Examination of witnesses (Questions 120
TUESDAY 13 MARCH 2001
KERRY and MS
120. You have explained to us that it may have
an impact on your ability to recruit councillors. Do you see that
having a knock-on effect in terms of party activists within the
party political system?
(Cllr Meikle) I would have thought the two would go
121. In your evidence you say that where the
new arrangements have been in place for some time there appears
to be a stronger confidence about new structures. Where do you
get your information from and how do you judge what is better?
(Ms Jeffrey) Where do we get our information from?
122. Yes. There is a section in here where you
say where arrangements have been in place for some time things
seem to be better. Who is giving you that information and what
criteria are you using to assess what is better?
(Ms Jeffrey) In terms of where we got the information
for the written evidence we supplied to you, we actually asked
our local authorities to provide us with their view of how they
saw things going at the moment. In addition to that, we do have
something called a "regional modernisation strategy"
that brings us into contact with all the authorities in the region
on a regular basis. We do have a fairly clear view about how things
are progressing within each of those authorities. I think in terms
of how, in fact, we can say that the structures are working well
(which I think was your question), I think authorities are saying
that where they have had those structures in place for some time
they have had a chance to bed down. Because they have had a chance
to bed down so they are able to work more effectively within those
structures. It is like any new thing, it takes a while for that
to settle in. What we are finding is, those authorities where
they have had that bit of extra time, they are finding those structures
are working better.
123. Who are you asking in the authorities?
(Ms Jeffrey) We are dependent on the authorities telling
us what their view is. That view can sometimes come from the local
members; it can also come from the officers; so it comes from
124. Which members? Are you getting information
from the members who are in key executive positions, or is it
members who are not in cabinets?
(Ms Jeffrey) We have a number of networks. One of
our networks involves scrutiny members which, by definition, tend
to be backbench members. So in that sense we are getting some
information from those people on the backbenches. I have to say,
the majority of our information obviously comes from those people
who are involved in the executive.
125. What questions are you asking them?
(Ms Jeffrey) I think for the purposes of this particular
evidence, we asked the questions you asked us. That was: how well
was the system working at the moment? I think the other evidence
we get is about how we see people working and implementing the
systems in the region, and the feedback we are getting from them
at the various conferences and seminars we hold. Generally that
tends to be a more positive rather than a negative view.
126. What have the backbench members told you?
(Ms Jeffrey) As I say, the contact with the backbench
members tends to be primarily with those who have been involved
in scrutiny. Our feeling in relation to the scrutiny process is
that that is developing very well in the region; and that backbench
members as they are finding themselves within that role are beginning
to see that there are opportunities for them still to contribute
effectively within the new political arrangements that they have
within their authorities.
127. You say there are opportunities still for
them to contribute. Are you suggesting that there are fewer opportunities
for them to contribute than there were before?
(Ms Jeffrey) I think initially when the structures
were established there was a feeling from the backbench local
authority members that perhaps they were not going to be involved
as well as they could be. As I say, it was about the time it took
the system to develop; and those authorities that have had the
system in place for longer are the ones that are finding there
is a role being developed for their backbench members in relation
to the scrutiny function.
128. Have you got any examples of effective
scrutiny that might not have happened under the old system?
(Ms Jeffrey) Yes, we have a number of examples of
effective scrutiny. In our written evidence at paragraph 19 there
are some references to Barnsley, who I think are going to be giving
evidence after us and they will be able to talk for themselves
better than I can. For example, they have developed very effective
scrutiny mechanisms in relation to a number of areas. They refer
to "... in-depth investigations carried out by their scrutiny
commissions on issues such as road safety, the countryside, the
future of the Magistrates' Courts, the policy aspects to licensing,
caring for carers, the use of IT by elected members, they way
in which the Council has responded to the Crime and Disorder Act
and Domestic Violence". I think you can see that is a fairly
comprehensive list of activities their scrutiny committees have
been involved in.
129. Do you not feel those are areas where the
same members might have been able to make some contribution under
the old system before decisions were taken rather than after?
(Ms Jeffrey) I think it is a different system. With
what we have in place now, the scrutiny function is different
from what was there previously. I think the role is being developed.
130. For better or for worse? We know it is
different. By definition it is different. Is it better, or is
(Ms Jeffrey) As an Assembly we are not directly involved
in it ourselves.
131. No, but you have just told us you have
got a lot of information, and information must tell you about
the weaknesses and the improvements. Is it better, or is it worse?
(Ms Jeffrey) I think on the strength of the evidence
we have received from our local authorities they are finding that
as the system develops the scrutiny mechanism is working well
132. Did you get a balance between those who
have direct portfolio responsibility and those who are members
(Ms Kerry) I do not think we can say that from the
information we have.
Sir Paul Beresford
133. If I was cynical (and I am never cynical)
I would wonder whether the scrutiny committees you are talking
about are developing the projects they are undertaking. Is it
Parkinson's Law that they have to have something to do so they
fill the time? If it is not bad, are they going to finish in two
or three years' time, having gone right the way through the council
completely and there will be Parkinson's Law and they will turn
round and say, "Well, what are we going to do next?"
(Ms Kerry) I think that is a view, but at the moment
it is too early for us to judge, and certainly from a regional
perspective where we are not involved on a day-to-day basis with
the running of the council.
134. It would make sense, if you are running
a council and you have got political control and whipping has
been taken away because you have got some new orders, you have
(Ms Kerry) I do not think there is evidence of that.
I do not think there is any evidence that that is the case.
135. What you have said in your evidence is
that, "Ultimately, local government is about allowing for
diversity and ensuring that Central Government does not impose
`one size fits all'. Proposals must allow for differences whether
it is big and small authorities, urban and rural, single party
or hung councils, single or two tier authorities and so on".
Therefore, would you agree that what is happening over all the
regions is a mistake if you are getting a "one size fits
(Ms Kerry) I am not sure we are getting one size fits
all. We are getting consistency in approach, in that the majority
of our authorities have opted for a leader and cabinet system.
Sir Paul Beresford
136. Why have they?
(Ms Jeffrey) Because that was the choice of their
local authorities when they went out to public consultation.
137. Did they tell you what was wrong with the
other choices when they went out to public consultation?
(Ms Jeffrey) I am not aware of the detail of each
of the individual local authority's consultation. As I understand
it, they consulted on the options, and not on what had gone before.
138. Would you say that most of your impression
has been gained from those who are running the reorganised authorities,
rather than the people who are backbenchers?
(Ms Jeffrey) I think inevitably we tend to talk to
the lead members within the authorities, yes.
139. I would like to paraphrase what Crispin
Blunt has said. You have said that the "scrutiny mechanism
is working well for the councils", yet you have also stated
that you think the new arrangements should respect local diversity.
In what way does it not respect local diversity?
(Ms Jeffrey) I think there are two points there. In
terms of the scrutiny mechanisms working well, our evidence for
that comes from two networks that we have. We have a scrutiny
officer network, and a scrutiny member network; both of which
are extremely well supported. Both members of which are finding
their roles developing as time goes on and are really feeling
there is something they can get out of this process. However,
it would be wrong to say that scrutiny operates in the same way
in every single authority. In different authorities those scrutiny
arrangements will be appropriate to their local authority arrangements.
That is where the diversity, if you like, comes in. There is not
a contradiction between operating the Act as the guidance lays
it out and actually interpreting that on the ground in the way
that suits the community and the local authority best.