Fears for standards at Breckland Council over plan to scrap committee that investigates councillor complaints

Senior councillors will be like poachers appointing their own gamekeepers if they are allowed to choose the independent person who will consider complaints against them, the chairman of Breckland's doomed standards committee warned yesterday.

The panel, which judges complaints against district, town and parish councillors, looks set to be abolished after the government gave councils flexibility in how to deal with complaints about elected members.

Currently, two independent members sit with three Breckland Council members and three parish councillors. But their responsibilities are likely to be transferred to an existing council committee on which only district councillors can vote.

The council is advertising for an 'independent person', who, under the new legislation, must be consulted about decisions on breaches of the code of conduct. But last month, Breckland's cabinet said it would decide who got the job.

Michael Eveling, a magistrate who chairs the standards committee, warned that senior councillors appointing the independent person 'will give a horrendous message out to the public, whether it's justified or not'. Addressing the standards committee, he said: 'This committee was ignored and, I feel, was treated with contempt. This was an act of poor governance and extremely bad manners.

'Cabinet decided that they as a group would appoint a new independent [person]. My concern is the public will see this as poachers appointing their own gamekeepers. The proposed way forward is not in the spirit of the code as laid down by Parliament and certainly does not inspire our and, more importantly, the public's confidence in Breckland.'

Fellow independent member George Ridgway said he would hate the public to think there were no longer any standards at Breckland and councillors could do whatever they liked; others members of the committee criticised a lack of consultation with parish and town councils.

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But Michael Wassell, the newly-appointed deputy leader of Dereham-based Breckland Council, described the current system as cumbersome and said the council was 'working to make [the replacement] as open and as positive as possible'.

Tory councillors had previously raised concerns about the cost of the standards committee and the number of vexatious complaints, although Labour members raised concerns about the proposed changes.

Council officers are drawing up alternative options to the present standards committee, due to be considered by the cabinet on May 8 and by the full council on May 25.

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