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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220-239)



Mrs Ellman

  220. Do you think that the public are interested in processes and structures?
  (Ms Martin) I do not think so.
  (Mr Williams) I think they are only interested in the outcomes. One of the issues will be how scrutiny works, because reflecting what is said about the way in which decisions are taken, it is to what extent is there any kind of debate. We have a rather strange situation where the cabinet expected that a PFI initiative—all our high schools are going to a PFI initiative—would be debated in scrutiny, and therefore they only had a five-minute discussion apparently in cabinet; but when we tried to call it in, we were told that there had already been sufficient discussion; so there was not the level of debate that we would expect to have, which the public could come to, or lobby.

Mrs Dunwoody

  221. Do you have any way of overriding that decision, or appealing to anybody? What is the next bit of the machinery?
  (Mr Williams) It is in the evidence that I have given, as to what is a key decision and whether some level of scrutiny has already taken place. In that particular instance, there had been some discussion in a panel, but not the whole overview and scrutiny commission.
  (Ms Martin) I have to say that I do not think that would be the case with my council. We have only ever called something in once—what I would call a proper calling—to question a decision post the decision being made. In terms of the select committees, we are completely free to do whatever we want, and no-one is going to tell me, as chair of a select committee, that I cannot take a subject to my committee. There is no need for appeal: you just do it; but no-one is going to tell you not to.
  (Mr Sztumpf) We have had seven call-ins, some of them very large issues and some very small. We have got good experience of putting the process in to work. It is then how the process works. Scrutinising highly complex subjects such as, say, a partnership with an NHS trust, and the accountability and that kind of thing, is not easy because you are up against what is already a perceived decision by the largest group, and officers having to fall behind that. So scrutinising complex decisions is not easy. We have resorted to outside help, experts, and we have found that that works quite well. At the end of the day, the largest group closes ranks behind its decision. We have found on some occasions that the largest group did not even want to discuss it and just wanted to move on—although we got it on to the agenda paper quite easily.

Chris Grayling

  222. To what degree, in reality, can key decisions be taken at public debate? I have a sense from all of you that they are not. You might contradict me, but I have a sense that most are taken at private meetings of the ruling group. Is that inevitable or could it be done differently?
  (Mr Sztumpf) It could be done differently. We have only run it for six months, and in the first six months we have had to be very reactive to the administration group, to see what decisions they are making. It is a bit retrospective. They have to learn how to use the forward plan far better, to predict whether this will be an area of conflict, and find out what the policy development is at the moment—and that is not easy—and then get that called in. For instance, you could do it on school closure, just to return to that. Closing a school is a key decision, so therefore it would be in the forward plan. You know that it is going to be controversial because school closures are always controversial. You could look at that procedurally before the decision is made by the cabinet, and have some sort of input into that cabinet decision. That takes time to develop, and I think that will come in the future.

Sir Paul Beresford

  223. Is that the key deficit, that in the past you were able to make a decision and join in a discussion in open committee, whereas now, at best it is retrospective?
  (Mr Williams) I think that is right, Sir Paul. I think we are deluding ourselves if we think key decisions have never been taken in private previously, but at least there was the semblance of some kind of public debate.
  (Ms Martin) I think that is absolutely right. That, I think, is what the old hands on the council—those of us who have been there a while—and even new people miss; it is debate—and there is no debate. We were told that full council meetings were going to be the debating chamber, but they are not. We, as the main opposition group, tried to provoke debate by putting up motions and asking questions, but we get no response from the ruling group. We get what is usually the fairly bland response from the executive member, the portfolio holder, and everyone else just sits there. In the past, the debate was largely speaking through the service committees, and it was through those committees that members of the opposition felt they had some influence, and it was true to say that we did. Largely speaking, on my council, the politics are not particularly confrontational; we are really very consensual. Input would therefore change decisions and would influence other people on the committee. There is no opportunity for any of that any more. Our select committees very often take subjects in advance of them going to the executive, but it is extremely frustrating because (a) they are not bound to respond and to report, and (b) they are also free to totally ignore it.

Chris Grayling

  224. Are there things that you will do to improve flow of information to non-executive members of the council, and are there other things that—
  (Ms Martin) My group has recently reinstated the old spokesman system for that very reason. We now have a member of our group looking after a particular area, the idea being that they will have more contact with officers and take more account of executive papers and generally take an interest in that particular area, and brief the group on it. But this is an initiative of ours. The other issue where we have found a problem is that through the service committees there was a lot of informal contact with other members of the service committees and also with the officers, and that is now lost because there is nowhere that you can informally meet them and get to know who the officers are.


  225. You mean they all went drinking in the same pub before or after the meeting?
  (Ms Martin) Not quite, but you to know who they were by seeing them turn up to the committee meetings every time, and therefore you could approach them in the corridor or on the phone, or through the e-mail, in a way that you felt very informal about; whereas that does not exist any more.

Chris Grayling

  226. Councillor Williams, are there things you would do?
  (Mr Williams) There were given to the old service committees a number of "for information" reports, and those are just absent now to all members. That, of course, includes backbench members of the administration. I agree with what Councillor Martin says about the contact with officers. The actual absence of information—and to that extent the transparency of the information that is available to the executive when they are coming to a decision—is not there; at least, it is not there in my authority.

Mrs Ellman

  227. Can any of you think of any examples where the overview and scrutiny system does put some balance into this new executive-based system? I know some of you made some references in answer to an earlier question. Can you think of any areas where it does work in putting the balance back to the members?
  (Mr Williams) It works at the edges sometimes, but generally not to the central decision.
  (Ms Martin) That is right. To some extent, there is a dependence on the relationship between the chair of the scrutiny/select committee and the relevant portfolio holder. I am very fortunate in that I have a very good relationship with my portfolio holder; he comes to our select committee and asks us to look at stuff, but it is largely speaking fairly non-controversial. I do not think the scrutiny function per se works at all.
  (Mr Sztumpf) One area that has improved, in my opinion is this. Before, when you had committee meetings, they generally made policy. They did not really follow through how that policy would be implemented. Select committees can see a policy coming through and find out how that has been implemented. We had quite a confrontational one on, for instance, what the county council does to help people coming out of hospital, and what kinds of special aids we were giving. They looked into that, but it was really a member looking into what officers were doing. I have to say that it became confrontational, and the officer made a complaint about the chairman's behaviour. The chairman was from the ruling group.

  228. Who did the officer complain to?
  (Mr Sztumpf) The Chief Executive.

  229. What is in the constitution of your authorities to make the scrutiny or select committees findings have to be debated or listened to by a wider audience? Does it have to go anywhere? Is there any procedure that has to happen?
  (Mr Williams) It can go to full council, but in practice—and we ran with an experiment for about 15 months before going six months ago to the current arrangements—it is very rare that that happens.

  230. Who decides?
  (Mr Williams) I suppose in practice it is the chairman of the scrutiny commission, who is drawn from the majority group.
  (Mr Sztumpf) We used to have a procedure of minority reports, where one quarter of the Committee would like a minority report, and we may cut that quarter. We could bring it to full council, and we have used that once.
  (Ms Martin) We are free to do that, but largely speaking it tends to go to the executive.

  231. What about whipping, either formal or informal, on scrutiny and select committees? Is it unrealistic to think there will not be a whip system in operation one way or another?
  (Mr Williams) I have certainly seen quite a lot of dissent amongst ruling group members, but the perception is that the opposition are whipped, even if they are not, because they tend to be opposing the decision in the first place and are trying to draw allies from the controlling group. It is a rather bizarre situation sometimes; that you can get quite strongly-worded recommendations from Overview and Scrutiny that have relied on the support of dissident members of the controlling group; so to that extent there is not a visible whipping, but when it then gets back to the executive, they say, "ah-ha, but of course the opposition groups (curiously, unwhipped) have all voted the same way."

Sir Paul Beresford

  232. One council allows the opposition to set a full council agenda, even though there are only 10 out of 60. Would that help?
  (Mr Williams) I think it could. We have tried to set aside time for opposition debates of council, but they have been rather sterile to date.

  233. That could be your fault.
  (Mr Williams) Thank you! Actually, it is because of something that is a mistake, I think, in our constitution, and that is that we are allowed to debate, but we are not debating a motion.

Mrs Dunwoody

  234. That may have been picked up by the present Government.
  (Ms Martin) We debate motions, and we will debate items from the executive, but the whole thing rather falls on its face if you have no decision-making powers. It really does become just hot air.

Sir Paul Beresford

  235. If you were given the opportunity of going back to the old system, but modified in certain ways, for instance to speed up decisions and increase scrutiny, would you find that acceptable; and, if so, how would you do it?
  (Ms Martin) It would need to be considerably modified. There was no doubt that something needed doing because it was very cumbersome. For one thing, some of our committees were huge. Our education committee was nearly 30 people, with outsiders and what-not. Our select committees now are 11, which I think is about right for a sensible debate. I do not have an answer to what it should look like.

Ms King

  236. Councillor Williams, would you say that party politics forms an important part of overview and scrutiny, or do you think it can be lifted out of that?
  (Mr Williams) I suppose it depends on the issue. I agree with the witnesses here, that in the main, the business of the Council is not particularly political, but where there is controversy, the only place for that controversy to have a public airing tends to be in scrutiny.

  237. So you would not say that scrutiny necessarily has to rise above party politics.
  (Mr Williams) In an ideal world—and we are coming back to the previous question about how you would change things—scrutiny is one of the best bits of modernisation, and if you could take the politics out of it and leave politics in a committee, then that would be a good thing.

  238. How do you think the role of full council could be enhanced?
  (Ms Martin) I think it is very difficult if full council has no decision-making, and it does not any more, except with huge statutory plans which go through on the nod because nobody has read them. In the past, there were lively debates because lots of issues had to be either ratified, coming up from committees, or decided by a full council. In fact, the chairman of our council got confused the other day and asked us all to vote, and we all had to tell him that we could not because this was a decision. If you take away the decision-making power of the council, you really take the guts out of it.
  (Mr Sztumpf) I think council has to not just bolt on to something or enhance it, but I think it has to re-invent itself and go back to square one. We have to ask what we want council to do, what kind of council we want and how we would achieve that. We have bolted it on to the old system, which is now not working, and we have to go right back to scratch.

  239. Can I ask a question in relation to something we have had a lively discussion about in the past, which is around how the council can use its power to promote well-being. In your experience, has that been used?
  (Ms Martin) I do not think it is, to be honest. I think it is one of those things that is a jolly good slogan, and its heart is in the right place, but I am not sure what it means in practical terms. Our council feels that it might be implemented through our newly-formed local committees, but other than that I am not quite sure I know what it means, to be honest.

  Chairman: Local authorities or many years pioneered provisions of new services. It may be that there is no need for any new services, but does it not give councils the opportunity to go out and do things that traditionally local authorities have not done?


previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 11 July 2002