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


Memorandum by South East Employers

  South East Employers represents local authorities in the south east of England in their role as employers of very significant numbers of local government staff. We also provide councils with a range of employee and councillor development services.

  The following comments on the draft Bill reflect our role as an employers' organisation. However, as an organisation which works across all elements of the human resource function, we have also made some general comments on the organisational feasibility of some of the proposals in the Bill.

  With regard to employment issues, we feel that the Government will need to address the following points:

    1.  Where councils opt for an elected mayor, more thought needs to be given to the mayor's status with regard to employment law issues. The mayor should not be an "employee" of the council, but since the mayor will be a paid worker, how will issues such as pension advice, sick pay, taxation, health and safety etc be addressed?

    2.  Whilst we support the proposal that remuneration for mayors will be pensionable, it would be undesirable, for both actuarial and ethical reasons, to allow mayors to join the LGPS. An alternative scheme for mayors should therefore be in place, and this needs to be easy to join and administer.

    3.  It might be helpful to have clearer expectations of when an elected mayor is expected to be "on duty" or available to residents and senior managers, with some disqualification sanction for failure to meet these expectations—not just the sanction of the next mayoral election. Will there be an enforceable "Code of Performance" for mayors? Who would take action to enforce this—eg could breaches be reported to the Standards Board?

    4.  Notwithstanding the comments in paragraphs 3.55 and 3.56 of Local Leadership, Local Choice, we can envisage that, often, a change of elected mayor will lead the council to wish to terminate the employment of the manager and/or associated senior employment. This will often be on "political" compatibility, and may not accord well with current statute on unfair dismissal—especially if the current Employment Relations Bill removes the ability to include unfair dismissal waivers in fixed term contracts. In our opinion, the Organisation and Standards Bill should include specific provisions for the dismissal of the mayor and his/her senior staff (or the use of fixed term contracts) which can be applied alongside other statutes. This will need to be accompanied by a decent compensation scheme for those who are dismissed in these circumstances. The danger otherwise is that insecurity in employment will lead to a dearth of good calibre managers.

    5.  We welcome the intention to reduce the number and level of posts to which political restrictions apply, especially as we can see possible conflict between the current rules and forthcoming Human Rights legislation. In our view, political restrictions should apply to Chief Officers, Cabinet/Executive advisers and those providing policy advice either to the scrutiny committee or full council.

    6.  Generally we also welcome the concept that elected members should not be involved in appointments below Chief Officer and Deputy level. However, there may occasionally be posts below this level where members have a legitimate interest in the appointment (eg Members Services Officers). It would be better to have a "special dispensation" for this type of appointment rather than to have members attempting to influence the appointment in a "behind the scenes" way.

    7.  We welcome the idea of a statutory code of conduct for employees in principle, but the detailed wording and application of such a code is a complex issue, on which we would expect full consultation at a later stage, before any code is implemented.

  The employee and councillor development implications of new decision making structures are obvious, but this does not make it any less important that they should be addressed. In particular.

    —  There is no real tradition of councillors specialising in particular roles or quasi-ministerial portfolios. All elected members are currently "generalists" and cover executive, representative and scrutiny roles, and often move between these roles. This flexibility has some virtues and it may be that both the residents and Councillors in certain Councils prefer to retain this, but the new structures required by the Bill seem to preclude this.

    —  If we accept that the new models will be introduced, much work needs to be done, therefore, to prepare them for effective discharge of new, more specialist roles, including the role of mayor itself if that option is chosen.

    —  Given that members will still be elected on four year terms, time to prepare them for new roles post-election will be very limited. One option would be to prepare candidates for their potential roles as councillors, although this may be difficult to fund, and would mean that many candidates were trained unnecessarily. A better option would be intensive post-election training, but more work is needed on the detail of this.

    —  Looking at the expectations of an elected mayor as a representative of the Council's residents, we doubt whether it is feasible to expect a single person to meet these in large, geographically diverse areas, which may encompass two or more towns of similar size and some distance apart.

    —  Care will need to be taken that, at member level, the relationship between executive and scrutiny members does not become damagingly adversarial. Again it will be important to put in place appropriate Councillor learning and development to avoid the potential pitfalls.

    —  From an officer perspective, the new decision making models will radically alter the interface with elected members. Having "executive" and "scrutiny"' members could change the important tradition of advising and informing members impartially, regardless of their status. There are bound to be tensions between an officer's responsibility to the executive and to members of the scrutiny committee and much careful thought will need to be given to new relationships and protocols for behaviour between officers and committees, with officers needing training in this area to help them adjust.

    —  There is a danger that those officers who work most closely with the executive could become politicised to the degree where other officers see them as agents of the ruling political party.

    —  Officers in Councils which are prone to political change could well become over-cautious in the way they advise the current executive, so as to avoid putting themselves in a vulnerable position when an executive with different politics takes over.

  The above points lead us to question whether the government has paid enough attention to the simultaneous impact of Best Value, new decision making methods, as well as new ways of consulting and working with the community. Local government has a good track record on absorbing and coping with continuous change, but an expectation that the whole "Modern Local Government" agenda can be created within a very short period may prove unrealistic, and may deflect the aim of revitalising local governance. Furthermore, this Bill is one of a plethora of measures introducing requirements to consult local residents within the next few years—there is a danger that an overload of consultation will alienate rather than involve the public. There is an issue over whether, in any case, the decision making structures proposed in the Bill will offer a real and discernible difference from current structures to the ordinary resident and voter.

  Finally, as an organisation which is very close to the human resource function in local authorities, we would question some of the organisational assumptions which seem to be behind the Bill:

    —  We would question the assumption that the proposed new decision making models will streamline processes, cut bureaucracy and reduce paper etc. Having both executive and scrutiny committees, both able to call for reports and demand officer attendance may, in fact, increase the amount of resources spent in servicing and advising the decision making process. Officers may also have to spend time and resources dealing with conflict between the executive and scrutiny arms of the council. Support will be needed for the development of the many panels and focus groups.

    —  We are concerned that, if the executive chooses to meet in private, decisions taken in a closed "cabinet" will not help accountability or transparency. It may not be clear to employees or the public who, within the cabinet set up, is responsible for taking a particular decision (cp the clear schemes of delegation which councils currently have). This could mean that the scrutiny process is diverted to tracking down who is responsible for a decision (ie a witch hunt) rather than looking at the decision itself. Employee morale is likely to suffer if it is not clear who is making decisions. One option would be a requirement for executives to meet in public, but with a facility for "Part 2" items, as with Committees at present.

    —  There is no mention about the involvement and/or control by the party group system, nor of how the executive will relate to party political groupings in a hung Council; some guidance on how executives should be formed when no single party has control will be important.

    —  It would be helpful to have a clear statement on the role which scrutiny committees are expected to play within the performance review process under Best Value. We understand that some Councils have already looked at developing a positive role for such Committees in this context.

    —  We are concerned that the role of Council manager in particular could be seen as less attractive and rewarding than the current role of Chief Executive, as this role appears primarily administrative—again this could adversely affect the calibre of future applicants for Council manager posts.

    —  Our knowledge of the decision making process in over 70 councils leads us to think that the three decision making models put forward in the Bill are too restrictive. Many councils in our region have begun successful experiments with other types of decision making models—eg area based committees, and more work is needed on how these can be made compatible with the three options in the new arrangements. Whilst the three models may be viable for unitary, urban councils with one-party control, more thought needs to be given to processes which will work in large, rural authorities (eg in shire county areas), especially where no one party has control.

  We hope the above comments will help to refine thinking on the provisions contained in the Bill.

  Finally, we must protest at the very short consultation period allowed on the Bill, especially with both Easter and the local elections falling in the consultation period. With this in mind, we hope that there will be further consultation at appropriate stages on the detailed elements which make up the Bill.

21 May 1999

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