What implications has the Report "Local Government Ethical Standards Committee" for Parish/Town Councils?

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The role of Monitoring Officer's is strengthened.
asked by (2.5k points)

1 Answer

+2 votes

There are 26 recommendations in the report, but if there is no will to implement them there will be no implications. Even if they are, what is not there unless I have missed something is the opportunity for the Local Gov Ombudsman to investigate maladministration by Town/Parish Councils. The first recommendation is "

"The Local Government Association should create an updated model code of conduct, in consultation with representative bodies of councillors and officers of all tiers of local government".  But the implications are meaningless unless it is implemented.
answered by (7.5k points)
Thanks for replying quickly. It is an Agenda Item at our own Town Council (February 6). Chapter 5 relates specifically to Town and Parsh Councils.Out of it is the recommendation that Clerks should have the appropriate qualifications: that section 27(3) of the localism act 2011 should be amended  for all Parish Councils to adopt that of the code of the Principal Authority (or the new model code): Thirdly there is a recommendation that effectively means all breaches of the Code (by a Councillor) is dealt with by the Principal Authority. All this as well the overiding recommendations and Best Pracitces idenified in the report.
The code of conduct is pretty forgiving as it stands. There are no references to holding cllrs to account for deliberately breaching legislation or acting in a manner they are not empowered to do so.  The most severe punishment is censure, effectively being told off in the public domain. Will this still be the case with the new model code of conduct? Town and parish councillors can be laws unto themselves. This won't change until the govt empowers the local government ombudsman to have jurisdiction over them and force them to hold referenda over precept rises.  Sadly a lot of qualified clerks are not as competent as their cllrs would like to believe as the tests set by self serving SLCC and NALC are not assessed by any external academic testing body.
Most of the recommendations and best practice models in the report are well thought out and would bring benefits to the sector.  The most significant, for Town and Parish Councils, is the enhanced role of the Principal Authority's Monitoring Officer, but the Principal Authorities are likely to oppose this.  It's extra work, a can of worms, for no reward, at a time when they are trying to divest themselves of unnecessary responsibility.
Compulsory qualifications for clerks would simply drive more people out of a profession that already struggles to meet the demand.  It's probably hugely beneficial in a Town or larger Parish Council, but until the role is valued in the way it should be, it's unneccesary in a small parish.  Is there another sphere of employment in which a level 3 qualification is a minimum requirement for a job worth £3,000 or less a year?
Graeme mentioned referenda over precept rises.  The reason we fight this proposal is that a referendum costs about £1,500, which may be more than the proposed precept rise for a council with a precept of under £10,000.  From time to time, it may be both necessary and prudent to increase the precept by more than 100%.  It sounds a lot, but might only equate to 30p per household per week.  Percentages are meaningless when the sums involved are so small.
Sorry Dave but I profoundly disagree with your comment about precept rises which suggests you aren't viewing this from the perspective of a town council that gets a precept in excess of £ 1million and decides to raise it by 20%  "because it can". Even 30p a week equates to £15 a year which for somebody on low income has an impact. Referenda do cost, but in the name of transparency and accountability are justifiable. Principal Authorities have to use them if they want to raise more than government limits, and in my view Town and Parish council's who are less accountable should be subject to them too.
One recommendation that could have an impact is the recommendation to allow the Principal Authority Monitoring Office to suspend Town/Parish cllrs from office. Any such suspended cold could appeal to the Local Govt Ombudsman.
I have to disagree on your comments about Clerks qualifications not being assessed by an external academic testing body - they are.  Previously the University of Gloucester and now De Montfort University.  The qualifications are not 'internal' but formally recognised professional qualifications.
The issue that you seem to be facing is that the Clerks that you are coming across are not up to the job but don't do down the vast majority of Clerks who a conscientious, professional and dedicated in the face of bullying and intimidation.
Higher Education in Community Governance is recognised but what about CiLCA?  ." The qualification is owned and managed by the Improvement and Development Board (IDB) working on behalf of local (parish and town) councils in England".
CiLCA is regulated by Ascentis which is in turn regulated by Ofqual. The qualification may be owned by the IDB but it is regulated and monitored by an external official source.
Graeme - if a council, regardless of scale, decides to raise its precept by 20% "because it can", surely that is a matter for the auditors to address.
To give another insight into the referenda debate, our District Council has always acted in a benevolent way towards the parishes, bearing many costs that should, by right, have been passed down.  In today's climate, they no longer feel able to do this.  The financial implications to all parishes are considerable.  In the case of my three parishes, new liabilities of around 30% of precept have to be met.  To a member of the public, nothing has changed in terms of service provision; it is purely a financial issue.  So the referendum would ask the public to decide whether to start paying now for something they have always received at no cost previously.  Why would anybody vote in favour of that?  Precept increase rejected, so where does the money come from?
The Auditor can express concern and urge the council to think about freezing the precept for a number of years but that is as far as it goes. Auditors cannot address it by taking action.   Principal Authorities have been constrained by limits on Council Tax rises without referenda for years. Why should Parish councils not be subject to these too?  You have suggested that voters  would not support significant precept rises because you know best, so why should you have to  organise a referendum like Principal Authorities  have to do? Maybe you should consider what services you actually provide for partitioners? Have you engaged with them to see if they actually want them? Could you cut spending on items that there is no demonstrable demand for and meet the new "liabilities" whatever they are without inflation busting precept rises, or through greater efficiency?
The auditor will express concern and urge the council etc on a public document.  If this doesn't stir people into action, they have chosen to pay a higher precept.
In the parallel universe of small parishes, we cut the grass in the playing field, we pay the electricity bill for the street lights, we employ a clerk and purchase insurance.  Total annual expenditure, approx £8,000.  Scope to cut our cloth, minimal!  So when the District Council hands down a street light maintenance contract at £2,500 per year, we increase the precept by 25%.
Most members of the public don't read the auditor's report, in fact most won't even know it exists so sorry but the public won't be stirred into action, and arguing they have accepted to pay a higher precept is a sweeping assumption gone too far.  
The street lighting is very interesting since most two tier principal authorities have the County Council as the Highways authority who deal with all aspects of street lighting, unless it is delegated to a specific lighting Authority.  Have your PC agreed to act as the Lighting Authority?  (If so I would argue it was an ill informed decision).  If not why are you being asked to pay for maintenance at all, especially if the Highways have been adopted from whoever acts as the lighting authority if it is not the County Council?  Unless a bulb goes out, what is there to maintain? Has  your Parish Council been asking these questions of whoever acts as the Highways authority in its boundary? I would be interested to know why this has arisen!
There were no street lights.  People wanted some.  The Parish Council installed some.
If the PC installed the streetlights, why are the District Council billing you for maintenance?  Were the County Council approached to provide street lighting? If so what reason did they give for not providing street lighting?
The cost of providing adequate lighting for our parish would be in excess of £1m, or £1,500 per head of population.  Parishes have traditionally provided their own, one or two at a time, as finances permit, over the last 60 years, since we got electricity in the villages.  When the District Council was established, they kindly agreed to contribute to the ongoing energy and maintenance cost, but with no transfer of ownership.  Insurance remained a parish liability.  These are old lights.  They need regular maintenance, cleaning, safety checks etc.  Now the District Council has ceased funding them, as it can no longer justify this level of expenditure on assets it does not own.  End of story.
For me, some parts of your story are still missing.  However, if you had to hold a referendum for that level of rise and explained to paritioners that without the rise, the lights would go onto decline I am sure they would back it, or press you to find an alternative maintenance scheme.

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