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The Commission on Local Government and the Scottish Parliament

Consultation Paper 1

UNISON's Response


Appendix 1 - UNISON's Comments on Local Government Finance

Appendix 2 - "Local Government Finance Since Reorganisation" A paper commissioned by UNISON

Appendix 3 - "Standing for Public Office in Scotland" - A Briefing Document


UNISON members are providers of local government services, users of those services and participants in the democratic process and are part of the electorate. We welcome the opportunity to respond to the McIntosh Commission, but we regret that the vexed question of local government finance is absent within its formal terms of reference.

A fundamental review of the present financial system is the most important issue facing Scottish local government. Local democracy exists in name only if central government continues to control almost all spending. UNISON believes that the McIntosh Commission should make clear its intention to consider and take evidence on this vitally important issue.

When the Parliament is established it will have the power to legislate over most parts of Scotland's public services, including health, housing, education, local government, the voluntary sector, transport, economic development and the environment.

We call on the Parliament to use its law making powers to reassert a public service ethos m Scotland, recognising that Scotland has a separate and distinct tradition in favour of services being provided by the public sector. The most efficient, responsive and democratic services are those which are provided publicly, by staff who are valued and properly paid.

We call on the Parliament to adopt the principle of subsidiarity, with services provided at the most appropriate level. The Parliament should ensure that vital local services such as education, are not centralised in Edinburgh but continue to be delivered by local government.

We anticipate a major role for local government as the lead co-ordinator of cross service strategic planning. This is to be welcomed and need not detract from the specific function as provider of services.

Q1 Comments are invited on how the relationship between local government (both collectively and at the level of the individual council) and the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Executive should be established. Are there any special mechanisms which should be put in place, by the Parliament, the Executive, local government, to ensure that the relationship will work?

UNISON supports the proposal that the relationship between local government and a Scottish Parliament should be embodied in a formal concordat. In the interests of clear English, however, UNISON suggests that the word "concordat" be replaced with either "agreement or "charter"

The agreement should set out the basis of a new partnership between central and local government, emphasising that the Scottish Parliament is primarily a legislative body not a direct provider of services.

The agreement should also require that services are delivered at the lowest and most appropriate level to ensure responsiveness and accountability to local community needs.

The agreement should define the role, function and responsibilities of local authorities. This may best be done by awarding local government a power of general competence.

Q2 We invite comments on the present election arrangements and suggestions as to how they might be made more voter friendly.

UNISON supports the view that electoral arrangements should be made much more user- friendly

Allowing much easier access to postal voting is one solution along with allowing individuals to vote in non traditional polling stations, e.g. local libraries, supermarkets and post offices.

A pre requisite in this regard is an accurate electoral register to assess the degree of success in persuading more people to participate in local elections in future years. In some areas the local register is very inaccurate, in part due to the legacy of the poll tax.

There is also a strong case for voting to be held at the weekends rather than on a Thursday, perhaps over more than one day. However, care needs to be taken to ensure that the democratic process retains status and that voting should not be distanced from the political process.

UNISON believes that the erosion of local government's powers and responsibilities and the diminishing resource base over recent years has discouraged people from voting in local elections.

While turnout at local elections is low, it is dangerous to jump to the conclusion that the democratic status of Councils is therefore called into question, or that the electoral process itself is flawed. The key issue is that local government remains democratically accountable, and that the electorate has the choice to exercise their vote.

Q3 Comments are invited on the merits of the various voting systems.

UNISON supports democratic local government with local councils and local councillors having democratic legitimacy. There are both advantages and disadvantages of moving away from the first past the post electoral system.

A powerful benefit would be that it would help to end de facto 'one party states' emerging in many local authorities, often elected on considerably less than 50% of the popular vote. It might also encourage greater voter turnout. A disadvantage is that it might lead to instability and a lack of strategic direction within councils.

UNISON believes that any change to the voting system should try to preserve so far as possible the link between individual councillors and those who elect them and that any system should enshrine equal representation of women and men.

Q4 Comments are invited on the electoral cycle for local government in Scotland; should it remain at 3 years, or move to some other pattern?


UNISON does not support the proposal that a proportion of council members should be elected on an annual basis. In our view this would deprive councils of a much needed continuity in terms of policy development and service delivery.

UNISON supports the view that the councils should have a sufficient period of time in which to delivery on their election manifestos, following which they must return to face the local electorate. UNISON also notes that the present cycle of 3 years between elections has only come into being since local government reorganisation in 1996, prior to which the established pattern was 4 years.

UNISON believes it should not be less than the current 3 years, must be of sufficient duration to allow the policy process to be meaningful, and to allow strategic planning in the delivery of services. One model might be for elections to be held every four years at the mid-point between Scottish Parliament elections. Holding the elections on the same day can lead to voter confusion.

Q5 We invite comments on all these questions, relating to the recruitment of candidates for council membership, and the qualities required in elected members.

UNISON believes that present restrictions on the ability of local government workers to stand for public office in Scotland is a major public scandal. No other country in Europe operates such a draconian system which effectively requires local government workers to resign from their jobs in order to participate in the democratic process. The democratic deficit can be easily resolved by acknowledging the right of local government employees to stand for office using a system which would deal with any potential conflicts of interest. (see Appendix attached). Many other conflicts of interest can arise and a Code of Conduct should generally apply.

UNISON believes that local councils should represent the diversity of their local communities. There is a need for wider community representation among local councillors and from all sections but particularly those who are currently disadvantaged.

UNISON supports a review of the way in which councillors are remunerated. There is a case for reviewing the timing of council meetings with more meetings being held in the evening.

UNISON believes that creche facilities/child care allowances should be available for councillors, when required.

Q6 The Commission would welcome comments on the system of community councils; and also on how decentralisation has affected, for better or worse, local authorities' performance in consulting local communities and responding to local priorities. We should welcome information also about other methods of consultation which have been tried and with what effect

UNISON has long supported the policy of decentralising council decision-making and efforts to improve community participation in service delivery and policy development.

Q7 We invite views on whether local government's perceived role and status is a disincentive to participation in local democracy. Would enhanced powers for local government be likely to enhance its standing in the eyes of the electorate?

Scottish local government derives most of its powers from statute and operates under the day to day direction of the Scottish Office. The establishment of the Scottish Parliament will change the nature of this relationship, hopefully for the better.

The centralising agenda of the previous government has been rejected and played a large part in the Conservative's failure to win control of a single Scottish local authority. The time is right to grant councils a power of general competence to allow them to act freely in the interest of their own communities. A power of general competence would free councils from the present legislative straight-jacket and create new possibilities for development and improving local services.

While local government's powers have diminished in the last 20 years, our experience suggests that the community's expectations of what their Council can and should deliver has not. By and large, the debate on central versus local government is meaningless to most of the community, who wish to see services provided to a high standard and at local level.

There is a strong case for returning many of the powers lost to local government (e.g. economic development, housing, water and sewerage).

Q8 We invite comments on the merits and drawbacks of the traditional committee system and on the alternatives to it which have been suggested.

UNISON recognises some difficulty in the current committee system. It can be an obstacle to free debate with decisions taken in secret by political groupings and merely rubber stamped by the committee without adequate debate. It can also make local government seem bureaucratic and cumbersome.

UNISON does not support the suggestion that the cabinet system of decision making should be introduced to Scottish local government. The effect would be to introduce a two-tier form of local democracy when the primary aim should be that elected councillors, remain first and foremost, accountable to their local communities.

UNISON does not support the idea of directly elected political leaders in Scottish local government. This system can result in nepotism and cronyism and puts too much power in the hands of one individual. We are of the view that we should not even consider pilot schemes on directly elected Mayors/Provosts.

Q9 We invite comments on the role of the individual councillor, in the status quo and under alternative systems of organisation.

UNISON believes that the role of individual councillors will be strengthened by a variety of means:

    • the recommendations flowing from the Neill Committee Report;
    • the introduction of a new National Code of Conduct for Councillors,
    • the recommendations arising from the McIntosh Commission;
    • the moves to allow local government employees to stand for public office in Scotland;
    • the introduction of a Power of General Competence for Scottish Local Authorities.

UNISON believes that the demands on individual councillors could be managed more easily by a much more widespread use of information technology.

UNISON also believes that the question of payment to councillors requires appropriate consideration.

Q1O We invite comments on the role of chief officers under these various alternatives

UNISON believes that the traditionally independent role of chief officers in Scottish local government has served the system well up until now. It is one of its strengths rather than a weakness. Chief officers have a well deserved reputation for integrity and professionalism which would be undermined by a cabinet style system of local government. UNISON believes that the traditional values which embody the present system should be the basis upon which local government continues to go about its business in future years.

UNISON believes that any move to a cabinet system may impact severely on the role of chief officers. A cabinet system could lead to elected members impinging on the role of the chief officers in the day to day management of local authority, including staffing matters. There is also a danger that the introduction of a cabinet system may lead to politicisation of the chief officer role, and be a precursor to appoint on fixed term contracts to serve that particular cabinet.

APPENDICES - Attached are three appendices:

Appendix 1 - UNISON's Comments on Local Government Finance

Appendix 2 - "Local Government Finance Since Reorganisation" A paper commissioned by UNISON

Appendix 3 - "Standing for Public Office in Scotland" - A Briefing Document

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The Commission on Local Government and the Scottish Parliament. Consultation Paper 1: UNISON's Response

Appendix 1

UNISON Statement on Local Government Finance

The political project of the Conservative government between 1979 and 1997 was to reduce public spending and to change the nature of local councils. The effect of their policies was to stir up conflict between local and central government, and the outcome was a substantial shift of power to the centre.

UNISON argues that the health of our democracy depends on real moves to restore the independence of local government and to acknowledge that this may mean that local councils will sometime act in ways which are unpopular with the Scottish Executive. To allow local government to operate in this way a real measure of financial autonomy is necessary.

UNISON argues for the total abolition of capping powers, not just watering them down. UNISON argues for the re-establishment of local control over the business rate, not just powers to vary it at the margin.

People choose not to vote in local elections because they don't think that it matters much who wins. And to an extent they are right. If all the real power is with the Scottish Parliament, and local councillors have little power to achieve significant changes, then no wonder that the local electorate is cynical. To reverse this situation, real power needs to be restored to local councils, and this must begin with the restoration of a much greater degree of financial autonomy. At present over 80% of local spending is financed from the Scottish Office while less than 20% is funded locally. We must move rapidly towards a system which ensures that a substantial majority of funding is raised locally

Local councils need a solid and reliable financial structure within which to work and local voters must be able to vote for those local candidates who offer the policies they support. And, through the ballot box, local voters must be able to express their views about the budgetary consequences of those policies. While 80% of the cash comes from Edinburgh, local councillors can shift the blame elsewhere. It is as much in the interests of central government as it is in the interests of local government for the system to be changed so that real power and real accountability are returned to local level. Unless this is done, then it will be possible to argue that other measures are "side shows" to detract attention from a failure to tackle the difficult issues.

Improving Local Financial Accountability

UNISON argues that the current council tax structure should be reformed and that other forms of local taxation should be examined in detail with a view to allowing council a range of options for local tax raising. We would like to urge Commission to examine alternative local taxes including tourist taxes, bed taxes, local income tax and "green" taxes (e.g. on the use of private cars in city centres). We accept that the current council tax system, whilst not perfect, must continue for the immediate future. We argue that the current bandings for council tax mean that people in lower band houses pay too much and that people in higher band houses pay too little.

UNISON would support changes to the current system which would allow more stability in financial planning allowing for a three year cycle in financial allocation. The current practice which often means that councils do not have the capacity to plan their final budget until a few weeks before the financial year begins creates uncertainty and does not promote cost-effective working. But this must not be an inflexible system. whatever other changes are introduced there must continue to be a robust system of redistribution to allow poorer authorities to provide appropriate service levels without raising council tax levels to unpayable heights.

Business Rates

UNISON believes that the control of the business rate should be returned to local level. This is required to restore a real measure of financial autonomy to local level.

UNISON believes that councils should have a duty to promote the economic well being of its community and that economic regeneration work in partnership with local businesses should be a key part of this duty. This process would be promoted by the re-establishment of a local business rate and by associated mechanisms for consultation between councils and business.

UNISON would accept that there would need to be transitional arrangements for the move from the present system to local business rates and that there should be established relationships between business rate and domestic rate to ensure that the equation remains balanced.

Capital Finance

The capital assets of Scotland's local councils are in a very sorry state. The regime of the last eighteen years has left local government with a legacy of deteriorating buildings and inadequate equipment. The Audit Commission report "Capital Gains", published last year, said that 15 billion was necessary just to "bridge the gap" of previous under-funding. 8 billion of this money is to restore the quality of the housing stock.

Local government borrowing should be removed from the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement. This would bring the UK into line will other EU countries. Local councils should be free to borrow on the money markets subject only to a fiduciary duty to behave responsibly (i.e. to borrow only what it can afford). Given the size of the capital funding problem, private finance can only be a minor element of the solution. Local authorities have considerable experience with partnerships such as those involved in major town centre redevelopments, where capital investment is directed mainly at commercial property. However, private finance is not suitable for major public service provision.

It is more expensive, due to the fact that the private sector has to pay higher interest rates and to the very expensive involvement in PFI schemes of professional advisors. It is less subject to democratic control or Best Value considerations since PFI contracts are normally for 20 - 50 years during which service provision can only be changed at great cost. And it involves the wholesale transfer of public service workers into the private sector in circumstances in which their pay and conditions of employment cannot be protected. In any case, past and present difficulty in setting up PFI contracts and the protracted lead-in times involved mean that the 15 billion investment backlog could never be met.

If Scottish local authorities were free to borrow, large numbers of jobs would be created in construction and other industries and the beneficial effect on the local economy and employment levels would be substantial.

UNISON believes radical and wide ranging measures are necessary to restore the strength of the local government financial system. The damage caused by the conflicts created by the previous government's policies cannot be remedied by marginal changes. Local government deserves a better deal and this must mean the restoration of a major degree of financial autonomy.

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The Commission on Local Government and the Scottish Parliament. Consultation Paper 1: UNISON's Response

Appendix 3

Standing for Public Office in Scotland

The Democratic Deficit

What is the Democratic Deficit?

The combined effect of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, Local Government and Housing Act 1989 and the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994 has led to approximately 280,000 people (8 per cent of the total Scottish electorate) being disbarred from standing for elections to Scottish local authorities.

How has this been brought about?

1. The 1973 Act requires that a person seeking election must either live or work in the area of the Council for which he or she is standing.

2. It also disqualifies from nomination a candidate if"he or a partner of his holds any paid office or employment... of the authority".

3. The 1989 Act, which applies throughout the UK, introduced restrictions on local government officials standing for public office, on the basis of seniority and/or salary levels (more than 25,000 per annum).

4. The 1994 Act replaced a two-tier system of local government (9 Regional Councils and 53 Districts) with a single-tier system of 29 unitary mainland and 3 islands councils. Previously employees of a Regional Council were able to stand for election to a District, or vice versa. The effect of this re-organisation is to severely restrict the ability of local authority employees to stand as candidates, and it reinforces the limitations imposed by the 1973 Act, described above.

In effect, a local government employee is forced to resign their post if they wish to stand for election, at the time their nomination paper is signed.

What happens on mainland Europe?

In general, the rules which are applied by other Member States within the European Union are less restrictive than those which apply in the UK and Scotland, especially as there is now only a unitary system of local government in Scotland. The following examples provide different resolutions to this issue:

Germany: Under the federal system, an official would have the right to stand for election but would be required to resign if he or she was successfully elected Furthermore, the official would have the right to return to the former job after their period of representation was over

Greece: In municipal elections, officials must resign before announcing they are candidates. If they are unsuccessful, they can return to their former job.

Netherlands: Employees are eligible to stand but, if elected, a commission of inquiry will look into their background and decide if there is a conflict of interest between their work and their obligations as elected officials. If it is decided there is a conflict, they must either stand down or resign from their job.

All these examples illustrate there are other ways to guarantee individuals' rights to stand for local government elections whilst being Council employees.

What should happen now?

UNISON is suggesting there are at least two ways that the Scottish Office and the Government can begin to tackle this issue.

1. The Scottish Office should refer the matter to the Independent Commission on Local Government which will consider how to build the most effective relations between local government, the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive.

2. The Government has already announced that it has established a review into the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, albeit on the narrow detail of the regulations that govern politically-restricted posts in local government. UNISON believes this enquiry should be widened to investigate the combined effects of the 1973 and 1994 Acts, as well as the 1989 Act on the ability of local authority employees in Scotland to stand for local election.

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