Examination of Witnesses (Questions 452
TUESDAY 6 JULY 1999
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.
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.
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.