Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 380 - 399)

TUESDAY 4 DECEMBER 2001

RT HON NICK RAYNSFORD, MP

Mrs Dunwoody

  380. They should have total freedom to make up their own mind, as long as they make up their own mind on the things that you ask them to.
  (Mr Raynsford) We think it is right there should be a proper framework rather than a total freedom to select whatever systems of governance the authority thinks is appropriate. Having said that, let me just say, one of the main thrusts of our white paper is going to be about trying to give a greater degree of discretion to local government in all sorts of ways and I hope we can do that also in relation to government.

  381. What about scrutiny? How are the new cabinet structures going to improve scrutiny, particularly the single party rule?
  (Mr Raynsford) The experience of committees such as this one is very much a positive one, about the benefit of scrutiny.

  382. With respect, Minister, all parliamentary select committees are serviced by an independent group of parliamentary civil servants, that will not be available to scrutiny committees in local government. There is no provision at any point for scrutiny committees to get independent advice from officers who will, presumably, be double guessing their immediate superiors?
  (Mr Raynsford) There are obvious issues about lines of responsibility and avoiding conflicts of interest in local government. It is certainly our wish that scrutiny should apply in an effective way, with the opportunity for local authorities to make use of independent expertise in the same way as parliamentary select committees can in order to ensure that the executive is held properly to account.

  383. Have you suggested to them that they should set aside a number of their own officers to service scrutiny committees?
  (Mr Raynsford) We are keen, and we will say more about this in our White Paper, to encourage the scrutiny function in a way that really will ensure that there is an effective input from people outside who have a valuable contribution to make.

  384. With respect, Minister, I am not asking you about employing yet more consultants from outside, I am explaining to you that select committees in this House, as you well know, are supplied with their own clerks who are responsible to the House of Commons. Now, are you suggesting a similar suggestion?
  (Mr Raynsford) No, because local government does not operate in a similar structure where you have an entire separation between Parliament and government.

  385. In other words, they will not have access to independent advice unless it is paid for on an extra municipal basis.
  (Mr Raynsford) I have discussed the possibility of external advice. What I would say is I believe most local government officers are capable of acting in a responsible way and giving proper and considered advice to enable the scrutiny committee to fulfil its role properly and at the same time keep the executive under scrutiny.

Miss McIntosh

  386. What will you say to those people who previously were councillors serving a role on a committee equivalent to a select committee who now have no place in the scrutiny committee? They do feel very excluded.
  (Mr Raynsford) There are three broad functions you could define as the responsibility of councillors, one of which would be exclusive to those who are in the executive, which will be the responsibility for key decisions taken by the authority. A second will be the scrutiny role, which will be a very important one and the third is one that we all perform in our role, which is local representation. That will continue to be a hugely important role. I believe there will be more opportunity under the new framework for councillors to represent their local communities effectively, to be in touch with their electorate and to convey the concerns of their electorate to both the executive and those colleagues involved in scrutiny.

  387. Can you honestly say you have not received representation from those councillors who now feel they are unable to perform a more rewarding representative role?
  (Mr Raynsford) We have received lots of representations, some councillors are not happy with the new arrangement, others believe the new arrangement works very well. We want to allow the new arrangements time to bed in. These are quite important issues about how councillors are best advised in their scrutiny role, how they can do it effectively. There is a learning process. There is a lot of scope for learning from the best practice of other authorities to improve it and I would not for a moment say that we regard this as the end of process. We see this as an evolving process.

Mr Cummings

  388. I would be wrong in my assumption, Minister, that you totally set your face against any form of severance payment for councillors or, indeed, access to some form of pension scheme?
  (Mr Raynsford) We have recently consulted on opportunities for pensions for certain councillors, we certainly have not set our face against that. We do not at the moment have any proposals for severance payments.

Mrs Ellman

  389. Are you trying to replicate the role of the back bencher in Parliament at a local level?
  (Mr Raynsford) We are trying to reflect the fact there are these different responsibilities, the decision making responsibility, the scrutiny responsibility and the representation responsibility. We want to ensure that councils can operate effectively, can have a clear decision making process which is transparent, so the public know who is responsible, that they are held to account through a proper system of scrutiny and that the public can feel confident that their local representatives are free to give attention to their concerns. Too many councillors in the past complained about the fact that time that was spent attending committees made it very difficult for them to fulfil their representation role. We are hoping that the new arrangement will help to overcome that.

  390. Do you have in your mind the role of the back bencher in Parliament as a suitable model for a back bencher in local government?
  (Mr Raynsford) No. As I indicated in response to the chairman, the parliamentary model is inevitably different because the local authority is a corporate body as a whole and that is different to the framework in Parliament, where the government is a separate position in relation to Parliament and it does create a different framework of responsibilities. There are parallels because all of us, whether back benchers or front benchers, have local representation responsibilities with our constituents and that will certainly apply equally to councillors. Some also have executive responsibilities, and members of the government have that. There are parallels, but it is not an exact parallel, for the reasons I have already mentioned.

  391. Do you have any plans to reduce the number of local councillors?
  (Mr Raynsford) We have no plans as such to do so. I think it is right to say that authorities have in the course of looking at boundary changes and in the course of reviews have considered in some cases whether they could streamline and reduce the numbers, but we have no plans to impose that.

  392. Do you see local councillors as a nuisance?
  (Mr Raynsford) I certainly do not. I see local councillors as a very, very important part of our democratic structure and what we are trying to do is to help local councillors to do their job as effectively as they can to serve their communities and to get satisfaction out of doing that. We also want to try and attract more people to become councillors, because it is currently the case that in some areas the numbers of councillors are not terribly representative of, for example, ethnic minority groups or young people, and that probably is a mistake. We want to have a more representative local government.

  393. The messages that I and others receive from councillors, who are not cabinet members, in local authorities is that they feel increasingly disenfranchised, removed from decision making and that leads to great dissatisfaction. Would that concern you?
  (Mr Raynsford) I think we are in a transitional period and the process of change is unsettling, that is why it is always inevitable that some councillors will not feel happy about taking on new roles.

Mrs Dunwoody

  394. Are you discounting their views?
  (Mr Raynsford) We believe it is right that there should be a clear decision making process, which was not the case in the past, many decisions were taken in ways that the public could not understand either how the decision was taken or who was responsible for it.

Mr Cummings

  395. Can you give an example of it?
  (Mr Raynsford) Yes, I can, where decisions were taken in party group meetings, with no way in which the public had access to that and then rubber stamped in a committee, which ostensibly was the decision making place, but where everyone who went into the committee knew in advance what the outcome was going to be.

Mrs Dunwoody

  396. What is the difference between that system, where you think that is reprehensible, and what happens now when an executive can take a planning decision in principle but then leave the planning committee to deal with the conditions? What is the difference?
  (Mr Raynsford) It is a very proper division between the in principle decision, which has rightly been taken by the executive, and the detailed definition of a matter which had properly been considered by a planning committee, which is one of the committees that will continue to exist, as you know.

  397. That is extraordinary. You are complaining that decisions that were taken were not plain and now you are saying you could have an executive which takes overall decision, binds the planning committee in principle and then tells everyone else to sort it out.
  (Mr Raynsford) In just the same way as our recent consultation on the future of the planning system we proposed a framework on major infrastructure projects which could well be a case for Parliament to give an in principle decision, leaving the detailed issues of local protection and response to local concerns to be handled at the public inquiry. That is an entirely apposite parallel.

Mrs Ellman

  398. Why are the transparencies in decision taken within the cabinet?
  (Mr Raynsford) Because the cabinet are the people known to be people responsible for the decision.

  399. Where is the transparency about the decision taken by cabinet?
  (Mr Raynsford) The cabinet members are all known and identified as such


 
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