Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160-179)
ANDREW WHETNALL, PAUL ROWSELL AND PETER MURPHY
TUESDAY 23 APRIL 2002
160. Are you aware of the criticism, and it was certainly made to us by a previous witness, that there is a feeling now that the thing is so prescriptive and so tightly drawn that, basically, anyone who does not know anything about a subject in any detail is almost excluded from the debate? Or, another way of putting it, if we are looking at the restrictions on individuals who may benefit from a decision financially, or their friends or relatives may, more than other council taxpayers, if someone is a council tenant whose spouse works as a teacher and their mother receives a home help service, and their son works in a library, there is not much use in coming to the budget meeting any more, is there?
(Mr Whetnall) I do not think cumulatively it should have that effect. Maybe there is a tension between the kind of clarity you need for legal purposes, where we are saying we think it is an improvement, and people complaining that it is overspecific in a way which inhibits the proper conduct of their duties; but we have now a Standards Board to sort of watch over it and to guide its interpretation, and I think they would be very concerned if it had an inhibiting effect.
161. You were saying the last code was not detailed enough, and it led to debates and discussions and disagreements, but you have tightly drawn this, but again we are going to get some councillors that are going to be stopped from voting on things, are we not; because they are a rent-payer, they are going to be stopped voting on rent increases, because one interpretation is, that is ruled out, and somebody else will rule differently? And we are going to get back to that sort of argument again; however you draw it up, you have just got a much tighter set of rules, and probably more of them, more rules to be interpreted?
(Mr Whetnall) I think we have got more in place now to lead to a sort of consistent and sensible body of interpretation by people with local government experience than we had before.
162. And parish councils; it has been said that parish councillors now have got tighter codes of conduct on them than have MPs. Is that reasonable, given that is what they are saying?
(Mr Whetnall) I do not think the comparison would really stand up. Certainly, we have gone from provisions where parish councillors have been required to declare interests, to registration, which is new, which is, since a particular press article, reported to be causing concern. I think it would be bad if people were failing to accept the code because they had misunderstood its provisions; and there were some quite misleading stories in the press about having a duty to declare a present from your husband, or wife, if it was valued at more than £25, which we do not think is the effect of the code. So the Standards Board are working hard at making sure that people do not misunderstand what is required, and the reports back are that people are often more comfortable after they have had the explanation than they were before.
163. But, surely, the code should have been simple, for people to understand, not have to have a guidance to go with the code?
(Mr Whetnall) The code appears with notes on, The Standards Board is doing more and more by way of explanation and back-up. As I say, what is simple and plain English and what is clear enough to be legally enforceable, there can sometimes be a tension between those things.
164. Now I understand these codes extend to people who are on National Park bodies; is that right?
(Mr Whetnall) There is a code specifically for such bodies.
165. Now I understand that you did not consult with part of DEFRA about that code of practice; it was a bit of a pity, was it not?
(Mr Whetnall) Of course, over the period when consultation was going on, DEFRA would have been part of DTLR, so I am not sure there is a hole of that sort; but I will look into it.
166. And I understand, in that code of practice, farmers are given a general exemption; now, if it is logical to give farmers a general exemption as far as National Parks, you could argue that it is also logical to give conservationists, and other groups there, but, if it is logical, as far as National Parks, for farmers to be given general exemption, why not in parish councils and in other bodies?
(Mr Whetnall) A general exemption from declaring their interests?
167. That their activity, as a farmer, is something which they have to declare; that is what I think the code says?
(Mr Whetnall) I would like to write to you about that, because I am not quite clear on that point.
168. If you could; because I think there is considerable concern. It seems odd that in one code you give an exemption for a particular group of people, and yet throughout the rest of the codes, as I understand it, you do not give people an exemption?
(Mr Whetnall) I would like to look into that.
169. Could you explain, how would a conflict be resolved between the community strategy, set by the Local Strategic Partnership, and the policy set by the local authority?
(Mr Whetnall) One would hope it would get resolved before one of the two things got fixed, because the local authority will always be a member of the Local Strategic Partnership, not always leading it, and a large part of the business is to bring partners together so they see eye to eye on objectives, priorities, and resolving conflicts that way.
170. But if there were to be a conflict; have you never thought of that possibility?
(Mr Whetnall) There are such things as unresolved conflicts, I am sure. Is this particularly in a planning context you are thinking of?
171. I am asking you, initially, in a general way, in that there is a specific planning issue because the Planning Green Paper says the community strategy sets the overall policies, which suggests the council has dominance over the local partnership. But I am asking you that in a general context, first; and it has all been given to this in the Department?
(Mr Whetnall) That is a Green Paper, and we will be talking to our colleagues as they move forward to legislation.
172. In general terms, has any thought been given in the Department to a conflict between the council's community strategy and the Local Strategic Partnership strategy?
(Mr Whetnall) As I say, a large part of the art of partnership is about resolving conflicts. If you end up with two documents that say opposite things,
173. Has any thought been given in the Department to resolving such a conflict, or has it never been thought there could be a conflict?
(Mr Whetnall) I am sure, lots of conflicts which will remain a tension; but as to a head-on opposition of views,
174. You are telling us it has not been considered?
(Mr Whetnall) The council's role should be sufficient not to get into that position, I think.
175. So are you saying then the Department have not considered resolution of such a conflict?
(Mr Whetnall) There is material in the guidance on LSPs about resolving conflicts.
176. How would those specific conflicts be resolved then?
(Mr Whetnall) I must say, I find it a rather abstract question to deal with, just like that. There is no way of saying that
177. I do not think it is very abstract at all. You have a local authority which might develop one policy and a Local Strategic Partnership, where the council is a member, and set out in guidance not to be a dominant member after the first year, which could have a different policy; now what you are saying suggests that the Department have not considered the possibility of those two clashing?
(Mr Whetnall) We have not got as far as issuing guidance on the issue, that may be true.
178. Right; thank you. Now that goes some way to answering it. How would Local Strategic Partnerships be held accountable to the local electorate; have you ever considered that, or do you think it does not matter?
(Mr Whetnall) I do not think it does not matter. Again, in Local Strategic Partnerships, there is an issue again about the balance between too much guidance and too little; but the guidance that exists is certainly encouraging the partnerships to be inclusive, to be in touch with and receptive to a wide range of opinion, and for the council to find ways of making sure their democratic principles make a contribution.
179. Why is Department activity on Local Strategic Partnerships led within the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit, a different section from that which deals with local government?
(Mr Whetnall) The Neighbourhood Renewal Unit has a particular role on especially the 88 LSPs in areas which receive money from the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund, and, with Government Offices, they have had a role in accreditation in those areas, to make sure that the policy on the money and the policy on the partnership is in line. They do not have such a high profile in the rest of the country, and we simply have to work together with them, to make sure that the results are not incompatible.