The Local Democracy, Economic Development & Construction Bill, now going from the Lords to the Commons, requires local authorities to devise schemes to deal with petitions.
Most of the provisions are, I think, unnecessary (I don’t know a council or a councillor who ignores petitions, even if only for cynical reasons) but not malign.
What is objectionable is the requirement that councils accept petitions calling for an officer (named or designated by post) to be held to account at a public meeting.
This is not the same as an overview and scrutiny committee questioning an officer, perhaps quite vigorously, about the operation of a policy.
The councillors decide which officers to call, and take evidence — qualitatively quite different from ‘calling to account’.
Has the government been seduced by the tabloid line that all council officers are bad?
It certainly raises a lot of issues: questioning relatively junior officers in public; officers’ terms of employment; whether they can be accompanied by a union or legal representative; whether civil servants on secondment can be put in the frame, for starters.
Liberal Democrats tabled 34 written questions on this clause alone.
For us it is a matter of principle that the politicians carry the can, and anything that has the potential to become a kangaroo court must be avoided, as must any open season on public sector staff.
The Conservative spokesman agreed, saying: “We are getting into very dangerous territory here.”
- Baroness Sally Hamwee is the Liberal Democrat local government spokesperson.