Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence - First Report


Memorandum by Westminster City Council

  Thank you for the opportunity to respond to the above draft Bill. I have set out below the corporate response of the City of Westminster, using as headings the list of issues upon which the Committee will focus its inquiry.


  1.1  The City Council welcomes the opportunity to respond to the proposed legislation in the form of the draft Bill and recognises that it is important to review options for change.

  1.2  The City Council also recognises the value of constantly striving to improve performance. It was for this reason that it completed an overhaul of both its formal and informal management structures in the last five years. Our current operation of the Committee structure is therefore designed to provide clarity, efficiency, accountability and, in conjunction with our Code of Governance, ethical conduct. Consequently the City Council firmly believes that the approach taken to this legislation incorrectly presupposes that the current system does not work.


  2.1  The City Council maintains that it is fundamentally unfair that a referendum may have to be held to maintain the status quo, but not to effect major changes in organisation as proposed. There is no logic in allowing a choice of three new models without a fourth option of maintaining the status quo. We would welcome a wider range of models from which to select. There is no reason why an intention to change the system or to maintain it should not be included in a political manifesto at a local election, thereby receiving the local endorsement which is presumably thought necessary.


  3.1  The City Council does not believe that the work or power of backbench councillors should be dismissed or diminished in any way.

  3.2  The City Council does not believe that power should be concentrated in the hands of a small executive who can effectively ignore the rest of the Council.

  3.3  The City Council perceives that there is recognition in the legislation that the new systems could lead to abuse and a lack of accountability. Hence the need for a new ethical framework: the establishment of a Standards Committee, a Standards Board and an Adjudication Panel in addition to the existing Ombudsman and District Auditor.

  3.4  Backbench councillors already devote their time to representing their local communities. The City Council does not believe that they would therefore be satisfied with the new roles, focusing primarily on scrutiny, as proposed for them.

  3.5  It is suggested that councillors would be involved in taking decisions which represent a departure from the strategies and budgets which the council had previously agreed. The City Council is concerned that in practice it would be difficult to define the degree of variance which will be required before full Council will need to be involved.

  3.8  The Bill states that political advice to the executive remains private, it is not clear, however, how "political" will be defined. The position on officer advice is far from clear. Will the executive be required to consider such advice? It is also of concern that officer advice will only be made available to the scrutiny function after the executive has taken a decision. This does not represent open government and will inevitably lead to disputes.


  4.1  It is apparent that the models proposed create confusion between the roles of executive councillor and executive officer and the impartiality of the bureaucracy is likely to be compromised.

  4.2  It is proposed that officers will "account for executive actions to councillors outside the executive". The City Council would welcome clarification as to how officers will remain impartial and serve the whole council if they have a duty to formally account for the actions of the executive.

  4.3  Although reference is made to the role of offices, very little detail is provided about their role in the new structures. Further clarity is needed given the scale of change envisaged including the status of officer advice. Any changes to the current legal framework need to be explicit.

  4.4  Westminster's Code of Governance was specifically produced to clarify appropriate roles, conduct and relationships. The City Council therefore fully supports the introduction of a code of conduct for employees.


  5.1  The City Council supports the proposal for every council to adopt a code of conduct, and to involve the LGA in its development. The City Council would further propose that other professional bodies with relevant local government expertise (such as the Institute of Charted Secretaries and Administrators and the Association of Council Solicitors and Secretaries) also be involved. In addition the City Council's Code of Governance is widely used as a best practice model by other authorities. The Council would therefore also welcome the opportunity to assist in the development of a Model Code.

  5.2  If the new models become mandatory, the City Council supports the need for an independent body to handle all substantive allegations that Councillors have failed to observe their council's Code. The City Council does not, however, support the creation of a new Standards Board. The City Council would, instead, support the extension of the current role of the Local Government Ombudsman, coupled with rapid referral to the courts where relevant, to include the role identified for the Standards Board. The Ombudsman has extensive experience of investigating allegations of malpractice in local government and filtering out unfounded complaints. This would also simplify the contact point for the public when things go wrong and they cannot achieve a satisfactory resolution from the authority. It is also likely to be a cheaper option.

  5.3  If the Standards board is established, it will be essential to ensure that its relations and working pratices in the Ombudsman and the auditor are given full consideration to avoid overlap, to ensure the hierarchy is clear if there is conflict, and to ensure the process is accessible.

  5.4  Notwithstanding the comments above, the split between the Standards Board with the adjudication process, through the Adjudication Panel, is welcomed.

  5.5  The City Council welcomes the proposal that all allegations will, in the first instance, be passed to the Standards Board.

  5.6  Given the serious impact that suspension can have the City Council proposes that it should be the Standards Board, not an ESO, who is given the power to suspend a member, perhaps by way of an interlocutory application by the ESO.

  5.7  Careful consideration must be given to ensuring that referrals to the Standards Board do not become a new weapon in the political battle. Measures must be in place to deter vexatious or mischievous compliants and to identify and dismiss them as quickly as possible.

  5.8  The proposal to establish overview and scrutiny committees is welcomed, as too is the need to include independent members of the community. However, as the overview and scrutiny committees will have no power to take decisions, it is unclear why the executive would take notice of their views.

  5.9  It is suggested that councils might allow their overview and scrutiny committees to request a debate at full council before a decision is made. As the executive meets in private, and do not need to give advance notice of the issues to be discussed, it is unclear as to how the overview and scrutiny committees will know a particular decision is going to be made. In addition request for such debates could, if used irresponsibly, result in significant delays in decision making.

22 June 1999

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