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10.59 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes): My hon. Friend has raised matters of great concern to him and his constituents. As he said, he has raised a number of points using Broadland council as a case study.

My hon. Friend has covered the following issues: he has referred to the events at Broadland council, particularly those concerning the actions of the chief executive. He has questioned whether those actions are consistent with what it would be reasonable to expect a chief officer to do in fulfilling his or her role properly. He asked what powers my Department has if a chief executive falls short of what is expected and a council wants to initiate disciplinary action. He also asked whether the outcome of events at Broadland, particularly the settlement agreed between the council and the chief

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executive, was reasonable. Finally, he asked what steps the Government can and will take to ensure that concerns about the behaviour of council employees or even members can be dealt with more transparently in future.

My hon. Friend mentioned that legal proceedings are under way in relation to events at Broadland. An appeal by Mrs. Barbara Lashley against the decision of Mr. Justice Munby not to grant a judicial review will happen in a few weeks' time. That fact means that I must be careful about what I say since issues remain sub judice. I hope that my hon. Friend will not take that to mean that I am ducking the issues.

I have read all that I can on the case, including Mr. Justice Munby's report and reports prepared by my officials on what was going on at Broadland. Certain basic facts are in the public domain following events in May 1999. The chief executive, following discussions and events shortly after the election, barred Barbara Lashley from council premises--except for formal meetings--and applied several other sanctions to her which curtailed the extent to which she could fulfil her duties as a local councillor. The sequence of events that began then continues and will not be resolved until the further appeal is heard.

I am puzzled about one matter relating to events as they have panned out. The grounds on which the initial application for judicial review was made concerned the actions of the standards committee to which the case had been referred after the chief executive lifted his sanctions following correspondence from Mrs. Lashley's solicitors. The grounds for the review did not relate to the actions of the chief executive, which, as I understand it, have not been questioned in relation to his competence as monitoring officer to the council in applying the sanctions that were applied to Mrs. Lashley. We are yet to receive an answer to that point.

I cannot comment much more on circumstances at Broadland because of the point that we have reached in the legal process. My hon. Friend, however, more generally questioned whether the actions taken were consistent with what might reasonably be expected of a chief officer in fulfilling his or her role. By statute, councils are required to have a monitoring officer as well as a head of paid service and a chief financial officer. The post of chief executive is not specified in law; only those three posts are. Where a council appoints a chief executive, the post can combine the posts of head of paid service and monitoring officer or chief finance officer. The position varies from council to council.

Whatever the precise duties of the chief executive--in this case, I understand, he combined with that post the role of monitoring officer, which is a significant point--he or she has an important role to play in ensuring the proper discharge by the council of its statutory functions and the building of effective working relationships between elected members and council staff. Clearly, one can at the very least, without stepping too far over the mark, question whether that was the case at Broadland. Traditionally, chief executives have had to balance a number of overlapping roles: providing advice to councillors on policy and on the discharge of council functions; and building the corporate and managerial capacity of the organisation--working with councillors for the benefit of their communities.

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In future, under legislation that we shall introduce, it will not be possible for a chief executive to combine the role of head of paid service with that of monitoring officer--as is currently the case in several authorities, such as Broadland. The increased demands that will be placed on those officers both by the new political structures and by the new conduct framework that we are introducing will, in our view, make the ability of one individual to hold both posts untenable, as well as increasing the likelihood of conflicts of interest between the two roles. My hon. Friend may feel that that has been the case at Broadland.

The roles of chief executives and monitoring officers in councils will be pivotal to the efficient operation of councils in this new environment. It is extremely important--as my hon. Friend points out--both that officers have the confidence of councillors and that councillors respect the integrity and independence of those officers, especially when they provide advice to councillors on the discharge of council functions.

Such advice may on occasion be unwelcome. It would undermine the impartiality of officers if the council were simply able to get rid of its chief executive when councillors disagreed with the advice of their officers. The statute therefore provides the chief executive officer and, in future, monitoring officers with protection by law. A designated independent person has to be appointed to investigate any alleged misconduct by a chief executive, or any attempt by a council to dismiss him or her. The person appointed must be acceptable to both parties and, if agreement cannot be reached, such a person must be appointed by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

Although I realise that my hon. Friend is not happy with the resolution of the case involving the chief executive of Broadland district council, the matter has been resolved locally and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has thus not been required to--and cannot--play any part in the process. I must stress that any involvement is strictly limited to the appointment of an independent adjudicator. Once the adjudicator is appointed, the Secretary of State plays no further role--under current law--in the matter under investigation.

I acknowledge the strong views expressed by my hon. Friend on the case, but the council has dealt with the issue--however well or inadequately. It has not called on my right hon. Friend to appoint an independent adjudicator--under current legislation, that is the only route available to the Secretary of State.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): The Minister points out that, as the council had followed certain procedures, she could not get involved unless there was a request for an independent adjudicator. Have there been cases involving a dispute with a chief executive, such as that at Broadland, which followed a similar pattern, or do the majority of councils in such situations ask for the appointment of an independent adjudicator?

Ms Hughes: I am sorry that I cannot offer the hon. Gentleman much help, because my ministerial experience is limited to the past 15 months, during which time this is the only case that has come to our attention. I cannot speak with certainty about what happened before that.

My hon. Friend asked whether the outcome of the process agreed between Broadland council and the chief executive is a reasonable settlement. We do not yet fully

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know the outcome, because an appeal has been made against the decision not to grant a judicial review to Mrs. Lashley. If she were to be granted a judicial review, there would be a wider judgment on some of the issues that have been raised. That might have a bearing on the outcome.

At one level, the settlement that has been reached is a matter for the council and the chief executive in that the council apparently did not initiate proceedings to dismiss him. We do not know what took place in the discussions between the chief executive and the council and we do not know whether he wanted to go or whether councillors had concerns that led to the discussions being initiated.

My hon. Friend referred to the district auditor and I was going to come to that point. From what my hon. Friend said, it was not clear whether the district auditor had been approached at an earlier stage in the proceedings to intervene to consider the proprietary of what was happening. However, the use of public money to reach a settlement with the chief executive is clearly a matter on which anyone can ask the district auditor to adjudicate. The question of whether there has been a good use of public money in the circumstances is one that the district auditor would be required to examine. It is in his remit to adjudicate not so much on value for money, but on whether public money has been used appropriately. If the auditor has not been asked to examine the settlement, that is one course that my hon. Friend can pursue.

Dr. Gibson: What would happen if the agreement around the settlement is secret and confidential and if everyone who took part in the discussions swore not to

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disclose the details of the agreement? How can the district auditor overcome that secrecy? I understand that the public cannot discover the details, but can the auditor override a council that has made a secret and confidential agreement?

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