Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300
TUESDAY 29 JUNE 1999
300. So if you were to outline a modernising
agenda, what would it be from the union's perspective?
(Ms Geldart) We think there is a terrific
role for local government which has been taken away over the past
20 years or so. I do not want to enter into a party political
discussion here, but what in effect has happened is that the leadership
role in local communities and the delivery of services role has
substantially been taken away from local authorities and our view
is that should be returned. The issues that are raised by this
powers issue are crucial to it. There are clearly new areas which
have been developed by a lot of progressive local authorities
over the last few years which we would like to see authorities
developing in terms of community leadership but also in terms
of changing the way in which services are delivered and being
more effective in delivering services in the community. Clearly
that goes along with a very great deal of the Government's modernising
agenda and we have no problem with much of it. Obviously we have
problems with the detail, as you will have gathered, in this and
some other areas.
Earl of Carnarvon
301. You mentioned the problems of an employee
of a council having political ambitions. I believe the present
rule is that an employee of a council cannot stand for election
within the council's geographical area but can in an adjacent
council, is that correct?
(Ms Geldart) Yes.
302. Is that the sort of thing you were thinking
about or going beyond that?
(Mr Davies) The key issue for us is that
in the restricted activities at the moment there is a clause which
effectively has prevented many of our members from speaking about
matters of community controversy. For example, they may wish to
speak out about the building of a new road or the closure of a
hospital purely on a personal basis, but if one political party
in the neighbourhood supports the closure of the hospital and
another does not then it could be construed under the current
legislation as promoting one political party or another. Many
of our members accept the principles of political neutrality but
they wish to speak out on matters of community controversy. If
a librarian in the City happens to live in a rural area and there
is a road going through that rural area, they do not understand
why speaking out against the building of that road should prejudice
their opportunity to be a senior librarian in a far away London
borough. As the law is at the moment it could be construed as
a proscribed activity.
303. You mean they cannot speak about something
that affects a different borough to which they live in?
(Ms Geldart) If it could be construed
as promoting one political party as opposed to another.
304. Would you accept that they should not be
able to speak on controversial matters within the area in which
they are employed?
(Ms Geldart) I do not know if there is
any confusion about this. This is the provision in the 1989 Act
which relates to people above a certain income threshold and to
people in certain occupational areas which we think are drawn
much too widely. Frankly, we think that has been limited very
substantially. It would not be appropriate to see the chief executive
of a local authority on a political platform or even one that
could remotely be seen as being a political platform locally,
but at a couple of levels below that we do not see why people
who happen to live in the area in which they work should not be
active, particularly if it does not affect their own job. If a
librarian has got a view about road building or a highways person
has got a view about libraries we really do not see why that person
should not be able to participate in local campaigning and exercise
their civic rights in that way.
305. It is important that they should not be
able to express a view on the issue that they are advising the
council on. That is quite different and that is what the position
used to be, is it not?
(Ms Geldart) Prior to the 1989 Act, yes.
(Mr Davies) We have suggested to civil servants that
the current provision should be replaced by a conflict of interest
test rather than a blanket prescription.
306. Does UNISON have a view on referenda?
(Mr Davies) Underlying all this is our
view that local councils should have as much freedom to decide
about how they organise the changes in their own area and if a
local council decided that a referendum was the appropriate way
to test the views of the public then we would have no problem
with that referendum. What we do have a problem with is a mechanism
by which governments can enforce referenda on local councils which
they do not feel are appropriate or necessary.
307. Could I take you back to something that
has been concerning me and that follows from Mr Burstow's question
about the scenario where the scrutiny function runs the council
rather than the executive running the council. Since it is envisaged
in the paper that scrutiny obviously can include policy as well
as implementation and a majority group is conducting scrutiny,
the particular concern I have is that the policy caught up in
the scrutiny becomes policy in its own right through the council
and then rules the activities of the mayor and executive. Now,
from an officer's point of view, would you envisage circumstances
being difficult for officers whereby officers would be caught
up, by advising one side or the othereither by backing
the council in its policy and scrutiny, or backing the mayor and
executive in terms of their attempting to resist that in terms
of their implementation job. How would you see officers distinguishing
(Ms Geldart) That cuts both ways. It
does not matter whether the scrutiny committee is paramount or
the executive is paramount. There clearly is a potential conflict
between giving advice to both sides. That is, in a sense, to echo
what was said from the SOLACE representatives, that if you are
going to set up a clear distinction between executive and scrutiny,
which is a novel idea in local government, then there probably
needs to be some sort of mirroring of the system that exists in
Parliament, where there is some sort of independent officer support
to each side of the process, so as to avoid that happening.
308. If scrutiny migrated to policy, it would
be very difficult to sustain that, would it not?
(Ms Geldart) Yes. I do not know what
the answer to the problem is.
309. May I ask you very briefly, SOLACE, in
the evidence you heard given this afternoon, clearly had some
concern about a lack of clarity between the role of the members
and the role of the chief executives and chief officers. You have
not said anything to the Committee about whether you have any
worries about the effect on members, who may or may not be members
of the executive, assuming management roles; and the effect that
might have on you and your members. Maybe you do not think it
is going to be a problem.
(Mr Davies) But it is already a problem,
that is the point, which perhaps has made us less than forthcoming
on that. At the moment, our members say to us that there is, because
perhaps of the politicisation of local government over the last
20 years, in some councils senior councillors have already moved
so far into management that it is actually rather difficult to
make any hard and fast distinctions about who does what. Clearly
the danger is even greater if you have a cabinet councillor, so
to speak, who is effectively running a service. All we have said
in our paper is that there must be clarity. That is the reason
why we want to have this protocol governing the relationship between
councillors and officers. But we do not, at this stage, have any
clear views about where the line should be drawn. However, we
think it needs to be drawn out of a process of discussion between
the Local Government Association, SOLACE, ourselves, and other
parties who have some view.
310. May I ask one question about the Standards
Commission. There is an interesting distinction, towards the end
of the document, between the Standards Commission for members
and a Code of Conduct for officers. Do you think that division
is appropriate in terms of what is attempted to be achieved by
the ethics section of this Bill?
(Mr Davies) Yes, because as we have understood
it, the Code of Conduct for employees is going to become part
of the disciplinary procedures. That is right and proper. Our
members are paid employees of local councils. They need to understand
what rules of conduct govern their behaviour. Ideally, rules are
jointly owned, as we have said in our paper; but, yes, that is
an appropriate way for employees to be governed in terms of the
standards and ethics. There is a slight danger that they will
get sucked into standards committees' investigations of overall
problems, and we do have difficulty about how the security of
employment issues of officers will be protected if they are drawn
into standards investigations, which are essentially about the
activities of councillors. But, in general terms, a distinction
between the standards committee for councillors and the disciplinary
procedure for employees seems a reasonable one.
311. The provision for complaint though is pretty
much a scatter gun, is it not, ie, complaints can be mounted by
a variety of people on a variety of causes, and may well involve
a combination of councillors and officers which are then required
to be investigated.
(Mr Davies) Sure. The member of the public
may have a complaint, but they do not know if it is a chief officer
or a councillor who is the source of the problem that they are
complaining about, so in a sense at some stage, whether it is
within the council or at the standards committee, there will have
to be some filtering to decide whether the problem is a councillor
problem or an officer problem.
312. What about an officer filing a complaint
under the ethics proposals against councillors?
(Ms Geldart) Why not? We have been pursuing
issues about whistle-blowing of all sorts and we want to see all
officers' rights to blow the whistle, if necessary, effected.
313. So presumably the Code of Conduct that
would be drawn up for officers would include a provision which
would not suppress that right under the first part of the provision?
(Mr Davies) There is already a Code of
Conduct on whistle-blowing which has been the subject of discussion
between the Local Government Association and the trade unions
in general and although there are some areas of slight difficulty,
in general there is already a reasonable understanding of whistle-blowing
which could very easily be imported into this new ethics system.
Chairman: Thank you very much indeed for coming.
Thank you for your evidence and for answering our questions. We
are adjourned until Thursday at 3.30 pm.