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


Memorandum by Unison

  1.  UNISON represents over 800,000 people who work in local government. Our members have kept key services running to the best of their abilities through two very difficult decades. UNISON therefore welcomes the new Government's commitment to revitalise local government and to place it at the heart of the drive to restore and rebuild our communities and to combat social exclusion.

  2.  We are concerned at the direction which some of the reforms have so far taken. UNISON argues that the fundamental problem faced by local government is that the electorate think of councils as an irrelevancy, and as powerless to influence the quality of life in their communities. This is the legacy of two decades of being rubbished by national politicians and of constant reductions in council powers. UNISON therefore believes that, to re-establish the credibility of councils, powers—particularly over finance—must be returned to local level. We believe that the other proposed changes alone—without a programme to restore powers—will fail to revitalise local government.

  3.  We nevertheless very much welcome the process which the Government has adopted to develop legislation covering the two key areas of organisation and standards. We hope that a wide process of consultation before the Bill is considered formally in parliament will help to ensure that there is the widest possible agreement on the terms of the legislation.

  4.  We are concerned that the procedure in Chapter 2 is flawed in two important respects. First of all it forces every council to propose change when there may be good reason to maintain the status quo. Many councils do an excellent job under current managerial arrangements and perform well on key performance indicators. Where councils can demonstrate such a standard and can also demonstrate popular satisfaction with their performance, there should be no compulsion to consult about new arrangements. Maintaining the status quo should be an option. And where a council comes up with a preferred option which falls outside the three models so far identified it should be able to put that to local electors for endorsement. In short UNISON believes that there should no compulsion to hold a referendum but that where a council wishes to go down that road, it should be free to recommend whatever organisational solution it prefers. That would be a genuine local choice.

  5.  We note the proposals in Chapter 3 "Strong Leadership for Communities, Powerful roles for all Councillors". We remain unconvinced that the central idea—that of separating the executive and representative roles—will have the beneficial effects which seemed to be anticipated. UNISON believes that any system of organisation for local councils should be open, democratic, transparent, accountable and efficient. We fear that concentrating executive power into a small number of hands—mayor, council manager, cabinet—will make councils less democratic and less accountable.

  6.  We are very concerned, for example, that in future decisions could be made by council cabinets in secret on the basis of reports and recommendations which will not be made public until after the event. At present, all key decisions are made in full council or in committees on the basis of papers which are usually made public seven days before the meeting. UNISON does not support changes that will make council decision making processes more secretive.

  7.  We have great doubts that the scrutiny role of "backbench" councillors will be either rewarding for those involved or effective in democratic terms. Whilst there are severe frustrations involved in being a backbench councillor in current circumstances, they would be worse in a system which institutionalised the control of the decision-making process in a limited number of hands. In a council reformed in this way, backbench councillors could feel powerless and marginalised. One safeguard which might be incorporated is to ensure that the party whip system is banned from the scrutiny function.

  8.  We also note that the secrecy inherent in the cabinet model would limit the opportunity of employees and their representatives to influence the decision-making processes. We believe that in any social partnership model of local government the views of staff as key stakeholders should be heard. We look to a future in which that voice is louder, not marginalised.

  9.  We do not object in principle to councils being led by an elected mayor, where that is the organisational option freely chosen by local people. We do express concern, however, that an organisational model which is focussed around a mayor runs the risk of reducing local politics to the personality cult level. We are even more concerned about this risk where the mayor/council manager model is adopted. UNISON argues that concentrating power into a small number of hands will be bad for democracy and even supposed gains in the efficiency of decision-making may be illusory where such decisions are not "owned" by the democratically-elected representative of local people.

  10.  We fully appreciate that the paper does attempt to strike a balance between secrecy and openness. The difficulty of getting this balance right is in our view the consequence of adopting the executive/scrutiny split as the organisational model. Paragraphs 3.59 to 3.65 do attempt to answer some of the questions. Current arrangements do allow for the reports and recommendations of chief officers to be made public and we see no reason to alter this practice just because they go to a cabinet rather than to a committee.

  11.  We fear that the role of officers in a council with a cabinet/scrutiny organisational split will be very difficult (paras 3.82 and 3.87). We would argue that the appointment process should be clearly specified and that only chief executives and directors/chief officers should be appointed by councillors. We also argue that the Code of Conduct for councillors should specify that officers must be appointed on merit and not by any sort of test of political acceptability. We wish to guard against any move towards a system of political appointment to key local government posts. This is a possible consequence of the new system if officers become entirely identified with the policies of the cabinet. We would express anxiety that we may end up with three different types of officer, a group serving the executive, a group serving the scrutiny function, and a group providing services. There is also a real danger that those officers servicing the executive will be seen as the elite group and a divisive atmosphere will be developed.

  12.  Paragraph 3.86 specifically states that "all officers would be accountable to the council in its overview and scrutiny role". Whilst this is clearly right in principle, it raises difficult practical questions. Where senior officers are directly accountable to cabinet members, there will need to be clear arrangements for appropriate divisions of responsibility, and where party political controversy is involved there will need to be guidelines indicating how senior officers can be protected from being drawn in. It seems inevitable that officers will feel a primary loyalty to the cabinet members to whom they are responsible, and this may put them in difficult conflict situations where scrutiny committees ask them to give evidence which might be construed as critical.

  13.  Many UNISON members would welcome being freed from attendance at a plethora of meetings. However, well-planned and productive meetings are an essential part of local democracy and it would be helpful to give some thought to how to make meetings effective, rather than just assuming that they need to be dispensed with.

  14.  In Chapter 4, the stress on setting up systems to ensure high standards is welcome by UNISON. We accept the three key elements—a Code of Conduct, a Standards Committee, and an independent Standards Board. We do, however, argue that the balance of responsibility between the internal committees and the external board should be re-examined. We would favour an arrangement whereby most issues are handled internally and only the most serious matters could be referred to the board. We appreciate that this decision is in the hands of the Ethical Standards officer but there will presumably be published guidance under which the ESO will operate. We believe that the first responsibility to "police" improper conduct should rest with the council itself.

  15.  We would also press for the establishment of clear rules to cover the use of evidence produced for investigations and hearings in this process in any subsequent disciplinary action against employees. Without an opportunity to challenge allegations raised in "standards" hearings, employees may be at an unfair disadvantage in subsequent proceedings.

  16.  Paragraphs 4.37 to 4.39 refer briefly to the Code of Conduct for employees. We are broadly happy with the current LGMB Code of Conduct though we would welcome the opportunity to seek minor amendments and clarifications (partly to cover "whistleblower" issues) before it is given statutory status. However, if it is to work properly—by being "owned" by all parties—it must be amended and developed through the formal bargaining machinery. Certainly if the code is to be incorporated into contracts it should be dealt with through the National Joint Council.

  17.  We very much welcome the proposal to incorporate the political restriction regulations into the Code of Conduct. This will give an ideal opportunity to review them in two ways. The first—acknowledged in the document—is to raise the salary threshold at which posts are restricted. The second—in UNISON's view—is to revise and restrict those activities which are banned. The current definition is so wide-ranging as to prevent many officers participating in issues of community controversy (eg new road building) which are only remotely linked to party politics. This is unnecessary to protect the principle of political neutrality and represents a real infringement of civil rights.

  18.  In a Bill which deals with ethical standards, the question of Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act is an appropriate one to raise. UNISON has always opposed Section 28, arguing that it promotes homophobia and denies young people access to information which would promote their health and welfare. We understand that ministers have given undertakings to repeal the Section "when parliamentary opportunities arise" and UNISON urges ministers to consider whether this Bill does not offer that opportunity.

  19.  UNISON looks forward to the opportunity to participate in further discussion about the draft bill in due course.

21 May 1999


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