Providing legal services to local councils – which often come under considerable public scrutiny – may not have the cachet of working for the private sector, but it’s certainly not without its share of controversy.
The public sector is often seen as a cushy alternative to the cutthroat private sector. But try telling that to Harrow Council’s director of legal and governance Hugh Peart.
Few businesses are scrutinised as closely as local authorities, and a contentious policy decision can often find its way into the national press. Peart is the man responsible for signing off many of those decisions and is no stranger to the media glare.
The latest episode took place this month, when Harrow announced it was considering plans to provide halal-only menus at the borough’s 52 primary schools. The plans were quickly seized upon by the press, triggering a backlash among parents and animal rights campaigners.
Then there was Peart’s decision last year to pursue a prosecution against a mother accused of lying on her son’s school admissions form to secure his place at a school in the borough.
Mrinal Patel, who denied the allegations, became the first parent in the UK to be taken to court for the offence, which was pursued under the Fraud Act 2006. Following a probe by council investigators, Peart was left with a choice: let the matter go, or pursue a pioneering test case.
Peart chose the latter, but in July 2009 was forced to drop the case as a result of escalating costs and the fact that no monetary gain was made from the alleged fraud, which cast doubts over the success of the prosecution.
But Peart has no regrets about the case, saying that the public and government debate around the issue was ultimately a good thing.
Another area that has proved controversial for local authorities is the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which allows councils and government agencies the use of covert surveillance techniques.
Legal heads are responsible for signing off the use of the powers, but getting it wrong can prove controversial. Earlier this month, Poole Borough Council was found to have acted unlawfully after it undertook covert surveillance of a family to establish if they lived in the school’s catchment.
Peart and his team were recently commended for their use of regulating covert surveillance following an inspection by the Office of Surveillance Commissioners, but Peart agrees that some councils have abused their powers. He says: “If it’s not a criminal offence, then you need to ask, ’Why are you using surveillance?’”
Peart heads a group of 30 lawyers split into contentious and non-contentious teams. A recent benchmarking exercise by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy found that the team spent less per head of population on legal services than 10 other similar size local authorities.
This is partly down to the council’s membership of the London Boroughs Legal Alliance – a partnership of local authorities set up to increase efficiency and reduce legal spend. Last year the alliance formalised its first legal panel of 15 law firms, which includes Ashfords, Dickinson Dees, Eversheds, Kennedys, Pinsent Masons and Weightmans.
Most of the work at Harrow is still handled in-house, including all employment tribunal litigation. The firm uses external advisers for matters such as debt collection or specialist personal injury or negligence litigation.
Sectors within the legal team include contracts and procurement, planning, property, education, general litigation and child protection, which has seen a huge rise in work since the Baby Peter case at Haringey Council. Peart actually started his career in the child protection team when he joined Harrow in 1986.
While he doesn’t rule out a move into the private sector in future, for now he still enjoys the buzz too much to consider leaving.
What he likes most is the breadth of the role: Peart is also the council’s returning officer and oversees the mayor and registry offices, as well as being a member of the council’s corporate management committee.
Juggling the roles doesn’t seem to be a problem. “There are moments like the halal meat story, where you think: where did that come from?” he says. “You just wouldn’t get that sort of involvement in private practice.
“It can be amazingly stressful, but when you’ve lived through a few crises and survived, it gives you confidence. If you can keep calm and stay in control, even if inside your stomach’s knotted up, it helps those around you. Having blazing rows doesn’t instil confidence in the people who are looking to you.”
Name: Hugh Peart
Organisation: Harrow Council
Position: Director of legal and governance
Industry: Public sector
Reporting to: Chief executive Michael Lockwood
Annual legal spend: £500,000
Global legal capability: 30
Main external law firms: Member of London Boroughs Legal Alliance. Panel firms include Ashfords, Bevan Brittan, Browne Jacobson, Devonshires, Dickinson Dees, Eversheds, Geldards and Kennedys
Hugh Peart’s CV
1978-82: Law and sociology degree, Keele University
1983: Masters in criminology, Trinity Hall, Cambridge
1990-92: Masters in business administration, Birmingham University
1986: Assistant solicitor, London Borough of Merton
1988: Principal solicitor, London Borough of Harrow
2004: Director of legal services, Harrow
2004-present: Director of legal and governance services, Harrow