Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by the Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO) (L 173)

GENERAL POWER OF COMPETENCE

1. We welcome the introduction of this power but would urge further clarification and definition of this provision to ensure that there is a wide understanding. We as an Association will be encouraging our officer colleagues to ensure that where they are seeking decisions using this general power that they make this clear and transparent and that there is an audit trail of this consideration should there be any subsequent judicial review of the decision.

GOVERNANCE

2. It is important that the decision on the form of governance to be adopted by a local authority is made locally and ADSO would be very keen to work with CLG on options for "prescribed arrangements" set out within the Bill.

3. It appears from clause 9D of chapter 2 of schedule 2 that the Secretary of State is not intending to rely on the Functions and Responsibility Regulations issued under the 2000 Act to specify what are and what are not executive functions. If this is the case then again ADSO would be keen to work with CLG on this both in terms of presentation and content.

Overview and Scrutiny

4. It is not clear what the intentions of clause 9F(2)(c and d) of chapter 2 of schedule 2 are. It has not been standard practice for scrutiny committees to review decisions which are not the responsibility of the executive. Scrutiny may review broad policies in relation to non – executive functions but not individual decisions such as regulatory or licensing etc.

5. It appears too prescriptive for primary legislation to specify how local authorities’ scrutiny committees are to work. The provision requiring executive arrangements to specify that individual members can refer matters to scrutiny committees/sub committees is overly prescriptive in that many councils will already have working arrangements for this that suit their operational requirements. A judgement cannot be made at a national level that this provision will work on the ground as this may lead to the committees being swamped with individual requests and mean that they will not really add value in other important areas.

6. The whole section on scrutiny looks like it would benefit from some tidying up.

Access to Information

7. It is not clear whether the purpose of clause 9G of chapter 2 of schedule 2 is intended to replace or supplement the existing provisions set out in the Access to Information Regulations or Executive Arrangements Regulations. If they are again ADSO would welcome the opportunity to work with CLG on this.

Elected Mayors

8. ADSO views with some concern the proposal that the elected mayor can combine this role with that of the Chief Executive/Head of Paid Service. This in our view would over politicise the post particularly in regard to appointments. The two roles require different sets of skills particularly in terms of managing staff. At the top of the organisation there is a need to have political neutrality and the head of paid service must fulfil this role on behalf of management and be on a par with the head of the political administration otherwise this could call into question the fairness and treatment of other political groups.

9. Whilst there is provision within the leader and cabinet model for the leader to be removed there is no such provision within the elected mayor model and this needs to be reconsidered.

The Committee system

10. ADSO welcomes the flexibility for local councils to reintroduce the committee system. However times have changed since the traditional committee system was last used by the majority of councils and therefore detailed consideration needs to be given to how functions will be delegated. Again ADSO would welcome the opportunity to work with CLG on this matter.

11. ADSO also welcomes the opportunity for councils reverting to the traditional committee system to have the ability to continue with scrutiny arrangements. The two are not mutually exclusive and scrutiny can still add value to the committee system.

Changing Governance Arrangements

12. We have some concerns regarding the arrangements for changing governance arrangements. Firstly, what happens if political control changes after the decision has been made concerning governance arrangements either through all out elections, or election by thirds, are the new party tied to the previous decision ?

13. Secondly, the period of time and the mechanism for changing governance arrangements seems overly prescriptive and could lead to difficulties where political control changes.

STANDARDS

14. ADSO welcomes the removal of the onerous standards regime. However it also feels that removing the statutory code of conduct at the same time as the overly bureaucratic standards regime, is throwing the baby out with the bath water. The statutory code has been in place for a significant period and before the standards regime was introduced, it served its purpose and helped create confidence in councillors. We do not see the need to dispose of this code now and would recommend that its statutory nature is retained as this will facilitate local councils’ duty to promote and maintain high standards of conduct.

15. If a voluntary code is permitted different councils will act differently and even those who adopt a voluntary code may adopt a different version. This inconsistency will not help the public, who may not understand why different councils have acted differently, or councillors who may serve on different councils with different or no codes of conduct.

16. The bill applies the standards provisions to town and parish councils and ADSO questions the viability of those councils to support this process and of the need given the role and functions of those councils to apply such provisions to that level of council.

17. In separating offences of not complying with the voluntary code of conduct and the failure to disclose an interest, the Bill outlines sanctions in respect of the latter but not for the former. This area needs further attention. Also it is not clear the level at which the non disclosure of an interest becomes a criminal offence and who within the council would determine the sanctions to be imposed under clause 17(2)(e)..

18. ADSO also has concerns about the ability of the Police and Courts to investigate, hear and pass sentence on cases where a criminal offence has alleged to have been committed. Once a complaint has been made the reputation of that councillor hangs in the balance until the police and the courts have had time to resolve the issue. The longer this goes on the more difficult it is for the councillor to recover from the incident.

LOCAL REFERENDA

19. There are general concerns around the cost of supporting referenda including publicity, and the timing.

20. The bill indicates that a local referenda cannot be held within two months of the trigger date but must be held within twelve months of that date. What happens if the referendum concerns budget cuts to a particular service – do councils have to await making those budget reductions until the outcome of that referenda ? because they are obliged to take into account the outcome of the referendum – if the referenda is urgent will councils be expected to have special council meetings to consider the appropriateness of the petition ?

21. The grounds for determining that the referendum is not appropriate appear very narrow ie unlawful, outside of their and their partners’ powers, it is vexatious or the matter relates to a matter that the Secretary of State has specified by order. This combined with the number for the required percentage being very low, or a request from an individual member, means that there may be numerous referenda. In terms of resources, manpower, publicity etc this could be very costly.

22. Some guidance will be needed to differentiate between referenda for the whole local authority area and individual electoral areas and presumably this relates to the size of the issue, both geographically and substantively.

March 2011