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Solace blog

18th March 2016

Five questions to the powerful

The late Tony Benn developed these five questions to the powerful – “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?”

For council chief executives, these questions can usually be answered very easily. We would describe the appointments process that preceded our appointments and the requirement for the full Council to endorse that appointment. We would explain our Council’s constitution, its scheme of delegation, the statutory duties of the Council and of certain individual officers, and the procedures that exist for a Council to dismiss its Chief Executive. And we would most likely explain that Chief Executives serve the whole of the Council and are required to be politically neutral.

I think council Chief Executives would agree that the clarity of our answers to Tony Benn’s questions is important to us as Chief Executives, as this helps provide firm ground in what can be difficult judgement calls that we face.

Of course, his questions were intended for those who hold political rather than managerial power, but they are equally important questions for officials. I was reminded of their potency by the debate around the challenge to Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood over the civil service’s remit in relation to advice on the European Union referendum. Sir Jeremy’s guidance is that as the civil service serves the Government of the day (rather than Parliament as a whole) it is right that civil servants do not provide access to private documents relating to the EU to Ministers who
oppose the Government’s “Remain” decision. The awkwardness is that this excludes some senior cabinet members who support the “Leave” campaign and would otherwise have a legitimate reason for wishing to see these papers.

Many chief executives will sympathise with the Cabinet Secretary’s position; and, as well as thinking “there but for the grace of God”, reflect on the dilemmas that 2016 might bring to us, that cause us to think deeply about Tony Benn’s questions.

I had one such question last week. This was from a very senior officer in my Council who occupies a politically restricted post and was enquiring if he would be able to canvass in the upcoming EU referendum. He made the point that he appreciates that this would not be possible in any party-political election, but as the EU referendum is not a party-based contest, the answer is not immediately apparent.

I consulted Mark Heath, who is a member of the Solace Elections and Democratic Renewal Board. He very helpfully pointed me towards draft guidelines he has developed which currently read – “while the 1990 Regulations may not prohibit political activity such as campaigning publicly on the referendum question, holders of politically restricted posts should be advised to take advice and exercise caution if they wish to carry out such activity in case it undermines the confidence of elected representatives in the carrying out of their council duties and impairs their effectiveness in carrying out their council roles. For those with a direct role in the conduct of the referendum, it is clearly unacceptable”.

It is helpful to consider the underlying purpose of political restriction; is it simply to ensure that the public can be guaranteed that the most senior officers do not publicly align themselves to a particular political party? Or is it a subset of our duty to serve the whole of the Council and the community?

On these matters, you might have a sure instinct, but it is always useful to have thought through your position before encountering the questions.

By Paul Martin, Chief Executive, London Borough of Wandsworth and the Solace Spokesperson on Local Government Finance