Examination of Witnesses (Questions 697
THURSDAY 13 DECEMBER 2001
697. Good morning. On behalf of the Committee,
could I welcome our next witnesses, Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham,
who is Chairman of the Local Government Association, Councillor
Gordon Keymer, who is Deputy Chairman and the Leader of the LGA
Conservative Group, and then from the Welsh Local Government Association,
Councillor Sir Harry Jones, who is the Leader of the Welsh Local
Government Association. It is very good to have you along to assist
us. Thank you very much for your two memoranda as well which are
very helpful. Would you like to say a few words?
(Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) No, Chairman.
We are happy to go straight into questions.
698. Could I ask you just what I was asking
Wendy Thomson at the end there because it is something we have
some interest in, this business about public service ethos. From
the local government end, do you think this is a useful term to
use? Can we operationalise it or is it just a phrase we toss around?
(Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) I think it is still a valid
term to use, although arguably, as with most things, perhaps it
has changed over time. There is a sense in which there are some
principles which attach to elements of the public service which
may not be found as readily in other areas of provision. I think
in particular the focus on equity, the disinterestedness of public
servants, their accountability and the commitment which at its
best means that people who probably could have an easier and better
rewarded life financially elsewhere remain committed to public
service. Having said that, the reverse side of the coin might
suggest that there could be some shortcomings. There could be
an institutional, perhaps rather paternalistic, attitude, a safety
first attitude, and that is something which I think is subject
now to change, as councils become more focused on involving the
public who use their services, seeing what they want rather than
laying down the line from the town or county hall and being more
open to choice as an instrument of improving public service. Yes,
there is still value in the concept but it is a concept which
is changing, changing in the interests of perhaps greater diversity
and greater influence of the people who use the services.
699. Thank you.
(Cllr Sir Harry Jones) I just wonder if I can come
in and put the view as far as Wales is concerned because I feel
there is to some extent a difference. Basically I think that is
based upon the fact that the advent of the Assembly has brought
about a change in that it is intrinsically now linked to the Assembly
in terms of its drive and direction. I think, more importantly,
the point I would want to make is that the Welsh public sector
in actual fact is the major employer and spender in the nation.
What you have is a situation where in Wales only six per cent
of companies across Wales have a turnover in excess of five million.
The big difference we have here is that even the smallest local
authority in Wales has a turnover of some £74.9 million.
The impact that has in terms of Wales is that it is about 59 per
cent of the GDP and that is parallelled, I suppose, by the North
East where they have 54 and 51 by comparison. The big difference
in the South East is that figure tumbles down to something like
32-35 in the lower dependency areas. There is this dependency
in terms of employment and in terms of the impact that it has
on provision in Wales which I think gives it that variable ethos
that it does not have in other parts of the UK. I think, equally,
it is probably an exaggeration to say necessarily that public
services in Wales are loved but certainly they are liked and there
is a great relationship, I think, which exists there. I think
the classical example of how that can be demonstrated is where
consideration is being given to stock transfer and how the perception
of moving out from the public domain into the private, even albeit
to arms' length companies, is something that it is incredibly
difficult to persuade the community even if you believe yourself,
philosophically, it is the right direction to be taking. It takes
a great deal of persuasion because there is this sense, I think,
of oneness to some degree in the public service ethos in Wales
which, I repeat, is not necessarily true across the whole of the