Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 92)



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.

Lord Marlesford

  81. I am using it as a specific example of what one means.

  (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 planning permission.

  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?

Dr Whitehead

  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.

Lord Bassam

  85. It is not to rule it out?

  (Mr Whetnall) Neither ruling it in nor out.

  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 of legislation?

  (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 case.

  88. It is about giving authorities a sense of purpose.

  (Mr Whetnall) Yes.

  Lord Bassam: The purpose is not in the legislation terribly well defined.

Mr Burstow

  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 given?

  (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.

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