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


Memorandum by Kent County Council

  Kent County Council was generally in support of the package of proposals the government put forward in its consultative documents and White Paper last year. It welcomed the commitment to healthy local democratic government and many of its ideas for development. It regrets that a number of these are not included in either the current Local Government Bill or the draft Bill appended to Local Leadership Local Choice. It particularly regrets the absence of any proposal to return non-domestic rates to individual local authorities or the introduction of a power of community initiative to symbolise and empower the community leadership role government wishes local authorities to play.

  The proposals now put forward for reform of political management structures are likely to be compatible with this Council's line of development which is formed on the principles of improving decision making, community leadership and accountability. However, the Bill as drafted would replace a statutory framework for internal organisation of authorities that is essentially enabling (with some restrictions) with one that prescribes boundaries within which authorities will have discretion. Under the present law councils have developed a wide variety of structures and working practices that reflect local needs and aspirations. It is important that the provisions of the Bill and regulations under it give the freedom to enable that existing rich diversity of management arrangements to continue and evolve.

  KCC already operates a high degree of delegation to officers so that most of its committee meetings are devoted to policy issues and scrutiny type reports that would fall within the scope of the overview and scrutiny committees described in the paper. Experience with a prototype cabinet is that even a full-time executive could not give adequate attention to the mass of policy work facing a local council. We support the definition of the role of the executive in Local Leadership, Local Choice but need the freedom within the assignment of functions of council and executive to devise arrangements that let all Members have a meaningful role in policy at different levels as well as the scrutiny and other roles the paper sets out.

  We are concerned that the non-executive members of the Council are properly supported by officers in their scrutiny, policy formation, quasi-judicial and other functions. While dedicated staff are part of the answer, for many purposes non-executive members will need information and advice from the senior officers of the Council who will be supporting the executive. The draft Bill is in many ways applying a Westminster: Whitehall model to local government which has a different legal basis and has evolved a different set of member: officer relationships. Changing the structure requires close consideration of the detailed law underlying the existing system and of the codes of conduct used in local government and which are to be given more formal status under Part 2 of the Bill.

  The Bill currently contains no provisions for applying the current access to information rules to executive arrangement. These rules work well. While they will need to be reconsidered in the light of the government's more general proposals on freedom of information including those for Government, Cabinet and Ministerial decision meetings, the Council considers it essential the Bill includes amendments to the Local Government Act to accommodate executive arrangements. In the Council's views these must enable executives to deliberate and take advice in private but then be obliged to report, explain and justify full in council and, subject to existing exemptions, in public. Failure to allow briefing of cabinet to take place in private would only force pre-cabinet meetings which could take advice in private.

  The Council has already reformed its allowances structure in accordance with the recommendations of an independent panel. The structure includes the retention of attendance allowance as this is the only way under present rules of recognising the different levels of time individual members can commit to council business; any reform of allowance rules should preserve this flexibility. Simply abolishing attendance allowance does not do this.

  On part two of the Bill the Council accepts that further measures are necessary to preserve the good reputation of local government generally but feels the structure proposed is over bureaucratic and should allow for local filtering and settlement of complaints where this can be achieved—that would give Standards Committees a clear role which the present proposals do not. The proposals need to take on board the role of the Monitoring Officer and the interests of councils as a corporate body in complaints. The Council regrets the absence of any provisions to review the archaic rules on what is and is not an interest as recommended by the Neill Committee.

  The issues raised above would benefit from a close dialogue at officer and member level between central and local government. The Council urges that this dialogue take place before the Bill is formally presented to Parliament.

27 May 1999

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