Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Monitoring Officer, North Yorkshire County Council (LGA 17)

  1.  As the County Council's Monitoring Officer, I am pleased to submit this memorandum to the Urban Affairs Sub-Committee in response to the DTLR press notice. In the time available, it has not been possible to obtain a formal view from the County Council itself, but I am aware informally of the views of many Council Members, and I hope I can reflect these in this response. It is hoped the Sub-Committee will find the following comments helpful during their enquiry into how the Local Government Act 2000 is working in practice.


  2.  The powers given to local authorities to promote the wellbeing of their area, under Section 2 of the Act, are certainly to be welcomed. In practical terms, however, the financial restrictions placed upon authorities by Section 3 of the Act, have certainly restricted the use that authorities can make of their powers to promote wellbeing.


  3.  In September 2000, the County Council commenced a pilot exercise of the new political structures, conducting its business through a Leader and Cabinet form of executive arrangements (along with certain other committees to ensure compliance with the then current legislation). These "shadow" arrangements continued until the County Council passed a resolution under Section 29 of the Act to formally implement the Leader and Cabinet form of executive arrangements with effect from 19 July 2001.

  4.  The County Council has, therefore, extensive experience of operating executive arrangements and I can comment first hand as to the main difficulties encountered.

  5.  One of the main aims of the Local Government Modernisation agenda was to "speed up" the conduct of local authority business and to make authorities more efficient and accountable to the electorate. Whilst, in the main, business has become more streamlined, there were at the outset, and still are, many practical difficulties in operating two different strands of decision-making within one authority; that is, decisions relating to those functions which are the responsibility of the County Council and those which are now the responsibility of the Executive. The relevant Regulations[3] are excessively complex, and have already been subject to substantial amendment.

  6.  Much more Officer time is spent dealing with Constitutional issues, in particular vires issues, advising both Officers and Members as to who should take particular decisions and why. The legislation in relation to the whole area of responsibility for functions and delegation of functions is particularly complex and difficult to interpret and apply, even to those working with the procedures on a daily basis. It is also extremely prescriptive: very little has been left to local discretion. The 2000 Act has already spawned 22 Statutory Instruments, running to a total of 338 pages, to which can be added 237 pages of DTLR guidance and revised guidance, creating a truly formidable task for those setting up and operating new systems of governance.

  7.  The whole area of publication of forthcoming decisions and those actually taken has also introduced further demands on Officer and Member time. Whilst the County Council's Forward Plan and decision record procedures have certainly resulted in more openness in decision making, the practical difficulties in implementing the procedures and ensuring consistency of practice have proved substantial; some 18 months on, the procedures are still "bedding down".

  8.  Regarding the form of executive arrangements themselves, at the outset of implementing the arrangements, even in shadow form, Members very much felt there was a "them and us" situation, with Overview and Scrutiny Committee Members feeling excluded from the main decision-making processes of the Council. Despite their statutory powers to call in Executive decisions taken but not yet implemented, Members were, and are still to some extent, concerned about their ultimate ability to affect a decision they are particularly concerned about.

  9.  There is also an increased responsibility on the authority in terms of administrative arrangements, for example in relation to the amount of press and other notices which require publication within prescribed timescales.

    —  the annual notice about the publication dates for the Forward Plan for the coming year;

    —  the annual notice about the verification number for referendum purposes (for an elected Mayor);

    —  notices regarding recommendations from the Independent Remuneration Panel in respect of the Members' Allowances Scheme;

    —  notices in respect of the adoption or amendment by the Council of or to its Members' Allowances Scheme;

    —  notices regarding the adoption of a Code of Conduct under the new ethical framework and any changes made to it in the future; and

    —  a notice about the adoption of a Register of Members' interests under the new ethical framework.

  10.  Regarding the adoption by the County Council of its Constitution, it has certainly been very helpful to consolidate all the rules, procedures and protocols governing the conduct of the Council's business into one place. There was significant publicity over the adoption by the Council of its Constitution in July 2001 and the profile of the document has been championed with Members, Officers and the general public alike. Again, however, an enormous amount of Officer and, indeed, Member time is continually spent in maintaining the Constitution to keep it up to date. Writing the County Council's Constitution took over 500 hours of my time alone—plus the contributions of many other officers and many Council Members.


  11.  The County Council adopted its local Code of Conduct based on the model code issued by the Secretary of State under the Act, on 20 February 2002. The Members to whom the County Council's Code applies are currently in the process of completing their declaration of interest forms for the Register of Members' Interests and completing their written undertakings to comply with the Code of Conduct. The County Council has also established a Standards Committee to promote and maintain high standards of conduct by Members of the County Council.

  12.  Although not directly relevant to the County Council, as its Standards Committee has two independent representatives, there is a perceived difficulty with the relevant legislation governing the composition of Standards Committees, in that there is no provision to allow for an independent Member to appoint a substitute. In some smaller standards committees of other authorities, where there is only one independent Member, this means that the independent Member must attend each and every meeting of the Standards Committee otherwise it would be inquorate and unable to conduct any business.

  13.  Regarding the new ethical framework generally, Members do seem to have embraced the framework and fully support the aims behind the introduction of it. The model Code of Conduct ultimately issued, whilst essentially making the rules in relation to declarations of interests simpler, has produced several perceived ambiguities and difficulties within it. For example, the definition of a "friend", whose interests Members must also take into account in considering his or her own; along with other ambiguities, including the question of which co-opted Members of County Council committees will be bound by the County Council's Code of Conduct.

  14.  Authorities are still awaiting the necessary regulations setting out the procedures for investigations by Monitoring Officers into alleged breaches of the Code of Conduct, following referral of the complaint back to the Monitoring Officer from the Standards Board. Once the relevant regulations are available, there will obviously be a substantial amount of work to be done in implementing local procedures. Also still awaited is the Code of Conduct for local government employees under Section 82 of the Act.

  15.  The relevant regulations giving Standards Committees the power to grant dispensations to Members with prejudicial interests in certain circumstances, have only just been made and are not yet in force, however again there are certain perceived difficulties with the regulations, whose wording seems to misunderstand the very issue it is trying to address.

  16.  To end on a positive note, the Standards Board for England appears to be working well: it is an extremely helpful body, offering guidance and advice on the new ethical framework generally and in response to particular queries. The County Council organised a seminar on the new ethical framework for the Standards Committees of various authorities within North Yorkshire,[4] at which two representatives of the Standards Board attended and gave a very helpful presentation to Members of those committees. Subsequent ad hoc queries raised with the Standards Board have produced timely and helpful responses.

  17.  It remains to be seen how the procedures in relation to the investigation of complaints under the Code will work. Authorities have until 5 May 2002 to adopt their local Codes of Conduct and until an authority has done so, the Standards Board has no remit to investigate any complaints made against an authority. Members have expressed some concern as to how an investigation by the Standards Board would sit alongside any complaint also made to the Ombudsman regarding the same matter.

3   The Local Authorities (Arrangements for the Discharge of Functions) (England) Regulations 2000; and the Local Authorities (Functions and Responsibilities) (England) Regulations 2000. Back

4   Within the geographical area of North Yorkshire, there are now 12 separate authorities with their own Standards Committee. Recruiting independent members has not always been easy. Back

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Prepared 22 April 2002