Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence - First Report


APPENDIX 4

Memorandum by Burnley Borough Council

  This Council is very much committed to improving the way it works and finds much to commend in the Government's proposals.

  Our principal concerns are:

    1.  That the choices the draft Bill offers for new structures are unnecessarily limited;

    2.  That all the three options for structures involve an executive/scrutiny split and yet there is no evidence that such a split, in local government, is more effective than the current system;

    3.  That the draft Bill does not contain any reference to a duty and corresponding power to promote the economic, social and environmental well being of the area. We believe that it ought to do so. We commend the views of the L.G.I.U. as expressed in their paper, "Turning Community Leadership into Reality".

  The enclosures are:

    1.  Comments and queries on Chapter One to Four of the consultation paper;

    2.  Details of improvements made and planned in Burnley as a demonstration of our positive attitude to change. (Not published)

CHAPTERS ONE AND TWO

What is Wrong with the Current System?

  These chapters summarise the criticisms of the present Committee system as follows:

    1.  It is inefficient: too much paper; too much Member time spent in Committees; wasteful of Officer time; slow and cumbersome.

    2.  Lack of accountability: real decisions taken outside the Committee system (ie in Group) so public don't know who has taken them.

    3.  Decision-making not open: public cannot see who is in favour and who against; excluded from meetings at which real decisions taken.

  This Council agrees that these are the problems with the Committee system as currently operated in many Councils.

  The Paper proposes, as a solution to those problems, three possible models for new structures, each of which feature a split between an executive and scrutiny functions.

  The L.G.A. and others have commented that this choice of three is too restrictive. There is possibly a more basic issue, however, which we have discussed in Burnley and that is:

    Will any of the proposed structures solve the problems listed above, and would it be possible to solve those problems without having an Executive/scrutiny split?

  Looking at each problem in turn:

  1.  Inefficiency

    (a)  Will the New System Involve Less Paper?

    It is difficult to see how. There will still need to be agendas, reports and Minutes of Council meetings, meetings of the Executive, meetings of the Scrutiny Committees, and meetings of any other Committees and Sub-Committees (eg Planning and Licensing). It would be possible to reduce the amount of paper if:

   (i)  there was increased usage of I.T.;

   (ii)  more decisions were delegated to Officers and did not require either formal or informal reporting;

   (iii)  Members were happy to simply ratify a schedule of decisions (along the lines of a trial recently agreed at Burnley).

  All of these improvements can be achieved under the existing system.

    (b)  Will the New System Involve Less Demands on Member Time?

    Only if the paper is reduced as discussed above and if the overall number and frequency of meetings is reduced.

    Both of these can be achieved under the current system.

    (c)  Will the New System be Less Wasteful of Officer Time?

    Only if as (b) above.

    This can be achieved under the current system.

    (d)  Will the New System be Less Slow and Cumbersome?

    If the Executive meets frequently and is prepared to take decisions speedily (ie without lengthy consultation) decisions could be taken more quickly.

    This could be achieved under the current system if there were more frequent meetings, although the agendas would need to be shorter (reduced paperwork/increased delegation as above).

    Ultimately speedy decision-making depends on having very clear policies and priorities and on trust both between Members and Officers, and Members and other Members.

  2.  Lack of Accountability

  This will not change under the new system unless the way in which Groups operate changes. In the absence of such change it is likely that all the Executive decisions will, in reality, be taken in advance by the leading Group.

  3.  Decision-Making Not Open

  As in (2) above this depends on the operation of the Group.

  The proposed new structures in themselves will not make decision-making more open. Indeed, it may make them less so as the proposal is that meetings of the Executive should be held in private. Although the decisions will be public and will be subject to scrutiny this does not help the public to know who was of what opinion, how thoroughly the issues were discussed, and whether or not all the relevant factors and no irrelevant factors were taken into account.

In Conclusion

  Burnley Borough Council would wish to see an improved form of the Committee system as a specific fourthoption when consulting the public about which form of governance they prefer. The response from the Local Government Association (page 11) sets out characteristics of an improved model of the Committee system and we agree with this suggestion.

  We are committed to improving the system at Burnley and have gone some way towards it (see note of Improvements Made and Planned at document (2)).

CHAPTER THREE

  Figure 6 on page 21 shows the proposed roles of the Cabinet, etc. It is interesting that one of the roles of Councillors outside the Executive is to "represent electorate". This particular role is missing from the list of roles ascribed to the Cabinet.

  Will members of the Cabinet not, therefore, represent the electorate? Will the people who elected them be aware of this? The same comment applies to figure 7.

  Paragraph 3.18 says that a Council's new constitution could not empower any overview and scrutiny Committee to take decisions and exercise responsibilities on behalf of the full Council.

  This seems to be unnecessarily restrictive. Although the Paper says that all Members of the Council will have powerful roles, in practice both Members and the public will perceive that the only real power lies in the hands of those who take the decisions. On the one hand, restricting decision-making power to a small number of Members aids accountability but, on the other hand, the electorate will perceive that the vast majority of the people they elect have no real power.

  Paragraph 3.59 (access to information) says that, "once a decision is taken by an individual, the record of that decision and ... any papers ... must be made public and available to all Councillors".

  Will this apply to all decisions, including the very routine ones currently delegated to Officers? If so, the paperwork and bureaucracy involved will be horrendous.

  Paragraph 3.59 says that political advice to the Executive remains private but paragraph 3.63 says that professional advice will be public.

  Is this sensible? What about the current exemption on legal advice?

  Paragraph 3.64 says that failure to make a proper record of a decision or to make it available will be a criminal offence.

  It does not seem appropriate to make this a criminal offence. It ought to be dealt with either through the disciplinary process if it is an Officer at fault, or via the Standards Committee/Standards Board if a Member is at fault, or via the Ombudsman or via Judicial Review.

  Paragraph 3.69 (power of veto) says the Mayor can delay a decision of the full Council or a Committee of Councillors outside the Executive for a short time.

  What about Officer decisions?CHAPTER FOUR

(Standards)

Paragraph 4.27 says that if an alleged breach of the Code of Conduct is brought to the attention of the Monitoring Officer or Standards Committee, they must refer it to the Standards Board for consideration.

  Does this apply even to minor breaches? This could result in a very heavy caseload for the Board and unnecessary delays.

  Paragraph 4.36 says there will be a right of appeal to the High Court against a panel decision.

  Will the Member still serve pending appeal?

  N.B.  There is no reference in the Bill to any sanctions being available to a Standards Committee. It is vital that the Standards Committee is to have the power to impose sanctions if the public are to have faith in it.

7 July 1999





 
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