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Transparency law for councils considered

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Ministers want to make transparency guidelines for local authorities a legally binding requirement, the government has announced.

Legislative backing for the new transparency code published on Thursday would make sure councils were held accountable by the public, the Department for Communities & Local Government said.

A departmental statement said: “Subject to consultation, ministers are minded to make the code a legally binding requirement to ensure authorities can be held fully accountable to the local people they serve.”

A spokeswoman told LGC the consultation would definitely happen and was not dependent on whether councils followed the new Code of Recommended Practice for council transparency in its non-enforceable form. No date has been set but a consultation would be launched “in due course”, the spokeswoman said.

According to background documents released alongside the final version of the code, the department does not intend to monitor council’s publication practice and it appears that identification of non-compliance will be the responsibility of the public.

“It is not desirable for publication of local authority data to become a compliance-based exercise,” the government said in its response to the consultation.

The final version of the code contains a number of changes following consultation earlier this year including an exemption for parish councils spending less than £200,000 a year and a requirement for authorities to publish the ‘pay multiple’ ratio between the highest paid employee and median workforce salary.

Other, well-publicised aspects of the draft code, such as the requirement for authorities to publish the salaries, names, job descriptions, responsibilities and budgets of staff earning more than £58,200, remain in the final version despite the concerns of respondents to the consultation.

In the pursuit of transparency DCLG has published all 229 of the responses to the consultation, including the 142 from councils, alongside the normal summary of responses and departmental response


What has stayed

  • Almost half of respondents raised concerns about the cost of implementing the code and larger councils in particular said five-star publication standards could not be achieved without some investment
  • Government response: slightly amended five-star system remains
  • Nearly a fifth of responses said the code should apply to central government and other public bodies.
  • Government response: Freedom of Information Act review is ongoing and government is committed to publishing key data on public services
  • A third of respondents criticised the £58,200 salary publication requirement, arguing that a job function test would be more appropriate.
  • Government response: “A salary threshold provides an effective, non-bureaucratic way for the public to determine whether pay matches levels or responsibility”


What’s new

  • Only parish councils with a gross annual income or expenditure of more than £200,000 are covered by the code
  • While the department has no power over “local authority partnerships” such as Local Enterprise Partnerships, the code should stand as recommended practice for such bodies
  • When the salaries, names, job descriptions, responsibilities, budgets and numbers of staff of employees earning more than £58,200 are published, budgets should include the overall salary cost of staff reporting to each senior employee
  • The ‘pay multiple’ made famous by Will Hutton’s Fair Pay in the Public Sector must be published as a ratio between the highest salary and the median average salary of the authority’s workforce
  • Following the publication last month by DCLG of a map detailing the assets of 87 councils, the final version of the code recommends publishing the location of public land and building assets and key attribute information
  • The recommendation on timeliness of publication has been upgraded from “as quickly as possible after it is produced” in the draft code to “in real time” in the final version
  • The final code states that publication “should be” in open and machine-readable formats where the draft said this should happen “where possible”
  • Additional advice on avoiding errors in publishing real time data says “robust information management processes” are the best approach
  • The five-star ranking of preferred methods of publication are amended, replacing Uniform Resource Identifiers (URIs) with the more general “open standards from the World Wide Web Consortium”. Five-star publication should not only link to external sources, but these should “provide context” to data
  • Concerns that data publication could lead to payment fraud sees the code point authorities to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy’s guidance on Managing the Risk of Fraud – Actions to Counter Fraud and Corruption
  • Public data should not include personal information which would contravene the Data Protection Act, the final code has clarified
  • The need to have regard to the exemptions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 has been extended to the exemptions in the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, INSPIRE Regulations 2009 or falls within Schedule 12A LGA 1972
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