26 January 2004

The Government's "ethics police" were yesterday accused of squandering thousands of pounds conducting investigations into trivial parish squabbles - including one involving communion bread in Cornwall.

Councillors who have fallen victim to the Standards Board of England's lengthy ethics probes yesterday called for a review into the way it operates.

Howard Roberts, a church warden, school governor and long-standing Cornwall county councillor, found himself in hot water after allegedly refusing to take communion bread baked by a local woman.

When a complaint was lodged, a nine-month investigation ensued about the supposed snub and a conversation he had with the same family about a windfarm on land next to his 13th century home at Lanlivery.

Although he was completely cleared of any wrongdoing, Coun Roberts said the whole affair had been "very worrying".

"What had happened if the case had gone against me? All the good I have tried to do over the years would have been ruined.

"Anybody can make an allegation against a councillor and you have no comeback."

Coun Roberts said he was "interrogated" several times by lawyers in London. "I hate to think what it must have cost, probably thousands of pounds."

An investigation by a national newspaper into the work of the watchdog, set up to ensure ethical probity in local government, claims that most of its 8 million annual budget is spent probing trivial squabbles between councillors.

Of the 3,495 allegations received last year, half were made against the lowest tier of councillors serving unpaid on the parish or town councils, and of those who complained, 42 per cent were councillors squabbling with rivals.

In three-quarters of cases the watchdog found no evidence of a breach or said that no action could be taken. Only one in five resulted in any form of a sanction.

Coun Roberts added: "The majority of cases we know about are at parish level and it is all down to personalities not ethics. It is costing so much to try to solve personality problems in villages.

"I was accused of not taking communion bread - well I am a Christian and I have never refused to take communion."

Former Kerrier councillor Chris Lawrence found himself in trouble after a retort to another councillor.

He said the principles of the standards board were laudable but in practice petty disputes between councillors often ended up being investigated. He said: "I think it has given councillors an opportunity to have a go at other councillors."

The trades union rep was criticised for making "unacceptable comments" but no further action was recommended by the board after a four month investigation.

Mr Lawrence said: "I come from an industrial background and if I took everything to heart I'd always be making formal complaints.

"In my case there was some argie bargie and I forgot it, next minute a complaint had been made to the Standards Board."

But the Standards Board states in its aims: "Confidence in local democracy is a cornerstone of our way of life.

"Our work is important to everyone who cares about the maintenance of an open and honest system of local governance."