Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence





  760. Can I pick up on one thing Neil Turner asked you, you said as a throwaway remark, "We have to retain a local, democratic element", something like that, as though it was ready to dispense with them. Unless I am misunderstanding this completely, surely the point of what you are saying is that as these services are not going to be delivered by local authorities, as I understand it, and you are wanting to take them further away from that, if that model simply does not work it will further undermine any local, democratic element. You may have an election and you feel you cannot get rid of them. They will increasingly be bogus people who are asked to vote about things over which the authorities for which they are voting have no control. Your model is some super-efficient delivery organisation presided over or controlled from the centre, staffed by unified public servants who will wander through this system. The accountability question, if I am following this, comes back to the narrowest of needle eyes, which is a Minister standing up in the House of Commons, a system we know is mythical now.
  (Mr Walker) That is precisely the point. The current system is dishonest to the extent it secures people who are not responsible. If you look around at your colleagues you would not pretend that Members of the House of Commons are engaged in delivering the service to their constituents, your role is at a considerable remove from the process, let alone the final point of delivery. That does not make you throw up your hands and go home and say, "I am going to throw in the towel." Likewise at local level, there is no connection between election and service provision. We already have the case in the election of tenant representatives on estate bodies, in housing. Elections can play a number of roles, they do not necessarily have to be about securing a class of person who is or who are themselves directly responsible for service. Elections can secure snapshots of the public will, they can secure a group of people who have general responsibility. If I may say so, you are working with a model which I think is largely out of date. What I am saying is, clearly, we are not going to dispense with the electoral element, there are lots of ways we can still use crude democracy, electing people without mythically attributing to democratic elected representatives the capacity themselves to deliver effective public services.

Mr Turner

  761. Where do policy priorities and choice of priorities come in in that kind of model that you have just given?
  (Mr Walker) Again, perhaps, I have not made myself clear, what I am envisaging is if we were to have a more national mode of public service, people who are locally involved would have a much more significant role than they do at the moment when we split central and local. If Whitehall were more familiar with the conditions in which people lived and how people are delivering services locally then Whitehall's very culture would be different. Local would necessarily have much greater saliency in the model in the sketchy terms they are proposing than it does at the moment. I would have fewer misgivings than you about the way local perspective on policy would be fed up through the system.

Mr Oaten

  762. I guess in theory, as somebody who is meant to believe in devolving things down to a lower level, as many celebrators of government, I should disagree with you. Last Friday night at midnight I was in the village hall of a village completely flooded, the Water Agency, the County Council, the Environment Agency, the Police, the Fire, the City Council Engineers, the Parish Council, the Army and also somebody representing the Health Authority were there. I think something like nine different agencies were there and it graphically demonstrated to me the system is not working. The members of the public there were tearing their hair out, not necessarily because their house had been flooded but the fact that nine different agencies spent the whole time passing the buck, as they saw it, from one to the other. The whole system of confidence in the way public services should be operated completely collapsed right in front of us in a very graphic way. I do not know what the solution to that is, but it ain't working at the moment. People felt there was no sense at all of any democratic accountability. The only person they associated with was muggins here who turns up and is known as somebody who is elected. That suggests to me that there should be a unique one-stop shop element rather than the way we provide services at the moment. I welcome your view on this. It may not matter a great deal if there are nine different organisations all working away, but it may be that a model can carry on at a tier above it. There needs to be a one-stop shop element, which is quite slick and small and which absorbs the issues and tells people who is going to deal with them and how they are going to be dealt with from within. With those nine different agencies the public outface is a very clear, simple organisation that does not tell people how it is being done. How it is being done certainly does not bother them, that it is this agency or that agency, the problem is with that model, the democratic deficit. Do you accept that that model could work? Give me a solution of how you would bring democracy into that element. The only one I can see is a strong elected mayor who is accountable, a public figure people recognise, who can be tough and set an agenda in the way the public can relate to.
  (Mr Walker) The trouble with that is the local elected mayor would be only interested in whether it was a particular area, whereas the Environment Agency, especially in the case of excessive water flows, is concerned about a catchment area, a much wider area. I am not sure how you would do that. If I can make this point, I am by no means proposing any worked-out solution at all. I am saying de minimis if it were to be the case that people work for the Environment Agency and perhaps the police officers, perhaps the military officers and certainly local authority and people had gone through a common formation and belonged to a common service at some point and kept their work together in an emergency that would be greater. However, that would not address your point about democratic accountability, that is a much wider one. I think in terms of the effectiveness in which they were able to deal with the flooding problem they might have worked together better as a team if they actually had a common association with public service rather than with this great variety of different agencies, each of which is claiming to work in the public's interest.


  763. Is it not precisely local government which historically has performed that integration, it is the fact that we have separated out all of the elements we have—the condition that Mark Oaten described—and now we are busy wondering how we can put it all back together again?
  (Mr Walker) That sounds like going back to the past. The past is gone, for one very good reason, the public will not tolerate major or even small differentials of standards between different local authority areas, that is backed by every opinion survey that is done. We cannot go back to the position where local authority A does things differently from local authority B, we have to move forward.

Mr Wright

  764. Going back to that, I was going to bring up a statement you made earlier on, "We can go back to the municipal service delivery of the 20s and 30s". When I speak to some of the councillors in my area, who in the past have looked after the police authority and other services in small towns they would say that it was run much better, more accountable to the local community and they themselves enjoyed, probably, a far better service delivery than they do at this time. Did it not start because central government distrusted elected councils in the early 80s and the 90s, and there was a gradual taking away of powers from the local authorities and the creation of more quangos, they were unelected people who could be controlled centrally by government, whereas you could not have these loose cannon in the local authorities? What I am trying to say is, is there a future within regional government rather than the two tiers we have at the present time?
  (Mr Walker) That is possible, although because of the difference in regional sentiment between different areas we are going to have let, in a sense, 13 flowers bloom and see how things go. Could I say this—I do not say this in any party political spirit—if you listened to your colleague for Norwich South and to the Minister from the Department of Health, and listened to them intently, as I am sure have you done over the last four years, you will have heard them say effective government demands a uniform approach to that service provision. Take child protection as a recent example of lifting a service out of local authorities, although individually they may be okay, in the generality they have not performed well. I have in mind the recent announcement by Paul Boateng. There has been severe criticism of local authorities who run children's homes. There are strong criticisms there and the logic that ministers themselves have taken to say, "We must devise a new structure for this service", often results in a new quango, an appointed body or some rather strange Committee. Maybe you are right, that in future this would be a lot better at regional level. We are nowhere near that yet.

  765. Taking the regional government issues that would then resolve the problem about cross-boundary differences between service delivery, if you have one fire service controlled regionally rather than by county boundaries perhaps that too would be the best way forward. Even talking about local authorities district councils or county councils, if a street light goes out people have to know whether it is the county council or local authority. Most people in my area do not understand the separation between service delivery from different authorities, that seems to be the biggest problem. It is probably central government's responsibility to ensure that process takes place.
  (Mr Walker) I am sure you are right. All I would observe is that in your instance of the fire service at the moment there is an extensive programme of training for fire officers dedicated to the fire service. What I wish for there is specialist training for the function which requires technical knowledge, there ought to be much more integration of training of specialist public services with fire officers, with other public servants, the police, civil servants and people who work the centre locally, and so on. There is a lot of other reasons why joining up does not take place. There could be a lot more joining up if we bite the bullet and we accept that certain local services are going to have to be trained for on a national basis.

Mr Lepper

  766. My apologies for arriving late to this session. Having heard what you just said I am not certain I understood accurately something that you said a little earlier about the sort of popular perception of service delivery. Like this Tony Wright next to me, and possibly like the Tony Wright in the Chair as well, my feelings, certainly from what my constituents say to me, are that people believe the local council is responsible for every public service that they need to make use of, they do not differentiate, it is they who provide it and if they have a problem it is likely that their first port of call will be their local councillor or the town hall or the council office. It very often comes as a surprise to people to discover that it is some other agency, some other department, some other body entirely which needs to deal with the immediate problem, whatever it might be. Part of your argument seems to be that a certain mid 20th century perception of local government is no longer feasible because it no longer exists in the popular perception. I think you are wrong. Maybe that is not what you meant.
  (Mr Walker) I think we would agree that a lot of people know very, very little about the practical circumstances in which they are governed. Polling data suggests many people believe they pay for local government through council tax, but that has, as we all know, not been the case in large measure for many, many years. People's capacity to keep up to date with the way they are governed is lacking. What I address myself to initially is what I thought you were most concerned about, which is effective government. At some point effectiveness will hinge upon the way government is perceived by the public, but I do not think there are a lot of issues to do with how little the public knows about how they are governed and I do not think the problems are just visible at local level.

  767. In that case there may have been a misunderstanding on my part. I thought part of your argument was there was no longer public acceptance of the local council being responsible, once again, for the same range of services for which it was responsible perhaps in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
  (Mr Walker) If that meant that Brighton and Hove did things differently from East Sussex then the answer is, yes, people would not tolerate significant departures in service provision.

  Chairman: I think you are right in saying that the Committee is interested in effective government, it is also interested in accountable government, and in the relationship between effective and accountable government, that is where some of the vexed issues come in. We asked you to come along to be stimulating and to provoke us, both of you, and you have done that. Patrick Dunleavy, as I understand it, wants to send all Civil Servants to the LSE and David Walker wants to abolish Whitehall and local government. We have had good value this afternoon. Thank you very much indeed for coming along.


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