In 2016 the Government’s National Audit Office launched an “Investigation into the acceptance of gifts and hospitality” which although looking at Whitehall civil servants is equally applicable to local government councillors. The investigation report said that the acceptance of gifts and hospitality by civil servants “may create real or perceived conflicts of interests” and that accepting gifts and hospitality “creates a perception of biased decision-making”. This a view I agree with and it applies to local councillors too. The report concluded that whilst low value hospitality such as a drink and sandwich whilst at a meeting or function is reasonable, more lavish gifts and hospitality such a 3 course meal and drinks in a swanky restaurant was not. The investigation also said that declaration systems for recording of gifts and hospitality were not very effective and should be tightened up across the civil service.
All of this makes perfect sense to me and I agree with both Transparency International and the National Audit Office that to avoid perceived, or actual, corruption by civil servants or local authority councillors, there must be very stringent rules and tight monitoring system in place to prevent abuse and the spread of a “backhander culture”. But it doesn’t look as though Kent County Council or its elected councillors have got the message. According to the KCC Constitution whilst council staff are strictly prohibited from accepting anything but the smallest value gift, benefit, or hospitality, councillors, on the other hand, are freely able to accept any “gift, benefit or hospitality” with an estimated value of less of than £100 without the need to make any sort of declaration.
The rule applies to gifts, benefits, or hospitality from a single or associated source over the course of a 12 month period. So it’s quite acceptable for a councillor to accept gifts of up to £100 during the course of the year from, multiple, but non associated, constituents, lobby groups, or businesses, for services rendered without any need to make declaration. Here’s the relevant extract from KCC’s Constitution.
Gifts and Hospitality
7. (1) You must, before the end of 28 days beginning with the day of receipt/acceptance, notify the Monitoring Officer of any gift, benefit or hospitality with an estimated value of £100 or more, or a series of gifts, benefits and hospitality from the same or an associated source, with an estimated cumulative value of £100 or more, which are received and accepted by you (in any one calendar year) in the conduct of the business of the Authority, the business of the office to which you have been elected or appointed or when you are acting as representative of the Authority. You must also register the source of the gift, benefit or hospitality.
Now I don’t know about you, but £100 is not a small amount of money. It would buy a good meal in a decent restaurant, tickets for a gig, or some coke, spliff, or sexual services if that’s your inclination. Procuring kickbacks from multiple non-related people or organisations for supporting and helping their causes could provide a councillor with a pretty decent social life, especially if that councillor had important responsibilities and influence. And I reckon the probability that some county councillors are enjoying the high life courtesy of KCCs s ridiculously lax, out of touch, rules about gifts and hospitality is pretty high.
But here’s the rub! Just one page after the dodgy Gifts and Hospitality rules, KCCs Constitution goes on to talk about the principles of public life and the need for councillors to act honestly and with integrity, arguing that “Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might seek to influence them in the performance of their official duties.” How can a councillor who is free to take to up to £100 a year from as many non-related constituents, businesses, or lobbyists he/ she likes be acting with integrity and honesty? How can an organisation which has rules which permit this abuse, be seen to be promoting honesty and integrity?
What makes this worse is that KCC councillors have discussed and voted on changes to the council’s constitution on 6 separate occasions since the last county election in 2013. I am unaware of UKIP, Tory, Labour, LibDem, or Green Party councillors making any effort whatsoever to either end or reduce the appalling £100 gifts and hospitality rule. I can only assume that having your snout in the trough is an accepted practice for councillors at County Hall. But has we saw during the 2010 MPs expenses scandal, just because this abuse is permitted don’t make it right in the eyes of the public!
In my opinion, KCC’s current policy on gifts and hospitality for councillors is irresponsible. It leaves the door open to widespread corruption and it brings KCC and its councillors into public disrepute. Apart from a cuppa and a sandwich at a meeting KCC councillors should be banned altogether from accepting any form of gifts and hospitality. To do otherwise is to promote corruption in public office and facilitate a dodgy payment for favours culture. If elected to KCC in May I will be fighting to have the current policy overturned and a ban on councillors accepting anything other than a cuppa and a sarnie put in place.
Want to find out more about my KCC election campaign? Please see my manifesto and video here
Published and promoted by Ian Driver, Independent Candidate, KCC Election, Ramsgate Division. 45 Sea View Road, Broadstairs CT10 1BX