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Information on what the law requires in relation to the political governance of principal councils. To explain how political governance should work the following topics will be explained:

  • what is the full council
  • what executive arrangements are
  • how the functions and responsibilities of full council and the executive are determined
  • what are committees, including what is meant by ‘political balance’ of membership
  • what are constitutions and why are they important
  • the rules about council meetings including agendas, minutes and recording of decisions, publication of documents and public inspection, attending and viewing council meetings
  • the rules about meetings of the executive including agendas, minutes and recording of decisions, publication of documents and public inspection, attending and viewing council meetings
  • what is scrutiny and why it is important
  • what is a governance and audit committee and what are its main functions
  • what is the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity
  • why are the roles of some senior officers set out in law
  • what are politically restricted posts
  • what is the role of the role of the independent adjudicator
  • what is the code of conduct for local government employees

When and how does the council get elected?

Council elections in Wales are held every 5 years. There is not an option in Wales for councils to have elections by a third of their members every year on an on-going basis. An election where every elected position or ‘seat’ in a council in Wales is being elected at the same time is called an ‘ordinary election’. It is the ordinary election that happens every 5 years; the day of election for ordinary elections is fixed by law and is usually the first Thursday in May. Sometimes a vacancy in a particular ‘seat’ arises in between each ordinary election. For example, this can happen because someone resigns, this will result in a ‘by election’ to replace them. There cannot normally be a by election within 6 months of an ordinary election and if a vacancy occurs during this 6 month period, the ‘seat’ will remain vacant until the ordinary election happens.

Each council area is divided into wards which are decided by an independent body called the Local Democracy and Boundary Commission Wales. The people in each ward are then represented by one or more councillors, depending on how many people live in the ward. Wards with more than one councillor are called ‘multi-member’.

Councils can choose between two ways in which an election can be run, ‘first past the post’ (FPTP) or the Single Transferable Vote (STV). FPTP has been the only voting system used to elect councils in Wales since the introduction of elected local government in the late 19th century. Voters mark their selection (or selections in multi-member electoral wards) of candidates with a cross. Under FPTP the candidates with the highest number of votes are elected, up to the number of councillors to be elected from that electoral ward. STV is a “preferential” voting system, which means voters are asked to rank the available candidates in order of preference. Voters may choose to rank all the available candidates (using numbers rather than a cross) or only as many as they wish, which may be as few as just one. 

Anyone over the age of 16 who is legally resident in Wales can vote but in order to do so you must register. You can find out who can vote and how to register here. Register to Vote.

Details of elections, including who is standing, how you can vote and where, can be found on your council’s website in the period before the election. In the lead up to elections, you can also find details on Who Can I Vote For? and Where Do I vote? Both Who Can I Vote For and Where Do I Vote sites are run by a charity called Democracy Club.

What is the difference between the full council and the executive?

The ‘full council’ is the term used when all of the elected members of a council meet together. The law requires all councils to hold an annual general meeting after an ordinary election and then once a year. This is the meeting where the elected members take important decisions about who they will elect as the chair of the council or presiding member of the council. The chair or presiding member does not have decision making responsibilities for budgets or services but is an important senior figure in the council and will chair all the meetings of the full council. There are also some roles in the council which are about civic traditions and ceremonial functions. These roles are usually called the mayor and deputy mayor (sometimes lord mayor) and who will undertake them is also decided at the annual general meeting.

Decisions are taken by the full council, some committees with particular legal status, such as licensing committees, or by the executive of the council. The executive of the council is made up a small number of members (the number is determined by law), usually made up of the party elected with the most seats or where there is no party with a majority of seats a ‘coalition’ of members from parties who agree to work together. 

Some elected members are not members of political parties and these are called ‘independent’ members. Sometimes independent members with similar views form an ‘independent group’ which is recognised in the law for the purposes of forming a coalition and for allocating seats on the council’s committees. There is no requirement for independent members to form or join a group. Independent members in this situation are usually called ’unaffiliated’.

There are strict legal rules about how this is done and all groups of independent members who chose to work together on a regular basis and all the members elected to the council representing the same political party must give notice to the appropriate officer of the council that they wish to be regarded as a political group. As well as determining the allocation of places on committees, this also enables the political group to appoint political assistants. There are strict legal rules about this including how the numbers of assistants are to be calculated and the salary they are to be paid. These roles provide support and research capability for the political groups and allows for a separation of professional officer and political advice.

In terms of the executive, councils in Wales can chose between a leader and cabinet or an elected mayor and cabinet ‘model’. Elected mayors can also be adopted as the executive model where the public in the council area start a petition and the petition collects enough signatures from voters in the council area to require a referendum to be held. If enough people from the council area vote ‘yes’ to having an elected mayor in the referendum then an election is held to elect the mayor and the mayor chooses a cabinet from the members of the council. If the initiative to have an elected mayor has been made by the council itself, there must still be a referendum and voters must support the introduction of the elected mayor for the change to be made. The elected mayor is in addition to the number of elected members elected at the ordinary election.

There are currently no elected mayors in Wales and all of the 22 principal councils have decided to have an executive leader and cabinet to make decisions about the day to day running of many aspects of the council’s business. The executive leader, more commonly known as the ‘leader’ is also elected from among the body of councillors at the annual general meeting. The leader will then choose a number of councillors called ‘cabinet or executive’ members to work with them. Together they form the cabinet or executive of the council.

Read about diversity in cabinets.

Usually each cabinet member will have responsibility for a service area or areas called a ‘portfolio’ such as education, social services or community services. The full council will then agree a scheme of decision making which sets out which decisions can be made by cabinet and which decisions are to be made by full council. There are some decisions which are by law required to be made by the full council, these include setting the budget and how much council tax everyone pays. 

To encourage and support people from diverse backgrounds who want to become elected members and also be members of the executive the law enables a number of cabinet posts, including the executive leader, to be fulfilled on a job sharing basis by elected members. This is the only reason allowed in law for the Cabinet to exceed the maximum number of 10 members, as if there are job sharing posts in the Cabinet it can include up to 13 members but in effect this is still equivalent to 10 cabinet posts. This works in the same way as if two employees job share a one full time role. The law also enables councils to make provision in their constitutions about ‘assistants to the executive’. The elected members fulfilling these roles are not members of the executive but can assist members of the executive in their work. The purpose is to support diversity and give elected members the opportunity to gain experience.

Read more about job sharing.

How is it decided whether the full council or the executive make decisions about something?

There is detailed and complex law which requires some decisions to be made by the full council and these decisions cannot be delegated to the executive. As noted above this includes agreement of the budget and council tax. There are then some functions which law says can be undertaken by the cabinet but they do not have to be (these are sometimes called ‘local choice functions’). Finally there are also functions that the law says cannot be the sole responsibility of the cabinet. 

When elected members are taking decisions and acting within the law, the law protects them from legal actions against them as individual people by providing councils with the ability to have ‘indemnities’. This means that where a legal action is brought against an individual elected member because of something they did or a decision they made whilst they were acting on behalf of the council the council will meet the costs to the councillor of defending that legal action.

What is a Committee?

A committee is a made up of a small group of the members of the full council. The law requires councils to establish certain committees. These include at least one scrutiny committee, a governance and audit committee, a licensing committee and a planning committee. Licensing and planning committees can make decisions and have very specific legal remits and status. They will not be considered further in this handbook. 

The law also requires that most of the committees are ‘politically balanced’. In other words that the seats on each committee reflect the political make-up of the council, so if a party or independent group had 40% of the seats on the full council it will be allocated 40% of the seats on each committee of the council which the law requires to be a ‘politically balanced’ committee. The cabinet is not a committee of the council and therefore does not have to be ‘politically balanced’.

Sometimes councillors can change their membership of political parties (sometimes called ‘crossing the floor’) or independent members leave or join a ‘registered’ group in between elections. If this happens then the allocation of seats to parties and independent groups will need to be recalculated.

Councils in England can choose to operate a ‘committee’ system of political governance. It is usually operated by smaller councils with a smaller number of functions which do not include education and social services. All councils in Wales carry out the full range of local government functions and so this system of governance is not available to councils in Wales.

What is a council constitution and why is it important?

All principal councils are required by law to prepare and agree a constitution. They are also required to publish it electronically, keep it up to date and revise the published copy within 5 days of agreeing an amendment. The constitution is the blueprint for how the council is governed to ensure its business is conducted in an orderly and legal way. It is an important document and will be lengthy and complex. This is because of the complexity of council business and the range of matters the constitution is required to cover. It will include matters such as how it is decided who will make what decisions, the operation of meetings, the allocation of chairs to committees, protocols between the executive and scrutiny committees, financial procedures and many other things. Councils are therefore required to provide a guide to the constitution to help people navigate it and find out what it is they need to know.

One of its key aspects is setting out the council’s scheme of delegated decision making. Although some decisions are by law required to be made by the full council, others can be delegated to the council executive or senior staff. This is a sensible approach as councils have multi million pound budgets, employ thousands of people, and provide a range of important services to their communities meaning many decisions are taken every day about important things which impact on everyone in the council’s area. It would be impossible for all of these decisions to be taken by the full council and so the council agrees a ‘scheme of delegations’ which forms part of its ‘constitution’. This sets out who can take various kinds of decisions relating to the delivery of the council’s services and its other business. The council’s constitution will also set out where cabinet decisions are reached collectively (that is, by the whole cabinet acting together), or where individual members of cabinet may make decisions (within a “portfolio” of matters set out in the constitution).

It is the responsibility of one of the council’s senior officers to keep the constitution up to date and ensure decision making within the council complies with the rules set out in its own constitution.

What does legislation say must be in a council’s constitution?

Councils must prepare and publish a constitution (s37(1), Local Government Act 2000).

The constitution must set out such information as Welsh Ministers direct (s37(1)(a)), a copy of the council’s standing orders (s37(1)(b), the council’s code of conduct (s37(1)(c)) and “such other information (if any) as the council consider appropriate” (s37(1)(d)).

The constitution must also so set out financial procedure rules. These are rules setting out how the council spends money, including the signing of the statement of accounts. It must set out procedure rules for contracting and procurement. 

Councils must establish standing orders for the signing of minutes of extraordinary meetings, as well as for the recording of votes (Regulation 4, Schedule 2, Local Authorities (Standing Orders) (Wales) Regulations 2006). Standing orders must also deal with the appointment and dismissal of certain senior officers (s10, Local Government Measure 2011, Schedule 1, Local Authorities (Standing Orders) (Wales) Regulations 2006). 

Overall, constitutions should demonstrate how the council meets the requirements of the Local Government Act 1972 and Local Government Act 2000 (and other relevant enactments) in how it organises (“convenes”) formal meetings and carries out council business.

Read more about guidance on constitutions.

What is the guide to the constitution?

Councils must also prepare and publish a guide to the constitution (s45, Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021, amending s37, Local Government Action 2000).

In producing the guide to the constitution, councils should consider:

  • the likely audience for such a guide
  • how they will ensure that the needs of that audience are captured and understood
  • how they will ensure in that context that a guide is fully accessible, and useful

The intention is to make it easier for local people to understand how the council functions and to empower them to engage in local democracy. The guide should:

  • explain, in ordinary language, the key components of the constitution
  • enable the general public to understand how the council operates and makes decisions
  • focus on those parts of the constitution that are most visible to the public and those parts governing how the council interacts with the public

An effective constitution guide will not be an annotated index of the constitution but will explain in ordinary language the inner workings of the council’s system of governance. 

Read more about the constitution guide.

What are the rules about meetings, agendas, minutes, public access and recording of decisions?

There is detailed legislation setting out the rules of council meetings, both for the council and for executives. These rules also set out how members are to be notified or ‘summoned’ to the meetings, how and when the minutes are to be published and how decisions are to be recorded. Unless there are extraordinary circumstances, councils must give public notice of a meeting at least 3 clear days before the meeting and must publish the notice electronically. The agenda and papers for the meeting must also be published electronically at this time (subject to any legal restrictions about publishing any information which is considered confidential or exempt). Councils will summon elected members to the meeting electronically, unless a member has given notice in writing that they want the notice to be posted or delivered to them at home.

Council meetings can be held in person at a specified location or locations, virtually or a mix of physical and virtual (call hybrid meetings). The council’s constitution will set out detailed rules for how a particular meeting is to be conducted, how often the council or committee will meet, the time and day it will meet, how questions will be asked during the meeting and how people from outside of the council will be invited to participate.

After the meeting the law requires that a note of any decisions made is published electronically within 7 working days of the meeting and that the full minutes of the meeting are agreed at the next meeting of the council, committee or cabinet.

Members of the public are able to access all meeting papers and attend all meetings of councils, cabinets and committees either in person or remotely if the meeting is being held virtually or as a hybrid meeting. They are not usually able to participate in a meeting unless they have been invited for a specific purpose, for example, to provide an account of their personal experiences of a service at a scrutiny committee. There are some exceptions to this set out in law where the meeting agenda includes discussion of issues that are confidential or exempt (i.e. commercially sensitive or involve the personal details of staff of the council).

Councils in Wales are required to broadcast meetings of their full council on the internet. The meeting should be broadcast ‘live’ and the recording available for members of the public and others to review at later dates. This is so people who are not able to attend or view the meetings as they are taking place have access to local democracy and can see how and what decisions are being made by local elected representatives. Although the law currently only requires the broadcasting of full council meetings, councils are encouraged to broadcast as many meetings as possible to encourage and support participation by as many people as possible in local democracy.

Can you tell me more about how council meetings are run and what councils are required to do?

The key legal provisions about the statutory arrangements for meetings of full councils, their committees and sub-committees and joint committees are set out in Part 5A of and Schedule 12 to the Local Government Act 1972. The equivalent arrangements for meetings of a council’s executive are set out in The Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Decisions, Documents and Meetings) (Wales) Regulations 2001 and are dealt with separately below.

The arrangements are designed to ensure the council conducts its business and reaches decisions in an open and transparent manner. Members of the public should be able to track the course of council business, by being able to attend meetings in person or remotely and by having access to the various meeting papers, reports and background papers (subject to any legal restrictions highlighted below). Councils can now meet using electronic means and need to follow statutory guidance on multi-location meetings.

How are full council meetings, their committees, sub-committees and joint committees run?

Meetings of full council, committees, sub-committees and joint committees

Meetings of councils (in this section the term covers meetings of committees, sub-committees and joint committees also) must normally be open to the public, who may attend in person or remotely, depending on the arrangements for the meeting (see below). The right of the public to attend council meetings is set out in legislation (s100A, Local Government Act 1972), but occasionally they can be excluded from a meeting if certain matters will be discussed (s100A(2), Schedule 12A, Local Government Act 1972).

The public will be excluded from a meeting or just part of a meeting if the item or items of business deal with confidential or exempt information. These terms are defined in sections 100A(3) and 100I of the 1972 Act respectively.

Members of the public have no automatic right to speak at formal council meetings. They are meetings held in public, rather than public meetings. 

Public notice of council meetings in Wales must be published electronically at least 3 clear days before the meeting. Occasionally, a meeting may be convened at shorter notice, in which case the notice must be published electronically when the meeting is convened.

When the legislation requires the council to publish a notice or a document electronically, this means that the council must publish the notice or documents on their website.

The public notice must include certain information providing details of the arrangements for the meeting (including whether it is open to the public, being held through remote means, is hybrid, its location and how to access a remote meeting).

Copies of the agenda and connected reports for a council meeting must be published electronically at least 3 clear days before the meeting, unless the meeting has been arranged at shorter notice in which case the documents must be published when it is arranged. Arrangements exist for papers to be circulated later under special “urgency” requirements, with the approval of the Monitoring Officer.

Papers or parts of papers which relate to confidential or exempt information must be withheld from publication.

Where members of the public may be present in person at a council meeting, a reasonable number of copies of the agenda and reports must be provided for their use and copies may be supplied on request (and subject to payment) to any newspaper.

After a council meeting, the minutes, agenda and accompanying reports must be published electronically and remain accessible electronically to members of the public for at least 6 years from the date of the meeting. If the meeting reports were informed by any background papers, the background papers must also be published electronically and remain accessible electronically for at least 6 years from the date of the meeting. If it is not reasonably practicable to publish a background document (for example, if it is a petition or a fragile historic charter) a copy of the document must be available for inspection at the offices of the council for at least 6 years from the meeting.

Minutes must be prepared, approved and published electronically after every council meeting; these constitute the formal legal record of the meeting and its decisions, notwithstanding the presence of any recording of the meeting and its proceedings. However, the minutes are not formally approved until the next meeting of the relevant council or committee, which may be some weeks or even months. In the meantime, as soon as practicable after a council meeting, and no later than 7 working days after the meeting, a council must publish electronically a short note of the meeting which sets out the names of councillors who attended the meeting, any apologies for absence, any declarations of interest and any decisions taken at the meeting (but excluding anything decided when the meeting was closed to the public).

For Cabinet proceedings, councils must adhere to formal requirements for the publication of agendas, minutes and reports as set out in the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Decisions, Documents and Meetings) (Wales) Regulations 2001 (as amended).

The 2001 Regulations were amended by the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Decisions, Documents and Meetings) (Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 to remove the requirement for hard copy versions of Cabinet meeting documents to be made available for inspection by members of the public at offices of the council (other than in exceptional circumstances). The amending regulations introduced requirements for councils to make Cabinet meeting documents available electronically, on their websites. The arrangements for Cabinet meetings are similar to those which apply for other council meetings, but there are some differences.

How are cabinet meetings, their committees and sub-committees run?

In this section, references to cabinet meetings also includes meetings of any committees or sub-committees of the cabinet.

As with other council meetings, meetings of the cabinet must normally be open to the public, subject to similar restrictions about meetings or parts of meetings where an item or items of business deal with confidential or exempt information. The definitions of these terms are the same as for other council meetings.

Public notice of cabinet meetings must be published electronically (again, this means on the authority’s website) 3 clear days before the meeting or at the time it is convened, if, exceptionally, it is convened at shorter notice. The public notice must include certain information providing details of the arrangements for the meeting (including whether it is open to the public, being held through remote means, is hybrid, its location and how to access a remote meeting).

Copies of the agenda and connected reports for a cabinet meeting must be published electronically at least 3 clear days before the meeting, unless the meeting has been arranged at shorter notice in which case the documents must be published when it is arranged. Papers or parts of papers which relate to confidential or exempt information must be withheld from publication. Where members of the public may be present in person at a cabinet meeting, a reasonable number of copies of the agenda and reports must be provided for their use.

As soon as reasonably practicable after a meeting at which an executive decision has been taken, a written statement must be produced by the council officer attending the meeting which formally records the decision, the date it was made, the reasons for the decision, details of any consultation undertaken on the matter in question, the names of the members of the cabinet members who attended the meeting and any apologies for absence. The written statement must also record any declarations of interest declared by any cabinet members at the meeting and, in respect of any declarations of interest, record any dispensation granted by the council’s standards committee.

Similar requirements apply if the council’s constitution and executive arrangements provide for an executive decision being taken by an individual member of the cabinet, a written statement must be produced as soon as practicable by a council officer recording the decision and the same information listed in the paragraph above (although it will name only the individual cabinet member who took the decision). Normally, an executive decision made by an individual member of the cabinet must not be implemented until the written statement has been produced, but in exceptional circumstances, the decision may be implemented before the statement is produced if the decision-maker obtains agreement from the chair of the related council scrutiny committee, (in the absence of such a person) the chair of the council or (in the absence of either of the preceding persons) the vice-chair of the council.

Any written statements about executive decisions (whether taken by cabinet members collectively or by an individual) must be published on the council’s website as soon as reasonably practicable, together with any reports relevant to the decision. Copies of cabinet meeting agendas, any written statements and any relevant reports may be supplied on request (and subject to payment) to any newspaper.

If the reports related to an executive decision were informed by any background papers, the background papers must also be published electronically as soon as reasonably practicable after the written statements have been published. If it is not reasonably practicable to publish a background document (for example, if it is a petition or a fragile historic charter) a copy of the document must be available for inspection at the offices of the council.

Any written statements, reports and background papers related to an executive decision must remain accessible electronically by members of the public or, as appropriate, remain available for inspection, for at least 6 years from the date on which the decision was made.


What is scrutiny and why is it important?

The purpose of scrutiny is to hold the executive to account for the decisions it makes. An important part of this process is to ensure lessons are learnt and services and decision making can be improved in the future. Scrutiny is an important part of a council’s own systems for improving its performance. Council executives should be open to scrutiny as it is also an important part of creating confidence, transparency and interest in local democracy. It is also important to ensure participation in democracy is protected and is as diverse as the communities, both of interest and geography, within the council area.

Read more about arrangements for securing effective overview and scrutiny.

To support their work, scrutiny committees have extensive powers in law to call members of the executive, council staff and other witnesses to give evidence at meetings, to examine papers and documents and to ‘call-in’ decisions of the executive.

Read more about call-in arrangements in relation to scrutiny committees.

Councils must put in place arrangements to allow a scrutiny committee to review or scrutinise decisions made, but not implemented, by the executive. This is the power referred to as “call-in”. (s 21(3), Local Government Act 2000).

Scrutiny committees can publish reports and recommendations for improvement which should be considered by the executive and responded to. Scrutiny committees can work with scrutiny committees from other councils and joint scrutiny committees can be formed where councils are working together to deliver services over a number of council areas. Scrutiny committees can also scrutinise the work of partnerships that the council is a member of such as Public Service Boards. 

All councils are required by the law to have at least one scrutiny committee and members of the executive cannot be members of a scrutiny committee. Membership of scrutiny committees is drawn from the other members of the council, sometimes called ‘backbench’ members. Most councils agree in their constitutions to have more than one and the committees are usually organised around themes such as ‘children and young people’ or ‘the environment’.

Scrutiny committees must be politically balanced and to ensure political neutrality there are additional legal rules about how the chairs of scrutiny committees should be appointed to ensure that not all chairs can come from the majority party or group on the council.

Read more about the appointment of persons to chair scrutiny committees.

How can scrutiny committees get the information they need to do their job?

Any documents containing information relevant to the taking of an executive decision (whether collectively or individually) must, so far as reasonably practicable, be supplied on request to any councillor when the meeting concludes or after a decision is made. Any documents or parts of documents which contain confidential or exempt information should not be supplied, nor should any advice provided to the cabinet members by a political adviser or assistant.

A member of any overview and scrutiny committee of the council is entitled to copies of any documents containing information relevant to the taking of an executive decision (whether collectively or individually). The member will not be entitled to such documents however, if the documents or parts of documents contain confidential or exempt information or advice provided to the cabinet members by a political adviser or assistant, unless the information is relevant to a piece of work being undertaken by the overview and scrutiny committee of which the councillor concerned is a member. The overview and scrutiny committee member given confidential or exempt information must not disclose the information, unless authorised to do so under some other legislation.

Read more about information sharing between the executive and scrutiny committee.

What is the law around scrutiny committees?

Councils must appoint at least one overview and scrutiny committee (s21, Local Government Act 2000) but may appoint more.

Councils must give effect to scrutiny’s power to:

  • require members of the executive, and the council’s officers, to attend before it to answer questions, and to provide information (s21(13), Local Government Act 2000)
  • require the authority’s executive to respond to reports and recommendations (s21B, Local Government Act 2000)
  • require other members of the council to attend to answer questions, in respect of powers they may exercise under section 56 of the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011. (s21(2), Local Government Act 2000)

Members of overview and scrutiny committees have additional rights of access to information. This includes a document under the control of the council’s executive which contains material relating to business transacted at a meeting of a decision-making body of the authority, or a decision made by an individual member of the executive. This includes exempt or confidential information, where it is relevant to a matter being scrutinised by a committee, or is relevant to a review in a committee’s work programme (Regulation 11, Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Decisions, Documents and Meetings) (Wales) Regulations 2001 (as amended)).

Councils must ensure that the “whip” (a political management process whereby members of specific party political group is ordered to vote in a particular way) is prohibited (s 78, Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011). This is without prejudice to the legitimacy of the use of the whip in other environments, for example in full Council meetings. 

Councils must adhere to rules in legislation about the appointment of chairs to scrutiny committees (s-68-75, Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011).

Councils must appoint parent governors, and church representatives, to positions as voting members of education overview and scrutiny committees (Parent Governor Representatives and Church Representatives (Wales) Regulations 2001).

Can additional members be co-opted to scrutiny committees?

Councils should think about the co-option of members of committees who are not councillors. Co-option is the practice of bringing people onto a committee who are not elected councillors, but who do have useful skills and experience and may be able to play a valuable role, either by being full voting members of committees or non-voting members.

This is a way to build a more diverse membership of scrutiny committees. It can provide a way to support broader public participation in local democracy, as discussed elsewhere in this guidance. 

Joint scrutiny

What is a joint scrutiny committee?

Two or more councils can decide to appoint a joint overview and scrutiny committee (JOSC) (s58, Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011). This decision must be subject to an agreement setting out the arrangements for the convening of this committee and its meetings, as set out in Regulations. JOSC arrangements must make provision for references of matters to the JOSC by a member of an appointing authority, if: 

  • the matter relates to one of the functions of the authority
  • it affects the electoral area of the member or it affects any person who lives or works there
  • it is not a local crime and disorder matter as defined in section 19 of the Police and Justice Act 2006

While joint committees do not have to be politically balanced, the appointing authorities must ensure that the members they appoint reflect the balance of their own authority. 

The joint scrutiny framework should set out:

  • the key partners, and bodies, at a local level who might be subject to overview and scrutiny’s oversight
  • the role of scrutiny in respect of those partners and partnerships, and the expectations that the council and those partners have for their own engagement with this form of scrutiny
  • existing governance arrangements in place with regard to those partners
  • the circumstances in which “local” scrutiny of partners will benefit from being carried out jointly with neighbouring authorities’ scrutiny functions
  • the appointment, where necessary, of a JOSC and arrangements for membership and chairing
  • arrangements for resourcing

Joint scrutiny has significant benefits both for councils, and for partners: 

  • councillors are able to view issues from a wider perspective, leading to a more thorough exploration of the topics under consideration
  • the presence of different scrutiny chairs and support from alternative scrutiny officers has provided opportunities for cross-transference of learning and exchanges of good practice
  • experiences of joint scrutiny have been found to stimulate members and officers to critically review and enhance their ‘home’ council’s internal methods and ways of working, ultimately leading to a higher standard of scrutiny
  • joint scrutiny brings a fresh eye to developments at all stages of the decision-making process. JOSCs have the ability to bring forward new sources of information that decision makers may not have considered in the development of plans, policies and strategies
  • non-executive members have a wealth of local intelligence and are well-placed to evaluate whether partnership priorities and methods of delivery are meaningful to local communities. Many councillors are linked into a range of social networks and community groups and are able to feed views into decision-making processes
  • JOSCs can help reduce duplication of accountability and reporting mechanisms by adopting a coordinated approach to the issue under enquiry

Read more about joint overview and scrutiny committees.

What is a Governance and Audit Committee and why is it important?

All principal councils must have a governance and audit committee. This is an important committee that must be chaired by an independent lay member who is not an elected member of the council, and a third of the other members of the committee must also be lay members.

This is to ensure the committee is truly independent of both the executive and the full council. It also provides assurance to external and internal auditors, regulators and others tasked with ensuring the council acts within the law, has effective governance, complaints procedures and financial management, that they can report to a committee which will consider their reports in a politically independent way.

The Committee has functions set out in law which it must carry out. These include reviewing and scrutinising the council’s financial affairs and financial statements, reviewing and assessing the way risk is managed in the council, the council’s performance assessment undertaken as part of its duties to keep under review its ‘performance requirements’ (see Part 5) and the council’s ability to handle complaints effectively. It can make reports and recommendations about all of the things it is tasked with reviewing and assessing. Councils can also ask these committees to undertake other functions.

Read more about governance and audit committees.

How do I know that my money is not being used by councils on political activities?

The law prevents councils from spending public money on political activities such as campaigning. This is particularly important in the run up to ordinary council elections as it ensures that the party, parties or groups leading the council cannot bias the election in their favour by using the resources and staff the council has at its disposal. There is a statutory ‘Code of recommended practice on local authority publicity’ which councils must follow at all times. This sets out the principles on which decisions relating to publicity must be made.

Read more about the Code of recommended practice for local authority publicity.

Why does the law make councils have senior officers, why are they important and what do they do?

The law requires councils to have 4 senior officers. These officers carry out different and important roles in the council. The purpose of these roles is to support councillors to run the council effectively and efficiently and within the law. In order to fulfil these roles these officers are provided with a unique status in the law sometimes called ‘statutory protection from dismissal’. This is because these roles will occasionally require the officers to advise councillors they cannot do something as it outside of the law, or to report a serious financial situation to the full council. It would make these statutory roles impossible to undertake effectively if these officers did not have a legal safeguard which required their disciplinary and dismissal processes to be undertaken in a politically neutral way.

These officers, and all employees of the council, are bound by a statutory code of conduct which requires them to act in a politically neutral way and follow the principles of public life such as openness and honesty. The Code forms part of the terms and conditions of employment of all council employees (with the exception of some professional groups such as teachers who have their own professional codes) and breaking the Code is a disciplinary matter under the Council’s disciplinary scheme for relevant staff as set out in the council’s constitution.

To reinforce the importance of political neutrality in senior council officers, their posts are what is termed ‘politically restricted’. This means they must resign from their post as a council officer if they wish to seek elected office. A wide range of posts in councils fall into the category of ‘politically restricted’ and each council must publish a list of these posts and keep it updated. The law also provides for a person called the ‘Independent Adjudicator’ whose job is to decide whether or not a post should be politically restricted when there is a disagreement between the employee concerned and the council.

Councils must designate officers to carry out the following roles:

Chief Executive (s54, Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021), who must keep under review:

  • the manner in which the exercise by the council of its different functions is co-ordinated
  • the council’s arrangements in relation to financial planning, asset management and risk management (these roles being carried out in coordination with the roles of the Chief Finance Officer, Head of Internal Audit and the Governance and Audit Committee)
  • staffing matters, including grading, organisation, appointment and management

Chief Finance Officer / s151 officer (s151, Local Government Act 1972, s6, Local Government and Housing Act 1989), who must make arrangements for the proper administration of financial affairs. The Chief Finance Officer must be a qualified finance professional.

Chief Legal Officer / Monitoring Officer (s5, Local Government and Housing Act 1989), who must ensure that the council adheres to its legal obligations. They cannot be the same person as the Chief Executive. 

Head of Democratic Services (s8, Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011), who must carry out a range of duties relating to the support of elected members and the Democratic Services Committee.

The Head of Democratic Services has responsibility for providing support and advice to the authority in relation to its meetings; for providing support to the work of the council’s overview and scrutiny committee; and for making reports and recommendations on staffing requirements for the delivery of democratic services functions in the authority. Essentially, these functions are those which relate to councillors, and the organisation of formal council meetings. The Head of Democratic Services is also responsible for determining the eligibility of councillors for family absence. 

The Head of Democratic Services can only be designated by the Democratic Services Committee; in doing so the Democratic Services Committee should have regard to the other duties that the Head of Democratic Services may have. It should be noted that “designation” of the Head of Democratic Services does not mean that the Democratic Services Committee has the power to directly appoint an individual to a substantive position within the authority’s establishment.

Councils must adhere to Regulations which set out in detail arrangements for the appointment, discipline and dismissal of all 4 of these officers (Schedule 1, Local Authorities (Standing Orders) (Wales) Regulations 2006).

The Council can delegate certain functions to these officers and other officers, provided this is set out in the scheme of delegations in the council’s constitution. The law provides these officers (and all council officers exercising functions on behalf of the council) with protection against legal action for undertaking these duties in good faith i.e. they are exercising the function in the belief it is legal and proper for them to do so. The law does this by enabling the council to provide its officers with an indemnity which enables the council to pay the costs of legal action should legal action be brought against that officer.