Memorandum by Westminster City Council
Thank you for the opportunity to respond to
the above draft Bill. I have set out below the corporate response
of the City of Westminster, using as headings the list of issues
upon which the Committee will focus its inquiry.
1. NEED FOR
1.1 The City Council welcomes the opportunity
to respond to the proposed legislation in the form of the draft
Bill and recognises that it is important to review options for
1.2 The City Council also recognises the
value of constantly striving to improve performance. It was for
this reason that it completed an overhaul of both its formal and
informal management structures in the last five years. Our current
operation of the Committee structure is therefore designed to
provide clarity, efficiency, accountability and, in conjunction
with our Code of Governance, ethical conduct. Consequently the
City Council firmly believes that the approach taken to this legislation
incorrectly presupposes that the current system does not work.
2. MODEL POLITICAL
2.1 The City Council maintains that it is
fundamentally unfair that a referendum may have to be held to
maintain the status quo, but not to effect major changes in organisation
as proposed. There is no logic in allowing a choice of three new
models without a fourth option of maintaining the status quo.
We would welcome a wider range of models from which to select.
There is no reason why an intention to change the system or to
maintain it should not be included in a political manifesto at
a local election, thereby receiving the local endorsement which
is presumably thought necessary.
3.1 The City Council does not believe that
the work or power of backbench councillors should be dismissed
or diminished in any way.
3.2 The City Council does not believe that
power should be concentrated in the hands of a small executive
who can effectively ignore the rest of the Council.
3.3 The City Council perceives that there
is recognition in the legislation that the new systems could lead
to abuse and a lack of accountability. Hence the need for a new
ethical framework: the establishment of a Standards Committee,
a Standards Board and an Adjudication Panel in addition to the
existing Ombudsman and District Auditor.
3.4 Backbench councillors already devote
their time to representing their local communities. The City Council
does not believe that they would therefore be satisfied with the
new roles, focusing primarily on scrutiny, as proposed for them.
3.5 It is suggested that councillors would
be involved in taking decisions which represent a departure from
the strategies and budgets which the council had previously agreed.
The City Council is concerned that in practice it would be difficult
to define the degree of variance which will be required before
full Council will need to be involved.
3.8 The Bill states that political advice
to the executive remains private, it is not clear, however, how
"political" will be defined. The position on officer
advice is far from clear. Will the executive be required to consider
such advice? It is also of concern that officer advice will only
be made available to the scrutiny function after the executive
has taken a decision. This does not represent open government
and will inevitably lead to disputes.
4. IMPACT ON
4.1 It is apparent that the models proposed
create confusion between the roles of executive councillor and
executive officer and the impartiality of the bureaucracy is likely
to be compromised.
4.2 It is proposed that officers will "account
for executive actions to councillors outside the executive".
The City Council would welcome clarification as to how officers
will remain impartial and serve the whole council if they have
a duty to formally account for the actions of the executive.
4.3 Although reference is made to the role
of offices, very little detail is provided about their role in
the new structures. Further clarity is needed given the scale
of change envisaged including the status of officer advice. Any
changes to the current legal framework need to be explicit.
4.4 Westminster's Code of Governance was
specifically produced to clarify appropriate roles, conduct and
relationships. The City Council therefore fully supports the introduction
of a code of conduct for employees.
5.1 The City Council supports the proposal
for every council to adopt a code of conduct, and to involve the
LGA in its development. The City Council would further propose
that other professional bodies with relevant local government
expertise (such as the Institute of Charted Secretaries and Administrators
and the Association of Council Solicitors and Secretaries) also
be involved. In addition the City Council's Code of Governance
is widely used as a best practice model by other authorities.
The Council would therefore also welcome the opportunity to assist
in the development of a Model Code.
5.2 If the new models become mandatory,
the City Council supports the need for an independent body to
handle all substantive allegations that Councillors have failed
to observe their council's Code. The City Council does not, however,
support the creation of a new Standards Board. The City Council
would, instead, support the extension of the current role of the
Local Government Ombudsman, coupled with rapid referral to the
courts where relevant, to include the role identified for the
Standards Board. The Ombudsman has extensive experience of investigating
allegations of malpractice in local government and filtering out
unfounded complaints. This would also simplify the contact point
for the public when things go wrong and they cannot achieve a
satisfactory resolution from the authority. It is also likely
to be a cheaper option.
5.3 If the Standards board is established,
it will be essential to ensure that its relations and working
pratices in the Ombudsman and the auditor are given full consideration
to avoid overlap, to ensure the hierarchy is clear if there is
conflict, and to ensure the process is accessible.
5.4 Notwithstanding the comments above,
the split between the Standards Board with the adjudication process,
through the Adjudication Panel, is welcomed.
5.5 The City Council welcomes the proposal
that all allegations will, in the first instance, be passed to
the Standards Board.
5.6 Given the serious impact that suspension
can have the City Council proposes that it should be the Standards
Board, not an ESO, who is given the power to suspend a member,
perhaps by way of an interlocutory application by the ESO.
5.7 Careful consideration must be given
to ensuring that referrals to the Standards Board do not become
a new weapon in the political battle. Measures must be in place
to deter vexatious or mischievous compliants and to identify and
dismiss them as quickly as possible.
5.8 The proposal to establish overview and
scrutiny committees is welcomed, as too is the need to include
independent members of the community. However, as the overview
and scrutiny committees will have no power to take decisions,
it is unclear why the executive would take notice of their views.
5.9 It is suggested that councils might
allow their overview and scrutiny committees to request a debate
at full council before a decision is made. As the executive meets
in private, and do not need to give advance notice of the issues
to be discussed, it is unclear as to how the overview and scrutiny
committees will know a particular decision is going to be made.
In addition request for such debates could, if used irresponsibly,
result in significant delays in decision making.
22 June 1999