Memorandum by Monitoring Officer, North
Yorkshire County Council (LGA 17)
1. As the County Council's Monitoring Officer,
I am pleased to submit this memorandum to the Urban Affairs Sub-Committee
in response to the DTLR press notice. In the time available, it
has not been possible to obtain a formal view from the County
Council itself, but I am aware informally of the views of many
Council Members, and I hope I can reflect these in this response.
It is hoped the Sub-Committee will find the following comments
helpful during their enquiry into how the Local Government Act
2000 is working in practice.
2. The powers given to local authorities
to promote the wellbeing of their area, under Section 2 of the
Act, are certainly to be welcomed. In practical terms, however,
the financial restrictions placed upon authorities by Section
3 of the Act, have certainly restricted the use that authorities
can make of their powers to promote wellbeing.
3. In September 2000, the County Council
commenced a pilot exercise of the new political structures, conducting
its business through a Leader and Cabinet form of executive arrangements
(along with certain other committees to ensure compliance with
the then current legislation). These "shadow" arrangements
continued until the County Council passed a resolution under Section
29 of the Act to formally implement the Leader and Cabinet form
of executive arrangements with effect from 19 July 2001.
4. The County Council has, therefore, extensive
experience of operating executive arrangements and I can comment
first hand as to the main difficulties encountered.
5. One of the main aims of the Local Government
Modernisation agenda was to "speed up" the conduct of
local authority business and to make authorities more efficient
and accountable to the electorate. Whilst, in the main, business
has become more streamlined, there were at the outset, and still
are, many practical difficulties in operating two different strands
of decision-making within one authority; that is, decisions relating
to those functions which are the responsibility of the County
Council and those which are now the responsibility of the Executive.
The relevant Regulations
are excessively complex, and have already been subject to substantial
6. Much more Officer time is spent dealing
with Constitutional issues, in particular vires issues, advising
both Officers and Members as to who should take particular decisions
and why. The legislation in relation to the whole area of responsibility
for functions and delegation of functions is particularly complex
and difficult to interpret and apply, even to those working with
the procedures on a daily basis. It is also extremely prescriptive:
very little has been left to local discretion. The 2000 Act has
already spawned 22 Statutory Instruments, running to a total of
338 pages, to which can be added 237 pages of DTLR guidance and
revised guidance, creating a truly formidable task for those setting
up and operating new systems of governance.
7. The whole area of publication of forthcoming
decisions and those actually taken has also introduced further
demands on Officer and Member time. Whilst the County Council's
Forward Plan and decision record procedures have certainly resulted
in more openness in decision making, the practical difficulties
in implementing the procedures and ensuring consistency of practice
have proved substantial; some 18 months on, the procedures are
still "bedding down".
8. Regarding the form of executive arrangements
themselves, at the outset of implementing the arrangements, even
in shadow form, Members very much felt there was a "them
and us" situation, with Overview and Scrutiny Committee Members
feeling excluded from the main decision-making processes of the
Council. Despite their statutory powers to call in Executive decisions
taken but not yet implemented, Members were, and are still to
some extent, concerned about their ultimate ability to affect
a decision they are particularly concerned about.
9. There is also an increased responsibility
on the authority in terms of administrative arrangements, for
example in relation to the amount of press and other notices which
require publication within prescribed timescales.
the annual notice about the publication
dates for the Forward Plan for the coming year;
the annual notice about the verification
number for referendum purposes (for an elected Mayor);
notices regarding recommendations
from the Independent Remuneration Panel in respect of the Members'
notices in respect of the adoption
or amendment by the Council of or to its Members' Allowances Scheme;
notices regarding the adoption of
a Code of Conduct under the new ethical framework and any changes
made to it in the future; and
a notice about the adoption of a
Register of Members' interests under the new ethical framework.
10. Regarding the adoption by the County
Council of its Constitution, it has certainly been very helpful
to consolidate all the rules, procedures and protocols governing
the conduct of the Council's business into one place. There was
significant publicity over the adoption by the Council of its
Constitution in July 2001 and the profile of the document has
been championed with Members, Officers and the general public
alike. Again, however, an enormous amount of Officer and, indeed,
Member time is continually spent in maintaining the Constitution
to keep it up to date. Writing the County Council's Constitution
took over 500 hours of my time aloneplus the contributions
of many other officers and many Council Members.
11. The County Council adopted its local
Code of Conduct based on the model code issued by the Secretary
of State under the Act, on 20 February 2002. The Members to whom
the County Council's Code applies are currently in the process
of completing their declaration of interest forms for the Register
of Members' Interests and completing their written undertakings
to comply with the Code of Conduct. The County Council has also
established a Standards Committee to promote and maintain high
standards of conduct by Members of the County Council.
12. Although not directly relevant to the
County Council, as its Standards Committee has two independent
representatives, there is a perceived difficulty with the relevant
legislation governing the composition of Standards Committees,
in that there is no provision to allow for an independent Member
to appoint a substitute. In some smaller standards committees
of other authorities, where there is only one independent Member,
this means that the independent Member must attend each and every
meeting of the Standards Committee otherwise it would be inquorate
and unable to conduct any business.
13. Regarding the new ethical framework
generally, Members do seem to have embraced the framework and
fully support the aims behind the introduction of it. The model
Code of Conduct ultimately issued, whilst essentially making the
rules in relation to declarations of interests simpler, has produced
several perceived ambiguities and difficulties within it. For
example, the definition of a "friend", whose interests
Members must also take into account in considering his or her
own; along with other ambiguities, including the question of which
co-opted Members of County Council committees will be bound by
the County Council's Code of Conduct.
14. Authorities are still awaiting the necessary
regulations setting out the procedures for investigations by Monitoring
Officers into alleged breaches of the Code of Conduct, following
referral of the complaint back to the Monitoring Officer from
the Standards Board. Once the relevant regulations are available,
there will obviously be a substantial amount of work to be done
in implementing local procedures. Also still awaited is the Code
of Conduct for local government employees under Section 82 of
15. The relevant regulations giving Standards
Committees the power to grant dispensations to Members with prejudicial
interests in certain circumstances, have only just been made and
are not yet in force, however again there are certain perceived
difficulties with the regulations, whose wording seems to misunderstand
the very issue it is trying to address.
16. To end on a positive note, the Standards
Board for England appears to be working well: it is an extremely
helpful body, offering guidance and advice on the new ethical
framework generally and in response to particular queries. The
County Council organised a seminar on the new ethical framework
for the Standards Committees of various authorities within North
at which two representatives of the Standards Board attended and
gave a very helpful presentation to Members of those committees.
Subsequent ad hoc queries raised with the Standards Board have
produced timely and helpful responses.
17. It remains to be seen how the procedures
in relation to the investigation of complaints under the Code
will work. Authorities have until 5 May 2002 to adopt their local
Codes of Conduct and until an authority has done so, the Standards
Board has no remit to investigate any complaints made against
an authority. Members have expressed some concern as to how an
investigation by the Standards Board would sit alongside any complaint
also made to the Ombudsman regarding the same matter.
3 The Local Authorities (Arrangements for the Discharge
of Functions) (England) Regulations 2000; and the Local Authorities
(Functions and Responsibilities) (England) Regulations 2000. Back
Within the geographical area of North Yorkshire, there are now
12 separate authorities with their own Standards Committee. Recruiting
independent members has not always been easy. Back