Examination of witnesses (Questions 20
TUESDAY 6 MARCH 2001
LYONS and MR
20. Has that not led to more bureaucracy?
(Sir Michael Lyons) I think we have yet to see; but
what we can be absolutely certain of is that the new constitutional
arrangements are process intensive.
21. Is it not scraping away the myths about
local government and focusing attention on the areas that they
are supposed to be delivering on?
(Sir Michael Lyons) I think we can say that what the
revised arrangements have done in Birmingham is to very sharply
focus on quality of services: but where scrutiny has been at its
best, and it has been of variable quality but where it has been
at its best, it has been a strong champion of the interests of
the consumer. The Cabinet process, which I am a very strong advocate
of, helps a council to be much more corporate in its processes
and to deal with the connectivity between services, and indeed
the broader life of the community. Those are the positives.
(Mr Dobson) Just to add to that, one of the changes
that we are about to make is to transfer responsibility for all
our best value reviews to the scrutiny bodies. At the moment they
are the responsibility of the executive side but that is a specific
task which is going to be given to the scrutiny side. If nothing
else, that will help to focus the attention of the various scrutiny
bodies on the quality of service delivery.
22. In any event, there is such a structure
in being just now to scrutinise best value and to look at what
its predecessor was, CCT, within the authority itself, is there
not? What is the purpose of this, other than to set up a new bureaucracy?
(Sir Michael Lyons) Of best value?
(Sir Michael Lyons) There is a very distinctive principle
in best value. Certainly it has some complex procedures involved,
and those could do with streamlining; but the critical principle
of best value was to return to the council responsibility for
the quality of the services that it delivers. You might say, "Isn't
that what the best councils were doing?", but far too many
councils had become defensive about what they were providing;
far too many members had become spokes-people for the council
rather than questioners of the council. Best value in its principle
is entirely welcome and positive. In its process there are some
changes one would like to see brought about.
24. Would the officers who are overseeing scrutiny
be concerned about blighting their own career opportunities by
effectively challenging those who are taking decisions?
(Sir Michael Lyons) They might but, equally, there
are two risks: there is the risk you find people timid because
they are fearful of blighting their career opportunities; but,
equally, you find those people who are zealous for the wrong reasons.
They are zealous because they become the handmaidens of political
interestsand I do not mean between political parties. Very
often the worst problems are within political parties. It is getting
the balance right. You are right, there is that fear of people
being anxious but, equally, there is fear of people coming forward
and volunteering to be very energetic scrutineers because they
take a different view from the current executive members.
25. Do you think there is a problem with the
relationship between members and officers and the new regime?
(Sir Michael Lyons) I think there are tensions but
let me be clearthere are tensions as things exist and these
will be well known to you. The most significant tensions are going
to be around this shift of role, particularly for senior officers
and executive members. The new government arrangements provide
for individual members to make decisions. It also shifts responsibility
on to them for the probity and transparency of those decisions,
which historically has been the responsibility of the officers.
I think that is where you get into the most complicated parts
of current relationships between officers and members. That is
where you reveal issues where members perhaps do not want issues
to be in the public domain; where they sometimes do not want decisions
or background decisions even to be shared with their colleagues
on the council; where there are concerns to hold things off agendas.
That is not new in local government. That is one area where tension
exists in local government, between the chief officer body and
elected members. That is where very occasionally chief officers
have had to rely on their statutory powersthe powers of
the Director of Finance, the powers of the Monitoring Officer,
and the responsibility attached to the head of paid service. I
think that is where the tensions are going to be in the future.
I have to say, on the other side of the scales, the greater clarity
about who is responsible for the decision could outweigh the problems.
26. Do you think that every member of the council
is going to have equal rights to information and access to officers?
(Sir Michael Lyons) The practical answer is, no, they
cannot possibly have. Indeed, one of the great strengths of the
arrangement is the long overdue distinction between "executive"
and "assembly". Whether or not that is being properly
played out through the guidance is a matter I would like to leave
to one side. The principle of a separation is welcome, and that
clearly means that the officer body is a focus for the delivery
of services on the executive. Equally, so that members can discharge
their own individual responsibilities, they have to have good
access to information and rather better support than we have historically
27. Do you think members are going to have sufficient
powers to make a nuisance of themselves? If you want to stand
up for your ward on occasions, in the past as a council you could
make quite a nuisance of yourself to the point at which both officers
and other councillors take some notice of you. Is that going to
(Sir Michael Lyons) My experience is that people who
choose to stand for election have all the personal qualities necessary
to make a nuisance of themselves.
28. That is a neat little sidestepping that
will not do, Sir Michael. You have been asked something much simpler.
The present system means that there is a direct measure between
the ward, the councillor and the fuss that they make with the
officers concerned. Scrutiny is, by definition, something totally
different. It requires different skills and it requires access
to independent information. How is the individual councillor going
to get that?
(Sir Michael Lyons) The rights of the individual councillor
to information are not fundamentally changed.
29. But you yourself have said they will not
have access to the detail which the executive would have?
(Sir Michael Lyons) What I actually said was they
would not have equal access. I am not trying to dice with you
because I do take your point. Let me first concede a point to
you immediately: elected members very often drew much of their
information from committee processesnot perfect, but quite
good at providing information. That will not exist in the future
and that is an automatic process; going to committee and absorbing
information on a service will be more problematic for most members,
I agree with you. In terms of the individual member's rights to
access to information I will ask Stewart Dobson to say a little
more about that. I do not think that is significantly changed.
I am very eager not to dilute the importance of scrutiny. Again,
if I take the best quality scrutiny in Birmingham, I would say
that that delivers members a way of digging deeper into a service
than they could ever have done historically.
30. But how, if they do not have access to the
same quality of information? The reality of the scrutiny is that,
unless you have someone who has detailed knowledge at the same
level as the person who is supplying the committeeI had
a father who simply said to me, "If somebody gives you a
brief look at who has written it because that is lesson number
one". If I do not have somebody I can access who has the
same level of expertise and the same access of information, how
am I going to know that I am capable of scrutinising what that
person is doing? I will not under your system; because under your
system, even with the best access, the officer I am dealing with
will ultimately be dependent upon the person I am scrutinising?
(Sir Michael Lyons) I am very keen to bring Stewart
in because he has much more firsthand experience and I think you
will find that useful. I do not want my earlier answer to be misunderstood.
When I said that members will not get the same quality of information
I still believe that to be true, but what I am clear about is
that the scrutiny function is a very sharp instrument for getting
any information that members need.
31. With respect, you are not answering my question.
I am not disagreeing with you. You are saying, we have a different
method; if that different method is used properly it will produce
better results than we have at the moment?
(Sir Michael Lyons) Yes.
32. Fine. I am not asking you that. I am asking
you how the average elected councillor, who is not a trained interrogator,
who is not used to getting access to informationthey have
always relied on going to the officer and saying, "Mr So
and So, tell me what is happening in my ward". Because the
pressures were not on that officer because it was a different
system, that officer would in general give you whatever they decided
you were capable of absorbingwhich was not always very
much; but that will be completely different.
(Sir Michael Lyons) Let me then concede your point.
For the average member, with exactly the background you have described,
they will no longer get the flow of information they got through
committees, and we have to make alternative arrangements or they
will be less well informed. I will concede that.
Sir Paul Beresford
33. Can we follow on that and go back to part
of what the Chairman was saying. If there is a vital issue that
a member who is not on the executive wants to push through or
he has got some problem so that by the time it comes to the scrutiny
committee the decision is effectively made, he will not therefore
know the questions to ask and there is the prospect of patronage.
Perhaps you could explain to us how a fairly major issue in the
council is decided; where it comes from and how it works right
the way down through the system?
(Sir Michael Lyons) Under the current arrangements
or under the new arrangements?
34. Under the new arrangements. With the new
arrangements, presumably somebody on the executive thinks of a
policy change and talks and discusses it with you and then it
(Sir Michael Lyons) Would you mind if I asked Mr Dobson
because he is very skilled in taking us through the new arrangements
which actually are quite a minefield.
(Mr Dobson) In relation to matters which will finish
up as part of the policy framework, in other words the budget
and particular key plans of the authority, what has already been
agreed and will be built into our arrangements is a role for the
relevant scrutiny committee in not only examining whatever the
executive have drafted before it goes to the full council for
approval, but also in most cases actually contributing to the
process of the development of the plan or policy, whatever it
may be. If you like, there is an emphasis in the new constitution
we are currently drafting on the early involvement and participation
of a scrutiny committee in the development of policy as well as
in policy review. Even though the plan or policy may be initiated
by, and be the responsibility of, the executive, the idea is to
involve the scrutiny committee.
35. Let us be realistic. The realistic thing
is that someone on the executive, someone on whichever party and
it may not be Birminghamthe decision will be made or the
idea will be brought forward and then presumably it goes to the
political group after perhaps it has been to the executive committee,
and then it goes down for a bit of flag waving with the scrutiny
committee which is manned to the same proportion as the others,
and then it comes back again. Coming back to the points that Mrs
Dunwoody and the Chairman were raising, the opportunity for an
individual there is very short changed, for a number of reasons:
firstly, as Mrs Dunwoody was saying, that you need to know a lot
to know what questions to ask before you can probe to get the
answers; and, secondly, that although whipping has gone, with
the change in the structure and a change in the financial system,
there is a patronage. It will be whipped all the way through,
whatever the political complexion of the party. The difficulty
is, with this system there is the opportunity to cover up much
more than there was under the committee system?
(Sir Michael Lyons) Patronage is an issue in government
at all levels, and I do not think you can demonstrate that this
new system is more prone to patronage than the old system.
36. The cynic will say in that allocation in
Birmingham patronage had been spread out pretty widely to get
everybody on board. Is that grossly unfair?
(Sir Michael Lyons) As you look at that system and
you ask yourself why Birmingham needs 12 scrutiny committees,
you might reach the conclusion it owed more to the period of transition
than its future needs.
Mrs Dunwoody: That is a nice way of saying,
yes, Sir Michael!
Sir Paul Beresford
37. How many committees did Birmingham have
(Mr Dobson) Around about 15.
Sir Paul Beresford: You are going to end up
38. You mentioned probitydo you see chief
officers, or whatever they are now called, having a role in disciplining
members if they think they have misbehaved?
(Sir Michael Lyons) No, I do not. I do not think that
would be tenable. I think there is a big issue about organisational
discipline of our councils, about a common understanding of how
business is done, and the steps one takes to safeguard probity
and ensure transparency. The new arrangements challenge the way
we do business at the moment and, therefore, one has to be quite
meticulous in putting in place new arrangements to ensure that
discipline is maintained for these changed organisations.
Chairman: Who then does that?
39. It is no use telling us what we know you
have got to do because we accept that. Who does that? The opportunities
for corruption in local government, you will forgive me saying
so, are very great; they are much greater than they are for the
average backbencher in Parliamentalthough some of the my
colleagues seem to do all right. If you want to make a fortune
the place to be is in local government and connected with planning.
How are you going to deal with exactly that problem?
(Sir Michael Lyons) The only sensible answer is to
say, firstly, all of the evidence suggests that levels of probity
and conduct in local government are good and we want to maintain