Employment protections for senior council officers look set to be removed as communities secretary Eric Pickles renews his battle with “bureaucratic barons” and “golden goodbyes”.
Ministers are expected to propose the scrapping of a rule which requires councils to appoint a lawyer to conduct a review when a senior officer is suspended – a rule originally introduced to prevent dismissals motivated by political issues.
Mr Pickles is understood to be frustrated that councils frequently arrange large pay offs for chief executives in order to avoid the appointment of a lawyer and an expensive and lengthy investigation into the suspension.
A spokesman for the Department for Communities & Local Government said an amendment to the Local Authorities (Standing Orders) (England) Regulations 2001 would come “into effect early in the new year following a short consultation” which is not to last more than four weeks. The amendment will affect section 151 officers and monitoring officers as well as chief executives.
Writing in the Telegraph, he said: “Watching incompetent bureaucratic barons bouncing from one post to another with only a nice payoff to cushion their fall has been a source of immense frustration to many local government colleagues.
“At present getting rid of your chief exec involves a series of fantastical labyrinthine twists and turns — beginning with the appointment of a high-flying lawyer to review the case. It takes forever and costs a small fortune. One case took 16 months to adjudicate and racked up costs of £420,000.”
He added: “The days of lining your pockets at the expense of the taxpayer are over. In future, what’s decided in the full democratic council chamber will be what counts. And if elected representatives decide a chief executive is for the chop. So be it.”
The proposal is one of a raft of announcements made by Mr Pickles on Friday, including a call for councils get rid of the chief executive altogether.
A press release issued by the on Friday said: “The post of chief executive is not set in statute, which means there are no central barriers to remove the role. It only takes a simple democratic decision by the council. Several councils have done this in the past year. The statutory head of paid service role can be done by another senior officer.”
The secretary of state has also written to the LGA to “urge them to take steps to improve their performance management of senior posts” and he announced plans to strengthen guidance on the publication of pay policies.
Currently councils are advised to hold a vote on pay deals over £100,000, but Mr Pickles said smaller councils who do not have such high salaries should set a lower vote threshold and warned that ministers would regulate if councils don’t act on it.
DCLG said: “With a public worried about the cost of living and all parts of the public sector looking to make deficit savings, Ministers believe these steps will show taxpayers that value for money is being fully considered for top paid staff.”
The proposal drew a range of responses from sector bodies.
The Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors said the proposal was “misconceived and would do nothing to promote sound corporate governance” and accused ministers of “careless political swashbuckling”.
Nicholas Dobson, ACSES spokesman, said: “The purpose of the independent person arrangement concerning proposed disciplinary action for the three key officers with responsibility for effective local authority corporate governance is to ensure that these officers can give the necessary advice to the authority in the public interest - in other words to speak truth unto power - without undue fear of summary removal from office for so doing.”
Mr Dobson also questioned the government’s linkage of the appointment of independent persons to larger pay offs suggesting instead this was to do with individual contract arrangements.
He added: “Although the arrangements for disciplining these key corporate governance officers may well benefit from review, this should be properly conducted in the light of all material considerations. The tone of CLG’s news release would unfortunately seem to indicate an approach of careless political swashbuckling rather than one of the rational objectivity that might reasonably be expected of a government pronouncement.”
However, the LGA struck a more equivocal tone, describing the move as a “positive step” but saying protections for whistleblowers were “vital”.
Sir Steve Bullock (Lab), chairman of the LGA workforce board, said: “The overwhelming majority of council chief executives are highly competent and dedicated public servants and it is important that they are protected by the same employment laws as everyone else. However, speeding up the process of removing incompetent or unsuitable managers of any rank is a positive step.
“It is vital that protection of the ‘statutory whistleblower’, whoever that may be, continues to be sufficiently robust to make it hard for politicians and other staff members to cover up any institutional wrongdoing.”
Responding to Mr Pickles’ call on the LGA to improve performance management of senior posts, Sir Steve said 99% of councils had cut senior management costs and described authorities as “the most efficient part of the public sector and have downsized faster and more effectively than almost any other bodies.”
He added: “Local government is keen to offer its track record and experience to assist Whitehall departments which have so far been subjected to much less onerous cuts than local government, yet have still failed to deliver the much more modest savings requested of them.”
Solace did not respond directly to the proposals to scrap the independent review and said it would be considering its views in the coming days.
However, Solace chair Joanna Killian defended the work of senior local government officers stating that the sector’s “succesful track record” in managing resources effectively and efficiently “is not accidental; it is the result of the excellent leadership and stewardship of the vast majority of chief executives who serve their communities prudently and with integrity”.
She added: “Councils require both strong political and managerial leadership. Where either fails, to the detriment of the council, there should be fair and proportionate means of addressing that failure.”
‘Out of touch’
Mary Orton, honorary secretary for the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives, said Mr Pickles was “abolishing something that, in reality, pretty much never happens anyway” because the designated independent process is “incredibly long, slow and expensive”.
She added: “What Eric doesn’t say, because it doesn’t fit his story quite so well, is that chief executives, just like any other employee, benefit from employment protection against unfair dismissal, and Eric Pickles’ announcement changes none of that.
“It is a very long time since Mr Pickles was involved inside local government, and we think he is out of touch. The reality is that the vast majority of councillors up and down the country value and respect their hard-working chief executives and senior staff, who put immense amounts of effort into keeping public services running in these very difficult times. The impending next wave of severe budget cuts from Mr Pickles’ department don’t help.”
Martin Rayson, vice president of the Public Sector People’s Managers’ Association, said the protections offered by the independent person were even more important now than ever.
“The PPMA would expect to see every employee treated fairly. Equally as budgets tighten it is even more important to manage performance well and we would not wish to see unreasonable barriers placed in the way of taking action against staff at any level who consistently underperform.
“This particular rule was put in place to ensure chief executives and other key officers were not treated unfairly and that there was some protection from actions that might be politically motivated. At this time, it is even more important that those officers feel able to challenge member decision-making where necessary, a key aspect of good governance. It does not seem unreasonable to bring a degree of independence to a process where a council is planning to suspend an officer at this level.”