The City’s standards regime and disenfranchisement of City residents

In April 2019 a petition, signed by over 1100 City residents, went before the Court of Common Council, expressing lack of confidence in the City’s Standards regime. The wording and background information are below.

On 24 May 2019 the new chair of the Standards Committee wrote to all petitioners arguing that they had misunderstood. See her letter here

On 28 May 2019 the chairs of the Barbican Association and Golden Lane Residents Association responded. See their letter: Response to chair of standards committee  

The Chair of the Standards Committee responded on 29 May: Further response from chair of standards to residents and Graeme Harrower, a supportive common councilman from a business ward, wrote about the affair to the Court of Common Council on 30 May: Email from Graeme Harrower CC 30 May

On 7 June 2019  Mark Bostock, a councillor of Cripplegate ward, a residential ward, submitted an application for a dispensation. His request is here.

On 3 July 2019 a Dispensations subcommittee refused the request. A full account of the meeting is here.

Cllr Mark Bostock commented:

“I was elected as a councillor to represent my fellow residents on matters that affect us. I now find that I am expected to seek permission continuously from this standards committee, effectively a third party, to do so. This situation is not acceptable.”

Cllr Pearson, another Cripplegate councillor, whose treatment by the Standards Committee, triggered the initial dismay among residents, commented: 

Yet again the City Corporation, acting through three members of its standards committee, has tried to control how resident councillors (like me) act on behalf of their constituents. This simply isn’t democracy.

Cllr Harrower, from a business ward and a critic of the way the Standards Committee operates: commented:

The City Corporation must be unique among local authorities in its dismissive attitude towards its residents. This attitude is evidenced in many ways, including its “standards” regime being used to deny residents the same level of democratic representation as in other local authorities. The City Corporation is also unique in having most of its members elected by business votes – unnecessarily, because the absence of a business vote system has not prevented business from flourishing in Canary Wharf, or anywhere else in the UK or abroad. The question naturally arises as to whether a local authority that primarily serves private commercial interests (which have the means to represent themselves) at the expense of its residents (who, as anywhere, need effective representation from their councillors) should continue to have the powers of a public authority. The question isn’t new, but the answer is becoming overdue.

On 25 July 2019 Cllr Graeme Harrower (member for the business ward of Bassishaw) wrote to the Court of Common Council outlining the unanswered points about the current standards regime. You can read his email here.

The Standards Committee has arranged an additional meeting in September at the request of some of the newer members. This takes place at 11.30 on 6 September in the Guildhall (West entrance reception). Any resident can attend the meeting to observe it.

On 9 August 2019 the chairs of the BA and the Golden Lane Estate Residents Association therefore wrote to the Standards Committee urging them to listen to residents’ complaints about the policy and explaining why they consider it continues to disenfranchise the residents of the City of London. Read their letter here: Letter to standards committee 9 August 2019.

The Standards Committee met again on 6 September at the request of some of its newer members. No decisions were made. An account of the meeting by Cllr Graeme Harrower is here, together with his emails to the committee and other members explaining why the current policy does not resolve the problem, and the system of applying for one off dispensations doesn’t take into account the fact that agendas only appear a few days before the meeting and so doesn’t allow for applications to be made.

The next meeting of the Standards Committee is on 4 October, 11 am, in the Guildhall. A paper responding to the petition and the ward resolutions is expected at that meeting.

On 4 October 2019 the Standards Committee met to consider a paper on the dispensations policy. The committee remained divided on whether to allow members to apply for general dispensations to speak and vote – and will therefore revisit the subject at its next meeting, on 24 January 2020. The committee did decide to ask other relevant committees in the City to seek to repeal section 618 of the Housing Act 1985 (which prevents City resident members with an interest in property (their house/flat) from voting on housing matters). It also refused four applications for “general” dispensations that had first been made four months ago and were resubmitted. 

A full account of the meeting, prepared by Cllr Harrower, is available here, together with a graphic outlining how general dispensations work, referred to in the account.

31 October 2019 An election in Aldersgate ward led to correspondence between the chair BA and the chair of the Standards committee. See the correspondence: Disenfranchisement again.

In November 2019 a meeting of the Dispensations Subcommittee of the Standards Committee was held to consider three applications from resident councillors for general dispensations to speak and vote. The outcome of the meeting was that the subcommittee referred decisions on these three applications back to the Standards Committee at its next meeting on 24 January at 11 am. A Golden Lane resident present at the meeting provides an account of what went on at the meeting, and a recording of it here.

At the Standards Committee meeting on 24 January 2020, the committee considered a legal opinion from barrister Philip Kolvin QC, commissioned by the City Solicitor. It is detailed but essentially it said that granting general dispensations would not meet the requirements of the Localism Act, though it did suggest some tests for judging dispensation applications and suggest that the law did not require policy to be as restrictive as the City’s current policy of only allowing dispensations to vote in “exceptional circumstances.”

The committee paper (including the QC’s opinion and other appendices) is here. The full committee documents and minutes (see Item 6) are here.

27 January 2020. Cllr Harrower sent an email commenting on the Standards Committee’s decisions to the Court of Common Councillor. It appears as a blog post on the Golden Lane Residents Association website. But the text is also available here.

On 7 February 2020 the Chair of the Committee sent an email to the BA enclosing a copy of an email she had sent to all members, saying “As I indicate, I think we now have as liberal a policy as it’s possible lawfully to have.” Councillor Harrower comments on the Golden Lane website that he considers this a victory for residents. 

This might be the end of this saga; the policy is on the face of it more liberal than before, but it remains to be seen how it operates in practice. And section 618 of the Housing Act still needs to be repealed to allow our councillors to vote on housing matters. The City (as of 19 March 2020) has now agreed to ask the government to amend the relevant section in a future bill on housing. 

June 2020   It’s not the end of the saga.  Next week’s Court of Common Council, on 18 June 2020, will hear a motion seeking a working party to recommend how “proceedings for breach of the Code of Conduct may be conducted without Members sitting in judgement on each other”. A similar but more wide ranging motion went before the Court in 2018 seeking a review of the standards regime. There were two parts to this: the first was to let elected representatives speak and vote on matters which affected their constituents (see the saga above); the second concerned the complaints process, which has been used against councillors who have spoken out against the City. This reform has a lot of support from common councillors (59 have signed it), so it should prompt an interesting debate. The Court of Common Council meets at 1pm on Thursday 18 June. The Standards Motion is item 11.

But the Court didn’t pass the motion: instead it decided to refer the motion to Lord Lisvane’s governance review.

Background to the petition 

 “City of London Corporation caught in ‘gagging’ row after referring resident councillor to City of London Police”

“City of London Corporation chiefs seek rule change after ‘gagging’ row”

The petition

We, the undersigned residents of the City of London, declare that we have no confidence in the City Corporation’s current “standards” policy and practice.

We petition the Court of Common Council to make immediate and fundamental reforms so that:

  • our elected representatives are free to speak and vote on our behalf, including on matters in which they have a declared interest (unless the matter uniquely or especially affects them), so that we have the same level of representation as residents of other local authorities; and
  • our elected representatives do not feel intimidated into not speaking or voting on matters that affect us because they fear referral by the Corporation to a complaints process that has proved to be not fit for purpose – or worse, referral to the police -simply because they have a declared interest in a matter, even though they can derive no financial benefit from it.