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


Memorandum by Dorset County Council

  The Government's affirmation of the vital role of locally elected councils, in improving the quality of people's lives, is greatly welcomed.

  This County Council has already put in place an Executive Committee of eight members, chaired by the Leader of the County Council, meeting initially fortnightly, to give leadership and direction, at member level, over the whole range of the County Council's affairs. We are actively implementing many of the things urged in the White Paper, and are well advanced on many of the items in your "What you should do" postscript.

  However, there are a number of matters we would wish to raise.

    —  The County Council would urge that the Government should avoid being over-prescriptive in the detail of procedural requirements in the Bill. This County Council has 42 members, and according to the detailed formula laid down, the Executive Committee may not exceed six members. The County Council are not convinced why this level of detail should be prescribed.

    —  The Government also urged to remember that local government for nearly half the population of England, and the great majority of its land area, is provided through two tiers of principal councils. The strong traditions of county government, and the circumstances of the two tier system, should be borne in mind.

    —  More specifically, the government are urged to recognise that many authorities, including Dorset, will wish to maintain present practices of openness, public accountability for decision making, and political proportionality in the workings of their executive bodies, as well as other committees. The traditions of probity, openness of reports and decision making, and public access to decision making meetings, should not lightly be cast aside.

    —  Elected members are surprised to see that it is contemplated that the Chairman of the Council may not be a member of a scrutiny committee. In shire counties, in particular, the Chairman of the Council has played an important and influential role in the affairs of the authority as a whole. We do not believe that the case is made out that the Chairman of the Council may not be a member of a scrutiny committee.

    —  The use of the word "mayor" may lead to misunderstanding. The Government's concept of it is of a strong political leader. In many authorities, however, the title is used for the civic and ceremonial chairman. For the avoidance of misunderstanding, the Lead of the Executive (whether directly elected or not) might more appropriately be called the "Leader". At least, there should be local discretion allowed as to nomenclature.

    —  So far as the executive/scrutiny distinction is concerned, care should be taken to ensure that the new approach and/or legislation do not have the effect of fragmenting and causing duplication in the officer structures. This could be an expensive distraction from service delivery.

    —  So far as the probity provisions are concerned, great care should be taken not to create new costly bureaucratic machinery, disproportionate to the extent of any probity problem. This County Council maintains the view expressed in response to last year's consultation paper "a new ethical framework"—ie

    "The general thrust of the consultation paper—to achieve greater clarity on the various rules governing conduct in local government, and in their enforcement—is welcomed. There are in this authority firm conventions and expectations of absolute probity throughout the County Council's affairs and conventions and mechanisms for safeguarding them. However, there is never room for complacency, and the Government's concern that probity should be achieved and safeguarded throughout local government, is welcomed.

    However, great care should be taken not to create new costly bureaucratic machinery, disproportionate to the extent of any problem that now exists. There is scope for developing the present regulatory arrangements, through the Head of Paid Service, the Monitoring Officer, and the Chief Financial Officer, reporting to the local authority itself, overseen by the local ombudsman and district audit systems, rather than introducing an entirely new regulatory system, additional to and running alongside the existing ones."

  This authority is not convinced that the case is made out for the new panoply of standards boards, ethical standards officers, adjudication panels and hearings.

  We have responded separately to the DFEE's consultation on the proposals for parent governor representatives on Education Committees. The issue also arises in your White Paper. The principle of having some form of consultative arrangements with parents is welcomed. However, strong objection is made to the proposal to give parents voting rights on committees because:

    (a)  They are not accountable for their actions to the electorate, as elected members are.

    (b)  Voting parent governor representatives on committees which are closely balanced politically could result in the mandate of the leading political group being frustrated.

    (c)  How could a limited number of parent governor representatives be representative of all parent governor representatives, especially in a rural county where parent governors would not be known outside their own town or village?

  We would therefore ask that this proposal should be reconsidered.

19 May 1999

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