Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240-259)
CLLR DAVID WILLIAMS, CLLR PAUL SZTUMPF AND CLLR MAGGIE MARTIN
TUESDAY 7 MAY 2002
Sir Paul Beresford
240. If they can afford it.
(Ms Martin) If they can afford it, yes. That is the point. We struggle hugely, particularly in our social services area, which I would regard as one of them ain areas of delivery well-being. We cannot cope with what we are supposed to do now, never mind do anything else. My council has also always been at the forefront of forming partnerships within the county, and that has a lot to do with delivering well-being, if you are in partnership with the voluntary sector, with the health service and so on. We have always done that, and we are just doing it a little more than we used to.
(Mr Sztumpf) I think that is the right answer. That is how Essex would do it, as partners with people who are closer to the ground; so we would see ourselves as an enabling partner to smaller organisations or authorities.
(Mr Williams) It is not entirely clear to me at least what was in the minds of those who constructed the legislation in this respect. You had a go at me earlier!
241. They had difficulty too.
(Mr Williams) As I said in my witness statement, there is little understanding as to exactly what powers have been enabled.
242. Who appoints your chairman of scrutiny or your select committee chairman?
(Ms Martin) On my council, we have six select committees, two of which are chaired by the opposition, and those come obviously from the opposition groups; and the majority group appoints the others. They are done through political groups.
243. Is it the leadership that makes the appointments or the councils?
(Mr Williams) At a council meeting?
244. Yes. The analogy is that last summer there was a degree of fracas over some select committee chairmanship appointments and the House of Commons intervened and reversed some decisions that were taken. Was that wonderful precedent shared by your local authorities?
(Ms Martin) Ours is done through the political groups.
(Mr Williams) Likewise.
(Mr Sztumpf) Ours is done through groups, but there has to be a consensus to the others that they will be acceptable.
(Ms Martin) Yes.
245. Councillor Martin, you said that the process of setting this year's budget and council tax was inefficient and undemocratic. Was it more inefficient and undemocratic than under the whole system, and, if so, how?
(Ms Martin) I believe so, because under the old system the proposed budgets for each service area came to the service committee for debate and explanation. This did not happen this time because there are no service committees. The budget was presented on budget day by the majority group and there was virtually no debate because there had been no previous debate, so that most people had no idea what the budget meant and whether it was practical and what was needed, because it had not gone through a pre-process. In the select committee that I am on we did scrutinise the budget post hoc, which was not terribly useful. One of the other committees had tried to call it in for scrutiny pre the budget being set, but had been prevented from doing so by the majority group.
246. Councillor Sztumpf, you said that the budget this year was a little different in its process and presentation to previous budgets.
(Mr Sztumpf) It was more or less the same as before.
(Mr Williams) The budget process has perhaps been one of the more transparent things, and therefore one of the benefits of modernisation in our authoritycertainly the first year. This year, I am not quite so sure that it worked as well, and although there was a pre-decision scrutiny, we were told what had been considered for inclusion or exclusion, but we were not told what budget lines had not been considered, and nor were we given that information, so we were only playing at the edge.
247. Are there ways in which the expertise of councillors could be better used and developed?
(Ms Martin) I have a view about that. Under the old system, beneath the service committees we had a whole raft of working groups where it was very cross-party, and people worked on particular issues, and they usually, almost always, came to a consensus and sent that decision up to the main committee, where it was almost always ratified. That, to some extent, is where people learnt their trade. I believe that the overload that there is on portfolio holders, if that system was revived and portfolio holders had groups of members as a working group to help and support them, it would achieve two objects. It would use the skills that people have and would teach them skills that they do not have; and it would take the load off the portfolio holders.
(Mr Williams) That is called a committee, though, is it not?
248. Do you think the operation of your councils would be improved if you had what we would call the pre-legislative scrutiny, the opportunity to call in a decision before it is made by the executive, and maybe tender advice on what that decision could be?
(Mr Williams) We are certainly putting more and more into what is called pre-decision scrutiny. The panels look at a forward plan, and Overview and Scrutiny decides what is to be brought to pre-scrutiny and put that down to the panels; or the panels themselves can ask to take something into pre-decision scrutiny.
249. But you would keep the call-in arrangements.
(Mr Williams) There is still a call-in arrangement.
250. Pre and post decision scrutiny.
(Mr Williams) Correct.
251. Is that rather cumbersome?
(Ms Martin) We have always done it. Most of the work of my select committee is pre-scrutiny.
252. Would you see that as smoothing the operation of the council?
(Ms Martin) I do not know about smoothing the operation; it gives you an opportunity to express a view, which might or might not be listened to. I think that post hoc decision scrutiny is, largely speaking, a waste of time because once people have made up their minds they are hardly likely to go back on it. If you do it in advance of the decision, it is possible that you might have some influence.
253. What do you think of devolving further powers to area committees? From what we have heard so far, they would appear to be the salvation in the current system insofar as they had the power or responsibility to have backbench members.
(Mr Sztumpf) If you apply the philosophy of that, decisions should be made as close to the people as possible. That would work, and we would support that from that point of view. On the other hand, the legislation is supposed to bring in this personality side, that you know who is accountable for whatthe person rather than the committee. That would not work. You cannot have half a committee system and half of it being a member being responsible for specific areas.
(Ms Martin) I find this a difficult one. It has been my party's policy for many years, so I could not possibly disagree with it, but I think I said earlier that I am not sure how it fits with a two-tier authority, particularly since the county council is a strategic body. I know a lot of my fellow members are saying things like, "if I had wanted to be a borough councillor, I would have stood for the borough". Where you have a borough council, and in some areas a parish council and a town council, and then you have a local committee, I am flummoxed as to know quite how that is all going to be put together. We have just started the process, so we are about to find out.
254. Your objection is not philosophical but about how it would work and what the issues are.
(Ms Martin) That is right.
(Mr Williams) We are a unitary authority effectively and the area fora are just not structured to take that kind of decision. In fact, perhaps that is one of the problems; that they are fairly meaningless in terms of (a) who comes and (b) what the role of that forum is. It has no decision-making power and is only advisory.
255. Do area committees reflect the overall party control of the council, or do they merely have the local councillors on them? Do they have devolved budgets; and, if they are devolved budgets, are they on the needs of the area, or on the per capita basis?
(Ms Martin) Our local committees are on a borough basiswe have elevenand they are all the county councils for that borough, which may or may not reflect the overall composition. It is luck of the draw. We have devolved powers over highways and transport, and each member has a sum of money to spend on their own account. It is a sum of £17,500, as it happens. In order to spend that, you have to have the agreement of the rest of the local committee.
256. It is a kind of councillor slush fund.
(Ms Martin) Yes.
257. Do you feel handicapped by the legislation? If there is something you want to do, and hand power down, but you are handicapped or limited or constrained by what you perceive the legislation to be, is there something more you would like to do in that direction but do not feel licensed to do?
(Mr Sztumpf) Our council has not devolved any powers to the area fora, and they are quite big and still serve something like 300,000 people. It could take you a good hour to drive across the area, or more. We have not devolved any powers.
(Mr Williams) Likewise.
258. Are the local media taking more interest in the council than before?
(Ms Martin) Less.
259. I suppose the crunch question is: if you knew what was happening, would you still stand for the council?
(Mr Sztumpf) Yes, I would still stand for the council.
(Ms Martin) I would not.
(Mr Williams) Well, I just did! I have to say that a significant number of councillors of all political parties cited modernisation as a reason for not seeking re-election.
Chairman: Thank you very much for your evidence.