“Vile and scurvy” politicians slammed

Philip Kolvin QC has written such an interesting preface for his new book regarding the public's perception of local government officials, that we thought you might like to read it ahead of the book publishing:

Cornerstone on Councillor's Conduct

The Preface

Politicians get a bad rap in Shakespeare. Of their five mentions in the plays, three are uncomplimentary and two are downright rude: excoriating them as “vile” and “scurvy”. The Bard was no mean politician himself, managing to avoid offending his own Queen in plays about royalty, and tickling the belly of the audiences, from dukes to fruit-sellers, who thronged his theatres. So we can take it that, in insulting the political class, he was reflecting popular views of the time.

Not a lot has changed in the 399 years since the Bard shuffled off his mortal coil. Recent research by the independent polling company Ipsos Mori showed that only 16% of the population generally trust politicians to tell the truth. That is less than 1 in 6. In the North it is 11%. Among Council tenants it is an astounding 8%. Even the much blackguarded bankers poll 31%. So we have an insidious crisis in our democracy, whereby those whom we elect and fund to exercise power over our day to day lives, the education of our children and the development of our living environments, are not even trusted by us to tell the truth. More to the point, requiring only honesty is to set the bar extremely low: what price judgment, objectivity, selflessness, leadership or all the higher order virtues?

This is far from saying that only 16% of politicians are honest. It is saying that there is a huge issue of public perception, not assisted by the regular scandals which erupt volcanically onto our front pages – from cash for questions to expenses , or those who say one thing and then do another, or those who are lashed unhappily to the mast of their Party whip when voting on contentious issues.

Much of administrative law concerns appearances – what would the person on the Clapham omnibus think? What impression does the conduct in question create? While there was an enforceable Model Code and a national body to enforce it, there was a clear prospect of closing the gap between the public perception of politicians as vile and scurvy and the reality that up and down the country public spirited people give up their time and energies to work for their communities, trying to utilise the ever-diminishing resources accorded to them for the purpose in a wise and sensitive manner.

But some argue that the Code was misused to bring vexatious complaints. Others argue that the Code stopped politicians from doing their jobs of representing people, by preventing them from campaigning on issues and then carrying their mandate into Committee.

So, despite the chequered history of political conduct on these islands (and every island, and every continent) Parliament in its wisdom effectively abolished national standards, criminalised only the most serious conduct and left it to local, voluntary regulation to fill the gap. This was to take a risk. It depended on local councillors, and councils, raising their game so as voluntarily to attain and impose the standards which were previously enforced as a matter of law.

It is that gap – between the legal minimum standards enforceable by the criminal law and the high standards which we are entitled to expect from our elected politicians – which this book is designed to fill. What standards can we expect? What goes into local codes? What common law and statutory remedies are available against councillors and councils? How are remedies obtained?

The book is aimed not only at monitoring officers and lawyers, but at councillors themselves. We have tried to introduce as many examples of decisions as we can find, so as to populate the arid desert of legal opinion with the living greenery of real life situations. We have also tried to summarise important principles in text boxes to save the only mildly interested from having to plough through the undergrowth of legal exegesis.

We hope, therefore, that this volume, and subsequent editions, will become a signpost and friend to those councillors and councillors who want to work to the highest of standards and, at very least, to stay out of court and out of the press.

This is the second book in the Cornerstone series – sandwiched between Anti-Social Behaviour and the Planning Court. The aim is to continue to serve local government with readable texts of moderate length directed specifically at their needs. We hope that the aim is being met, and welcome feedback on all of the works.

Finally, it is a joy to work with Bloomsbury Professional, the most knowledgeable, helpful, friendly, accommodating team in legal publishing. We love being published by the house which brought Harry Potter to the world. To them, and this book, we say Wingardium Leviosa.

Philip Kolvin QC
Grays Inn,
April 2015

Cornerstone on Councillors' Conduct publishes in June 2015.

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