Examination of witnesses (Questions 200
TUESDAY 13 MARCH 2001
CONNOLLY and MR
200. At what level?
(Mr Coppard) It is PO 6 on the scale and it is about
£30,000 a year salary. It is the top end of the professional
scales. They are completely independent. They work outside of
the executive functions, so one expects a certain amount of tension.
They are there to give the difficult questions to the members
201. Has that produced, in reality, any tensions
between the higher echelons? An ambitious young local government
officer at that level is not necessarily going to want to find
themselves in direct conflict with their chief officer.
(Mr Coppard) It is amusing when the scrutiny officer
presents the budget to the scrutiny commission and the treasurer
is sitting there. There is a certain tension in the air. I make
it my business, as chief executive, to ensure that they are protected.
They have a job to do.
202. There is, in your view, a specific responsibility
on the chief officer to make sure that it is clear that they are
(Mr Coppard) It is a precaution, I think. Actually,
the relationships work very well. There is a creative tension,
but I do not think that has got out of hand.
203. That will work well until there is a disaster,
when your neck is firmly and truly on the line. It would be rather
like having the clerks of this Committee working to the cabinet
(Mr Houghton) I think you also need to understand
the scrutiny officers are cherished and protected by their elected
members as well because they see them as a valuable resource.
204. Can we hear from Mr Stewart on this, because
this is a very important point?
(Mr Stewart) Phil used the phrase "creative tension",
which is quite important. One has to strike a balance between
the independence of the staff servicing the scrutiny part of the
council and the fact that they are still employed by the council
and still have to fit into traditional lines of management.
205. Mr Stewart, perhaps I should just give
you a word of explanation. This Committee is serviced by people
who are responsible to the House of Commons, and though they are
civil servants they are totally independent of departments. Therefore,
if the department disapproves of the evidence or the support they
are giving to the Committee they may point it out but they get
absolutely nowhere. That is not the situation in local government.
I am asking you very specifically, are you of the opinion that
this will produce tensions beyond a slightwhat you callcreative
tension? If so, how would you deal with it?
(Mr Stewart) I think, in the longer term, if it is
not producing tensions then the purpose of the legislation is
206. Absolutely, but, again, how would you deal
with it? Mr Blunt's point is absolutely accurate; it is fine while
everybody loves everybody, but what happens when suddenly they
do not love everybody?
(Mr Coppard) There is a system. What happens is that
the scrutiny commission produces its report, the chair of the
scrutiny commission attends cabinet and presents that report to
cabinet. Cabinet do then what they will with it and they might
agree it or they might disagree it.
207. Mr Coppard, believe me, after 30 years
in Parliament the first question you ask when you read a brief
is "Who has written the brief?"
(Mr Coppard) I do that. I agree.
(Mr Houghton) We have consciously separated them out
from the executive side into what we call the democratic side,
which comes under the borough secretary, and all the scrutiny
dealings go there as opposed to the rest of the executive.
Sir Paul Beresford
208. How much has your starting level gone up?
(Mr Houghton) We have appointed six scrutiny officers.
209. What is your total staff?
(Mr Houghton) What for the council overall? Full-time
equivalents, getting on for 8,000. Our scrutiny members often
remind us of that.
210. Mr Houghton, you have painted such a rosy
picture of these new arrangements. Are you telling the Committee
that there are no complaints from back-benchers or people who
are just on the scrutiny panels about them being outside?
(Mr Houghton) No, I am not saying there have not been
complaints from back-bencher members. Indeed, we have two group
members who have crossed the floor and we have five ex-Labour
Party members who have now formed an independent Labour group.
So I am not saying everyone is happy. However, what I am saying
is that the vast majority of the elected members are content with
the new proposals, and I would be extremely surprised if any of
those would want to return to the old system.
211. What about in Middlesbrough? Is it similarly
rosy, or not quite as rosy a picture?
(Ms Connolly) There have been early problems. Initially,
particularly, there were concerns about the information flows,
and non-executive members did feel that they did not have as much
information as cabinet members. We had to deal with that quite
early on through being able to ensure that through information
technology all members have access to all reports and minutes.
However, it still has not resolved the problem, and the difficulty
is that it is about the cultural change, that non-executive members
feel that they are not participating any more in the decision-making.
212. Mainly because they are not.
(Ms Connolly) Yes, but if you compare it with the
system that was there before, in reality, members were not participating
fully in decision-making then either.
213. Reality is not always what people want
to know about.
(Mr Houghton) It is about member involvement and whether
members are happy or not. I think what we are finding increasingly
is that members are taking to the proactive side of the scrutiny
processes. The reactive side to the cabinet is important to keep
the cabinet in check, but increasingly I think members are recognising
that the real way to influence the council is not necessarily
going to a committee on options that have been drawn up by officers
and there has been a political meeting prior to it anyway from
certain members to make sure a given outcome is achieved. A lot
of them are starting to find they are getting their heads together
and working with their scrutiny officer as a result on the issues
that are important to them, as opposed to what the council may
be doing or what the officers think, and doing work and research
and putting things to the cabinet saying "Hang on you lot,
what about these issues?" That takes time, because it does
put more demands on members to do that sort of work on their own
as opposed to, in a sense, being spun off by officers with reports.
That is a big culture shift, and therefore training and development
of members to be able to do that is absolutely critical. And not
everyone takes to it very easily.
214. We are talking a lot about how members
perceive things. What has this new system delivered for the public
that could not have been delivered under the old system?
(Mr Houghton) I can only refer you to our Ofsted and
SSI inspections, where under the old system, as a result, we got
very poor inspection reports. On the re-visits, from both Ofsted
and the SSI, we got excellent reports and they did comment on
the impact that modernisation had had (and I can only speak for
Barnsley here) on the strategic leadership of those services,
the way the officer/member relationships had worked and the improvements
that had partially resulted from that. I think there has been
an improvement in services in Barnsley.
215. Did you change your officers when you changed
(Mr Houghton) Yes, we did.
216. That might be the reason.
(Mr Houghton) I have to say the external inspectors
did not just put it down to that; they did actually mention the
modernisation process and the impact that had had on the culture
of the place and the way we work.
217. Does it actually have any impact on the
public? Is not this whole committee structure change something
that has of interest to political anoraks but in practice the
general public out there, in my experience, sometimes do not understand
the difference between a councillor and a council officer. Is
there any evidence that they are any better informed as a result
of these changes?
(Mr Stewart) All they are interested in is outcomes.
I think they are not interested at all in the internal structures
and processes in a local authority, and there is lots of evidence
to suggest that. I think the test of the new arrangements will
be the ability of them to deliver better outcomes to the public.
I think you have to remember that we are still piloting these
arrangements and we have not actually adopted them fully in terms
of the 2000 Act. It is going to require councils to be much more
proactive in how they engage with citizens. That is not a structural
issue. What people are interested in is what they have always
been interested in, which is getting decent services.
Chairman: I will have to ask for slightly shorter
answers if we are going to get through the whole of the agenda
we have before us.
Mrs Ellman: In Barnsley you have deputy cabinet
members. What difference would it make to you if the new legislation
218. Less patronage?
(Mr Houghton) It does not seem like patronage from
where I stand, I can assure you. I think that would give us problems,
although looking at the legislation it is a bit unclear because
it says you cannot have deputies but it says you can have members
who can support the cabinet. You explain to me quite what you
mean by that.
219. No, not what we mean.
(Mr Houghton) Yes, I think it would give us problems.
One, the deputies are there to substitute for cabinet members
at meetings and other forms of council business. This puts a great
burden on to the cabinet members. They are also a link, in our
terms, to the back-bench member; they are a bit of a hybrid between
the cabinet and the ordinary back-bench member. They get the views
of the cabinet which they relay back to ordinary members, and
vice-versa the views of ordinary members gets back into the cabinet
process. So I think we would lose that. Obviously, we need to
look at what the legislation actually says we can do in support
of the cabinet, and we are looking at that now. If I am honest,
I think that is a weakness in the legislation.