Is downloading porn a reason to disqualify a councillor?

by Stephen Tall on November 25, 2009

The BBC has this local story:

A former Somerset councillor has been disqualified from holding office after “illegal and pornographic material” was found on his council-owned laptop. Andrew Woolley was elected as a Liberal Democrat councillor for the Lyngford Ward of Taunton Deane Borough Council in May 2007. Due to the nature of the material found on Mr Woolley’s laptop it was referred to the Adjudication Panel for England. The panel ruled that he be disqualified from holding office for two years. …

During the time he was in office he was given two council-owned laptops to help him in his work as a councillor. The board was told Mr Woolley had signed undertakings to adhere to the council’s IT policy for the use of the laptops. When one of the computers was handed back, the council’s IT staff found “highly offensive” material which had been “illegally downloaded”. They also examined a second laptop given to him and found further material allegedly obtained in breach of copyright. The adjudication panel found he had breached the council’s code of conduct by misusing the laptops and acting in a way which could bring him and the council into disrepute.

As he had already resigned, the panel decided to disqualify him from holding office for two years.

A sad story, and one which raises the question: how and when should councillors be banned from seeking public office?

I’m instinctively uncomfortable with the idea of a national adjudication panel deciding whether any citizen can put themselves forward for election as long as they are eligible to stand. Presumably Mr Woolley did not download any material that might be illegal (despite the story’s references to copyrighted material) – if he did so, that is first and foremost a matter for the courts.

There is a genuine question of how to deal with councillors who abuse their position on a local authority – in this case by using taxpayer-funded machines for personal reasons. All local authorities are required to appoint a standards committee with an independent chair – and if any non-elected authority should be able to make these kind of decisions to ban citizens from standing for public office it is surely these local standards boards who can make that judgement?

In any case, it’s hard to imagine a political party putting forward for office a candidate who it was known had been found guilty of bringing ther local authority into disrepute by downloading pornography. To do so would be to invite opposition parties to make it a campaign issue. But, ultimately, so long as the voters have the information in advance, it is up to them who they choose to elect.