Memorandum by Gateshead Metropolitan Borough
The Council welcomes the opportunity to submit
evidence to the Joint Committee.
The Council has responded positively to the
Government's call to modernise its structures. From May this year,
it has operated under a Leader/Cabinet model. It has not changed
its structures simply for the sake of change, but because it believes
that the new structures will best support the development of quality
services and bring the Council closer to the people.
The draft Bill will provide the legislative
support for the further development of the Council's decision-making
system. It therefore follows that the Council generally welcomes
the Bill. The comments that follow should be seen in this light.
This evidence focuses on two of the Joint Committee's
eight issues, where the Council feels that there are particular
points arising from the draft Bill that need to be brought to
the Joint Committee's attention. The two issues are:
The Executive/Scrutiny split, with
particular reference to the development of policy within a "split"
Operation of and sanctions available
to the standards investigation procedure.
2. THE EXECUTIVE/SCRUTINY
It is at the heart of the Government's proposals
that all Councils will have a clearly identified and separate
executive to give leadership and clarity to decision-making; and
formal arrangements for the scrutiny role to ensure accountability.
There is no question that for certain areas
of the Council's work there must be a clear separation between
executive and scrutiny. Clearly, a panel of members that scrutinises
the decisions of the executive must be independent of the executive.
It is also widely accepted that matters of a "quasi-judicial"
nature, such as the determination of planning applications, should
be handed separately from the executive.
However, enforcing an over-rigid separation
throughout the Council's organisation could be highly damaging.
If the only forum in which executive and non-executive members
meet to discuss policy is the adversarial setting of a scrutiny
panel, this may produce tension and confrontation between the
two types of member.
There also needs to be a mechanism for policy
Draws on the experience, and special
interest, of members outside the executive;
Allows those members to gain an insight
into the constraints facing the executive;
To some extent acts as a "training
ground" for councillors who might aspire to become members
of the executive.
It is for these reasons that this Council, in
establishing its new structure, has set up a series of advisory
groups. These are small (usually five or seven members) politically
balanced bodies which bring together all members of the CouncilCabinet
and non-Cabinetto discuss the development of policy and
services and to review performance. Between them, the advisory
groups cover all the functions of the Council. They provide advice
to the Cabinet and sometimes also to the Council's representatives
on partnerships and other external working arrangements.
We are drawing this development to the Joint
Committee's attention not only because we think it is an element
of good practice which should be disseminated, but also because
it illustrates a general point about policy development under
the new arrangements. Whichever of the proposed models is adopted,
agreeing the policy framework is a matter for the Council; the
executive takes decisions, and is held to account for its decisions,
within the policy framework. This means that developing policy
must be a matter which is shared by executive and non-executive
The mechanism of advisory groups which this
Council has adopted is in our view a practical and constructive
approach to involving all members in policy development. We think
this is preferable to the approach in the Bill, which links "overview"
of policy with scrutiny in a single forum from which executive
members are statutorily excluded. In any event, we believe that
Councils should be free to devise their own arrangements for the
development and oversight of policy and that there is no need
for legislation on this issue.
3. THE STANDARDS
The Council is committed to ensuring the highest
standards of integrity. It is vital that the statutory process
for dealing with questions of the conduct of local authority members
and employees supports this goal. It must also command the confidence
of the public and of local government, or it will fall into disrepute.
In the words of the consultation paper (paragraph 4.1) it must
cement "the bond of trust between the community and those
that represent them".
The Council believes that the key to this is
a proper balance between the role of the independent standards
board and councils own standards committees in investigating alleged
breaches of councils' codes of conduct. It is reasonable that
the more serious complaints, or those which cannot be satisfactorily
resolved at a local level, should be dealt with by an independent
body. But if a council's standards committee is deprived of any
role in policing its own code of conduct, it is hard to see how
it can feel any ownership of the issue. Ethics and standards will
then become something that is imposed from outside, rather than
integral to the way the council runs its affairs.
It seems to the Council that the draft Bill
has not succeeded in getting the balance right. The main difficulty
is that once a complaint is made against a councillorby
a member of the public, another councillor or even a council officerit
must be referred to the standards board. There is no scope for
resolving the matter internally at an early stage, even if the
allegation is based on a misunderstanding or if it could be resolved
The consultation paper appears to acknowledge
this issue. Paragraph 4.26 states "it is important that the
standards board does not get bogged down with numerous mischievous
or frivolous complaints". However, unless there is some internal
filter, it seems all too likely that the standards board will
in fact be loaded down with spurious complaints.
There are also some important details which
are left unclear. For example, what are the criteria for an ethical
standards officer to refer a complaint to the council's standards
committee? Some criteria need to be established or there will
be inconsistency. What sanctions can the standards committee apply
in dealing with a complaint? These details need to be clarified.
The Council suggests to the Joint Committee
that the Government should be asked to look again at its proposals
with a view to allowing councils, through their monitoring officer
and their standards committee, a reasonable level of involvement
in the investigation of complaints regarding breaches of their
code of conduct.
29 June 1999