Examination of witnesses (Questions 1
TUESDAY 6 MARCH 2001
LYONS and MR
1. Sir Michael, can I welcome you to the first
session of the Committee on local authority governance. Can I,
first of all, put on the record that we now have the written evidence
in published form, published yesterday, and it is on the Internet
for anyone who wants to look it up. You have also given us this
document this morning setting out the consultation in Birmingham;
it is nice to see you have so much money to spend. Would you like
to introduce yourselves for the record, please.
(Sir Michael Lyons) My name is Michael Lyons, and
I am the Chief Executive of Birmingham City Council.
(Mr Dobson) Stewart Dobson, Director of Corporate
and Democratic Services of Birmingham City Council.
2. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction,
or are you happy to go straight to questions?
(Sir Michael Lyons) Perhaps just a few brief words
to underline the context in which we are working at the moment,
and to thank you for the invitation to come and give evidence.
Birmingham City Council, under new leadership, enthusiastically
took up the opportunity to restructure and has introduced, as
from January 2000, an early Cabinet form of decision making, which
we have described and we have given you a diagrammatic illustration
of the structure we are working to at the moment. I have to say,
it has been a fairly frantic time. Never previously having had
a written constitution, we will now be in a position where we
have gone through three fully written up constitutions in a period
of two years. I think Stewart Dobson must be one of the most experienced
constitutional lawyers in the country on the basis of that. There
has been a fair bit of learning coming out of that exercise. Critically,
we are also an authority that has committed itself to holding
a referendum to test the opinion of the people of Birmingham over
a directly elected mayor. That referendum will be held in the
autumn of this year. That was the recommendation of our Democracy
Commission. If it is positive, will lead probably to election
for a directly elected mayor in May next year. We will be very
happy to provide you with copies of the Democracy Commission's
report, if that is relevant to your proceedings. We are happy
to answer any questions.
3. What is the impact up to date of the new
management structures on officers?
(Sir Michael Lyons) It has been a period of fairly
frenetic change, as I have described; and one of finding new modified
roles. We no longer serve committees in quite the way we did before;
but, of course, under current arrangements individual members
cannot make decisions, so we are not yet into the new governmental
arrangements which the legislation provides for. We are in a middle
zone at the moment. In many ways the most profound changes are
yet to come, because they will come when we have fully executive
memberswhether it is a mayor or whether it is a leader
and Cabinet. The changes at the moment have been more about people
working across portfolios, getting used to scrutiny arrangements,
and getting used to a modified way of doing business whilst still,
formally, making decisions in committees, even though we are working
to people who are designated as Cabinet members.
4. What trends have you identified which you
think will be continued or increased under more formal arrangements.
(Sir Michael Lyons) I think the area that immediately
takes me to are the pressures of working between scrutiny and
executive; this is already fairly clear in the time we have been
running the new system. I have to say, we have a fairly extensive
scrutiny system, as you can see from the diagram. Under the new
constitution, which is being worked on at the moment, it will
be substantially slimmed down. Nonetheless, it is becoming clear
that both executive and scrutiny will require more dedicated staff
to work for them, and people have to work with a slightly different
perspective if they are working to support a scrutiny committee
than they do in their normal managerial roles and in support of
executive decision making.
5. Is it possible for the same officers to serve
a scrutiny committee as well as individual members taking decisions
in an authority?
(Sir Michael Lyons) I think this is one of the big
questions about the new constitutional arrangements. As a Chief
Executive, I think it is essential that we service the particular
needs of those two distinctive roles within the council, and do
not allow the council to become divided. Anyone who has worked
in local government, as a member or an officer, will have knowledge
of history when officers and members have formed `camp-followers'
opposed to each other and will know how destructive that can be
to an organisation and its purpose; and how, very often, that
bleeds into the community. That is a real danger, but I am equally
clear that if you are going to help members to undertake the role
of scrutiny effectively they have to have people who are good
at that support role. They need good enquiry skills. I think the
art is to try to develop a single organisation which brings appropriate
skills to both functions, but hopefully in a way that individual
officers do not see themselves as forever and a day committed
to one form of activity.
Mrs Ellman: But is it possible for the same
officers to serve the executive of a local authority taking decisions
and to serve members who are there to challenge those decisions?
Sir Paul Beresford
6. What you have been asked to describe is a
new definition of the art of the impossible!
(Sir Michael Lyons) I do not think it is impossible.
I think it requires care. I think the main message I would offer
you is that what we need to do is to be quite explicit that these
are very changed circumstances; and I do not think the guidance
has adequately revealed how changed the circumstances are. They
need care and thought. I think you can move a long way through
protocols and understandings and the development of machinery
which, as it is designed, acknowledges some of the dangers. If
I answer Mrs Ellman's question specifically, we can show some
good experience of officers serving both scrutiny and executive
arrangements. We can also show where that has been less successful.
I am clear that a good scrutiny committee wants somebody who understands
the service that is being scrutinised. They do not want someone
who is just a good generalist who will go off and beaver for them.
7. You have said you do not wish to continue
as Chief Executive. Is that the reality of the changes and the
proposed different role of chief executives?
(Sir Michael Lyons) I think the answer to that, in
all honestly, is yes and no.
8. If you could expand on the "yes".
(Sir Michael Lyons) When I negotiated a second contract
with Birmingham, both I and the Council recognised that these
constitutional changes were in prospectnot certain but
in prospectand it was formally enshrined in the contract
that half way through there would be a review period. It became
clear to me, as soon as legislation was passed, that it was time
for me to give notice that I was going (and I have given a year's
notice) because the Council needs to rethink its chief officer
arrangements, particularly the role of chief executive; and I
wanted to avoid being left as part of the furniture inherited
by a new leadership arrangement.
9. So the traditional role of the chief executive
will be changed then?
(Sir Michael Lyons) Yes, it will. It is the one officer
for whom the change is most profound.
10. What about the officer of the authority
as far as discipline is concerned; who will that be?
(Sir Michael Lyons) I am clear, and the legislation
provides, that there should still be a head of paid service. In
terms of the discipline of the office body that will remain unchanged.
Whoever is appointed to the post of head of paid service will
be responsible for ensuring that is in place.
11. What about emergency planning?
(Sir Michael Lyons) Again, I do not think that is
a problem really. In a big authority like Birmingham it rests
with the Chief Executive but in fact for most purposes, and many
minor emergencies, it is devolved to others.
12. What will be the responsibilities that shift
from the Chief Executive?
(Sir Michael Lyons) The critical issue is almost encapsulated
in the title, is it not? "Chief Executive" is the head
of the executive body. Under the new arrangements that title strictly
is no longer appropriate. If you have an elected mayor, unquestionably
the elected mayor is head of the executive body. Even the Leader
under the regulations is effectively the head of the executive
13. I am asking specifically what duties and
responsibilities will be removed? I have experience of all of
this from a different angle over 11 years, and I have to tell
you that it does not work. After a time there is a friction created
between the staff and the executive in these circumstances and
the whole thing collapses. If it does not collapse immediately
what happens is that over a period of time you lose all your best
(Sir Michael Lyons) I think I would be less pessimistic
about this. Firstly, I certainly agree that these are profound
changes. It is important that individual authorities address their
minds as to how they should deal with profound changes. I would
not be pessimistic that it leads to collapse. Essentially what
the changes bring about is, firstly, greater clarity as to who
the decision maker is. We have been through a period, particularly
since 1971, of members growing much closer to the executive role.
Many authorities now have the illusion of decision making by committees,
and sometimes by officers. That phrase "taken under delegated
powers in consultation with a member" in practice in many
authorities is a decision taken by elected members. The new arrangements
make much more explicit where the decision is being taken and
who it is being taken by. I am not so pessimistic about that.
To go back to your first question, I do not think this changes
the managerial role of the chief executive. The need for someone
to be the chief manager I think is unchanged and the role is essentially
unchanged. The function that is changed under the new constitutional
arrangements is essentially the interface between political decision
making and officer decision making.
14. What do you call this individual?
(Sir Michael Lyons) It depends what I am trying to
15. What title do you give this individual?
(Sir Michael Lyons) I think there are some choices
Mr Donohoe: Managing Director?
16. Why was that enough of a problem for you
to say you did not want to do it?
(Sir Michael Lyons) I have spent 17 years as a Chief
Executive in local government in this role. If a different role
is coming along it is fair for me and for the council to have
free choice about that. I am not saying I am driven out by these
changes. If I was five or ten years younger I would look undoubtedly
at the opportunities of this new arrangement.
17. If I could come back to what you would call
this individual. If it is "Managing Director" there
is no change, it is semantics.
(Sir Michael Lyons) Firstly, I do not know what the
Birmingham City Council will call my replacement; that is a decision
they have yet to make. I think the term "General Manager"
or "Managing Director" would be perfectly acceptable.
In the current situation where they are trying to recruit, they
might use the title "Chief Executive", because they
would almost certainly secure a stronger field of applicants,
even though that title would not strictly be true. You see that
is very well illustrated by the Greater London Authority where,
unquestionably, the Chief Executive is the Mayor, but they then
advertised the post of Chief Executive presumably because they
felt it was more likely to attract the best candidates even though
we all know there is an illusion about it.
18. What changes have you in particular made
to your officer structure, and what do you perceive are the necessary
changes in the future?
(Sir Michael Lyons) I have made a series of changes
over time. When I first arrived
19. I am talking specifically in this change,
not over a period of time. Every Chief Executive makes changes
almost immediately they come in the door. We are not talking about
that; we are talking about specifically for this purpose. What
changes have been made, and what changes do you see having to
be made in the future?
(Sir Michael Lyons) Let me briefly answer that and
perhaps ask Mr Dobson to come in and add to that. The first thing
we did, with the introduction of the new arrangements, was to
introduce the role of Director of Corporate and Democratic Services,
partly in recognition of the fact that there was a big constitutional
job to be done but, even more important, to make sure that someone
other than myself directly acted as the aid and support for the
scrutiny process. Stewart Dobson effectively acts as Chief Officer,
with oversight of all scrutiny arrangements. What I then did was
to name a lead officer for each of the scrutiny committees, and
I followed the principle that this should be someone taken from
the relevant department so that they were expert in the service
but they should not be the Chief Officer for that department.
By and large, what we have used is a Senior Assistant Director
or a Deputy Director taken from the relevant service department.
For most cases that has served very well, and that is the basis
for my earlier answer to Mrs Ellman. We have also set up a small
and dedicated team to service the scrutiny function as a whole;
to provide it with some dedicated resources so there are group
of people who are seen as scrutiny specialists. The way I see
things going, that function will need to be further strengthened
and will need to be replicated, but does not exist at the moment,
by a Cabinet Office.