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


APPENDIX 70

Memorandum by Gloucestershire County Council

GENERAL STATEMENT

  The County Council welcomes the publication of the Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill and the opportunity this offers to influence the contents of the Bill before it is presented to Parliament. It is hoped that the Government will repeat this process as other Draft Bills are prepared.

  The County Council welcomes also the Government's wider agenda setting context for Modernising Government as illustrated by the recent Modern Government White Paper which promotes fresh stimulus for joined up working and spreading associated best practice.

  The County Council has argued over many years for a relaxation of the constraints within which it works thus enabling it to have greater freedom to secure, across service interests, local solutions to local problems.

  The County Council recognises that such opportunities may now be closer to hand. The positive messages from the Government, however, need to be carried through in the initiatives it takes and the legislation it promotes.

  There is a danger that the Draft Bill may promote solutions that do not take sufficient account of the diversity of communities, leadership styles and approaches to probity that exist across the country. The consultation paper gives the impression at times that it is addressing primarily unitary metropolitan authorities where one party control is in place generally. In fact, most of England's population lives in counties with a mixed rural/town aspect and with a two (County/District) three (County/District/Parish) tier local government structure in which no overall political control is a feature.

  The County Council urges the Government, when addressing the local government family as a whole, to promote local flexibility across all elements of the Bill and avoid the tendency in some parts of the Draft Bill for a predisposition towards general prescription.

THE DRAFT BILL—POLITICAL MANAGEMENT STRUCTURES

  The County Council is one of many local authorities across the country that has no overall political control. This has been the position since 1985. Additionally, the Council serves a geographically dispersed population within a re-affirmed and locally advocated three-tier local government structure.

  Since 1992 the Council has operated a slim-line decision-making structure with a Strategy and Resource Committee, five Programme Committees and a handful of Sub-Committees. This is underpinned by extensive delegation arrangements to officers, the use of policy panels and performance review boards and the participation of the wider community across our decision-making structure.

  Individuals and organisations have access to our decision-making structures, through co-option opportunities, through early engagement in issues that affect them and through opportunities to question the Council at its decision-making meetings.

  In recent months the County Council has introduced an Audit and Scrutiny Committee and will shortly be introducing a Standards Committee. These initiatives have been stimulated by the Government's Modernising Local Government Agenda and the County Council will continue to pursue new opportunities ahead of the Draft Bill becoming an Act of Parliament.

  It is against this background that the County Council assesses the Political Management proposals contained in the Draft Bill and elaborated on in the Consultation Paper: Local Leadership, Local Choice.

  The County Council recognises and shares the desire of Government to rekindle local engagement with the democratic process and accepts that new opportunities for doing so should be debated locally.

  The County Council is comfortable about promoting this local debate but is realistic about the extent to which the models on political management structures are likely to stimulate widespread interest across Gloucestershire, particularly given that the electorate has consistently reaffirmed, since 1985, its electoral right to deliver a politically balanced Council.

  That is not to say that the County Council wish to advocate the status quo option for its political management structure. But as it continues to adjust its structures to reflect local circumstances so it would want to place its current structures alongside the models contained in the Draft Bill when promoting local consultation. The County Council sees this as a legitimate stage ahead of formal consultation on a new Constitution.

  The County Council considers that the strengths of the new models would be reinforced, however, if there was less prescription about each model. This is relevant particularly to the Cabinet with leader model and the individual member accountability issue when applied within a balanced Council. There is equally an issue about the size of the Executive. As proposed, its size provides an impediment to multi-party working. In Gloucestershire an Executive of 14 would be a more acceptable outcome.

  The County Council would be more comfortable with the models if they enabled different forms of leadership to be used rather than seeking a unified approach across the whole of local government in this country.

  There is a danger also that consultation will be less meaningful to local communities if the process is constrained by having to use the terminology contained in the Bill. An illustration of this concern is the term "elected mayor". In three tier counties the term of mayor is well used and understood in District and Town Council areas. The County Council considers that local consultation will be improved if alternative terms to that of "elected mayor" can be used to illustrate the intended role. Such flexibility over the use of terms appears available elsewhere in the Draft Bill eg clause 7 in relation to Overview and Scrutiny Committees. This is welcomed but the same flexibility should be applied elsewhere in the Draft Bill.

  The move to expand the remit of Committees outside the Executive to embrace "overview" as well as "scrutiny" is welcomed as this, potentially, more accurately reflects the role that all members should have in influencing the Executive during policy formulation, through to determination, implementation and review. It must be the right of all members to have access to the whole spectrum not least through their representative role.

  The County Council would welcome the creation of an Independent Commission to oversee the use of referendums. This would be an alternative proposition to the use of reserve powers by the Secretary of State and would remove a potential conflict of interest as the Secretary of State could be seen as judge and jury in certain circumstances.

  Finally, the County Council would wish to comment on the issue of Community Leadership. This is an issue of particular significance in three tier areas and there will be a need for local protocols between the respective tiers. Although it is acknowledged that there are opportunities for promoting the Community Leadership role in other legislation, the Community Leadership role that an individual member fulfils, at a local level needs greater recognition. The County Council would look to the Draft Bill to provide new impetus for promoting this local leadership role. One positive way in which this can be addressed is by providing a model for the executive that embraces devolved decision-making.

THE DRAFT BILL—THE ETHICAL FRAMEWORK

  The County Council has a good track record with regard to the probity of both its members and officers. Through training, systems and processes the County Council aims to promote the public service ethos amongst all members and officers.

  The Council would not wish to give the impression of complacency, however; currently it is working towards the introduction of a Standards Committee as a further demonstration of the Council's commitment to the highest standards of conduct throughout the organisation.

  It is against this background that the County Council assesses the Ethical framework proposals contained in the Draft Bill and elaborated on in the Consultation Paper: Local Leadership, Local Choice.

  Whilst the County Council supports any measures that will reinforce the highest standards of conduct throughout local government, the Council is concerned that the Draft Bill proposals will do little to restore "the bond of trust" at local level given the limited opportunities there will be for the local determination of breaches of the code of conduct.

  The County Council would support a strengthening of the independent element of a local Standards Committee as a way of promoting confidence in the consideration locally of all but the most serious breaches of the code of conduct.

  The Council sees a further difficulty associated with the effectiveness of a local Standards Committee. This concerns the lack of any opportunity for a Committee to impose sanctions on any member who has transgressed the code. The absence of sanctions reinforces the Council's view that Standards Committees will only address the most insignificant and trivial breaches. The County Council would question whether independent persons will come forward to preside over and/or deliberate on such complaints.

  The County Council believes there is still an issue to be addressed in relation to the apparent overlap between the functions of the Standards Board, Adjudication Panel, District Audit and the Ombudsman.

  Finally, the County Council has a concern about the speed of process. The mapping of the consideration of a complaint suggests that, in the worst case scenario (involving a possible appeal to the High Court), a complaint may not be determined within 18 months. The County Council considers there is a balance to be struck between the interests of natural justice and efficient public administration.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

  The County Council reaffirms its commitment to a framework that delivers the highest standards of conduct across the County Council and promotes local leadership through positive engagement with individuals and communities of interest across the County.

  The County Council believes that this is best achieved by the Draft Bill being amended to promote:

    —  local flexibility across all elements of the Bill, and

    —  recognition of the diversity of communities and leadership styles that exist across the country.


 
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Prepared 11 August 1999