Examination of Witnesses (Questions 720
THURSDAY 13 DECEMBER 2001
720. You sound like a relatively happy bunny
(Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) I am happier now than I
was before the White Paper came through. I think there is a change
and the White Paper does foreshadow a more constructive relationship
between central and local government, a more positive attitude
towards local government. The test will be whether other government
departments actually sign up to it and share in the direction.
That remains to be seen. The Education bill is not entirely consonant
with that development. Even as we speak it includes a reserved
power to ring-fence, to which we object.
(Cllr Sir Harry Jones) The key word to me that is
being signalled by Stephen Byers, and it is something that we
have been pleading for for a long period of time, is the question
of trust. One perceives at this present moment in time that for
the first time there is a recognition of, and a move towards,
an acceptance of trust between central and local government which,
quite frankly, has been absent for a long period of time. I think
a degree of willingness has been demonstrated, and I have not
gone through the details of the new paper, but in terms of the
generalisation of what I read it certainly seems to me there is
a degree of letting go. In letting go there is an assumption there
is an expectation of trust on their part for us that we will respond
and we will match and meet that level degree of trust that is
being given to us. That is welcomed, surely.
721. Maybe the paper you submitted to the Committee
and the one from the LGA is out of date because year zero is now
defined by the publication dated the new White Paper, maybe the
difference is so profound?
(Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) We have succeeded partly
in influencing the White Paper, or I hope we have. I am confident
we have. One of the most symbolic things in the White Paper was
the abolition of the Council Tax Benefit Subsidy Limitation Scheme,
which was a covert capping mechanism, that has been abandoned,
not without an intense struggle, and we pressed very hard for
that. The fact that it has gone, I think, is symptomatic of a
much more positive attitude of the kind that Harry Jones has described.
Stephen Byers has been accessible and very forthcoming and has
taken pains to consult and has gone round the country. He has
been well received by people in all political parties. There is
a real sense that a new chapter has started but, as I said, it
does need other people to endorse it.
(Cllr Sir Harry Jones) I mentioned a moment ago supporting
areas, we got rid of that two years ago in Wales and we were able
to say in a meeting with Stephen Byers that it is happening in
Wales. We got rid of it two years ago and it has had no adverse
demonstrable effect or consequence in any way at all.
(Cllr Keymer) The ultimate test is what actually happens.
While we hear these warm words I very much hope we are right.
I have a lot of time for Stephen Byers, I think that he is keen,
the big question is whether he can deliver and whether his views
are shared across government?
722. In the Local Government Association Paper,
which was circulated to members of the Committee, there was great
stress made of national standards and the difficulty of reconciling
national standards with local democracy. Given this liberalisation
which is in prospect, if all of these national standards came
off, and we heard from Wendy Thompson a few moments ago, would
local government still be able to deliver or does local government
need, in some sense, a prescriptive central government in order
to keep everyone on their toes?
(Cllr Keymer) I am a great believer in the local mandate.
I believe there is a bit of both. Obviously the government wants
to see high standards, all governments do. I think there has been
a move under this government with central local partnership working
much more closely together. Ultimately I want to see local people
consulting and that is what the local council are for. We talk
about subsidiarity as being the European concept. There is a great
danger we talk about it in the United Kingdom and we do not do
that much for it and we are so strung round and hung round with
these national standards that what is needed locally, because
local people know best, really does not matter. All of us who
have been in local authority for a long time know by discussing
with local people what they want and we do our best to provide
what those people want.
723. You would let Ken Livingstone decide the
future of London Underground?
(Cllr Keymer) There you have a strategic problem and
perhaps a tad financial. I think these issues should come down
locally as far as possible. We have lost that freedom to operate
(Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) The term national standards
is slightly deceptive. There are a number of areas where there
ought to be a basic entitlement, be that an element of the provision
of social care or education, or whatever, and what is interesting
is that the government has accepted our suggestion that there
should be nationally agreed PSAs. Last year we had a two level
process, local PSAs and then you had to pick from a number of
national PSAs, which the government had derived from a trawl round
Whitehall for the three things they would like to be see in the
national standards, it was as crude as that. They have now accepted
our suggestion that we should try and agree a limited number of
national objectives for PSAs, and that, again, changes the nature
of the debate. This is now something agreed, not imposed. Hopefully
there is a rationale based on objective analysis and then coupled
with the more local approach which Gordon Keymer has referred
to, the local PSA mechanism, which is rolling out to all 160 county
level authorities and, hopefully, beyond that into districts.
Going back to what was said before, if we are going to encourage
public involvement we have to raise expectations and aspirations.
You cannot do that if you have to publish every 31st March a best
value performance plan with a couple of hundred performance indicators
and a whole lot of meaningless statistics. You can only encourage
debate if you select a few key issues, concentrate on those, get
those into the public arena locally and then you have a real chance
of moving the agenda on. You can drown in a mass of reports, drafts
and peculiarly derived grids with coloured-blobs on demonstrating
greater or lesser achievement which completely faze people.
724. I would love to see a national standard
for the inspection of food premises.
(Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) I think with the Food Standards
Agency and with Lacots we are looking to get a better approach
to food standards. Again part of the problem is capacity and it
is a question, very often, of having to ensure that lead authorities
run particular areas. You may be familiar with some of these problems.
It is a matter of choice. You can get to the level where the Department
of Culture, Media and Sport start stipulating the amount of book
stock that should be held by individual libraries, there has to
some rowing back from this level of prescription, you have to
concentrate on what is key. It may be that your example is a good
one, I do not know whether that would be adopted, let us debate
that kind of issue and see what needs to be done.
725. It would if you had eaten a dodgy hamburger!
(Cllr Sir Harry Jones) I think it is a fascinating
question in terms of letting go and the implications in terms
of standards. There is nobody in here that could possibly argue
that you have to have standards, and there should be standards
in terms of the expectations that the general public has. I think
the difficulty we have had, and where we now see movement of the
government in terms of letting go, is the means by which previously
they always attempted to attain them was by the structures they
put in place that drove us down. We spent that much time trying
to respond to the structures that at the end of day we were losing
out on the services. We were structure mad. The deliveries that
you had to have coming from it were taking up more time than delivering
the services on the ground. I think that until we can deliver
the services on the ground in the way we should be able to achieve
we are not going to obtain the standards that are set at the top.
(Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) If you happen to have set
the standards you could be criticised for that too?
726. Is it not the case that all the representations
that people like us get are of one kind. I have never had any
letter at all saying, can we have more local autonomy? Can we
have more local variation in services? We have overwhelming pressures
that say we want the same education provisions they have in X,
Y and Z, we want the same drugs being prescribed that they have
in X, Y and Z. Then we have people saying, why can they have it
in Scotland and we cannot have it here? We live in a tiny little
island, do we not, and we have a culture which says we want the
same thing everywhere. Does that not fundamentally go against
what you are saying?
(Cllr Keymer) X, Y and Z are the standards which other
authorities try to get to. Z, Y and X is providing a good service.
I think this "by comparison" we are talking about, the
situation in league tables is where you get to that hype. We believe
that what should be done is from the local level upwards. Certainly
throughout Europe the strength of local government is in many
cases stronger elsewhere in Europe than it is in the United Kingdom.
I think that is an indication of where we should be going.
Chairman: Europe is not a country!
727. We have been talking about standards and
there is this culture round that which says, if all reasonable
people are round a table with an independent inspector we can
all get an equality of service, and the one thing that seems to
be forgotten in all this is the electorate. How does local government
with its partnership boards and its myriad of stakeholders deal
with that contradiction between the managerial elements you have
and the response to citizens through the ballot box?
(Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) This is the plan before
the process, which has now been in train for some time with many
councils, devolving administration, and now they are getting people
on board in shaping policy. It is quite interesting in some of
the elections, for example, for the neighbourhood renewal process
that they have produced significantly higher turnouts than local
council elections. Whether that sustains itself remains to be
seen. Essentially to make sense of that we have to build capacity
in the community to understand the process and understand the
choices that have to be made and to influence decision making.
That in itself requires investment as well as a new approach,
which I think is dawning in local government, a more receptive
approach to that. It needs resourcing too and that is not easy,
given the pressures that exist.
728. You produce there a wonderful community
plan, every body signs up to it, May comes along and the administration
changes, a new council has come in with a completely different
set of agenda and that community plans gets torn up, or does it
impose on the incoming councils that they are committed to it
and, therefore, their political manifesto does not match it?
(Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) That would be a very interesting
prospect. Gordon's council has just undergone a change of control,
mine is a long way from change, so I am less qualified to talk
(Cllr Keymer) I think there is a continuity pattern
in local government which perhaps was not there 20 or 30 years
ago. Most authorities do have an opposition. There is a general
consensus, and I would argue that annual elections do not help
that consensus. I would say that four year elections are better
for getting the sort of situation that you are talking about.
I would suggest there is a lot of invested time and effort and
I would be extremely surprised if an incoming administration would
then tear it up.
(Cllr Sir Harry Jones) We lost control for four years
on one occasion and when we came back we took control. The only
thing that we inherited that had changed from our original policies
was the sale of land. That is a classic example of where at a
local level I think politics has not necessarily had a great emphasis
in terms of the service that you are providing because you are
providing the best services for the people and any administration
coming in of any political colour are pretty much bound about
by those strictures that are in place. In terms of relating to
the community, I honestly believeI have to confess I cannot
persuade my own council along these lines against the role and
the new democratic arrangements that are operating at this present
moment in timethe opportunity to go for area committees
I believe is the keystone for the future in terms of relating
with the communities and for councillors as individuals to relate
to communities. Whenever you bring this situation up you always
get told about Tower Hamlets. We have operated neighbourhood communities
that cover every ward for the last five or six years and they
are very punitive but beneficial. You have to come back the next
month, the next month and the next month after that and many people
feel you are putting your head on the block. If you are going
to relate to the communities in the way you are describing I think
the area committee model is one that eventually will come into
more and more consideration as the understanding of how you can
do it. It really comes back to local government being prepared
to let go also. If it is to be successful you need to devolve
budgets down that will allow communities to influence the quality
of life in the neighbourhoods in which they live. You are not
going to be able to do that if you still have this dictat coming
from the centre. What we are asking of central government we have
to apply to ourselves at some time in the future.
(Cllr Keymer) Parish councils are absolutely fundamental.
729. We have been asking about public sector
ethos, is there a different public sector ethos for the care worker
or the councillor or for the senior civil servant or is it all
just the same?
(Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) It is difficult to speak
for senior civil servants. I think some of the principles of decisioness
and equity, and so on, apply. The caring services, wherever they
are in the public sector, have a special feel. I think that is
particularly relevant to the distinction between the profit making
and not-for-profit sector. I think there may be a qualitative
difference there that is valued. To some degree we are trading
on that in terms of the pay and conditions of people involved
in personal care, be it in nursing or residential services or
whatever. I think that is not any longer acceptable. You have
to treat people properly and to value them substantively as well
730. Everything we talked about this morning
and all of the new good things that are happening, is it not all
fig leaf because at the end of the day a Treasury which has an
antipathy to local government and an antipathy to public service
will still control the purse strings through Treasury rules and
through PSAs and at the end of the day nothing will change because
Treasury will not let it change?
(Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) I do not find that to be
any longer an accurate depiction of Treasury. The Treasury has
been a useful ally to the LGA over some of these discussions,
quite apart from reasonably generous financial settlements, and
they have strongly supported the PSA mechanism and they have supported
the partnership condition for agenda and actually they are opposed
to ring-fencing. We find the Treasury on the side of the angels,
this may be the first time in history, but one that we welcome.
Chairman: Unless colleagues have anything else
to add I feel inclined to end on that, the Treasury being on the
side of the angels, you have now generated the headline of the
morning. It is extremely kind of you to come along, both for giving
us your memorandum and for talking in the way that you have, we
found it most useful. Thank you very much for your time.