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PRESSURE ON TO SCRAP WIDDICOMBE RULES

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The government is planning to rewrite the Widdicombe rules restricting the political activities of local government...
The government is planning to rewrite the Widdicombe rules restricting the political activities of local government officers.

The move follows growing pressure among Labour Party members for the rules to be scrapped.

Local government minister Hilary Armstrong is considering how they could be rewritten, balancing the rights of officers to be politically active with the need for probity. It is understood that she will come to a view on the subject ahead of the Labour Party conference later this month.

The Widdicombe rules are named after David Widdicombe QC, who during 1985-86 chaired the Tory government's committee of inquiry into local government business which recommended the imposition of political restrictions. These recommendations were enshrined in the Local Government and Housing Act 1989.

Senior officers are barred from standing for election, political campaigning, writing or speaking in a manner which could affect the standing of a political party or holding office within a party.

Legal expert Charles Cross said some councils had not implemented the rules stringently: 'There was good and bad, a varying sense of obligation.'

There was a slight tendency for Labour councils to be more reluctant to implement them, he believed.

One head of a public relations department who has had to stop campaigning within the Labour Party on human rights issues because of the Widdicombe rules described its effect on her: 'It stops you being able to participate in the democratic process at any level. It silences you.'

She would have faced dismissal if she had continued campaigning after taking up her post as head of department, she said.

Eleven of the 45 motions and amendments on local government submitted to Labour's conference call for political restrictions on officers to be lifted, representing a significant groundswell of Labour opinion.

While Ms Armstrong shares concern about the rules, she is anxious to ensure any changes meet the spirit of the Nolan committee's recommendations on probity in local government.

The minister will also monitor the progress of a key case on the issue in the European Court of Human Rights. The case, brought by Unison on behalf of four officers who had to resign their political posts because of the restrictions contained in the Act, is due to be heard in the new year.

The Local Government and Housing Act 1989 requires that council staff in the following jobs should be politically restricted:

-- Anyone earning the equivalent of or above spinal column point 44 (excluding London weighting). At present£25,000 a year, pending the single status review.

-- Anyone designated by their council as holding a sensitive post. These are: those giving regular advice to committees, excluding purely factual information, and those who regularly speak on behalf of the council to the media.

-- The head of paid service and the monitoring officer.

-- Chief officers and deputy chief officers, including anyone who reports directly to the head of paid service or directly to a council committee.

-- Assistants to political groups appointed to the posts local authorities are allowed to create under s9 of the Act.

-- Officers exercising delegated powers and listed as required by the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985.

-- None of the last four categories have the right to appeal against restriction.

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