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No freedom of speech for local councillors in Britain

Mr Christopher Booker, of the Sunday Telegraph newspaper, has been writing articles for the last year or so showing that there is no freedom of speech for local councillors in Britain.

Under the regulations introduced by the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott a local councillor can be tossed out of the council and disqualified from being a councillor for years (in defiance of the voters) for such crimes as being “rude and demeaning to a senior officer”, “bringing the council into disrepute” (by attacking it – not by being involved in corrupt activities), trying to “reopen closed issues” (closed by the powers-that-be of course) and being “generally malicious”.

This is all on top of the Prescott principle that a councillor should not be allowed to speak about an issue he has an ‘interest’ in. This is not a matter of saying “I have a financial interest in such and such a judgement being made by the council…” A person may not be allowed to speak even if he clearly states what his financial interest is – or even if he has no financial interest at all. This is because an interest has been defined as including previous campaigns against a project or policy of the council.

Oddly enough only councilors who are against local government judgements that are in line with national government policy tend to get hit by these regulations. If one has campaigned against a government project one can be barred from speaking against it as a councillor, but if one has supported the project (or even been involved in drawing it up – for example in one of the government’s ‘Regional’ structures) one is rather less likely to be barred from speaking. The cases are decided by the ‘Standards Board for England’ – no judgement by a jury of one’s peers of course. Any councillor who tries to expose how local government officers and national government directives make ‘local democracy’ a farce can simply be removed from the council and barred for standing for election for X number of years.

The Prescott regulations are clearly not something that John Prescott happened to think of – they are an experiment that will later be more widely applied (already our old friends in the European Union are thinking about how to exclude from elections people who do not accept their ‘values and principles’).

When I have touched on all this in the past, some people have said “take the rascals to court!” Well this week Mr Booker talks about a man who did exactly that. Councillor David Adami tried to expose some odd things about his local council. For example, Mr Alan Greeves the ‘Chief Executive’ (what we used to call the town clerk – in the days before such folk where given telephone number salaries) of the council was allowed to stay for a few weeks after his contract had expired so that he could collect a tax free bonus of £37,000 (about $69,000 US).

Of course Mr Greeves (and the rest of the council officers and councilors involved in this and other matters) could have gone to the courts to claim slander (for things Mr Adami said) or libel (for things Mr Adami wrote). This is much less difficult in Britain than in the United States (as one just has to prove that a claim is not proven – not that the person who made the claim knew it was not true, which is close to be the American standard of libel law as shown by General Westmoreland versus CBS television).

However, British libel law still involves a jury – and for some reason Mr Greaves and the other people involved in North Dorset district council seemed reluctant to go before a jury.

So the dear ‘Standards Board’ was called in. Naturally enough it held the case on a day when Councillor Adami was out of the country (in Singapore involved in a commercial legal case) found him guilty and disqualified him from the council.

So Mr Adami “went to law”. He spent his own time and money fighting the case against the Standards Board and won. British liberty wins in the end…

Except it did nothing of the sort.

The Standards Board simply appealed (remember it is funded by the taxpayer so it can appeal and appeal till it wins – regardless of costs). A higher court decided that the Standards Board should hear the case against Mr Adami again (remember Mr Adami’s ‘crimes’ were trying to expose wrongdoing within the council in the name of the voters who had elected him, as an independent, with 76% of the vote). Naturally enough in its closed meeting (we do not want the voters in the meeting do we) the Standards Board found Mr Adami guilty… again.

But let us say that all the courts (right up to the House of Lords) had found for Mr Adami and had never sent the case back to the Standards Board. Would liberty have won then?

Of course not. As soon as Mr Adami opened his mouth again with something awkward, there would have been a fresh complaint. What are councillors supposed to do? Keep appealing right up to the House of Lords every time the ‘Standards Board’ finds against them? Where is all this money supposed to come from?

And the Courts have accepted that the Standards Board has some authority – so one has to prove that it has acted outrageously in order to have any real hope of victory.

“But there will be publicity, Paul”.

This struggle has been going on for years – and apart from a few Christopher Booker articles there has been virtually no publicity. The bottom line is this:

There is no First Amendment in this country. There is no freedom of speech – not even for elected local politicians (indeed especially not for them) if you want to say something the state really does not want you to say.

“Why do not honest people go into politics?” – because you can not even say things (no matter how polite you try to be) let alone do anything to limit the power and corruption of the state. It is a farce and the major political parties (including Mr Cameron’s ‘Conservatives’ – whatever they may claim) like it that way.

21 comments to No freedom of speech for local councillors in Britain

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Paul, all credit to you for shining a light on a murky area of public life that I would guess bores the bejeesus out of an apathetic British public. I am not easily shocked these days, but this is shocking.

  • Freeman

    I agree with Johnathan; it’s a shameful disgrace.
    But how did we get such rules? As I see it, this and many other of our democratic failings stem from the fact that we have a political class. While we have a system that allows and rewards people who make a lifetime career in politics they have a vested interest in building defences around their privileged positions.
    Maybe we need some legislation that limits the duration anyone can hold an elected position or a senior civil service position. But I see no way that the incumbents would ever allow it.

  • Paul Marks

    I should have had more paragraph breaks in my posting – but such is my crapness.

    I agree with you Johnathan – the British public would mostly be bored if they heard about this.

    I doubt they would even be shocked if it was all applied to national politics, which (with E.U. regulations and the like) it is likely to be at some point.

    Americans (or at least that minority of Americans who are either libertarians or old style conservatives) are often accused of being paranoid about government (for example thinking every move to register firearms is a trial run for future confiscation, or thinking that every move to encourage politeness is speaking about ethnic minorities is laying the foundations for censorship and thought control).

    However, the evidence shows that this “paranoia” is the chief virtue of American public life. What start as “paranoid predictions” tend to come to pass – such as firearm registers being used as the basis for confiscations (as they were in Australia) or “we should be polite about people’s basic religious beliefs” being used as a foundation for future laws making us be “polite” about such beliefs.

    For example, with E.U. regulations there tends to be a three stage process.

    First we are told “there is no such proposal, you are paranoid”.

    Then it is “there is such a proposal, but it has little support”.

    And finally “this was agreed ages ago, why are you bringing it up now?”

    When the powers-that-be (those who control most of the media, the “education system” and so on) are plotting against what is left of freedom, “paranoia” (what used to be called “eternal vigilance”) is the only sensible response.

    As for the United Kingdom – I suspect that we are basically at the “game over” stage now. I hope I am mistake, but I see no sign that I am.

    I certainly do not believe that Mr David Cameron and his little friends are going to come and save us. They are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

  • timmyotoole

    Hey Paul, you might find this amusing:

    “Margaret Thatcher was the best Prime Minister of the 20th century, according to an article due to be published in the September issue of BBC History Magazine, on sale 29 August.

    Margaret Thatcher, who held office as a Conservative Prime Minister between 1979 and 1990, received the highest rating from author and historian Francis Beckett. Beckett commented: “Margaret Thatcher took one sort of society, and turned it into another sort of society. She broke the Attlee settlement, which had lasted more than 30 years, largely by force of will. Today few people under 40 remember a time when trade unions were a real force in the land; when the public sector controlled large swathes of the economy; when local councils controlled education and other local services; when benefits were considered rights of citizenship. The defeat and destruction of the once-powerful National Union of Mineworkers was a key moment in the history of the last half decade.”

    (link)

  • Paul Marks

    Term limits on M.P.s might be a good idea (as might be the ending of the payment of M.P.s – being a Member of Parliament should not be “a job”).

    However, it is hard to see how term limits on officials would work. Perhaps we might go back to ministers hireing and fireing their own staff (on the grounds that “corrupt patronage” is better than the “eternal government” we have now).

    Although it should be remembered that most Civil Servants just follow “established policy” (whatever the E.U., or the academic “experts”, or the rest of the powers-that-be have decided upon) rather than actively plotting against freedom themselves (civil servants are not evil – they are much like anyone else).

    Another way of getting rid of the “class” of politicians might be to go over to a true Grand Jury system.

    The House of Commons to be made up of several hundred people chosen by lot every few years.

    “But the public are too stupid to be the House of Commons” – but not too stupid to elect it?

    As the British House of Commons is the source of most ministers (and is a party controlled thing anyway) the notion that the House of Commons is somehow a check upon the government (let alone the guardian of the nation’s independence) is largely a myth.

    Information is a key (in those nations where the public still care).

    Most people get their information from radio and television (rather than from reading), it is vital that there are antistatist broadcasting stations (rather more open and rather better than Fox) if what is left of freedom is to be maintained – let alone statism rolled back.

    The British public are (in my opinion) starting to see through the idea that ever more government spending and ever more government regulations can improve (rather than undermine) their lives.

    However, they are (with good reason) deeply cynical about the willingness of the political class to challenge the ruling assumptions of our time.

    Perhaps a real Conservative party could reach out to the public (both to give them the information they need and to get them involved in restoring the nation’s independence and the traditional liberties of the inhabitants of these islands).

    However, no such real Conservative party exists. They are still many good people in the Conservative party (although many are resigning or allowing their member to lapse), but Mr Cameron and his fellow shits control things, and I see no way to get rid of them (which is why I rather doubt that I will pay my membership fee in September).

    The U.K.I.P. exists – but it is poorly financed, and has little media support (in fact virtually none), and it quite a few members who are easy for the media to manipulate and discredit (they have not even learnt that the media will always take words out of context).

    And under future regulations such organizations as the U.K.I.P. will be removed from politics as they do not fit with the “values and principles” of our rulers.

  • AJPeakall

    As a slight variation on the three stage E U regulation process that Paul describes, there is sometimes an extra stage after the first two (but not precluding the last) of “There was such a proposal, but it has been blocked in a diplomatic triumph for the incumbent national government”.

  • Paul Marks

    Mrs Thatcher made real changes and most of them (after the terrible mess of the first few years, vastly higher taxes and government spending and virtually no labour market deregulation – all this helping to lead to the worst recession and the biggest rise in unemployment in the Western world ) were good (although some of the good changes have been reversed since 1990).

    However, I think the historian is exaggerating.

    You are correct timmyotoole. I am rather amused by talk of a “Thatcher Revolution”.

    One especially finds this with leftists (although I do not know whether this historian is a leftist). They are so horrified that anyone might challenge their beliefs that they rate Mrs Thatcher as a terror inspiring revolutionary who utterly “transformed society” (or whatever).

    So when they try to be objective (and they do try sometimes) they rate her as a highly successful Prime Minster (defining “success” as achieving one’s objectives).

    Of course the Welfare State is bigger now that it has ever been (it was quite small under Atlee by the way) and it was not really much smaller in 1990 than it had been in 1979 (even measured as a percentage of the economy).

    There was also a bit of denationalization and a bit of deregulation (although the record on regulation is blotted by the terrible error of the Single European Act of 1986), but this is hardly “taking one society and turning it into another society” – or whatever.

    The last charge against Mrs Thatcher is that her reduction of the money supply led to recession.

    Of course there was no reduction of the money supply – although its growth was eventually slowed (for a while).

    An economy that really needs ever more funny money injected into the system (to prevent a slump) is a credit bubble.

    By the way – we have a credit bubble now, and there will be a slump (sooner or latter).

    Virtually the only person I remember to have attacked the early years of Mrs Thatcher (for the higher taxes and government spending and the failure to free up the labour market) was Enoch Powell (he also pointed out that there was no “collapse in the money supply” either).

    But it does not do to praise Enoch Powell – he was an “evil racist” you see.

    I can not remember if Sir Alfred Sherman attacked the early years of the Mrs Thatcher’s administation or not (I hope he did).

  • Paul Marks

    AJPeakall is quite correct – I apologize for forgetting about this stage.

    “Game, set and match” as that degenerate John “back to basics” Major would have said.

  • Opposingpower

    You should check out ‘Robin Page’ article on his experience with the local concillors and standards board.

    How the ‘prescott’ local government act 2000, is causing him discomfort as he prepares to be ‘re-trained’(2+2=5) Orwellian style.

    Article can be found here, free acces:

    http://www.exacteditions.com/exact/browse/307/308/1267/3/21/0/

  • That proves it. I’ve always thought that the system is broken and unfixable in it current form. People who talk about changing our system of government from within are talking out of their arses. This just goes to show that it can’t be done.
    Time for a change. Peacfully if possible, violently if necessary.
    Anyone know how much it would cost to maildrop every address in Britain?
    Is there any way to get every MP’s email address? (I’ve had a look online but to no avail.)
    Our government has failed us and should be held accountable. It has had many opportunities to remedy the situation and has refused them all. Its time for an ultimatum. Viva la revolution.

    P.S. I have no clue as to the form of government we should adopt after the revolution has happened, if anyone has any ideas feel free to voice them. Though if I don’t like them I may have you shot :P

  • Is there any way to get every MP’s email address?

    They Work For You will contain as many contact details as you are liekly to find.
    http://www.theyworkforyou.com/mps/

  • I thought I might repost this here, as I don’t think it got a good enough airing elsewhere on Samizdata when I posted it on Sunday.

    The trouble with politics is politicians and their view that they have a career. They vote for tax cuts in the same way that turkeys vote for Christmas.

    A possible solution would be for tax levels to be decided by referendum: annually, say with votes on raise/lower in half percentage steps limited to plus or minus 2% (to assist with economic stability).

    In addition, MPs’ salaries should also be set by referendum, annually, with votes to raise/lower a bit either side of the RPI or some similar index.

    Now that would get the voters to the polling booths.

    Of course, the issue is too much government. However, I think that is driven substantially by the amount of money available for government.

    Also, the voting public (given its wide spread of knowledge and intellect) need to be given issues to decide upon that are simple and straightforward: the amount of government spending fits that profile much better than how to spend it.

    Best regards

  • timmyotootle : when local councils controlled education and other local services; when benefits were considered rights of citizenship.

    What’s with the “when” with regard to these two? They still do!

  • Paul Marks

    Well national government has more say (and pays a higher percentage of the costs) in such things as state education than it used to.

    Of course “local government” is largely a Victorian invention – before the Victorian age “local government” was largely made up of closed corporations (a little bit like the City of London Corporation now) in most of the major towns (bodies that largely confined themselves to organizing a formal dinner now and then), and unpaid Justices of the Peace (normally local landowners – who were sometimes the called the “maids of all work” as they were supposed to be charge of enforcing all laws in a particular place – although, as they were unpaid and so on, they did not tend to be very interested in introducing lots of statism).

    As for “benefits considered the rights of citizenship” as people such as Frank Field (Labour party M.P.) remind us, being on benefits used to be a badge of shame even among the poorest people.

    It is today that such things are considered the “rights” or “citizenship”.

    In ancient Rome liberty went from meaning families standing independent of the state, to free food from the state (it really was that crude – the back of some Imperial coins had a sheaf of wheat with “libertas” [spelling] written on it – although only Roman citizens in a few major cities were entitled to such benefits).

    That is the sort of “citzenship” that is harmful.

    A British subject was expected to be loyal to the King or Queen (as long as the monarch did not stick their nose in the lives of the subjects – the job of the monarch was to wave now-and-then from a long distance), but a British subject did not regard himself as a “citizen” in the modern sense of welfare benefit (or “tax credit”) dependent.

  • Howard R Gray

    Those who come up with these “legal manacles” on free speech deserve either the Spanish Inquisition, or worse, the inevitable violence that is engendered by such portmanteau wraps on fair comment. Civil governance is only rational when based on reciprocity, in the sense that those who govern do so at the pleasure of those who elect them. In return they are to listen to those who put power in their hands and they should never forget the fact. Disconnection of that link, begets power which is just plain illegitimate, whatever laws that pass the hallowed halls of the legislature.

    Civil disobedience is a reasonable start in dealing with this menace but it can always descend into chaos. If we are not to be governed by consent through our election of officials with the right to speak, what is the end point? Over mighty subjects are nothing new in British history, It behooves those in power to consider Runnymeade and the reasons for Magna Carta.

    The governed have a natural, legal and moral right to overthrow those who oppress them, either in part through political action, or in full by major civil disobedience or war. Does it really have to evolve into civil warfare? The reason for free speech, especially in government, is precisely to obviate the need for civil war.

    We really are a nation of lions led by donkeys, perhaps it is just time for the lions to dine on the donkeys?

  • Our public servants have become public serpents. We even have a shape shifting reptile as Mayor….

  • Paul Marks

    As pointed out above the root of the problem is the Local Government Act 2000 (the Prescott Act).

    Ask your local Conservative candidate to put in writing that he will work to repeal this Act (not reform the Standards Board on any other messing about).

    If the Conservative candidate will not put this in writing (or just refers you to the vague promises of the Conservative party leadership) then you will know that he or she is a shit.

    Of course the last thing the Conservative party leadership wants is honesty and freedom of speech (if Mr Cameron was in favour of such things he would have not have appointed Mr Francis Maude as Chairman of the Conservative party).

    After all this might lead to certain questions such as….

    Why does the party operate from expensive rented offices in Victoria street whilst its Smith Square building is left empty?

    Why is the same board in the Conservative party in charge of both finances and auditing finances? Basically it audits itself.

    [Much like the "Standards Board" in local government - a group of officials who protect other officials from local councilors who will not go along with the government line.]

    Why is there still not a proper set of accounts showing (for example) who “loans” money to the Conservative party and what these “loans” are in return for?

    Why is there a “candidate list”? Why can not any paid up member of the Conservative party present him or herself to a local Conservative association as a possible candidate for election?

    Why is there a now a special “A list” which is even more restricted and rigged than the old “candidate list”?

    Why (instead of allowing all members of a local Conservative Association to vote on who is the candidate) is the right of selecting a final candidate being taken away from even a general meeting of the local membership and handed over to committees?

    That is right – the local members will not even be allowed to choose from a rigged list (which can be as little as two or three selected candidates), the local members may simply be presented with ONE candidate to approve (as in North Korea).

    Why can members of the Conservative party be tossed out for asking questions? “Bringing the party into disrepute” – just like the Standards Board in local government.

    And so on, and so on.

  • In a workable democracy, each and every level of that democracy (national government, county council, district council, etc) should have independent control of its tax revenues (within the broad organisation of a constitution, written or unwritten).

    Thus, local authorities should not be beholden to central government for either their tax revenues or their policies.

    As a short route to this nirvana, at least as far as tax revenues are concerned, I suggest the following.

    Income Tax revenues should be split into 3 portions, initially the same for each local authority area across the UK. There would be a portion for central government, a portion for county councils and a portion for district councils. [Note: where there are city, borough or other unitary authorities, they should receive the two portions not allocated to central government. A similar arrangement would apply to the split of tax concerning Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, coming out of the central government income tax portion.]

    Thus, purely by way of example (with no particular significance of the percentage splits), central government might have their tax rates set at 50% of the current 10%, 22% and 40% rates, county councils might receive 30% of those current tax rates and district councils might receive 20% of those current tax rates.

    After a settling-in period (say 2 years), each government authority (national, county and district), would be able to set its own particular tax rates.

    There would be a very modest, and clearly disclosed, portion of taxation for differential regional support, decided annually by the national parliament (with a sum total of zero).

    All Income Tax would continue to be collected by a single entity, as at present through PAYE and annual tax returns. That entity would be the part of HM Revenue and Customs responsible for Income Tax. The money collected would be routed directly to the appropriate government entity, by level and county/district.

    The existing system of taxation would be slightly modified (during the initial transition period of approx 2 years) such that each taxable person would be identified with a particular pair of local authorities. Suitable arrangements would be put in place to deal with moving house, and the fair allocation of tax charged within a single tax year, allocated to each county/district local government authority.

    In this way, local government would be much enhanced, through its independence of central government. There would be, in effect, local income tax. However, there would be only a very modest increase in the cost of the taxation.

    The democratic benefit would be immense.

    Best regards

  • pete

    Can a councillor be ‘rude and demeaning’ to a junior council worker without fear of punishment?

  • Paul Marks

    Of course the “Standards Board” can define rudeness as asking any questions or raising any matters it does not like.

    As for revenue sharing, I do not favour the idea. This “New Federalism” idea (of Richard Nixon and others) has always left me cold.

    If national government is taking (or “collecting” or “setting the tax rates” or whatever) the money it will decide how it is spent – whatever the formal rules say.

    Also having the same tax rates in different places makes federalism or local democracy pointless.

    The point of local government is not to “bring government closer to the people” or other such – local government is at least as corrupt and incompetant as national government.

    The point of local government is to make it less difficult to move to areas of lower taxes and lower levels of regulation – to make it less difficult for people to “vote with their feet”.

    Of course it is nice if people vote for low taxes, but local councils have a habit of blameing other layers of government for their spending (sometimes this is just, as most spending is now mandated by national government, but sometimes it is unjust).

    I can remember when the Community Charge (the “Poll Tax”) was introduced – local councils (some Conservative party ones as well as Labour party ones) vastly increased their spending (even though no extra responsibilities were imposed on them by national government) and blamed the big “Poll Tax” bill on the new system.

    Perhaps the least bad system is a local sales tax (this is NOT to say that those American States, or the nations of the world, that do not have a sales tax should introduce one – nor should existing sales taxes be increased or extended to goods or services that they do not presently cover).

    Under a sales tax the poor can not get out of paying (these days demanding that only tax payers have the vote will not fly – but under a sales tax everyone is a taxpayer), so the idea (as with a local income tax) of non tax paying voters voting for ever more spending thinking that “the rich” will pay will not apply (a stupid idea anyway – as taxpayers would move out of these areas in the long term, leaving them bankrupt).

    Also people can “vote with their feet” (or their cars) by going to shop in the least expensive areas. Thus putting more downward pressure on tax rates.

    A local sales tax system (with no other local taxes or national government subsidy) might be the best way of keeping local government spending and taxes down.

    However, presently, even if a local councilor is honest they can do little – as efforts to expose local waste or corruption can lead to the councillor being kicked off the Council (by the Standards Board – trying to expose corruption is “bringing the council into disrepute”).

    “But X town is too poor to fund services without external subsidy”.

    Then the town will have to limit its spending till it gets better off.

    “But we can not limit our local government spending” – then the town will die.

    It will eventually die under any system.

    All the vast State and Federal subsides have not (for example) prevented the slow death of Detroit.

    If the people of this city wish it to live they will have to change their minds about “essential local government spending” and “essential regulations”.

    One argument in favour of central government power (not an idea I tend to support) is that the national setting of business property tax (“the rates”) saved many British cities and towns from destruction (as leftist councils would have taxed and taxed business till there was none left).

    This was an idea that Mrs Thatcher took from Japan (where a similar problem of leftist councils had been dealt with in the same way).

    The old British way of dealing with such a possibilty was the “business vote” (where local business enterprises that paid property tax got votes even if their owners did not live in the area).

    But in the age of “one person one vote” (rather than one taxpayer one vote), the business vote was swept away (as were such things as property qualifications for jury service – which led to the modern “daytime television watcher” juries).

    Of course the most simple way of dealing with the problem is to stop pretending that people can tax business without this tax hitting everyone else.

    A business tax that forces business enterprises out of an area may still be supported (by morons who do not see the connection between high business taxes and there being less jobs) – but a sales tax will hit the local voters so directly it would be difficult even for morons not to see the source of the problem (the source being the level of government spending).

  • Paul – You have put the case for a local sales tax better than almost any other I have heard.

    This would work well if:

    a) Educational funding “follows the child”, i.e. direct from central government and into the school that the kid attends, not passing ‘GO’, nor allowing the sticky fingers of the LEAs to collect their “£200″ for doing…well, what? (I would like to see schools join other schools in like-minded co-operatives to share common activities as necessary or to be able to go totally independent and the funding be made available to any school that is certified to take them).

    b) Healthcare funding directed by a true National Insurance and geographically administered by a local PCT (a non-profit entity) drawing in services from Hospitals not necessarily within its geographical area. I.e. the PCT manages the PEOPLE in the area but buys in servcies from whomsoever is best at providing it. Hospitals will evolve like the schools, above, and the funding follows the patient and so, like schools, private provision should be part of the picture.

    The LEA should not buy in education, that is for the parents to decide IMHO. Healthcare is a haphazard, erratic affair, whereas education is a day-to-day 12year+ long affair that has more scope for close monitoriing, information sharing and group consumer action to keep providers in check.

    With health and education funding plugged directly into the national “warp drive”, local government can fund the bins and parks from the “impulse engines” of the local sales tax.

    I see the above as an evolving solution, as a stage that can be practically reached without wholesale upheaval and temporary misery (within reason) and from where further enhancements (read reduction in State interference) can be launched.