Examination of Witness (Questions 380
TUESDAY 4 DECEMBER 2001
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
(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
(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
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
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.
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
(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.
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
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.
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
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