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


APPENDIX 26

Memorandum by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

  The Royal Borough has agreed that the following evidence in respect of the draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill published in the consultation paper "Local Leadership, Local Choice" be submitted to the Joint Committee. We would be pleased to attend to present the evidence detailed below.

1.  GOVERNANCE

1.2  The Need for Change?

  1.2.1  The consultation paper's proposals are based on a range of assumptions that may apply to some local authorities but not to those, such as the Royal Borough, that already operate in an open and business-like manner.

  1.2.2  The paper asserts that personalising local authorities especially by providing for elected mayors, will generate greater interest and excitement in local government (the introduction of veto arrangements is commended in this context in paragraph 3.68), and will enhance the capacity of councils to provide "community leadership", but it provides no rationale for this assumption.

  1.2.3  As part of the reasoning behind the need for change, the paper asserts that local people currently "do not know who to praise or blame", but it makes no suggestions as to how this situation can be changed. Local services will continue to be provided by various bodies of which the Council is only one and an elected mayor could still be praised or blamed for a service over which he or she has no control. In this context the public understanding of responsibilities is very limited. A simple example would be street lighting on a strategic route in London: which Mayor is responsible? The average resident would assume it would be Mayor of Kensington and Chelsea, whereas it would in fact be the Mayor of London.

  1.2.4  Council services make a vital contribution to the quality of life of local residents, but generating interest and excitement is not necessarily a requirement of the electorate. Opinion polls continue to suggest that what people seek is to be kept informed rather than involved.

1.3  INCREASING ELECTORAL TURNOUT

  1.3.1  One of the Government's aims is to increase electoral turnout. This will remain low, however, as long as there is a lack of issues over which genuine debate is possible. The continuing central direction of many services by government departments limits the powers of local authorities to make significant differences to the lives of local people or to have their own policies which generate political differences. Until this is possible, voter turnout will not improve.

  1.3.2  Electoral turnout should also be seen in the context of the local community as a whole. For instance, the Royal Borough includes a disproportionately large number of residents who are ineligible to vote in certain elections and has one of the highest annual population turnover rates in the country. Improvements to the electoral roll arrangements (in particular the rolling register) would have a significant effect.

1.4  New Forms of Local Governance

  1.4.1  A number of local authorities are however keen to try out new management arrangements (and some are currently being put in place) and the Government is justified in seeking to make changes to local government law in order to facilitate such experimentation. However, it is wrong for the Government to force changes on those local authorities which are working well.

  1.4.2  For its part, the Royal Borough has, without making changes to its broad organisational structure, embraced a not insignificant proportion of the "modernisation agenda" (even before it was invented)—it is noteworthy that we have already addressed seven out of the 12 "reassessments" listed on page 51 of the paper.

1.5  Model Political Structures—Prescription

  1.5.1  Lord Hunt's original Bill offered local government a range of new approaches to governance on the basis that these could be piloted by councils wishing to embrace such changes. The Government's previous White Paper indicated that "no change was not an option", but nevertheless indicated that local Councils would be free to adopt and adapt one of the new models to suit their local requirements. The draft Bill is however prescriptive (it is possible that this is a reflection of the Government's disappointment that so many councils are opting for the "cabinet" rather than the "elected mayor" model). The following are examples of the prescriptive approach:

    —  The DETR will set parameters within which the new "constitution" must be drafted and there will also be a lengthy checklist to work through.

    —  The role and functions of "the executive" are to be prescribed, as is its minimum and maximum size.

    —  The powers and functions of the overview and scrutiny committee(s) will be stipulated.

    —  Scrutiny committees will be required to have a remit coterminous with the executive's total remit.

    —  Possible prescription around the delegation arrangements within the executive.

    —  There will be the strictest possible control of the referendum process (which, as with so much in this White Paper, does not sit comfortably with the expressed wish to foster "mutual trust" and "partnership" between central and local government).

  1.5.2  The Government has not made a case for abandoning Lord Hunt's proposals. This Council supports the permissive approach set out in the Hunt Bill and is not in favour of the imposition of untried, uniform "solutions" to local governance.

  1.5.3  A broader-brush approach, leaving far more not only for local discretion but also for local experimentation, should be adopted. Local authorities should be free to pilot the proposed new arrangements on a voluntary basis and, of particular importance, to have the opportunity of exchanging best practice and of making changes locally that seem to be working well elsewhere. There is, after all, no shortage now of volunteers. There should be an unfettered option of "no change".

  1.5.4  The Government is not justified in compelling local authorities to adopt new forms of management as a means of bringing about good service delivery. If it had confidence in such an approach, this would throw into question the need for the panoply of inspections and controls that it has now put in place.

  1.5.5  A five per cent threshold has been proposed in Clause 14 for voters who wish to trigger a referendum for a directly elected mayor. The consultation paper says "a threshold higher than 5 per cent would risk ruling out genuine local demand for a directly elected mayor being tested". For this Authority, 5 per cent equates to around 5,000 voters. The Council considers this threshold too low and certainly low enough to be a target for single issue groups which could completely unbalance the overall long-term arrangements of the authority.

  1.5.6  The Government's proposals are largely based on models from the USA, but there is no compulsion in the United States to adopt any one particular model. This, however, is what the Government is proposing for this country. It is clear that the Government is only really interested in directly elected mayors, despite the fact that there is no evidence that people want this, and some to the contrary that voters understand and support the committee system.

1.6  The Role of Members

  1.6.1  The paper asserts that there will be a "powerful role" for all Councillors. That will clearly be so with executive members (there would be a maximum of eight in the Royal Borough) but, although the assertion is frequently repeated, the paper does not make a convincing case so far as "backbench" members are concerned.

  1.6.2  Councillors seek office in order to participate in the process of representing and providing services for their local community, but such participation would be denied to the remaining 46 Royal Borough Members. Apart from serving on regulatory committees, approving the annual budget and endorsing major strategies, their role will be confined to questioning decisions after the event. It is surely self-evident that such a "scrutiny" role will be unsatisfactory and, ultimately, frustrating. When allowance is made for the citizens juries, interest groups, regular referendums etc that are also being promoted by the Government, even their "representational" role will be limited. It is also noteworthy that an earlier paper envisaged the eventual reduction in the number of members on each council, and perhaps this is one of the Government's unexplained intentions.

  1.6.3  The new system of the "executive" would produce a sudden demand for a core of full-time, salaried, "elected officials", thereby changing the character of the local councillor to a professional local politician who would be a specialist and not a generalist. The Council doubts whether, in London in particular, local people interested in becoming involved in local politics would interrupt their careers for four years to become full-time councillors. Furthermore, in the new regime the executive could be cherry-picked by the leadership and there would be little encouragement for the backbencher to develop and progress.

  1.6.4  Minority Party councillors would also be side-lined and be severely disadvantaged by the introduction of a full-time paid one-party Executive, reaching decisions in private.

  1.6.5  The Government is concerned about the lack of interest in local people becoming councillors—the Council sees nothing in the proposals that will encourage them. Indeed, the executive could become a self-perpetuating political clique even less representative of the public than at present.

  1.6.6  Taken together, this all seems to point to a future local government system controlled by a small number of full-time salaried "elected officials". The Royal Borough considers that this will diminish rather than enhance local democracy in this country and could ultimately extinguish it.

1.7  Secrecy

  1.7.1  The paper frequently asserts that the Government's proposals will result in far more open local government. Councils, however, are currently required to give advance public notice of decisions they are going to be taking; the papers on which those decisions are to be taken must be open to all, and the press and public can attend when those decisions are being taken. Only a minority of papers, all of which have reasons for confidentiality, are considered by Committee in private. [It is noteworthy that no other public body in this country operates in so open a fashion].

  1.7.2  Under the new arrangements all of the executive's decisions would be taken in private (either by individual or groups of executive members) and the public, together with other Members, will be entitled to be informed only after the event. The Royal Borough calls upon the DETR to explain how such a system can be described as more open than the current arrangements.

  1.7.3  The consultation paper asserts that all important decisions are now being taken in private and that the current arrangements are therefore a sham. As indicated in this Council's Member/Officer Protocols, arrangements are made for the private discussion of major matters of policy and most other councils (and no doubt most other organisations) do the same. However, all policy decisions are made only after discussion in open Committee.

  1.7.4  Under the new dispensation, all of the executive's decisions will be taken in private and the executive members who will generally be from one Party will then be able to implement those decisions without any prior public debate. These proposals seem to fly in the face of all that the Widdecombe enquiry achieved for openness in Government.

2.  STANDARDS

  2.1  This is a mis-match between the paper's welcome assertion that "the vast majority of [councillors] operate in a conscientious and professional manner" and the perceived need for a new ethical framework "to support" them. It should be acknowledged that there is a need for greater clarity in what the law really means about pecuniary and other interests, and about who is responsible for regulating the process.

  2.2  The proposed reforms are broadly welcome, but are still only half the picture. They cannot be judged as a whole until the proposals about the new criminal offence to replace surcharge have been published and can be seen alongside these new arrangements. This part of the consultation paper is all about process, a framework—and little or nothing about substance ie exactly what should be in the members' and officers' codes, and what the substance of the criminal offence will be. It might well be more severe, in the sense of potentially capturing a greater variety of activity, than the rather remote, if, draconian threat of surcharge.

  2.3  There will be a need for clarity about the role of the Standards Board vis a vis the other regulators—ombudsmen, audit commission, auditors.

  2.4  The local Standards Committee's role is unclear. It is said that it will be a "source of advice and guidance", but issues around the treatment of members' interests often arise at very short, sometimes no, notice and the advice of officers is sought. It is to be hoped that it will be backed up by the Standards Board! There is also a danger that the Standards Committee could become a proxy battleground, to be used by those opposed to a decision, where currently such issues can be aired at committee meetings. There will clearly need to be some threshold before the Standards Committee could consider an issue.

  2.5  Overall, it seems clear that the role of the monitoring officer will become more overt than has been the practice in most authorities.

28 June 1999


 
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