Ministers have moved forward with their plan to remove additional employment protections for the key council officer roles of head of paid service, monitoring officer and section 151 finance officer.
Regulations have been drawn up which scrap the requirement for a ‘designated independent person’ to be involved in any disciplinary or dismissal of officers in any of the three statutory roles which councils are required to fill.
The regulations, which were published last week, are subject to a brief four week consultation.
The Department for Communities & Local Government has sent draft copies to just 10 organisations. The select consultee list - which includes a number of professional bodies representing the officers set to be affected by the change, the LGA, District Councils Network and the TaxPayers’ Alliance pressure group - was described as “interesting” by one recipient, who did not want to be named.
The brevity of the consultation period has been criticised as “inappropriate” by the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors. They also descibed the government’s alternative to an independent person as “inadequate”.
ACSES spokesman Nicholas Dobson said: “When interfering with a substantial corporate governance measure a short consultation is inappropriate,” he said. “As a matter of law, consultation must be effective and meaningful and should not be used to sanctify a decision which has already effectively been taken.”
Mr Dobson said designated independent persons had been introduced during John Major’s 1990s Conservative government “for sound corporate governance reasons”.
At the time there were concerns council officers were being pressurised to act politically and at risk of losing their jobs if they did not do so.
Mr Dobson said: “The essential purpose of the DIP provisions was to promote sound local corporate governance and to enable the senior governance officers in the authority - head of paid service, monitoring officer and chief financial officer - to speak truth unto power without fear or favour.”
The government’s alternative of a meeting of the full council was not “an inadequate public interest protection, particularly where there is a strong majority group”, Mr Dobson said.
Communities secretary Eric Pickles announced his plans to scrap the designated independent person in November, describing the process as a “bizarre bureaucratic ritual” which cost hundreds of thousands of pounds.
He said: “A town hall chief executive costs a lot of money, but if they are simply not up to the job, councillors must be able to get rid of them quick smart without having to throw away thousands in parachute pay-offs.
“It is ridiculous that councils feel forced to give bumper pay offs to dismiss inadequate chief executives simply to avoid these unnecessary golden goodbye reviews from expensive lawyers.”
However, employment lawyers have questioned whether Mr Pickles’ approach will in fact lower the cost of settlements with senior local government officers.
Writing in LGC earlier this month, Bevan Brittan partner Sarah Lamont said Mr Pickles’ proposal was unlikely to speed up incompetence or misconduct cases because delays were “more commonly caused by the bureaucratic procedural requirements of the standard Joint National Council terms and conditions incorporated into the majority of chief executives’ contracts”.
His proposals were also unlikely to reduce costs as “the headline-grabbing figures the minister has criticised rarely relate to the dismissal of genuinely incompetent officers or serious misconduct”. They were more usually likely to relate to cases in which “the council has no substantial grounds to legally justify the dismissal and so agrees to pay a year’s salary rather than have their reasons for dismissal tested more thoroughly”, she said.
The consultation on the draft regulations is to end on 14 March. A DCLG spokesman said the regulations would be implemented following the end of this consultation period.
Alongside the draft regulations, DCLG published extra guidance to councils on pay transparency advising them that six figure settlements should be agreed by a full council meeting.
In response, LGA workforce board Sir Steve Bullock (Lab) said councils were “the most democratically accountable part of the public sector and they are very much alive to these issues”. He added: “The LGA’s national pay policy guide already covers most of the points raised in this guidance. It is important that all parts of the public sector adopt a similarly rigorous approach.”