Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)
DAVID PANTER, ALEX BAILEY, CLLR JOHN PRICE AND CLLR JEAN EVANS
TUESDAY 23 APRIL 2002
20. But would I be right in saying, you have given us two sentences in your evidence so far related to this issue? One, you have said that your backbench councillors are not yet as persuaded as you are by the new system, they do not feel as involved in the new system as you do; you have also said that it would be challenging for anybody who was in full-time employment to be involved in the management of the Council in an executive role. Do you not think, therefore, that the new system is actually creating a disincentive to anybody who is in full-time employment to being a central part of their local authority, and is that not a loss to local government in this country?
(Cllr Price) First of all, you are expressing my answers as absolutes, and they are not. I said `some' councillors find it difficult, in both cases, quite frankly; some councillors are detached, I have to say some councillors were always detached, people are there for all sorts of different reasons. To be a cabinet member, you need a fair degree of commitment, that is for sure; to be able to be a person involved in scrutiny properly, that also involves, as Jean will tell you, Jean has led a best value review, and works, and maybe you should draw on her experience directly, rather than mine. There would be some loss to local government, undoubtedly, but then there always was; we lose a lot of people to up here.
21. How much do your executive members get paid, as allowances?
(Cllr Price) Not enough. In our case, I think the basic is £3,000, something like that.
22. So, actually, being realistic and taking a financial perspective, it would actually be, from what you are saying, impossible for anybody who was in full-time employment to be an executive member and survive financially? What I am getting at is that this seems to me, from what you are describing, to be a huge block to a sizeable proportion of the population, given that the majority of the adult population is in employment, to become involved in local authorities. Is that not a great disadvantage for our local authorities?
(Cllr Price) Certainly, increasingly, we are moving towards a time when councillors need to be full-time, need to be paid, at certain levels; but, given that the compensation for councillors is fixed, by independent bodies, generally, until such time as that is acknowledged, at that level, that is not going to happen. It was always the case, and I have been in local government 30 years, that the people who have had the time to do it were either retired, farmers, self-employed, drawn from that strata of society, and local government suffered as a consequence of that; we have moved away from that. We are not to where we should be yet; but, as I said, Jean is a lead on scrutiny and works full-time.
23. In which case, how much of the executive decision-making is done collectively, how does the decision-making happen, what is the balance between the executive collectively, the individual portfolio holders and the individual officers, particularly given what you are talking about, becoming sort of semi-full-time?
(Cllr Price) At the moment, in Chester, all decisions are taken collectively, on the recommendation of the portfolio holder, who presents his, or her, paper to Cabinet, having had long discussions with the lead officers, the chief executive in the area concerned. Now whether we do actually move to more delegation remains to be seen, but we have only been going six months; what we have got works quite well, in my view, and there is openness all the time.
24. A final question, if I may. Do we have too many councillors, do we actually need, with these new structures, as many councillors as we have got; and I would be interested in both your sets of views?
(Cllr Price) I am tempted to draw on the French experience, but, after this week, perhaps not. In France, every small town, village, has a council. I think the closer you can get to the people the better, quite frankly, and therefore I do not think you can have too many councillors, it just depends how the councils are organised.
(Mr Panter) In our particular case then we have already been found to have too many councillors, because at our local elections next May we are reducing from 78 to 54, as a result of the Boundary Commission review about the changes to boundaries and numbers of members per ward; and we have had to design our new committee system on the basis of those 54 members, rather than the current 78, so that we have got a system which is viable after those changes. But we are very anxious about that, because, again, given the nature of our new, improved, committee system, it does require a lot of all our members, in terms of time commitment, etc., in exchange for a basic allowance; and that has been a modifying factor, in terms of how many committees and what their size is, and therefore what their remit is going to be.
25. Just following through, very briefly, on the points that have just been made, could I just ask both of you, in your own Councils, how many cabinet members are actually currently pursuing independent professional careers, outside politics; any?
(Mr Panter) We have two, certainly, out of our eight.
26. And Chester?
(Cllr Price) Three, I think; one is between jobs.
(Cllr Evans) Can I say, also, on that, about this whole question of whether people can pursue their independent careers, and thinking of portfolio holders rather than myself, though it applies also to me, as a member, my husband is the Deputy Leader of Chester City Council and was a full-time teacher in higher education. He has an unusually enlightened management structure in the college he works in, and they got together and worked out a deal whereby he works for them three days a week and he works for Chester City Council two days a week.
27. That does rather depend on the individual employer taking a particularly enlightened attitude, yes?
(Cllr Evans) Yes. What I would have liked to say though is that I think we are all tending to assume that there is no way of making people more enlightened. I would suggest that one of the things Government ought to lead on is trying to persuade employers to be more enlightened about these things.
28. So a question, briefly, just on this area, just a `yes' or `no' answer will do, has the issue of members' remuneration been a political hot potato, either within the council or locally?
(Cllr Price) Locally; because one political party, I will not name it, chose so to do, even though they benefited from the increase which they negotiated.
29. And Brighton?
(Mr Panter) No.
30. With regard to Brighton, you ran the pilot scheme; is there anything you have learned from it that you did not expect, that you did not expect to know and did you find that out? Some of the consequences are easily anticipated, are they not?
(Mr Panter) I think the key learning point goes back to an earlier answer around the potential for the dynamics between the chief officers and the respective portfolio holders, how that relationship develops potentially differently from how it used to develop.
31. Can I press you a little on that. One thing you could say of the new system, in the old days an officer just needed to impress a whole committee, now they need to impress one amenable individual, really. Has it led to an increase in power for the officers within the authority?
(Mr Panter) I think that it has not led necessarily to an increase in power, but I do think it has led to a lack of challenge, on some occasions.
32. Going on to the scrutiny and executive split, you say, in your evidence, well, Brighton says in its evidence anyway, that it is a somewhat adversarial model, and one can understand why, really, because, particularly if there is one party in control and there is a majority group on a council, they are reluctant to call in decisions made by their leaders. What do you think could be done to make it less adversarial, in appearance, anyway? A scrutiny decision to call in is often seen as fighting back against the executive, is it not?
(Mr Panter) I think the way in which we are now going to take forward scrutiny, in the new system, will make it less adversarial, because we are deliberately trying to construct it in a way which is ensuring that the questions for scrutiny are helpful in improving the overall process; and because our new committee system is cross-party
33. What does that mean, exactly; does it mean you are trying to influence the quality of questions that are asked by scrutiny?
(Mr Panter) No. I think it is about trying to maximise the benefit from the scrutiny process.
34. And who has the responsibility for framing those questions?
(Mr Panter) It is led by the member, or members, concerned, but my Director of Strategy and Governance, as the monitoring officer, will advise them about what the construction of that question might be.
35. And what would be his relationship to the officers whose work was being scrutinised; they would be part of the same administration, there is not an independent scrutiny support system?
(Mr Panter) No; not in that sense.
36. Of the work done by the scrutiny committee, what percentage of it basically is examining executive decisions made on the day by the executive, and what percentage of it is just general review, looking at general areas of council operation?
(Mr Panter) In our experience, during the shadow period, it has been largely around specific decisions.
37. Cllr Price, do you feel any trepidation about what an overview and scrutiny committee might be doing?
(Cllr Price) Not trepidation, I sometimes get a concern that maybe they are just following their own route, to no particular purpose, and certainly there have been some examples of that; so, not trepidation. We use scrutiny, amongst other things, actually to create policy and to offer policy to the cabinet, which has not been mentioned previously.
38. Has the committee ever challenged anything that your cabinet has done?
(Cllr Price) We have had no call-ins yet; certainly, we have been called to account, all portfolio holders report periodically to the review bodies. We have six review bodies, and with an overarching review committee, and it is that committee that sets the role and work, to a lesser extent or to a greater extent, of what the scrutiny bodies do, but they can actually go anywhere they wish.
39. Are you telling us then that the scrutiny bodies in Chester have never challenged decisions of the executive?
(Cllr Price) Not by using a call-in; they have certainly challenged us.