Opinion: Councils unable to fight racism within

A director of Barking & Dagenham Council recently took the unusual step of referring a councillor to the Standards Board for breach of the council's Code of Conduct.

The councillor, a British National Party member, had distributed a leaflet to residents in which he misrepresented the council’s housing allocation process.  It referred to a new housing scheme, claiming that 75 per cent would be ‘given to Africans’, and that British nationals would be ‘put at the back of the queue’.

Astoundingly, the Standards Board has refused to investigate the complaint, stating that the leaflet was ‘part and parcel of political life’, despite the request for a review of its adjudication by the B&D director.

Our view is clear. It cannot be right to distribute such leaflets with the intent of provoking disharmony and bringing the council into disrepute. The law rightly states that local authorities must not get drawn into the cut and thrust of political debate. However, we have a clear legal responsibility to promote equal opportunities and community relations. 

For every local authority this means running a proactive communications service that promotes the council’s work to all residents. Crucially, it also means acting swiftly to dispel myths and lies, particularly on issues that can stoke social tension.

Fast rebuttal is a start, but we also need the Government and regulators to take equally rapid action against anyone who deliberately spreads misinformation in order to create racial discord. 

We need strong deterrents because no matter how fast and effective our response, damage can be quickly done. As Winston Churchill said, ‘a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on’.

It is right that extra powers and responsibilities are being transferred from central to local government. However, there will always be issues around which central government and regulators must help local authorities.

Sadly, the Standards Board has failed its duty in this case. However, news that the Department for Communities and Local Government is consid­ering strengthening the code for councillors to tackle allegations of racism is a welcome start.

Duncan Stroud is group manager, marketing and comms, at Barking & Dagenham Council

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