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Wednesday 30 July 2014

70. Cabinet and Backbench Councillor Support: Uncrossing the Streams

National and devolved governments have separate support arrangements for their executive and non executive politicians.  In local government, however, the support streams for cabinet members and backbench councillors, including scrutiny, are crossed.  Officers work for the whole council and provide the same advice regardless of which councillors they are advising.  But why can't local government have the same separation between executive and non executive support arrangements?

Best to avoid a total protonic reversal

Mirroring the National Assembly for Wales Commission, local councils could have each have a Council Commission charged with delivering support to back bench councillors, to scrutiny and to council and committee meetings.

The Councillor Commission Expert Panel Wales thought that this type of separation was a good idea, both for the independence of the scrutiny function and for the protection of resources for backbenchers.  Their recommendation was that:
Consideration should be given to introducing a legal separation of the executive and non-executive functions of the council, with separate funding streams, that would protect the central provision of members’ services. 
You can find the full argument in their report here.

This didn't happen of course.  Opponents pointed to the added complexity, bureaucracy and cost that such a system might bring.  Important arguments that are perhaps even more pertinent now.

We have, however, had steps towards a separation of powers in Wales.  The Local Government Measure (2011) introduced Democratic Services Committees and the Head of Democratic Services Officer role specifically to ensure that support for backbench councillors was properly protected.  

Arguments For

Is it now time to go one step further and debate a full legal separation between executive and non-executive functions?    Here are 6 reasons why this could be a good idea:

  1. The independence of scrutiny from the executive would be more visible if scrutiny had independent support
  2. The Council Commission would be mirrored by a strengthened Cabinet Office providing direct administrative and policy support to the executive 
  3. Backbench councillors would be able to directly decide the best use of their own support resources
  4. A separated scrutiny function would have more credibility with other public service providers who would be less likely to see it as an arm of the local authority
  5. A separated scrutiny function would be a necessary prerequisite for local public administration committees (see the Centre for Public Scrutiny proposal here)
  6. The introduction of council commissions and cabinet offices would bring professional alignment for local government support officers with those working national government and the devolved administrations  

Of course, as the Ghostbusters will tell you, there is one really, really significant risk of crossing the streams - total protonic reversal - best to be avoided I reckon.


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