Joint Committee on the Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Report


  IV. THE GOVERNMENT'S CASE FOR THE BILL

14. The Government sets out its case for the bill in its introduction to the White Paper,[7] and the same reasoning was advanced in oral evidence to the Committee from the Minister, the Rt Hon Hilary Armstrong MP.[8] The essential features of the case are as follows.

15. Councils traditionally conduct their business through large committees and sub-committees, having the same political balance as the full council, and advised by professional officers. This is deemed to be time-consuming for members and officers alike, inefficient, slow, and expensive in terms of time and resources. Indeed, a recent survey of councillors [9] showed that while 70 per cent of councillors thought that their representational work with the community was their most important function, they spent only 30 per cent of their time doing it, as opposed to 50 per cent of their time at meetings.

16. Most major policy decisions however are in practice taken elsewhere—either within the ruling party group or, where necessary, following consultation between the leaders of groups where there is a minority administration. As a result a decision-making process designed to be open and public is now opaque and unaccountable. Electors and other interested parties such as businesses do not know where responsibility lies, and many individual councillors are frustrated by their inability to influence decisions or even to follow the decision-making process through what can be a labyrinthine committee system.

17. The Government see the reluctance of people to serve as councillors and the reluctance of people to turn out and vote for those councillors at local elections as symptoms of this malaise. Thus only 50 per cent of councillors are in employment while 35 per cent are retired; and many social groups are under-represented. Meanwhile turnout at elections is one of the lowest in the European Union. Average turnout in the most recent local elections in England and Wales was only 29 to 30 per cent.[10]

18. The Government's answer is principally enshrined in this draft Bill. It consists of requiring local authorities to set up a separate and clearly identifiable executive within the council; and, under the terms of two of the three executive models proposed, and subject to popular referendum, to establish elected mayors to lead those executives. Such arrangements it is argued will make local government efficient (by cutting down on committees and time); transparent (by placing most decision making with visible executives); and accountable (by allowing for scrutiny of those executives). In addition, the possibility of electing mayors will help to raise the profile of the local administration.

19. The Committee consider that the objectives behind the bill—efficiency, transparency and accountability—are laudable. The Government believes they can be achieved by requiring all local authorities to make proposals for political management structures with a separate executive, and establishing a new ethical framework for local government. We see merit in the inclusion of a clause at the beginning of the bill to state that its purpose is to achieve greater efficiency, transparency and accountability.

20. In our consideration of the bill which follows we have wherever possible considered the terms of the proposals set out in the bill (referring where necessary to the White Paper too) in the context of the evidence received before venturing our own opinion and where appropriate making recommendations for changes. In our view the extent to which any eventual Act based on the current draft will fulfil these objectives will largely depend on the extent to which the Government are prepared to accept our findings and act upon them.


7  Cm4298 Back

8  QQ706-721 Back

9  K Young and N Rao, 1993 Back

10  Figures from House of Commons Library Back


 
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Prepared 3 August 1999