The Hackney wizard

Claer Lloyd-Jones of Hackney Council has got a hard job ahead of her, but remains unfazed. Brendan Malkin finds out how she intends to work her magic on the beleagured authority

Local authorities, particularly those that are badly run, tend to produce the least candid workers among all the professions. But equally, there are those who bypass the party line and avoid on-message speak, not just because their personality befits such openness, but also because they have nothing much to lose.

Hackney Council is a case in point – it has been so badly run that the only way is up. Claer Lloyd-Jones, who has been appointed recently as the authority’s director of law and probity, is just such a straight-talking official. Her arrival coincides with a time when the reformers are coming home to roost in the council, and she is certainly not afraid to shout from the rooftops about what needs to be done.

At the time of writing, Hackney’s district auditor is drawing up a management letter with details of blunders in the authority’s law and probity department. The list includes files going missing, failure to provide information to the auditor on request, an over-reliance on temporary staff… And the list goes on.

Ironically, Lloyd-Jones says that a local authority’s in-house legal department has no natural right to exist. And it seems in the past the department had little to show for soaking up the money of largely deprived council tax payers.

Book-keeping in the legal department was so poor that its budget details are now not accurately recorded, and it cannot provide the details of a number of cases held. Its lawyers rely on paper-based archives for case law because the department has no online access to legal resources.

Lloyd-Jones says that the department of law and probity has lacked competent management, adding that she is currently on a hiring spree. There are 35 lawyers in her department and she has just created three new positions as part of her restructuring – head of law, head of standards and complaints and finance manager – which will be in addition to two existing management posts.

She says that a previous plan to restructure was unsuccessful, but is determined to do what it takes. “We’ll restructure the legal directorate, bearing in mind all the previous failings to create a directorate that meets the needs of Hackney, over the next three to five years,” she said.

“I wave magic wands – that’s why they chose me”
Claer Lloyd-Jones, Hackney Council

Training needs to be grabbed by its shirt-tails. Lloyd-Jones says that there has been insufficient focus on this, with staff in all sections of the legal department suffering. She singles out IT and legal administration workers. Combined, these factors have led to a poorly motivated and demoralised staff. Many feel isolated, without any encouragement to work with other departments or acquire new skills. There are also limited support services.

To handle all these problems Lloyd-Jones has been handed a wide remit. First, there is the nuts and bolts of her job – running the legal function and managing democratic services. The latter includes supporting councillors in decision-making and in their ward work, and running the registration services of births, deaths and marriages. She also plans to provide quirky services, such as baby-naming ceremonies, reaffirming of marriage vows and the setting up of a same sex register. She will be involved in council life on legal-related matters, from ethics through to voting, and is jointly responsible for the authority’s strategy and planning.

By 27 July 2002, all local authorities are required to set up standards committees in order to implement a new ethical framework. Part of this involves adopting new codes of conduct for councillors. Lloyd-Jones is keen to get the cleaning up process underway and ensured that this was on the full council’s committee agenda on 28 November with plans for immediate implementation. As Lloyd-Jones says: “I wave magic wands – that’s why they chose me.”

She is also a well-networked and highly informed individual, partly by way of her role as president of the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors, an organisation for legal and administrative managers in local government in England and Wales.

Another radical step is planning for a referendum on 2 May 2002 asking whether Hackney should have an elected mayor. Also, since her recent appointment, Lloyd-Jones has applied to the Government for a pilot of a full postal ballot system at council elections and referendums. She also wants the introduction of electronic counting to make it easier to count votes.

Lloyd-Jones is well suited to such work. She was formerly city solicitor at Brighton & Hove Council, where one of her last roles was as the counting officer in the city’s recent referendum on whether to have a mayor. She was also returning officer for both council and parliamentary elections, and she dealt with the legal issues arising out of the forging of East Sussex and Brighton & Hove into a unitary authority.

She enjoyed Brighton, but wanted more challenges, which is something that Hackney can certainly provide. Hackney is an authority that has suffered failure after failure under the ‘best value’ regime and consequently under Government intervention directions. “Here I am, at director level, involved in the strategic planning of the council as a whole. I respond here to the corporate whole, which makes it a lot more interesting,” she says.

Because Hackney is under intervention, and is the only council in the country to be so, it means that the Government uses it to test its legislation relating to local authorities.

Lloyd-Jones’s job tends to attract respect rather than friends. The ‘probity’ side of her job includes the position of monitoring officer, which is similar to being a whistleblower, although the politicians say that the post is less pointing the finger and more “collaborating with good will”. In this capacity, she will help to ensure that the authority is kept on the right side of the law.

She is not afraid to drive through the current ad hoc system of outsourcing work to external firms. She is inviting applications from law firms and barristers’ chambers, and hopes to have at least one national firm to instruct.

Lloyd-Jones feels that too much law work has been done in-house. Previously outsourced work was not monitored adequately and not priced competitively. She will solve the latter by using fewer firms to handle the raft of contentious and non-contentious work that comes with being an inner-city authority. Work includes debt recovery, child protection and parking control.

Lloyd-Jones is keen on partnerships. The authority’s education services will be transferred in August next year to a not-for-profit trust. This is an important move, as traditionally the private sector or public-private partnerships would handle such work.

Lloyd-Jones appears uncompromising in her drive to sweep the cupboards bare of the inefficiency she says has infected her department. Her success will be measured not in terms of her achievements over the next year, but week by week, as she is under Government intervention. Let us hope her magic wand is as good as Harry Potter’s.
Claer Lloyd-Jones
Head of legal
Department of Law and Probity at Hackney Council

Organisation Department of law and probity at Hackney Council
Sector Local government
Employees 80
Legal capability 35
Head of Legal Claer Lloyd-Jones
Reporting to Managing director Max Caller
Budget Approximately £5.5m