Ambulance-chasing, Colin Rosentiel, the Standards Board, and our loss of civic pride

by Stephen Tall on February 5, 2009

Some may feel I’m asking for trouble by highlighting for a second day running the case of Colin Rosentiel, the Lib Dem Cambridge city councillor who allegedly blocked an ambulance on an emergency call to protect some common land. But, having reported the story here yesterday, it prompts a wider question than the rights and wrongs of an individual councillor.

A couple of folk linked in the comments thread to the report of Cambridge city council’s monitoring officer to its standards committee – you can read it in full here. And I mean in full – it’s 137 pages long. This includes a 13-page report from the Ethical Standards Officer for the Standards Board of England.

At the risk of coming over all Daily Mail, is this really time and tax-payers’ money well spent? If Councillor Rosentiel committed a criminal offence by blocking an emergency vehicle, then that’s a matter for the police. If he behaved stupidly and irresponsibly, then that’s a matter for his electorate rather than a jumped-up quango.

Actually the point was made very well by both Paul Waugh and Iain Dale yesterday in the context of Labour MP Ann Keen, successfully sued by a constituent for alleged “laziness”. Paul wrote about the case:

Regardless of the rights or wrongs of this particular case, why on earth is litigation seen as the answer when a constituent feels their MPs is not effectively representing them? It sadly smacks of the wider American trend towards reaching for the law whenever a problem arises. More importantly, as John Spellar put it today, surely the real accountability for an MP lies with the ballot box and not the courts? I cannot imagine why the county court in this case actually found in favour of the complainant. Mr John Taylor may or may not have a point about Mrs Keen being “lazy” (though she denies it and points out she tried to help him). But his best recourse is to turf her out at the next general election.

Iain quotes him approvingly, and then asks plaintively:

… if this court case is seen as a precedent, it begs the question as to why on earth anyone would ever put themselves forward for Parliament again.

Quite: I don’t disagree with either of them. Yet there’s no shortage of folk putting themselves forward to be selected as MPs – all parties, though, find it a challenge to find sufficient good quality candidates to contest all council seats. And part of the reason for that is that the role of local councillor, and the powers they exercise on behalf of local residents, have been so devalued by successive Labour/Tory governments. That the Standards Board of England exists at all, and is able to sit in judgment on elected councillors, is merely another depressing symptom of our loss of civic pride.