Editor backs MP's call to axe Standards Board

A local newspaper editor has supported North Shropshire MP Owen Paterson, who has called for the abolition of the Standards Board, blaming it for creating a "climate of fear" among councillors and "stifling" their freedom to speak out to the press.

Paterson and fellow MP Gerald Howarth have written a paper, which says councillors have become subject to "a draconian new system of regulation" since the introduction of the board in March 2001. It was established to monitor and investigate complaints of breaches of a code of conduct introduced under the Local Government Act 2000.

Paterson's paper says: "This new regime has drastically curtailed councillors' right to free speech and their ability to represent the views of their electors."

He said one of the most contentious points arising was "pre-determination", where councillors are asked not to close their minds to arguments before making a decision which, he believes, discourages them from expressing their opinions and adequately campaigning during election time.

Andrew Bowan, editor of the Whitchurch Herald in Paterson's constituency, said that local councillors had declined to comment on a number of topics, fearful that they would be breaching the rules and would be reported to the Board.

He told Press Gazette: "We've just waged a successful campaign to stop car parking charges being introduced in the three market towns on our patch.

"Despite 99 per cent of the public agreeing with us that it was a bad idea — thousands signed petitions — not one district councillor felt free to stand up and say so. Whether intended or not, the pre-determination issue is curbing free speech."

In his paper, Paterson said he was astonished by how many other MPs approached him at Westminster to report similar cases. Programme manager at the Local Government Association, Roy Williams, said the main problem is defining when a councillor has a private interest in a decision.

"One of the main areas is how you preserve the right of the councillor to speak up on behalf of his constituents, while at the same time safeguarding the idea that councillors shouldn't be speaking in their own interests.

"The Government agrees there needs to be changes and the LGA is also supportive of changes to the code."

A Standards Board spokeswoman said: "(Paterson's) paper argues that the code of conduct deprives members of the right to speak for the communities that elected them.

"However, this argument relies on a misinterpretation of what it means for a member to have either a personal or a personal and prejudicial interest in a matter, as opposed to holding a predetermined view."

Chair of the board Anthony Holland said in a letter to Paterson that the rules were part of English common law and pre-dated the code by decades.

Paterson told Press Gazette: "What they (the Standards Board) are saying about English common law is complete rubbish.

"The House of Commons couldn't function if you had common law functioning like that — it is a ludicrous idea.

"The Standards Board of England is totally undermining the function of local councils and should be abolished and Conservative Party policy will get rid of it."

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