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


Memorandum by Civic Trust

  We welcome the Government's endeavours to reinvigorate local democracy, and increase local government accountability and transparency. There is, however, considerable concern amongst our Civic Society members that the focus of decision making in the hands of a small executive, as envisaged in all the Government's options, could itself bring dangers. The potential for closed decision-making, the prevalence of narrow interest groups and even corruption is evident, and a cause of real anxiety. We are for example opposed to the removal in the Draft Bill of the legal requirement for politically balanced committees. We also believe that special safeguards are needed for the process of planning decision and that these have not been adequately made in the proposals.

  It is therefore vitally important that any moves towards a more centralised structure are balanced by rigorous and effective safeguards. In this context the proposed new codes of conduct and other safeguarding mechanisms assume critical importance. Accordingly, whilst we welcome the emphasis in chapter 2 on wider consultation of the local community about governance, we have focused our comments on Chapters 3 and 4.

  In Chapter 3, we are not persuaded that the only options for change are the three broad models as set out in the White Paper. We therefore support the LGA's case for greater flexibility. We also believe that the status quo should not be so lightly dismissed. In our experience there are a significant number of local authorities where the present arrangements are working reasonably well and these should not be changed, with considerable upheaval and additional cost, purely for the sake of complying with a rigid centrally imposed view that change is always necessary. We hope that the LGA will make this point forcibly. We particularly question why the draft provisions should limit the size of the executive to as little as 15 per cent of the total number of councillors. In some cases it is quite possible that simply general principles, in order to establish a set of minimum safeguards on matters such as accountability and transparency. These issues should not be left to local discretion. We also fail to see why town and parish councils should be treated differently in this regard from principle authorities.

  We also welcome the establishment of a Standards Committee, but consider that both its role and membership are far too narrowly drawn. Too much is proposed for the National Standards Board, reflecting the over centralising tendencies of the whole set of proposals. It would be much more effective to devolve more responsibility to the local level, but then ensure that the Standards Committee has a majority of independent members, including an independent Chairman, so that they can provide an effective local scrutiny role. We would also propose that the Standards Committee should be required to regularly report to the local community about its work and, on appropriate occasions to hold hearings in public. The matter of sanctions should also be properly addressed and the Standards Committee should be given effective powers in this respect. A mere reprimand is quite inadequate.

  We welcome the arrangements for the appointment and work of the Monitoring Officer, but we are concerned that that officer may come under undue pressure on occasions, for example from unscrupulous councillors who sought to suppress issues. The legislation should therefore provide specific safeguards to protect the Monitoring Officer from such assaults on their integrity.

  As we briefly mentioned above, the National Standards Board has in our view been given too wide a role. It should surely only investigate allegations of major breaches of the local codes and these should be relatively narrowly prescribed. Their potential "army" of ethical standards officers could also then be reduced significantly in number! We welcome the establishment of an adjudication panel, independent of the ESOs, but in which case we are rather unclear as to the role of the non executive members of the Board. There frankly seems to be some duplication here which needs resolving.

  We also welcome the introduction of a statutory code of conduct for employees, and indeed consider such a code should be mandatory for all public servants, not merely those who work for local authorities.

7 April 1999

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