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Councils seeking to deliver on best value and modernisation must focus on human rights compliance, advises Bernadet...
Councils seeking to deliver on best value and modernisation must focus on human rights compliance, advises Bernadette Livesey, human rights solicitor at Walker Morris.

From 2 October councils must ensure they act in a manner compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, described by home secretary Jack Straw as 'probably the most significant constitutional change since the 1688 Bill of Rights'.

Mr Straw said: 'Anyone dealing with the public, let alone public authorities, should have respect for human rights at the core of their work. If it isn't at the core of your work, take another look at what you're doing.'

The implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998 is simply another piece of the modernisation jigsaw, which includes best value, new political and ethical structures and the relaxation of the capital finance rules, the adoption of a single capital pot and the promotion of public/private partnerships.

So what common issues will there be for human rights, best value and corporate governance? Best value emphasises partnership working. Public bodies will need to

look closely at a potential partner's ability to deliver on human rights. This may include adopting a corporate commitment to human rights and the implementation of training programmes.

Councils will need to make sure they do not fall foul of the continuing restriction on the use of 'non-commercial' considerations in the Local Government Act 1988. They should also examine contract conditions for suppliers and contractors in order to promote compliant decision-making processes and service delivery arrangements, and to provide remedies in default.

The home secretary has made his views on this very clear: 'Will central and local government want to award or renew contracts to companies shown to be trampling on human rights? The policy and legal framework for procurement can and does take account of impropriety, and so it should.'

Human rights will challenge the process by which decisions are made on public services as well as the decisions themselves, testing fairness, the need for proper assessment of individuals needs, openness and transparency.

Decision-making and administrative processes lacking these qualities are likely to suffer challenge. In-house lawyers will need to ensure rigorous, documented procedures are adopted.

To achieve an acceptable level of sound corporate governance councils will need a thorough and continuing education and training programme for members and officers at all levels.

Councils will also need to re-examine their policies and procedures - especially in housing, social services and education, as well as the less obvious areas such as planning, licensing and enforcement.

Insurers will be examining how councils are preparing to manage the risks they face in terms of damages and legal costs that will undoubtedly come as a result of legal aid being made available.

The best value authority seeking to deliver within the new political structures should have human rights compliance as a key part of its corporate strategy.

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