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Local Government Update

Volume 594: debated on Monday 23 March 2015

I would like to update hon. Members on a number of actions taken by my Department relating to local government:

Updating statutory notices for the 21st Century

Statutory notices are an important way of ensuring that local residents are informed of decisions that affect their property and lives. Public bodies must do more than provide just ‘an obscure notice’ on the depths of a council website, with local newspapers retaining a key role. Last year, my Department invited bids for innovative approaches to be taken to both protect local newspapers and provide essential information to the public in new ways.

We have now announced almost £1 million of funding for 24 local pilot programmes as part of efforts to help councils bring their public information requirements into line with the modern media. We have backed proposals from both councils and local newspaper groups which embrace new technology and innovation to improve the provision of vital information to the public.

The pilots include collaborations between councils and local media organisations, tests of new technology such as mobile phone applications and social media, and consultations with local people over how they want to receive information.

We are committed to supporting an independent free press, and to ensuring that local taxpayers are better informed about council decisions that affect their lives. We look forward to seeing the results. The pilots will run from March 2015 to the end of August 2015.

Calling time on inflated golden goodbyes

My Department has previously sought the views of the local government sector on reforms to the legal minefield that can pressure councils into giving large pay offs to chief executives they want to dismiss.

Slow and costly bureaucracy requires councils to appoint a “designated independent person”, usually a Queen’s Counsel, to review dismissal and disciplinary cases for chief executives. Councils seeking to dismiss a chief executive for misconduct or poor performance have in some cases paid out inflated lump sums to avoid the cost of taking this bureaucratic route. Local government estimates the review process can cost at least £100,000 in legal fees, not counting independent investigation costs and salary for the suspended officer. One previous case cost £420,000 and took 16 months to adjudicate. Ministers believe decisions by full council ensure proper democratic accountability, without the need for a centrally dictated process.

We are laying this week the associated secondary legislation which will reduce the unnecessary and costly bureaucratic process for councils to take decisions about disciplinary matters, including dismissal, of the most senior staff.

They will require such decisions to be taken transparently by full council; and when making such a decision, require the council to consider any advice from a panel of independent persons. These are the independent persons appointed for the purposes of the members’ conduct regime under the Localism Act 2011, and, where possible, must be local government electors for the area concerned; there will be restrictions against paying inflated expenses for such advice.

The reforms give councils the power to decide on the best disciplinary process that will deliver value for money for local taxpayers, while retaining independent scrutiny and accountability to local people.

My Department will also be shortly be publishing guidance to local government on the use of severance agreements and on ‘off-payroll’ arrangements, reflecting reforms we have introduced at a civil service level to protect taxpayers’ interests.

Protecting local government against cyber threats

My Department have been working jointly with security experts and local government colleagues to develop guidance for local authority leaders and their teams on cyber resilience. It is very important, as local people increasingly access local service electronically, that they have confidence that their information will be safe and the services they use can be relied upon. We are publishing guidance this week on the steps that local councils should take to build resilience.

Review of Arms Length Bodies

We are announcing the start of the triennial review of the valuation tribunal service and the valuation tribunal for England. The valuation tribunal considers appeals from council taxpayers and business ratepayers about the levels of council tax and non-domestic (business) rates. The review will examine their role, whether they are operating efficiently, and whether their control and governance arrangements continue to meet the recognised principles of good corporate governance.

Reforming council tax and business valuation practices

Following a statutory consultation, my Department has now published its response and associated secondary legislation on curtailing the powers of entry of the Valuation Office Agency, using powers under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. This Government believe that the privacy and rights of homeowners and businesses should be protected and strengthened wherever possible. These reforms include protection from unnecessary and intrusive visits into a taxpayer’s home or business, and introduce a new requirement for consent from a First-tier tribunal before any power of entry. It is intended that this will create a considerable road block and check and balance against use of the power.

This action builds on steps we have taken to cancel the last Administration’s plans for a council tax revaluation in England, and terminate the ‘Big Brother’ council tax revaluation database being drawn up by the Valuation Office Agency.

Cutting red tape on councillors

Ministers in my Department have agreed with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to take forward steps to remove the annual fee that many councillors are required to pay to register as data controllers under the Data Protection Act. Instead, local authorities will undertake the notification process itself as part of their local authority-wide registration, and individual councillors will be exempt from the fee. This will remove an effective ‘tax on volunteering’. Ministers have asked officials to draft the necessary secondary legislation in purdah, with a view to laying the amending legislation early in the next Parliament.

I am placing copies of the associated documents in the Library of the House.