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


Memorandum by Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council


  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" structure;

    —  Operation of and sanctions available to the standards investigation procedure.


  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 development which:

    —  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 Council—Cabinet and non-Cabinet—to 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 members.

  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.


  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 councillor—by a member of the public, another councillor or even a council officer—it 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 by mediation.

  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

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