Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80
THURSDAY 17 JUNE 1999
Sir Paul Beresford
80. One of the successful systems at the moment
is that if the public have a complaint they write to the district
auditor and it is successful for a number of reasons, one of which
is it allows the district auditor the opportunity to thin it down
to the serious. Some of the complaints, in fact many of the complaints
that I have seen that have gone to various different auditors,
the outside advisor requires probably a psychiatrist. We are potentially,
if we adopt this method, opening the door for a flood of those
types of people who persistently and consistently write to complain
and make allegations.
(Mr Redpath) Yes. I think you as people
who sit in one or other of the Houses of Parliament, and we as
public officials, have probably all received our share of mail
from the sort of people you have in mind. Certainly those of you
who have served on local councils no doubt have been lobbied like
that too. I am not sure that we are actually establishing a system
that is going to increase the volume of such paperwork or correspondence,
though we may be redirecting it. Perhaps Edward Osmotherley and
his ombudsmen colleagues will thank us for that if we reduce the
size of their postbag. I think clearly we will need effective
procedures to sift out the vexatious, trivial, unsubstantiated
or frivolous allegations from those which are bona fide. In the
Department we have ways of dealing with our correspondence at
the moment. I think the ombudsman probably has ways of dealing
with that correspondence. I expect the standards board will need
to develop ways of dealing with that correspondence too.
(Mr Whetnall) There is a review being conducted by
the Cabinet Office on the instigation, I think, of the Local Authority
Ombudsmen, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, and the Health Service
Ombudsman (three jobs, five people I think), to see what can be
done about having more of a one-stop shop, more of a consistent
approach to complaints. Given that often people do not- why should
they?- really understand the complaints structure or even the
source of the provision of services. That was announced in the
Modernising Government White Paper.
Lord Marlesford: The area I would like to raise
is planning which is I think one of the most important areas as
far as standards are concerned. I would like just to quote a little
bit from Nolan where he says that planning is probably the most
contentious matter with which local government deals and it is
the one on which we have received by far the most submissions
from members of the public. It goes on to say we have no doubt
there have been serious abuses of the planning process. I would
like to focus first on one particular point which is very much
an internal one which Nolan identifies and it is a well known
one and that is local authorities giving themselves planning permission
when they have a particular material and financial interest. Nolan
says: "We have a particular concern about planning gain and
about local authorities granting themselves planning permission".
He then says in recommendation 38: "Government should require
authorities to notify the appropriate Secretary of State of all
planning applications in which they have an interest, either in
the development or the land, and where proposed development is
contrary to the local plan..." etc. There is very little
other than the little box in figure 11 on page 29 dealing with
all this. I would just like to give a little illustration to emphasise
the reality of this. The Braintree District Council some years
ago gave itself planning permission to erect hoardings advertising
various private products and ventures adjacent to the Witham bypass
which forms part of the A12 trunk road. This permission was given
contrary to the advice of its own planning officers. It is, of
course, contrary to public policy as set out in your Department's
PPG19 and yet they have continually done so and refused to withdraw
that planning consent up to date on the grounds that they are
getting a lot of money, I believe it is something in the region
of £30,000, by letting this particular site to advertising.
Here is an example which in my opinion is a clear abuse of their
own position of giving themselves planning consent and yet I cannot
see anything in the Bill which is proposing to deal with this
problem. Would you like to comment?
Chairman: I think we can only ask our witnesses
to comment on the principle, the A12 will have to be the subject
of another matter.
81. I am using it as a specific example of what
(Mr Whetnall) I think we would have to
refer you to a rather short paragraph in the White Paper itself
on local government "In Touch with the People" on the
substance of planning issues and whether planning permissions
should be made by councils in respect of their own business, which
I think is rather a specialist issue which I had better check
before I give a substantive reply. I know that one reason why
planning and propriety issues tend to get a bit mixed up is that
in general there is not a third party right of appeal against
82. There is not.
(Mr Whetnall) My planning colleagues
feel that there are quite substantial reasons why that should
be so. One way that a person who does not like a planning permission
can try and raise a complaint about it is to go to the ombudsman
on the grounds that a councillor had an undeclared interest or
whatever, and that does count for a substantial proportion of
the ombudsman's case work. It is a rather difficult and complex
area which, if I may, I will not give you a substantive response
to. I will come back to you on that subject.
Chairman: I think perhaps we ought to bring
this to a close. Can I ask Members of the Committee whether there
are any burning questions that they want to put to the witnesses
before we move on?
83. One very brief burning question and I suspect
the answer will be fairly brief. Paragraph 1.8 of the "Local
Leadership, Local Choice" document tantalisingly says: "The
Government will also seek such other legislation as is necessary
to carry though the rest of the White Paper agenda, including
the new duty for councils to promote the economic, social and
environmental well being of their area." That duty would
have a substantial impact on the operation of the structures that
we have been discussing this afternoon. Would it not be prudent
to try to consider the impact of that duty on those structures
and, therefore, include that in the legislation?
(Mr Whetnall) I think I began by saying
that there is a lot in the White Paper which in its way is all
part of a coherent package and in many ways it would be nice if
we could do a jumbo Bill that did it all at once but it is not
a decision that is in our hands.
84. I am not suggesting a jumbo bill, I am suggesting
this piece of legislation because it clearly would have a very
substantial impact, for example, on how a mayor might make his
or her case to be elected.
(Mr Whetnall) That particular thought
is in quite a lot of the consultation responses, including that
of the LGA. I see some force in that but that is not to say that
we can assume that it could be added to this Bill.
85. It is not to rule it out?
(Mr Whetnall) Neither ruling it in nor
86. I just want to be clear about that. It is
my understand that the GLA legislation effectively introduces
something similar to this.
(Mr Whetnall) Yes.
87. At the same time we have an elected mayor
there being put in with separated functions from the GLA assemblies
and so on. It would not be inconsistent to have it in some piece
(Mr Whetnall) The GLA legislation, which
was not the smallest Bill the Department has produced, of course
had the task of setting up completely de novo the assembly
and the mayor and it addressed social, economic, environmental
well being in the clause on the purposes of the authority, it
used to be Clause 23, I do not know where it has got to now. I
think they could argue coherently that it was part of setting
up the powers of the body. We would have to make a slightly different
88. It is about giving authorities a sense of
(Mr Whetnall) Yes.
Lord Bassam: The purpose is not in the legislation
terribly well defined.
89. I just want to echo that point as a question
as well. Are Ministers not minded to recognise the fact that this
structural change that is this agenda has, on the other side of
it, the need to be clear about the role and purpose of councils
and unless you are able to put the two together in the way in
which you communicate them to the public and indeed to this House,
it will not be as coherent and as satisfactory, not least for
those local authorities that have actually already embarked on
the process of trying to restructure themselves to meet the Government's
agenda. The way in which they are being persuaded to do it is
there is this enticement of community leadership, yet that is
not being provided through this Bill. It only requires two clauses
of the GLA Bill to put this power into place.
(Mr Whetnall) I do not think ministers'
minds are closed to that argument.
90. Can I just say to the gentlemen from the
Welsh Office, is there anything you wish to add, particularly
from a Welsh Office dimension, to the answers which have been
(Mr Ian Thomas) In terms of the ethical
framework our model is slightly different from that of England.
One of the problems we have sought to address, largely because
of the workload problems faced by establishing a separate Standards
Commission, is to consider the option of putting the Standards
Commission (which is our equivalent of the Standards Board in
England) in with the Local Government Ombudsman. We have consulted
on that as a possible option. The other solution was to look at
establishing a one-stop shop for the public to approach a regulatory
agency to complain about authorities-to have a form of routing
or signposting system. We have established a working group which
will look at how these things can be implemented, bringing the
together various organisations involved in local government and
the regulatory agencies to discuss the issues. There are problems
as far as bringing the Ombudsman, the Standards Commission and
the adjudication panel together, in the sense that, the ombudsman's
report is normally not subject to criticism or cross-examination;
it is regarded as the final document. The consultation paper proposes
that the adjudication body will be able to cross-examine witnesses,
which may be in conflict with current arrangements in relation
to the ombudsman. This is one of a number of issues which we are
currently looking at in terms of how to make the two systems compatible.
91. Can I just go back to the question Lady
Hamwee asked of the DETR, whether there would be draft secondary
legislation at the time of the Bill? As I understand it that will
be the Assembly's responsibility?
(Mr Ian Thomas) Yes.
92. Will that be a problem or will they be able
to meet the hopes expressed by the DETR?
(Mr Ian Thomas) It is basically up to
the Assembly. There are two methods by which secondary legislation
can be scrutinised by the Assembly. One is a fast track method,
which takes slightly longer than the existing system within Parliament.
The second system involves a more detailed form of scrutiny which
will involve assessments of th regulatory impacts of the various
proposals together with further consultation. We hope that the
business managers of the Assembly would take into account that
the current proposals have been subject to quite a lot of consultation,
and obviously the work of the Scrutiny Committee of this House
as well, so that they might opt towards the shorter fast track
method. But that will be up to the Assembly itself to determine.
Chairman: Thank you. If there are no other questions
may I thank the witnesses for their attendance. Thank you for
answering all of our questions so fully. We are grateful to you
for that and for your explanations.