The government’s plan to scrap specific employment protections for key council officers will discourage whistleblowing and undermine the Department for Communities & Local Government’s own accountability structures, ministers have been warned.
Solace issued the alert in its response to the DCLG consultation on plans to remove the requirement for ‘designated independent persons’ to investigate employment disputes involving section 151 finance officers, monitoring officers and heads of paid service. Ministers had claimed the DIP process was lengthy, costly and led to large pay-offs.
However, the Solace response claims removing the protections “will undermine the DCLG Accounting Office Accountability Statement for Local Government”.
All three officers with the protections have a statutory responsibility to report illegal activity.
The DCLG’s accountability statement sets out how its accounting officers are accountable to Parliament for spending.
It describes the section 151 officer role as “a mechanism for holding councils to account. He/she has duties and powers to alert councillors and the audit in the case of unlawful expenditure.”
Solace also warns that whistleblowing such as the case that led to the imprisonment of Lincolnshire CC leader Jim Speechley in 2004 for misconduct in public office would not have been successful without such employment protections.
Peter Keith-Lucas, local government partner at law firm Bevan Brittan, said he was similarly concerned about whistleblowing.
He contrasted Mr Pickles’ approach with the recent Francis report, which recommended that it be regarded a criminal offence for any individual or organisation to ‘wilfully’ obstruct someone trying to raise concerns in the NHS.
“There is a huge inconsistency between the recommendations that are coming out of the NHS and the direction of travel in local government,” he said.
DCLG’s consultation on the draft regulations, which closes on Thursday 14 March, was sent to a small selection of bodies representing council officers and councillors as well as the Taxpayers’ Alliance. A spokeswoman for the alliance said it had not responded to the consultation.
Read the consultation responses in full: