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Bringing democracy into disrepute

The quangocracy’s case against London Mayor Ken Livingstone should be thrown out of court.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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Ken Livingstone has been a useless mayor for London, and should be shown the door. But not like this.

Livingstone’s fate today hangs in the balance – at worst, he could be barred from office for five years. His judges are not the people of London, who elected him for a second term in June 2004, but a cabal of faceless bureaucrats – such as the Standards Board for England, a committee charged with ‘investigating allegations that members’ behaviour may have fallen short of the required [ethical] standards’. He is being held up not for his failures in office, but for his alleged failure to comply with an official code of conduct.

At issue is a confrontation after a party in February 2005, when a reporter for the London Evening Standard – a paper with which Livingstone has a long-running feud – approached him. Livingstone asked the reporter if he was a ‘German war criminal’. The reporter, Oliver Finegold, replied that he was Jewish, and offended by the remark. The mayor then said: ‘Ah right, well you might be, but actually you are just like a concentration camp guard, you are just doing it because you are paid to, aren’t you?’ (1)

No doubt Livingstone’s comments were inappropriate and rude. But they have hardly set London alight. There have been no public marches demanding his resignation as a result of this. He is being called to account by bureaucratic machinery – people we have never heard of interpreting codes that we have never heard of.

The dispute over whether Livingstone should stay or go is occurring in impenetrable legalese. Apparently Livingstone could have transgressed two parts of the code of conduct for local authorities: a section two, subsection (b), which demands that officials ‘treat others with respect’; and a section four, which states: ‘a member must not in his official capacity, or any other circumstance, conduct himself in a manner which could reasonably be regarded as bringing his office or authority into disrepute.’ (2)

Yesterday’s hearing took up the first change, and acquitted Livingstone on the basis that he was judged not to be acting in his official capacity – he had put his coat on and left the building when the incident occurred. Today’s hearing will consider the second charge. Because of the ‘any other circumstance’ clause, the defence of not being on duty won’t wash.

All this is lawyerly nitpicking. Who cares if Livingstone was wearing his coat or not? Who cares about the precise wording of subsection 2(b)?

This case exposes the shadowy monitoring committees that have sprung up under New Labour. Who are these people and how do they work? A call to the Standards Board for England press office produced the following turgid response:

‘When an allegation comes in, the referrals officer [at the Standards Board for England] considers whether it relates to any part of the code. The case will be passed on to the Adjudication Panel for England [APE] if the Ethical Standards Officer feels that it is most appropriate given the sanctions that the APE has at its disposal. Or it could hand on to a Monitoring Officer, for cases that aren’t as serious but would warrant a sanction of some sort.’

Apparently, the Monitoring Officer is based in the Standards Committee of the different local authorities (these are set up in accordance with the seven-page document, ‘Guidance on Standards Committee: Local Authorities’, produced by the Standards Board for England (3)). While the APE can deal out a five-year bar from office, the Monitoring Officer only has recourse to a three-month suspension.

These organisations are impeccably ‘transparent’, posting photos and full biogs of all their representatives on their websites, and listing procedures and governing principles. Yet their workings are curiously impenetrable.

Why was Livingstone referred to the APE? According to the press officer for the Standards Board for England, because ‘members of [the local authority standards] committee had expressed an opinion on the case, so that option wasn’t thought suitable’. Who is the Ethical Standards Officer in this case? ‘It’s not a secret, but we can’t comment on it. Part of our policy is that we don’t comment on the individuals involved – it’s not relevant to the case.’

All Ethical Standards Officers are all ‘highly qualified for their job’, the press officer assures. No doubt, but none of them was elected. They are deciding the fate of elected leaders, but have never received any public stamp of approval. A browse through the website’s CVs reveals them as paid-up members of the quangocracy – chairing the Risk Management Committee of the South Warwickshire Primary Care Trust, sitting on the Audit Committee of University College in Northampton, being a board member of the Wiltshire & Swindon Learning and Skills Council…. Yet these bureaucrats consider around 4,000 cases against elected representatives every year.

Livingstone is no angel here. He has complained about the undemocratic nature of the committee, but his lawyers have spouted legalese with the worst of them. One of Livingstone’s lawyers argued that the complaint was not specific enough, because it did not pinpoint which part of his office’s code of conduct had been breached. Even the lawyer for the panel’s Ethical Standards Officer judged this objection ‘technical in the extreme’. Livingstone’s other defences included ‘bias’ and ‘procedural inadequacy’.

Moreover, the charge of racial insensitivity in this case leaves Livingstone hoist by his own petard. After all, the emphasis on showing ‘respect’ to different cultural groups is the staple diet of the Greater London Authority (GLA) that he now heads – and before it the Greater London Council (GLC), which he oversaw in the 1980s. Livingstone was reported to the Standards Board for England by one of his own – the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), an organisation that he has done much to bolster. Indeed, during this case his office continued issuing press releases opposing government plans to merge the CRE with other bodies, on the basis that this would take away some of its teeth (4).

If Livingstone is to go, it should be by public ballot. This case brings democracy into disrepute and should be thrown out forthwith.

(1) Mayor in disrepute charge hearing, BBC News, 14 December 2005

(2) See The local authorities model code of conduct

(3) See Guidance on Standards Committee: Local Authorities

(4) Mayor slams plan to abolish CRE, 21 November 2005

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Topics Politics

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