I have conflicting thoughts about Mr Eric Pickles this morning. A couple of days ago I welcomed his announcement that the pay of senior council officers should be scrutinised to eradicate tax avoidance arrangements. The full statement from the Department of Communities and Local Government can be read here . I am all for greater transparency leading to improved accountability.
With that in mind, it is worrying that the Freedom of Information Act is currently under threat after the Ministry of Justice issued a report recommending that that members of the public and journalists should be charged for obtaining information, this may make transparency through legislation vital. I trust, however, that common sense will prevail and the huge importance and overriding advantages of the Act will be recognised and strengthened rather than curtailed in any way at all. I have used the Act, in my own small way, through the public WhatDoTheyKnow site, in an attempt to open up Carmarthenshire Council and place on public record details of decisions and expenditure which would otherwise remain hidden. I have had varying degrees of success and failure whilst wading through the treacle of FoI Carmarthenshire. Incidentally, for those that value the Act there is something of a campaign on Twitter to preserve and bolster our access to information, where you will find links to excellent blogposts from an assortment of campaigners which include members of the public, journalists and even FoI officers. (for those familiar with Twitter, use the hashtag #foi or #savefoi)
However, it was this morning's announcement by Mr Pickles that he will overturn the judge's ruling over council prayers that raises some interesting issues. I mentioned this the other day (To power..and beyond) and as I said, it was not whole ethical issue of religious ritual I found significant but the limitations which had been placed on the power of local authorities under the Local Government Act.
In his actions, Mr Pickles has pushed through the part of the Localism Bill which basically enables Local Authorities to do anything an individual can do as long as it is not illegal. This is not far removed from the powers already available in the Local Government Act, where virtually anything is possible as long as it is to 'promote the functions of the council and the well-being of the residents' - this can be very widely interpreted indeed and led the judge in the Bideford case to consider a summon to prayer, not the act of prayer itself, as over and above this function. It seems to me that this element of the new Localism Bill will do nothing promote local democracy and public 'empowerment', but will merely strengthen the position of local authorites, particularly those considered less than democratic.
The problem is that the word 'illegal' is too narrow it doesn't cover those endless grey areas of local government about which the judge in the 'prayers' case was attempting to define. By furthering 'Localism' in this manner is Mr Pickles actually creating less accountable governance?
There is, however, another side to this that could be applied to our own Welsh Government, and particularly our Minister for Local Government; if he (Mr Pickles) can use his powers to overturn a judicial decision (I think it may remain to be seen whether he actually can) to enable local authorities to circumvent the limitations of the Local Government Act, who's to say that this cannot happen in reverse? Maybe our own Minister does have the power to overturn decisions, made by local authorites, it's senior officers, Executive Boards or full councils when those decisions are clearly not designed, nor intended, to either promote it's 'functions' and are in direct conflict with interest of local residents and democracy?