Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)
ANDREW WHETNALL, PAUL ROWSELL AND PETER MURPHY
TUESDAY 23 APRIL 2002
140. I am sorry, I did not understand that, as an answer to the question; maybe too vague.
(Mr Whetnall) Sorry.
141. But under what circumstances is it sensible for best value not to be a part of those committees?
(Mr Whetnall) I was trying to say that both the executive and the overview and scrutiny committees would contribute, in a review situation, so I do not think either side is excluded, and, indeed, value should be added by both.
142. Before coming to the area of key decisions, can I unburden myself of a nagging anxiety in almost all the answers you have given so far. In a sense, you have brought forward a piece of legislation, and you have been pressed by various Members as to the criteria for the success of that legislation, whether it is the local elections, or whatever, and people have cited things like the disenchantment of backbench councillors, and you have cited that not all of them are disenchanted; but, clearly, there must come a point when the exercise must be assessed against certain criteria. Now, not necessarily now but would it be possible for you to spell out what are the criteria for the success of this particular legislation, and also tell us what plans you have got to assess whether it has been successful, or not, and what plans you have got to produce quantitative, accurate data that would help us, in that respect?
(Mr Whetnall) May we respond partly to that question by sending you use the specification for the research I have mentioned. It is quite a substantial document, but, if you are concerned about enumerated and quantified impact, I think you will find that is covered in the ambitions of that research commission, very recently let.
143. And by when is that to be completed?
(Mr Whetnall) It is in two, or more, phases, and, I think, there is an initial phase, which would pick up things like whether councillors feel happy with the system they are operating; but the outcome and impact analysis has a second phase, which is well down the track, to see whether it has made a difference.
144. Yes, but when does the track end?
(Mr Whetnall) From memory, it is a five-year project, I think.
145. So really you are not going to know whether, in Government's terms, this is a success or failure for another five years?
(Mr Whetnall) We are going to have all kinds of mileposts you could regard as indicators; you have mentioned yourself the way performance moves on, people voting, and we have also got the annual best value performance information.
146. So you are going to let us have a note on the contract; could you perhaps then give us a note about the milestones as well?
(Mr Whetnall) Yes.
147. The key decisions. Are not key decisions slightly unnecessary, if not utterly vague, really, because councils are going to do one of two things, either they are going to produce very bland statements of what they are going to do, or get themselves into a lot of trouble by producing decisions which may be controversial and publishing them well in advance?
(Mr Rowsell) The point on key decisions, the concept on key decisions, that is identifying those things which are significant and making
148. Meaning? Can I press you on exactly what is significant?
(Mr Rowsell) The definition of key decisions, there is, if you like, a two-tier definition. In broad terms, the definition of a key decision is one which is significant in terms of expenditure or income above certain thresholds, and it is for each council to choose what those thresholds are and to publish it, so that people know what counts as significant, in terms of money. And, secondly, something which is significant, even if it is not in terms of money, in terms of the effect it has on the local community.
149. Could I press you on the second thing, because that is, you said, a subjective decision made by the council and you could imagine disgruntled residents, who are confronted with a decision made suddenly, arguing that it ought to have been a key decision and published well in advance. Are you not really opening up a new sort of sphere of litigation and discontent?
(Mr Rowsell) It is not a sphere, I think, of litigation. The argument about how prescriptive we should be in relation to key decisions, how much we should specify in legislation and secondary legislation, or in guidance, and how much we should leave for the councils to have discretion to decide, was one of the issues which was debated very sharply during the passage of the legislation, and in particular during the passage of the secondary legislation which set up the information requirements. And the Government sought to strike a balance between being prescriptive and allowing discretion at the local level. And the safeguard at local level, is that, if a council, if an executive member, or the executive, as it were, misbehaves and treats something which should be key as not key, then there are the processes of scrutiny, of accountability, of democracy, within that local authority.
150. But would you not accept that it is likely to produce extremely bland initial noises of councils' intent. To use an analogy, Mr Brown would say, "I wish to improve the Health Service," he would not say, three months in advance, "I wish to improve the Health Service by putting up the rate of National Insurance." Now, clearly, if that is a view that central government will take, that is a view that local government will take, they will not be specific in their key decisions, they will be bland pieces of intent?
(Mr Rowsell) If the published statement of key decisions appeared overly bland, this is a public statement, one could imagine that the opposition on that council, indeed, even some members of, as it were, the party of the executive, might well, in the public meetings, be making points about that; it does not operate in isolation.
151. It would not stop them being bland though, would it?
(Mr Rowsell) It would not stop an attempt at being bland, but then they may well run into trouble and controversy and attack within the democratic processes of the council.
Dr Pugh: I do not think bland is ever controversial.
152. Do you agree that the power to promote social, economic and environmental well-being was one of the most important parts of the Act?
(Mr Whetnall) I think so, yes. It was a significant extension of councils' vires, and it was hoped that it would remove a lot of doubt about whether councils had powers to do particular things by its general nature.
153. And how is it being used?
(Mr Whetnall) That is a bit more difficult to monitor. If one of the impacts is that lawyers within councils are less often able to raise doubts and difficulties, whether there are vires for a particular action, then that would not necessarily be visible to us.
154. Just give us sort of five good examples of where it has been used in the last 12 months?
(Mr Whetnall) I cannot do that, because councils are not reporting on the way they are relying on the power. One example, and you will say this is too general, is that it enables them to approach with much more confidence the cross-cutting activities, the activities where they are sharing with partners, and the way they are delivering action collectively rather than on their own account.
(Mr Murphy) Could I add to that, from my experience; in a two-tier system, for example, where some things, in the past, are hotly debated as to whether they are an issue that should be debated in a district council, or not, and things that clearly have a social, environmental or economic impact on the community; one example would be, for instance, the closure of small village schools. What I often find is, the debate on a closure of a particular village school in the district council, in the past, would kick off with a long debate about whether we, as not being the education authority, should be debating this, or not debating this, and, often, the people who would not want to debate it usually would be the political party in power at the other tier of government, who may have taken the decision. So it is not a party political point; my experience has been, the point is made, whichever political party is going to see itself as getting an advantage there.
155. Have any local authorities applied to the Secretary of State under Section 5?
(Mr Whetnall) I do not think we have got formal applications; there are discussions, especially in the context of Local Strategic Partnerships, that might lead to action on Section 5, but it may be an indication that local authorities are not coming forward saying "Here is a very particular thing we want you to fix." The exception to that is charging, where a lot of authorities felt that the restrictions in Part I of the Act around raising money were causing difficulties, and the response to that will be movement on an order, allowing a general power to charge on discretionary functions.
156. So have I understood that you are not concerned about the lack of use, because you would not be able to measure the use?
(Mr Whetnall) It is not that, it is just if we do not have very specific proposals to act on we are in some difficulty; but we are certainly open to proposals, and, as I say, Local Strategic Partnerships may well produce some proposals.
157. Coming to the issue of members' code of conduct, is not this just another example of the Act not having a great deal to do with enhancing local democracy but being interested more in trying to ensure that members behave and conform to a set pattern of behaviour?
(Mr Whetnall) I do not think I agree with that. There was a code before, it was quite a complex one, it had a large body of interpretation. What we have now is a code which we hope is clearer, it has been consulted on extensively, and, by the process of adoption by local councils, it should resolve any doubts there were around issues previously.
158. Have they all adopted the code now, all councils?
(Mr Whetnall) The deadline is 5 May, so the reporting is not quite complete, but, the last we heard from the Standards Board, the processing seems to be well on the way.
159. And what happens if they do not?
(Mr Whetnall) If they do not adopt the code, there is a sort of provision that the Model Code will apply automatically, and members, after the adoption of the code, have two months to sign up, to say they accept it.