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Why monitoring officers’ status should be elevated

Commentary on the status of monitoring officers and directors of law in management structures 

Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) has been aware for some time of a steady increase in the staffing of local authority legal departments and welcomes strongly the strengthening of legal teams following what was a significant cull post austerity.

Complexity, commercialisation and high external legal spend are all contributory factors in the growth of departments but we know that lawyers despite this are still being stretched to carry high levels of casework.

The demand on the local government lawyer continues to grow. At the same time however, LLG has witnessed through restructuring the downgrading of directors of law and monitoring officers from first tier of management to second and even third tier in numerous authorities.

So concerned are we at the impact of this, we have launched our Golden Triangle campaign to raise the profile and status of monitoring officers; promote the importance of being at the top-tier and highlight problems such as access to senior officers and poor decision making, if the status of the position is downgraded.

The role of the monitoring officer is key to upholding standards within local government, and their ability to work closely with the chief executive and the section 151 officer (“the Golden Triangle”) is essential to good governance.

The report by the National Audit Office on local authority governance in January 2019 examined whether local governance arrangements provided local taxpayers and parliament with assurances that local authority spending achieved value for money and that authorities are financially sustainable.

The report was welcome, but it missed a key recommendation to include monitoring officers in a review of the impact of status reduction and efficacy of their statutory reporting arrangements, instead restricting it to 151 officers only.

To talk about s151 officers in isolation is missing a trick. The triangle of good governance; the chief executive, the s151 officer, and the monitoring officer all need to be at the heart of decision making and strengthened in their entirety rather than in part.

LLG has long argued that the increasing lower status of heads of legal in many local authorities affects their ability to bring influence to bear on material decisions; places considerable strain and conflict on monitoring officers and leaves them susceptible to targeted campaigns.

LLG’s arguments were given weight in the recent Committee on Standards in Public Life report on ethical standards in local government. The report set out a number of recommendations and best practice points to revamp the standards regime and support those engaged in democracy.

For too long, unacceptable standards of behaviour from a (thankfully) small number of councillors has had a negative impact on decision making, committee cohesiveness, and culture.

The recognition of the need for increased statutory protection for monitoring officers as the lynchpins of the standards regime was greatly received. LLG shares the view with the committee that an ethical culture requires a monitoring officer who is professionally supported by the chief executive.

It is LLG’s mission to elevate the status of all local government lawyers and ensure the protection of monitoring officers in their statutory role to uphold the governance of their authorities.

LLG are liaising directly with the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government to push for a review of monitoring officer status alongside that of the 151 officer and ensure the role is properly understood.

Helen McGrath, Head of Public Affairs, Lawyers in Local Government

Originally published in Local Government Chronicle.

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