Why should local politicians be different?

Tonight’s Surrey Heath Executive Committee formally agreed that the Anti-Bribery and Whistle Blowing Procedure be recommended to Full Council in Dec.

Now I agree that this does not sound very promising for the first line of a blog but bear with me because it does contain a very interesting anomoly which should be of wider public interest.

Surrey Heath along with other Councils have had to establish “adequate procedures” in order to adhere to the Bribery Act. This is good news as it should ensure public officials and representatives across the country do not make corrupt decisions.  The policy itself is excellent and has gone through the appropriate staff channels with full agreement. I will be supporting this at Full Council in December.

The proposed policy rightly makes clear that, “All staff must declare all hospitality and gifts and a written record kept..” Our own Council constitution states, “No officer may accept gifts which are offered in connection with his/her position with Surrey Heath Borough Council. The acceptance of such gifts will be treated as a serious disciplinary offence.” Elsewhere, it makes clear that the only exception are “promotional trade gifts” and these can only be accepted if valued under £20 for work use only and with company name on it.  This is a sensible exemption to cover things like work diaries, calendars and stationary.

However, what about the councillors who after all are the real decision makers on controversial aspects such as planning and licensing applications?  After all, our private addresses and a phone number is in the public domain and we all live or work locally so it is much easier for people to approach us outside formal Council settings and on our own if so minded.

Well, in contrast to our staff, councillors decided in June by 13 votes to 10 that a much more relaxed approach was the way to go and instead voted to double the gifts and hospitality limits before they need to be declared.  The notes of this meeting in June can be found at http://www.surreyheath.gov.uk/council/committees/meetings.htm?pk_meeting=1181&comid=4

So thanks to Cllr May and Cllr Pitt who put forward this proposal and the other 11 Conservatives who voted for this nonsense, we now have a situation where a developer or an objector could choose to deliver a case of 6 bottles of wine to every councillor on the planning committee, the night before an important meeting. As long as those wines total £49.99 or less, that would be absolutely fine and nobody would need to know even the Council’s Monitoring Officer or the public. Clearly this would have absolutely no impact at all on anyone’s decision making or thought process.

Alternatively, forget the wines and perhaps the councillors would like a night at the Theatre instead with their partner the following evening?? Again as long as the overall ticket price is less than £50, that would be okay too!

So whilst all of the Council staff rightly have to declare every single gift or hospitality and it is recorded in writing, councillors can generally give this rather tiresome recording business a miss.

Now the question is this – Would you be happy if your elected reps making these important decisions received such gifts or hospitality and you only found out afterwards?  No, I don’t think so either….

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