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


Memorandum by the London Borough of Sutton

  Sutton Council pride themselves on the mechanisms it has already put in place to encourage local decision making and fairness and transparency in the way it conducts its business. Sutton has four Area Committees where local residents are able to speak. It has a Monitoring and Scrutiny Sub-Committee which challenges the way services are provided. It has a requisitioning process whereby any four Members or a quarter of the members of the committee or sub-committee concerned can requisition any decision made. Sutton Council also has a system whereby the choice of order of business in a Council Meeting is rotated between the three political parties. It has a relatively small number of Committees in relation to many Authorities and Sutton believes that the proposals contained in the Consultation Paper will not necessarily speed up decision making or transparency. This response has the agreement of all parties apart from where it relates to the Chairing of Scrutiny Committees. The Conservative Group believe that any scrutiny committees should be chaired by the opposition. The Labour Group believe that some Scrutiny Committees should be chaired by the Opposition. Sutton has not made any firm decision on this point.


  Sutton Council is strongly committed to consulting the local community on a wide range of issues and is preparing to consult on a series of models for a new political management structure in May 1999. The Council believes, however, that how, when and on what the community is consulted should be a matter for local councillors.

  The Council is concerned about the lower threshold to trigger a referendum for an elected mayor and believes that this should be reviewed whilst accepting some right of Citizen's Initiative with regard to the calling of referendums on a defined range of subject with perhaps a petition trigger threshold similar to the 20 per cent figure used for grammar school ballots. Sutton does not believe it is necessary or desirable for the Secretary of State to have the power to compel a binding referendum if a council does not move to a new model or does not put proposals to a referendum. It believes the Secretary of State should instead trust local residents to decide whether there is a need for change.


  The Council has no objections to the Government having a view about how Local Government should be organised. It does, however, firmly believe that the type and style of the political management structure should be a matter for local councils to work out with their communities within a broad legal framework. It strongly objects to the narrow number and prescriptive nature of the options that the Government is proposing.

  Sutton is already considering a number of the proposals set out in the consultation document. In particular the Council is attracted to the notion of:

    —  the executive functions being split from the overview and scrutiny roles;

    —  the existence of a "cabinet" chaired by the Leader of the Council;

    —  the need for transparency and local accountability in decision making;

    —  considering ways of ensuring greater involvement by the community in the running of the Council.

  However, the Council has the following comments in relation to other aspects of the Consultation Document:

    —  It does not believe that greater accountability can only be achieved by the three models outlined in the Government's White Paper "Modern Local Government: In Touch with the People".

    —  Sutton does not believe that the three models in themselves will achieve transparency and greater accountability.

    —  It also objects to the proposal that the "cabinet" should be composed only of Councillors from the Administration. Among other proposals, Sutton is going to consult the community on the proposition that all three political parties should be represented in the "cabinet" according to proportionality.

    —  Sutton urges the Government to allow Authorities the freedom to have all parties represented on the Cabinet. It is also important to acknowledge that there are Authorities where genuine inter-party debate is a culture which ought not to be stifled.

    —  The Council is disappointed that the Government has not given any clear lead on setting up Area Committees. Sutton has had four Area Sub-Committees in operation for three years and is proposing to include them in its new model of political management. Area Committees perform a valuable function because they have powers to take decisions at a local level. Any model the Government finally decides should encourage local decision making.

    —  The Council strongly opposes the notion that the Government should prescribe the number of Councillors sitting in the "cabinet". It believes that this is a matter for local choice.

    —  The Government has made it very clear that it wants Councils to adopt the models incorporating an elected Mayor. The Council is concerned about the potential dangers associated with the concentration of power in the hands of an elected Mayor. Where Councils do adopt such a model, the Government should ensure that there are adequate safeguards to prevent abuse of power. Sutton believes that elected Mayors may be more appropriate for big "city" authorities rather than smaller suburban or rural boroughs.

    —  For Authorities that have a large number of Committees, the proposal will streamline the process. For Authorities like Sutton who deal with a number of matters through Panels, Forums, Working Parties etc, this will not speed up decision making. On the contrary, Sutton believes there may be a requirement for more meetings and more Officer support. Sutton recognises that the proposals imply greater delegation to officers and again, Sutton is not convinced that this will lead to more transparent Government.


  Sutton Council have high expectations of both their officers and Members in respect of their conduct. It has already adopted a Sutton Code of Conduct for Members and a Code of Conduct for Employees. Sutton believes that the content of the Code should be a matter for individual Councils and that the Government should not be too prescriptive on what they will require.

  Sutton have already set up a Standards Committee. It believes that the membership of that Committee should be a matter for Local Councils to decide. Sutton's Committee is currently made up of the Leaders from the three parties.

  The relationship between the Standards Board, the Ombudsman and the Council's External Auditors is not clarified. Sutton believes thought should be given to the potential overlap of roles. Clear guidance should be given on who will be responsible for what.

  Sutton believes that most Local Authorities have high ethical standards. It believes that setting up of Standards Boards, the appointment of Ethical Standards Officers and the appointment of an Adjudication Panel are unduly complex and bureaucratic and don't make for speedy decision making in an area where it is very important. The whole process smacks of the twin tracing requirements arising from the Widdecombe Report. The machinery set up to deal with appeals or requests for dispensation has not been widely used. The responsibilities for reporting and investigation could be given to Councils' External Auditors or Ombudsman.

  The powers of suspension with an appeal to the High Court are draconian, potentially very expensive and liable to delay. Thought needs to be given to how the local residents will be represented during any suspension period. Disqualification allows for replacement, whereas suspension doesn't.

29 April 1999

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