Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Somerset Association of Local Councils (LGA 11)

  This evidence is submitted on behalf of the Somerset Association of Local Councils whose membership comprises the Parish, Town and City Councils in the administrative county of Somerset. There are some 260 Local Councils (distinct, independent, elected local authorities) in the county ranging from the Town Council of Yeovil, the City Council of Wells to the Parish Council for Cutcombe (a small settlement in the middle of Exmoor). There are 2,319 Councillors on the Parish Councils in the county. This evidence has been prepared by Peter W Lacey, the County Secretary of the Association.

  Much of the Local Government Act 2000 is not directly relevant to the workings of Local Councils. This memorandum therefore addresses, in the main, only the issues that are relevant to Parish & Town Councils.

  1.  The duty for local authorities to promote economic, social and environmental well-being does not apply to local councils. A similar power exists in the Local Government Act 1972 at section 137 (as amended), but is generally thought to be more restrictive than the new power. Further guidance is understood to be coming from the Department shortly. The section 137 power does carry a cash limit, currently £3-50 per elector per year, which is due for revaluation when parliamentary time permits. The 2000 Act power does not carry any cash limit thus producing an example of "some are more equal that others", and a different set of rules for particular authorities. It is hardly surprising that the public are confused.

  2.  The new arrangements with respect to executives, elected mayors and cabinets, do not directly affect Parish & Town Councils but there are two consequences that have yet to be fully followed through. Firstly, there is the possibility of confusion for the public in those cases where a major town in the District has a Town Mayor and then a District mayor is appointed. Secondly the day-to-day operation of cabinet style government and the scrutiny committee structures have not yet been in operation long enough for a proper test. There are to date some concerns around the difficulties of accessing the busy cabinet members and properly influencing the decision-makers. Once again, it is hardly surprising that the public are confused

  3.  The new provisions relating to the conduct of councillors and officers are directly relevant to our member authorities and have been the subject of a number of misleading newspaper articles. The remainder of this memorandum relates only to the new Ethical Framework.

  4.  Members are supportive of the General Principles as set out in The Relevant Authorities (General Principles) Order, SI 2001 No: 1401. The translation of those principles into the detailed Code of Conduct has given rise to many uncertainties and to some threats from councillors to resign their membership of their Council. The major stumbling blocks appear to be the requirement to Register landholdings in the Parish, and to Register shareholdings. As a result of training activity it is now becoming clear that there may well be some difficulties in maintaining an effective Council in some smaller authorities where the councillors are also members of other, usually charitable, bodies operating in the Parish. This recognises the shortage of volunteers to take on unpaid, voluntary, community activity.

  5.  The Mandatory Code of Conduct has to be adopted by 5 May 2002, it is a matter of regret that the necessary training for Parish Councillors and Clerks started rather later in the process than some would have liked (the earliest that I am aware of was in mid-February), and that the necessary subordinate legislation was not issued until nine weeks prior to the latest adoption date. Training has been (or in one District will be) offered in all areas before the middle of April. The standard of training has varied significantly and it is proving difficult to get a common answer to some of the frequently asked questions. It is clear that the Monitoring Officers have not had (or made, or taken) the opportunity to consider the effects of the new Code in the Parish Councils.

  6.  The application of the Code is somewhat uncertain in a number of areas and the early issue of guidance from the Standards Board (or others) is eagerly awaited. The current position being that the members are assuming the worst case scenario, and then, in public or the Press, describing the Code as intrusive and unreasonable. The Association hopes that the long-term result of the introduction of the Code will be an improvement in the standing of all elected representatives and a lively interest in community affairs from members of the public. The delivery of initiatives such as Quality Parish Councils (Rural White Paper November 2000) will depend on there being local people with a long term interest in their community, and in its proper local government.

  7.  Some members have concluded that the requirements placed on Parish Councillors are more extensive and onerous than those required of Members of Parliament. Hence, some comparisons have been unfavourable to Honourable and Right Honourable colleagues of Members of the Committee and I consider that some thought ought to be given to the establishment of a common Code that could apply to all elected representatives.

  8.  There is much concern over the operation of the "whistle-blowing" requirement which with the "bringing into disrepute" paragraph could produce a golden opportunity for councillors and others to try and settle long-running disputes with colleagues or members of the public. This may well prove to be unfounded when the Standards Board issues guidance and case studies prior to case law developing over the years. To a limited extent the Inquiry is too early with regard to the operation of the Code as much will depend on its effects on actual cases. There is much scope for the malicious and vexatious complainant.

  9.  The Association welcomes the clarity in the Code setting out the need for a member who has declared a prejudicial interest to leave the room or chamber.

  10.  The Register of Interests is an aspect that is causing concern for Councillors. In particular the use of nominal value for shareholdings and the identification of land in the area. The nominal value for shareholdings has produced some silly examples but it is appreciated that the individual councillor will have papers that disclose the nominal value. It is noted that the daily newspapers publishing Stock Exchange prices do not include details of the nominal values. In the course of preparing training sessions for councillors we have identified two example holdings that show the extent to which the reality of market value is divorced from nominal value. To reach the Registration threshold (£25,000 nominal value) a shareholding in Royal Doulton plc will have a market value of approximately £3,750; a shareholding in WS Atkins requiring Registration will have a market value in excess of £32 million. The information required to identify landholdings is also causing concern as the answers given by the various authorities are suggesting different methods ranging from a general address (Land at Home Farm) to the ordnance survey field numbers with a need to state the map edition number. A lack of standard interpretation is not helping the introduction of the parts of the Code which can be seen and interpreted as intrusions into personal information and privacy. A question raised recently was whether a burial plot in the village cemetery would be included as an interest in land. The requirement to include grasslet arrangements as licences to occupy land for more than 28 days brought a further groan from the farming members.

  11.  The requirement to Register membership of Charities, Trades Unions and Professional Bodies (as distinct from being in a position of general control or management) is bringing out a few unexpected questions, ones perhaps that those who drafted the Code did not envisage. Is it relevant that a councillor is a member of The National Trust or the Royal Air Force Association (Brussels Branch)? It is clearly relevant if she/he is a member of the Village Hall Trust or the Parochial Church Council (an exempt Charity). What is the position for a member of the Anglican Congregation who is on the church electoral roll? Is that membership of a body directed for charitable purposes?

  12.  The requirement to Register membership of a body whose principal purposes include the influence of public opinion or policy is also interpreted differently by various Monitoring Officers. It clearly includes a paying member of the "We want a by-pass Group", but does it include a political party and does it include a body such as Amnesty International? There are arguments that membership of Amnesty International is hardly relevant to one's actions and views as a Parish councillor.

  13.  The requirement to register Gifts and Hospitality with a value over £25 is now more accepted following the clarification from DTLR that the Christmas present between spouses does not have to be included. An early press item stated in error that such gifts should be registered.

  14.  To summarise regarding the Ethical Framework from the perspective of a Local Councils Association providing help and support for Councils, Councillors and Clerks: it is a welcome improvement on the previous Code and legislation but greater care could have been taken in the implementation at the smaller authority end of the spectrum. There is a perception that the views of Parish Councils are not sought or, if sought, are then not taken fully into account in the implementation of change. The real test will be in May 2003 in seeing how these many recent changes to Local Government introduce new individuals to seek to become Councillors (at any level) and how many of the electorate vote in the District and Parish Elections.

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