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President of Lawyers in Local Government hits out at undermining of monitoring officers

The blurring of the lines between challenging a view that one disagrees with and simply attacking a person for their view is one that is becoming increasingly prevalent – and such attacks are undermining and diminishing the role of the monitoring officer and lawyer in local government, the President of Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) has warned.

Speaking at LLG’s Governance Conference, Phillip Horsfield said: “Respect for impartiality, respect for the rule of law and respect for each other are essential to ensure open governance throughout the public sector.”

Examples of poor behaviour continued to be seen, however, he said. “Whilst mostly in the minority, even one local incident ripples through the profession and undermines the very core of open, ethical and accountable governance.”

“In Birmingham this year the monitoring officer was targeted in such a way that saw our professional role diminished, undervalued, misunderstood and published in the press. Despite the public apology following events, the consequential impact, the subtle effect upon the consciousness of our colleagues, members and clients remains an immeasurable cause for concern.”

A wave of anti-sentiment towards the impartiality of those appointed to uphold standards, conduct, probity and ethical governance independently – including the outpouring against the judiciary following the Supreme Court ruling on prorogation  – “means we find ourselves part of a broader trend of professionals being under attack for performing the role that has been asked of them by Parliament”.

Horsfield said: “Never before has the core of our profession, our ethical impartiality and guardianship of the rule of law been under such attack. An independent judiciary and the rule of law is a bedrock for our democracy.

“Our collective voice, raised together, demanding that the independence of our profession is protected is essential. It is essential for monitoring officers in those positions to know that the job is not as lonely as it may sometimes feel. It is essential for the delivery of public services that good governance is safeguarded. This requires a collective effort to push back against such attacks.”

Horsfield said LLG would perform that role as the voice of the profession. “In defending the impartiality required of us we expect others partners such as the Law Society will speak up in this cause and defend members from unjustified attack. We must educate, inform and stand firm. That is what LLG is for and what this conference is about. But we cannot do this alone.”

In his speech he also highlighted the ‘Golden Triangle’ campaign that LLG is running, which centres upon raising the profile of monitoring officers in local government and ensuring effective relationships with the Head of Paid Service and section 151 officer.

The LLG President warned that restructuring had impacted upon the effectiveness of the Golden Triangle, with monitoring officers often not working at the top tier of management and excluded from the early stages of project planning and decision making when they could add value.

“LLG aim 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 that can result from not having the right advice at the right time,” he said.

“We are also promoting best practice in governance structures and decision making to strengthen the Golden Triangle.”