Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  Q20 Andrew Bennett: In most instances the monitoring officer is the chief executive.

  Ms Lloyd-Jones: No. The monitoring officer is not allowed to be the chief executive because of the amendments in the 2000 Act.

  Q21 Andrew Bennett: At what point should the chief executive know?

  Ms Lloyd-Jones: Assuming there is a close working relationship between the monitoring officer, the section 151 officer and the Head of Paid Service, it   would certainly be my experience that the monitoring officer would want the Head of Paid Service to know, particularly if administrative steps needed to be taken or, indeed, if there was a group investigation on the same facts—which there often is. Then the Head of Paid Service would be told, I am absolutely confident, by the monitoring officer.

  Q22 Andrew Bennett: It would be at the discretion of the monitoring officer rather than a requirement on the monitoring officer to tell the chief executive.

  Mr Ahmad: I know where you are coming from on that, which is that the correspondence from the Standards Board for England makes it very clear that it is strictly in confidence and private to the monitoring officer. I think the issue there is: does it need to be? You are quite right to challenge that. I would question and challenge that for the same reasons Claer has exposed, primarily that the relationship to the monitoring officer and the Head of Paid Service and the other statutory officer has to be a very close one by its very nature, and if there are, dare I say it, administrative or other quasi-political or judicial aspects to be considered at a city council or borough council level, then it is only right and proper that the monitoring officer is not put in that position of breaching a confidential requirement.

  Q23 Andrew Bennett: Mr Mussett, you were concerned in your evidence about the problem of somebody complaining about a councillor from within the authority on the question of that somebody being bullied. Do you think it is easy to define what bullying is?

  Mr Mussett: Certainly in the cases of which I am aware where clerks of parish councils have complained about members, the evidence of bullying has been there for all to see, both in the council chamber and without.

  Q24 Andrew Bennett: It seems to me that if you were an elected representative or a member of Parliament there would be a lot of occasions when on behalf of your constituents you would want to bring pressure on to officers to do various things. It seems to me there is a very thin line between putting legitimate pressure on and bullying.

  Mr Mussett: As an officer, I very often have to put pressure on officers of the borough and the county council, and if I know the line between putting the pressure on and bullying I expect members to know the line between putting the pressure on and bullying. Putting the pressure on is asking questions and expecting answers within a reasonable time scale; it is not, as has happened in my experience, having countless emails, countless public debate on the subject, all within a very short time scale.

  Mr Ahmad: Could I add that it is probably the nature of the parish and the city council. Claer and I both have in our local authorities what are called member/officer relations' protocol. Bullying per se is not in the Code of Conduct for elected members at the national level but bullying, victimisation, harassment are all key things which I have included with my standards committee as part of the member/officer relations' protocol, so they are not in a sense breaching the Code of Conduct, but if a member breaches any part of that protocol then they will be up against a standards committee and will be held accountable. Certainly over the last eight months I have had cause to do that. It did not go into a code of conduct issue but the member was brought up to speed in terms of what was acceptable behaviour and what was not acceptable behaviour.

  Q25 Andrew Bennett: Do you think there is a standard that applies to everybody? My experience is that when you are talking to council officials—and I would assume this is the same for councillors—you know that some are fairly robust and will give as good as they get and others will be a little unhappy at fairly strong exchanges with perhaps a few expletives expressed on both sides.

  Ms Lloyd-Jones: I think it is possible to give guidance which reflects local conditions. For example, in Hackney we have a member's inquiry protocol which requires all inquiries in the first instance to go via the director, precisely because the sort of scenario that you are talking about had happened where councillors were putting pressure on quite junior officers who were actually not robust enough to say anything other than, "Okay, I'll fix it tomorrow," because having a councillor coming at you when you are a fourth, fifth or sixth tier officer is quite a frightening prospect. So you can give advice like that which would avoid those situations arising.

  Q26 Andrew Bennett: Is that not a very democratic process? I work on the principle as a member of Parliament that I will try to get hold of the person who might be able to fix it and only when I have discovered that that person cannot fix it do I start moving up the layers, possibly to insist that there is a change of policy.

  Mr Mussett: We tend to work from the other way: we look for the person who can authorise it being fixed—because there is a world of difference between the person who can fix it and the person who can authorise it being fixed. If I had to put pressure on, the sort of pressure that goes on goes on at the director/chief executive level of the borough council. I might start talking to the cleansing superintendent, but, if I felt there was an issue from there on in, I would leave it and go up and work my way down the chain of command because that is the way it goes. You also have to recognise what is reasonable and what is unreasonable. Reasonable is expecting another authority to comply with its own written standards and expectations; unreasonable is expecting it to go beyond those remits, just because you want that, as such.

  Q27 Mr Betts: There has been criticism that to begin with the Standards Board spent quite a lot of time developing its own systems, putting on commercial events, producing glossy brochures and all that sort of thing and not dealing with the complaints it was getting.

  Ms Lloyd-Jones: I think you probably would have to ask the Standards Board about the initial time allocation, but, from the outside, waiting for responses to complaints, the first one that I am aware of took six months for us even to have an acknowledgement that a complaint had been made. It did feel as though attention was not necessarily being given to the basic service delivery at the beginning. I think we would all acknowledge, though, that things have improved and that the Standards Board have very definitely improved the time scales of the more recent complaints that have been made to them and are making inroads into the backlog.

  Q28 Mr Betts: Is that improvements since last year? The figures I have for last year show that their target was to deal with 90% of the cases referred for investigation within six months and in fact they achieved 38%—less than half the target. That is pretty awful, is it not, when people are left hanging around for that length of time?

  Ms Lloyd-Jones: Yes.

  Q29 Mr Betts: Do you think it has got better since last year?

  Ms Lloyd-Jones: Certainly the most recent experience I have had of a complaint that was made within the last two to three months is that I was notified straight away about it—which was a distinct improvement—so was the person complained about; and it has been referred for investigation quite speedily. So my personal experience is that things are better now than they were a year ago.

  Mr Ahmad: There is a pragmatic answer to this—and I am not seeking to defend the Standards Board here: I am sure they will be able to defend themselves on this. That pragmatic answer is one of logistics, in terms of getting staff through the process and trained and developed. I know from discussions with the Standards Board that things are improving and that they have extra staff to turn that workload through. I think, with fairness, it is also a recognition that the Standards Board were starting from a zero base: it was a new creature and clearly it had to set the procedures in place. But also I think what seems to have scuppered some of the development is primarily the magnitude of complaints from parish councils. I do not think anyone pragmatically realised when they were creating the Standards Board that that was going to be the scenario.

  Q30 Andrew Bennett: Is it very unsatisfactory that it takes this length of time.

  Ms Lloyd-Jones: Yes, it is.

  Q31 Andrew Bennett: If you are a shrewd political manipulator, in March you announce to the local paper that you are making a complaint against one of the candidates in the election, do you not? You can more or less guarantee that the election is over long before a small story possibly appears in the paper saying that the allegation was totally unfounded.

  Mr Mussett: Yes, I would echo those sentiments.

  Q32 Andrew Bennett: So what do you think the turnaround should be? Seven days?

  Mr Mussett: I think it is impossible to put a time limit on turnaround because you are looking at an allegation which might be easily dismissed or which may actually lead to major investigations.

  Mr Ahmad: Birmingham City Council's submission echoed that one of the reasons why there is a delay factor is because of the centralised co-ordination and the nature of complaints having to be filtered from a national body. I know the regulations have come into effect now which will allow the Standards Board to refer things down to the standards committee, but my committee is very clear that there is a role for local standards committees to be the first point of contact. I know that not many authorities share my authority's view on that because there are resource implications, but certainly the likes of Birmingham would have no difficulty in dealing with matters very quickly, promptly, to deal with allegations and things that just hang in the air.

  Q33 Mr Betts: One other issue has been referred to us—and one authority drew our attention to a particular case: an allegation was made about a particular act at local level and the individual making the allegation decided that they at this stage were not going to refer it to the Standards Board. Effectively, therefore, the matter is not dealt with and could be raised at any time in the future. Should there be a cut-off date, so that if a matter is not dealt with in a certain period of time the case is deemed to have failed?

  Mr Ahmad: The Standards Board, I think, have a running rule: anything beyond three months is unlikely to get the magnitude of seriousness that a complaint if it is really genuine and serious would get if it came in straight away. That is not to say that the law says three months; that is a local requirement of the Standards Board for pragmatic and realistic reasons have imposed. I think there is an argument to say that maybe a recommendation along the lines of three months is not a bad idea.

  Mr Mussett: Certainly one of the cases within my authority involved an ex-councillor who was no longer a member of the authority when the allegation went in, so I would certainly suggest that there ought to be some sort of time limit after which no further allegations can be made about the act in question.

  Q34 Christine Russell: Earlier Mr Mussett highlighted either the inability or the unwillingness of elected members to take up training opportunities. What are your views on whether the training for elected members should be compulsory, particularly regarding planning matters?

  Ms Lloyd-Jones: In the London Borough of Hackney, we adopted a member training policy. I have brought the annual report with me which I am happy to leave for you to look at. Certain training is compulsory before members are enabled to take up their roles. For example, with planning and licensing, members in Hackney are not able to sit on those committees without attending ethical framework training and minimum training on the statutory framework within which they are operating, given by both lawyers and planning officers within the authority. The standards committee in Hackney in fact has oversight of the member training programme for all training. It therefore takes into account training which would have a compulsory element in terms of good practice and good governance in decision making generally.

  Mr Ahmad: Where there is a quasi-judicial type inquiry, which planning and licensing are, then members should have no difficulty in attending and for that training to be made compulsory. In fact the city council already insist in relation to planning, and obviously in relation to licensing when it is brought into effect in February, that there will be training given. However, if you wish to extend the remit of that question to just general training on ethical framework issues, then, yes, we certainly do provide training for the members, newly elected members—the invite goes to all members—but if you were to make that compulsory I think you could find a lot of elected members saying, "Well, I shall attend for five minutes and bugger off"—sorry for the non-parliamentary language. That is a scenario that may happen. I do not think it should happen but I personally feel that under that scenario it is more likely to be discretionary that will achieve the result.

  Q35 Christine Russell: Do you agree that for those matters you have identified——

  Mr Ahmad: The quasi-judicial matters.

  Q36 Christine Russell: Yes—that it should be.

  Mr Ahmad: Absolutely.

  Q37 Christine Russell: Mr Mussett, I know parish councils do not determine planning applications but they are important consultees. What are your views on training, particularly in planning law, for parish councils?

  Mr Mussett: Certainly training in planning matters is one of a number of courses which are offered locally for councillors.

  Q38 Christine Russell: Who organises this?

  Mr Mussett: In Suffolk they are organised by the Suffolk Association of Local Councils who are a sub-branch of the National Association of Local Councils. But it is a case of horses and water: you can put the courses on, but, as to being able to encourage the members to go, we have no stick with which to beat them to make sure they do go. In terms of, for example, the quality town and parish council award, there is a requirement that the clerk has reached a particular qualification but there is no similar requirement for a percentage of members to have attended training courses,

  Q39 Chairman: Are you confident the Standards Board understand the intricacies of planning decisions when they are making judgments about things that have been referred to them in that sort of circumstance?

  Mr Mussett: It is difficult to generalise. You will have seen in the submissions you have received that it varies between the different standards of ethical standards officers, so I think it is wrong for me to generalise.

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