is interesting to see that Sandwell Council – an authority that has had more than its fair share of problems in recent years – is calling for greater powers to penalise errant councillors.
Bosses have asked the Government for powers to suspend councillors for up to a year, and dock their basic allowance if they step out of line.
This is all well and good, and many people will applaud the authority’s drive for change on this issue.
However, such systems are only as strong as the people who are running them.
If standards committees are to have greater powers, then there must be absolutely no doubt about the individuals who are put in charge of making such decisions.
Councillors facing potentially serious penalties must have faith that the panel they face is unbiased.
There has long been a call for such bodies to be made up of fewer councillors and more independent people.
Not only would this protect councillors from accusations of bias, it would also increase the public’s faith in the standards system.
As things stand, it is simply not fit for purpose.