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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 452 - 459)




  452. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much for responding to our invitation to come to give evidence to our Committee. As Members will know, we have representatives of both the Commission for Local Administration in England and the Commission for Local Administration in Wales. Perhaps I could ask the witnesses, starting with the Commission for Local Administration in England, if they would like to draw our attention to any particular items referred to in their written evidence, things that they would like to highlight, and then perhaps the representative from Wales may contribute, adding anything which has not already been said, before we go on to questions.

  (Mrs Thomas) Thank you very much. I am Patricia Thomas and I am the Vice Chairman of the Commission. Mr Osmotherly sends his apologies and he understood it was acceptable for me to come in his place. We have prepared a very short memorandum of some of the major issues that we see in the draft Bill. We do not feel that we can really make very much contribution to the framework, the organisational side of things. Our experience is very much on the standards side. What concerns us most about the organisation is that decision-making should be open and transparent and we would hope that provision is made somewhere so that whoever makes the decisions, they can be tracked, if you like, so that, for example, should I receive a complaint about a decision, I would be able, as an ombudsman, to see how that decision was taken and that proper consideration had been given to all matters that should have been taken account of. I think that is really all that we feel we should be saying about the organisation as that is very much a matter for other people. We are much more concerned, as you can understand, about the ethical standards side of the Bill and we feel that there are one or two things that we should raise with you. One is the procedure, which seems to us at the moment not to allow for any sort of filtering out of things which are vexatious or trivial. As ombudsmen, we have a section in our legislation which says that we can, at our discretion, decide whether to initiate, continue or discontinue investigation of a complaint and that is the section that we use really not to pursue things which clearly have no merit and we would suggest that there should be some provision in the legislation for that decision to be taken, preferably at a fairly early stage, but I think it is not for us to say exactly who or where. We are also somewhat concerned that the proposals are that the ethical standards officers, the Standards Board, should make a report on every complaint made to them which they are not going to pursue and have this put in newspapers, and that seems to us also to be a somewhat unnecessary provision. I am not entirely clear from looking at the Bill exactly how far it is expected that the Standards Board will go in its investigations. There is reference to the Adjudication Panel deciding whether there has been a breach on matters that are referred to the Panel and then on the penalty if there has. I think it is very difficult to read that alongside the powers given to the Standards Board to investigate and to make decisions about where a complaint should go. I do not see how an ethical standards officer can make a decision either that there is no merit in the complaint or that it should go back to the standards committee of the council or that it should go to the Adjudication Panel without actually coming to a view about the merits of the complaint itself, of the issue, so I think there is some difficulty for me anyway in understanding exactly what the Standards Board is to do other than pursue the investigation. I do not think you can do it without actually coming to a view if it is for the Standards Board to decide where it goes from there. There is also the concern which not only we have, but others have expressed it, about what powers exactly does a standards committee of the council have to deal with an individual councillor. The provision in the Bill only relates to providing training, et cetera, and it does not actually say whether they have any powers to investigate within the council and to take any action themselves against a councillor. It seems that only if it has gone right through the process to the Adjudication Panel and the Panel has come to a view that the councillor should be suspended or disqualified that it then goes back to the standards committee and I do not think the Bill is very clear on what the committee is then supposed to do about it. Otherwise there are a number of detailed points but I think those were my main concerns that I would like to raise now.

  453. Thank you. Mr Moseley, is there anything you want to add?

  (Mr Moseley) Yes. I am the Local Government Ombudsman for Wales. Like my colleague, Mrs Thomas, the bulk of the points I have made in the written memorandum relate to the ethical framework. The only passing comment I would make on Part I of the Bill relates to open government. One of the features of the current system which is fairly unique is that the public have access to agendas and reports to committees in advance of a meeting and certainly, in so far as openness is an important contribution towards good conduct, then I think that in so far as papers for meetings of the executive will not be available in advance, that will be a diminution of the current rules on openness. Save for that point, the other points relate to Part II. I do refer to the current position, as I see it, in Wales, where, although there have been problems in the past, from my perspective there seems to have been an improvement in the last two or three years. There is a feature of the Government's proposals for Wales which is different from England and that is a proposal that my office, the Commission for Local Administration, take on the role of the Standards Commission or Standards Board and I see some advantages in that proposal but also some disadvantages and I have set that out in the memorandum. Otherwise, I will wait to hear any questions.

Mr Gray

  454. On the structure side, could I ask both Mrs Thomas and Mr Moseley, because Mr Moseley has partly answered the question I was about to ask, is there not a disadvantage in the fact that cabinet minutes by and large will be secret and that is a diminution in the degree of accountability? Might there not be ethical considerations there? It is a point which Mr Moseley raised but Mrs Thomas did not. Would you prefer to see a stipulation that the cabinet should be as open in its deliberations as the full council is at the moment?

  (Mr Moseley) Certainly as far as I am concerned an adequate audit trail of reports and minutes and agendas and so forth will be crucial to openness, and from a practical point of view, crucial to an investigation should there be questions raised. In my experience in the past problems have arisen because of the lack of adequate written records and very often they have been the symptom of arbitrary decision-making.

  455. Yes, but in a way it deals with future minutes and there will be minutes of the cabinet. The point I am really making is, is there not an argument in favour of the public and the press being admitted to cabinet meetings in precisely the way they are at the moment admitted to full council meetings?

  (Mr Moseley) There is certainly an argument for that. I would not want to stray into discussing the advantages of cabinet government, whether the advantages in terms of swift government and efficient government outweigh the disadvantages in terms of openness.

  456. Yes, I suppose you could make that point. Mrs Thomas may want to answer this one. Maybe swiftness and efficiency is a more important consideration than scrutiny by the public and the press. Is that a reasonable point to make?

  (Mrs Thomas) I would not accept that completely. I would think it is very important that decisions are made as openly as possible and people can understand how those decisions have been made.

  457. Therefore, public and press access to cabinets might well be a good idea?

  (Mrs Thomas) That might me a good idea. Like Mr Moseley I do not know that I would have a strong enough view to go on record as saying that should be the case. I have not given enough thought to the detail of that.

  458. One or two other points on structures in that case, very briefly. First, do you think the standards committee will have any useful role to fulfil or will be easily constituted where there is an overwhelming majority of one political party or the other?

  (Mrs Thomas) A standards committee which has independent members I would have thought would, or could, operate perfectly well.

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