Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witnesses (Questions 200 - 219)

TUESDAY 13 MARCH 2001

MR STEPHEN HOUGHTON, MR PHILIP COPPARD, MS SYLVIA CONNOLLY and MR STEVE STEWART

  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 to ask.

  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 protected.
  (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.

Mr Blunt

  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 secretary.
  (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.

Mrs Dunwoody

  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 slight—what you call—creative 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 not working.

  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.

Mr Brake

  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.

Mrs Dunwoody

  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.

Mrs Ellman

  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 the system?
  (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.

Mr Brake

  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 changed that.

Chairman

  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.

Mrs Dunwoody

  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.


 
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