Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300 - 313)



  300. So if you were to outline a modernising agenda, what would it be from the union's perspective?

  (Ms Geldart) We think there is a terrific role for local government which has been taken away over the past 20 years or so. I do not want to enter into a party political discussion here, but what in effect has happened is that the leadership role in local communities and the delivery of services role has substantially been taken away from local authorities and our view is that should be returned. The issues that are raised by this powers issue are crucial to it. There are clearly new areas which have been developed by a lot of progressive local authorities over the last few years which we would like to see authorities developing in terms of community leadership but also in terms of changing the way in which services are delivered and being more effective in delivering services in the community. Clearly that goes along with a very great deal of the Government's modernising agenda and we have no problem with much of it. Obviously we have problems with the detail, as you will have gathered, in this and some other areas.

Earl of Carnarvon

  301. You mentioned the problems of an employee of a council having political ambitions. I believe the present rule is that an employee of a council cannot stand for election within the council's geographical area but can in an adjacent council, is that correct?

  (Ms Geldart) Yes.

  302. Is that the sort of thing you were thinking about or going beyond that?

  (Mr Davies) The key issue for us is that in the restricted activities at the moment there is a clause which effectively has prevented many of our members from speaking about matters of community controversy. For example, they may wish to speak out about the building of a new road or the closure of a hospital purely on a personal basis, but if one political party in the neighbourhood supports the closure of the hospital and another does not then it could be construed under the current legislation as promoting one political party or another. Many of our members accept the principles of political neutrality but they wish to speak out on matters of community controversy. If a librarian in the City happens to live in a rural area and there is a road going through that rural area, they do not understand why speaking out against the building of that road should prejudice their opportunity to be a senior librarian in a far away London borough. As the law is at the moment it could be construed as a proscribed activity.

Lord Marlesford

  303. You mean they cannot speak about something that affects a different borough to which they live in?

  (Ms Geldart) If it could be construed as promoting one political party as opposed to another.

  304. Would you accept that they should not be able to speak on controversial matters within the area in which they are employed?

  (Ms Geldart) I do not know if there is any confusion about this. This is the provision in the 1989 Act which relates to people above a certain income threshold and to people in certain occupational areas which we think are drawn much too widely. Frankly, we think that has been limited very substantially. It would not be appropriate to see the chief executive of a local authority on a political platform or even one that could remotely be seen as being a political platform locally, but at a couple of levels below that we do not see why people who happen to live in the area in which they work should not be active, particularly if it does not affect their own job. If a librarian has got a view about road building or a highways person has got a view about libraries we really do not see why that person should not be able to participate in local campaigning and exercise their civic rights in that way.

Mr Pike

  305. It is important that they should not be able to express a view on the issue that they are advising the council on. That is quite different and that is what the position used to be, is it not?

  (Ms Geldart) Prior to the 1989 Act, yes.
  (Mr Davies) We have suggested to civil servants that the current provision should be replaced by a conflict of interest test rather than a blanket prescription.

  306. Does UNISON have a view on referenda?

  (Mr Davies) Underlying all this is our view that local councils should have as much freedom to decide about how they organise the changes in their own area and if a local council decided that a referendum was the appropriate way to test the views of the public then we would have no problem with that referendum. What we do have a problem with is a mechanism by which governments can enforce referenda on local councils which they do not feel are appropriate or necessary.

Dr Whitehead

  307. Could I take you back to something that has been concerning me and that follows from Mr Burstow's question about the scenario where the scrutiny function runs the council rather than the executive running the council. Since it is envisaged in the paper that scrutiny obviously can include policy as well as implementation and a majority group is conducting scrutiny, the particular concern I have is that the policy caught up in the scrutiny becomes policy in its own right through the council and then rules the activities of the mayor and executive. Now, from an officer's point of view, would you envisage circumstances being difficult for officers whereby officers would be caught up, by advising one side or the other—either by backing the council in its policy and scrutiny, or backing the mayor and executive in terms of their attempting to resist that in terms of their implementation job. How would you see officers distinguishing those functions?

  (Ms Geldart) That cuts both ways. It does not matter whether the scrutiny committee is paramount or the executive is paramount. There clearly is a potential conflict between giving advice to both sides. That is, in a sense, to echo what was said from the SOLACE representatives, that if you are going to set up a clear distinction between executive and scrutiny, which is a novel idea in local government, then there probably needs to be some sort of mirroring of the system that exists in Parliament, where there is some sort of independent officer support to each side of the process, so as to avoid that happening.

  308. If scrutiny migrated to policy, it would be very difficult to sustain that, would it not?

  (Ms Geldart) Yes. I do not know what the answer to the problem is.


  309. May I ask you very briefly, SOLACE, in the evidence you heard given this afternoon, clearly had some concern about a lack of clarity between the role of the members and the role of the chief executives and chief officers. You have not said anything to the Committee about whether you have any worries about the effect on members, who may or may not be members of the executive, assuming management roles; and the effect that might have on you and your members. Maybe you do not think it is going to be a problem.

  (Mr Davies) But it is already a problem, that is the point, which perhaps has made us less than forthcoming on that. At the moment, our members say to us that there is, because perhaps of the politicisation of local government over the last 20 years, in some councils senior councillors have already moved so far into management that it is actually rather difficult to make any hard and fast distinctions about who does what. Clearly the danger is even greater if you have a cabinet councillor, so to speak, who is effectively running a service. All we have said in our paper is that there must be clarity. That is the reason why we want to have this protocol governing the relationship between councillors and officers. But we do not, at this stage, have any clear views about where the line should be drawn. However, we think it needs to be drawn out of a process of discussion between the Local Government Association, SOLACE, ourselves, and other parties who have some view.

Dr Whitehead

  310. May I ask one question about the Standards Commission. There is an interesting distinction, towards the end of the document, between the Standards Commission for members and a Code of Conduct for officers. Do you think that division is appropriate in terms of what is attempted to be achieved by the ethics section of this Bill?

  (Mr Davies) Yes, because as we have understood it, the Code of Conduct for employees is going to become part of the disciplinary procedures. That is right and proper. Our members are paid employees of local councils. They need to understand what rules of conduct govern their behaviour. Ideally, rules are jointly owned, as we have said in our paper; but, yes, that is an appropriate way for employees to be governed in terms of the standards and ethics. There is a slight danger that they will get sucked into standards committees' investigations of overall problems, and we do have difficulty about how the security of employment issues of officers will be protected if they are drawn into standards investigations, which are essentially about the activities of councillors. But, in general terms, a distinction between the standards committee for councillors and the disciplinary procedure for employees seems a reasonable one.

  311. The provision for complaint though is pretty much a scatter gun, is it not, ie, complaints can be mounted by a variety of people on a variety of causes, and may well involve a combination of councillors and officers which are then required to be investigated.

  (Mr Davies) Sure. The member of the public may have a complaint, but they do not know if it is a chief officer or a councillor who is the source of the problem that they are complaining about, so in a sense at some stage, whether it is within the council or at the standards committee, there will have to be some filtering to decide whether the problem is a councillor problem or an officer problem.

  312. What about an officer filing a complaint under the ethics proposals against councillors?

  (Ms Geldart) Why not? We have been pursuing issues about whistle-blowing of all sorts and we want to see all officers' rights to blow the whistle, if necessary, effected.

  313. So presumably the Code of Conduct that would be drawn up for officers would include a provision which would not suppress that right under the first part of the provision?

  (Mr Davies) There is already a Code of Conduct on whistle-blowing which has been the subject of discussion between the Local Government Association and the trade unions in general and although there are some areas of slight difficulty, in general there is already a reasonable understanding of whistle-blowing which could very easily be imported into this new ethics system.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed for coming. Thank you for your evidence and for answering our questions. We are adjourned until Thursday at 3.30 pm.

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