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LAW & ADMINISTRATION: NEW STRUCTURAL MODELS MUST DEMONSTRATE THE SAME OPENNESS AND ACCOUNTABILITY AS THE 'OLD' COMMITTEE SYSTEM

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Any new structural models must demonstrate the same opennes and accountability as the 'old' committee system, accor...
Any new structural models must demonstrate the same opennes and accountability as the 'old' committee system, according to Peter Keith Lucas, local government partner at solicitors Wragge and Co and past president of the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors.

He writes, before local government is swept away with the rhetoric of the Modern local government white paper and rushes into separating the executive and backbench roles, it is worth recording the merits of the 'old-fashioned and inefficient' committee system. These merits should be the benchmark against which to measure any new arrangements.

The committee system has been developed over more than a century and the safeguards which have been built into it provide a useful guide. With the exception of decisions delegated to officers, all decisions are taken in open meetings of the council and are subject to a number of safeguards (see box).

The system also allows decisions to be taken quickly where necessary. Section 101 of the Local Government Act 1972 says decisions can only be taken by full council, a committee, a sub-committee or an officer, but not by an individual member. In urgent situations, small sub-committees with delegated powers have proved effective. These can be convened easily, while reserve emergency powers can be delegated to the chief executive, to be exercised in consultation with leading members.

The involvement of backbench members in day-to-day decision-making ensures a far wider representation of local interests at the committee table than can ever be achieved in a select executive.

The openness of the committee system means there are clear, public occasions when a matter is under discussion. Any member with an interest can be seen to declare that interest and to withdraw. The greatest safeguard, however, is the involvement of at least three members and more than one party in every decision.

Committees and sub-committees may be criticised for being overly large but this means there is almost always a local member, accessible to electors, involved in the decision-making. These members are more immediately accountable than a single executive member who may be more inaccessible.

Officers may only operate within the instructions and delegations determined by members and are accountable to members for implementing decisions. Despite the development of unofficial cabinet government, officers remain responsible to the entire council, not to any individual member.

Any tendency by a committee chair to cross this divide or override officers' professional competence is constrained by the fact that they depend on the public support of senior officers in committee.

However much party groups might meet to consider matters before a committee, every decision still has to be determined in an open committee meeting which must contain minority party members. This remains the strongest safeguard to probity in the committee system.

The executive model of decision-making marks the close of collective decision-making by open, multi-party committees. New structures will rely on increased electoral accountability plus post-scrutiny to ensure the probity of decisions by individual mayors or members.

The openness and accountability of committee government is the benchmark for new models for local government. But perhaps their most difficult task will be to ensure that such post-scrutiny is party-proof.

Peter Keith-Lucas is local government partner at solicitors Wragge and Co and past president of the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors.

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