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



Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-299)

DR RACHEL ASHWORTH AND MR STEWART DOBSON

TUESDAY 7 MAY 2002

Chairman

  280. What do you call a very low response rate?
  (Dr Ashworth) It would be 10 per cent or 20 per cent maximum for some authorities.
  (Mr Dobson) For our consultative ballot we got 31 per cent.

  281. How much did that cost?
  (Mr Dobson) Just over 200,000.

Chris Grayling

  282. How successful have you been in Birmingham in generating some kind of community interest in what has happened in the new structures? It sounds as though you have not really dented it yet.
  (Mr Dobson) It would be wrong, frankly, to claim that interest has increased as a result of the introduction of the new arrangements I really do not think the people of Birmingham are either more or less interested than they were before. Certainly, there is a strong interest in the devolution proposals, which are quite separate; but the introduction of the executive and scrutiny arrangements has not led to any increase or decrease. We have a number of examples where overview and scrutiny committees, as part of their work, have sought to engage the public to contribute to the views of particular areas of council activity, and that has been reasonably successful—but then that could and did take place before the new arrangements.

  283. Do you have a sense of what the consequence will be for the kind of person who stands for local government—the kind of people who are getting in you council as members, or the kind of people that you have a sense are coming forward now for a future in local government?
  (Mr Dobson) Speaking from my own observation, the dissatisfaction on the part of a significant number of members is a worrying feature in terms of the messages that they will give out about their role on the council. We will have to see whether implementation of the devolution proposals will help. At the other extreme there is the opportunity, but only for a limited number, to be what in Birmingham is very much a full-time cabinet member, on what is, compared with past rates of allowances, quite reasonable remuneration. We have extremes, as it were.

  284. Does that not make it impossible for somebody who has a job to aspire to do anything in local government?
  (Mr Dobson) If their ambition is to finish up as a member of the cabinet, yes, they will have to make a choice.

  285. Is that not, therefore a loss? In Birmingham, surely your local authority has over decades, perhaps more so the further back you go in time, had the great and good of Birmingham from time to time participating in your authority; but by definition, that cannot happen any more?
  (Mr Dobson) I think that is right. I have worked for Birmingham for 13 years, and throughout that period there have been a small number of full-time members, the former leading committee chairs. That number, now that we have a cabinet of 10, has increased somewhat; but you are right. I find it very difficult to see how anyone could carry out one of those roles and also be employed . . .

Sir Paul Beresford

  286. Is that in part because the members are encroaching on the officers' playground, if you like?
  (Mr Dobson) I do not think so. That was an issue that we openly discussed at the introduction of the arrangements, and the principle strongly endorsed by the leader was that the introduction of the arrangements did not signal any change in the managerial role. It did not make the cabinet members the managers of departments, et cetera, and that was clearly established. We have not had any serious problems of cabinet members, as it were, seeing themselves as taking over a significant part of the chief officer's role.

  287. There is presumably a very close relationship between the cabinet and senior officers. One of the things that concerned the Committee when the Bill went through was that that could lead to opportunity for corruption. I am not pointing at Birmingham at all, but I am saying there has been corruption in local government in the past and it would be easier for it to happen with the new system.
  (Mr Dobson) Possibly so. To guard against that, we have put a lot of effort into protocols about the relationships between members and officers, and in that we deal specifically with the relationship between a cabinet member and the relevant chief officer. In many cases, cabinet members do not have a one-to-one relationship with an individual chief officer; their portfolio will touch upon the work of more than one department. Another provision we have, which is relevant to one of the earlier questions, is that we have an arrangement whereby a very senior officer from the most relevant department acts as the adviser to the overview and scrutiny committee. For instance, the overview and scrutiny committee that has the education service within its remit has the deputy chief education officer as its principal adviser.

Chairman

  288. That must encourage him to ask awkward questions of the director of education, must it not?
  (Mr Dobson) We had a few concerns about the arrangement when it was introduced. It has however worked in the main quite well. The important thing is that it gives the overview and scrutiny committee somebody with knowledge and status to elicit information, et cetera.

Mrs Dunwoody

  289. Has there been an occasion when there has been some clear division between the scrutiny committee and the people working in the top of the education sector?
  (Mr Dobson) No, there has not so far.

  290. So it is not quite true to say that it is working perfectly well; it is working perfectly well at the moment.
  (Mr Dobson) Yes, so far.

Chris Grayling

  291. On the issue of party politics and scrutiny, what is the situation in Birmingham as regards the presence of opposition and ruling group councillors within the scrutiny process? Can you both give us a sense of whether you feel that scrutiny only works if opposition councillors chair the scrutiny committees?
  (Dr Ashworth) Some of the earlier evidence suggests that some of the most successful committees are chaired by opposition members. That is not to say that the ruling party group members do not have a role as chair, particularly some of the experienced, longer-serving councillors, have been the ones that have taken to scrutiny in that they have performed their role as chair very robustly. It is not always essential, but it does help to enhance the scrutiny and provide opposition members with a role, given the arrangements.
  (Mr Dobson) All the Birmingham overview and scrutiny committees are currently chaired by the majority group. That was a matter of considerable controversy when the new constitution was adopted, but that is the present position. However, what has developed over time is a body of members who are not just the chairs of the overview and scrutiny committees, but some other members as well who spend most of their time on the scrutiny side; and from both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats, two or three members have emerged who are very influential in influencing what scrutiny looks at and how it sets about its task.

Mrs Ellman

  292. Dr Ashworth, in your written evidence you quote from research you have done which states very clearly the importance of the people advising scrutiny and overview committees having adequate independence and resources. Given that, surely it is entirely inappropriate for a deputy chief officer, whoever it is in any authority, to be advising the scrutiny committee in that same service department. What would your views be on that?
  (Dr Ashworth) Yes, I think that is part of the problem. Members very much perceive that officers, whilst they are being very helpful and supportive, have got a dual role to play because they are not necessarily always receiving the best sort of independent and technical advice. Also, officers are dividing their time now between the executive and the scrutiny function. Other authorities do have dedicated scrutiny officers, as I have said, who are often very junior and they are accountable up through to the Chief Executive. In some authorities that we are looking at the scrutiny officers are accountable to the chair of the overall scrutiny committee; they are not accountable to the Chief Executive, so members there feel they have got a little bit more independence. In some authorities they are modelling select committee systems, sometimes with former clerks from Parliament, and that, they felt, helped strengthen their independence. It is very difficult, particularly for small authorities, to expect them to operate like a mini-Parliament with a divide between the executive and scrutiny.

  293. Is it possible for a scrutiny and overview committee to be truly effective if it is serviced by the same people who service the executive and the decisions being scrutinised?
  (Dr Ashworth) It would depend on the officer involved, I suppose. The scrutiny officer is, basically, helping to devise programmes of investigation, agendas and that kind of thing. So I would think it would be better to have independent scrutiny officers - although I take your point about the education officer being a senior member within the organisation - somebody with an entirely different agenda should be running the scrutiny function.

  294. Are there any examples of where scrutiny officers are from outside the authority?
  (Dr Ashworth) No. Most are from a group within the legal service department. There are a couple of cases where former House of Commons clerks have been recruited to authorities, so they have had no local government background but they have scrutiny experience.

  295. Mr Dobson, what would your comments be on this, not in terms of any individuals involved but in terms of the principles of this; of access to independent advice which does not depend on gaining support from the executive?
  (Mr Dobson) I think one of the most important principles here is that officers of the council work for the entire council, which includes both the executive and overview and scrutiny. Just to add a little bit more detail about the arrangements that we have, we have established two small teams, one called the cabinet office the other called the scrutiny office, and they are made up of council officers, mainly on secondment from various departments who provide support for individual cabinet members and for the chairs of the overview and scrutiny committees. They are seen very much as independent, they do not form part of any council department at all. In line management terms, they report direct to me, and they have the task of doing quite a lot of the devilling on behalf of either cabinet members or scrutiny chairs. Going back to the point I made about our education scrutiny committee, we did feel that to enable each overview and scrutiny committee to do its work effectively it needed to have—and we call them link officers—a senior officer from the area of council activity that was at the heart of their remit to advise them, to guide them through that area and, in particular, to make sure that they had access to all the information held by that department in relation to anything that they were looking at. So we have got a mixture of some independent, dedicated people but, also, senior people from the key service departments.

  296. What would the resource implications be if there was guidance that said scrutiny committees should seek advice and service support from outside the authority?
  (Mr Dobson) With our arrangements we have seen an increase in the number of occasions when external consultants have been commissioned to help with a piece of review work. That is happening more frequently than it used to. When we set up the scrutiny arrangements we did establish a small budget to pay for external independent research. That budget is now under very great pressure. So, if by legislation or guidance, we were to take further steps saying that independent advice ought to be the norm, that would have very considerable resource implications.

  297. In those circumstances, who recommends the consultants to be appointed and decides who they might be? Do you have a select committee?
  (Mr Dobson) The council has one set of procurement rules, so they would go through those same rules, but they would make the final choice.

Ms King

  298. I just wanted to pick up on Chris Grayling's earlier point about the full-time nature of the job for influential councillors precluding people who have other jobs. Does that not mean that under this new system if we want high-calibre people we are simply going to have to pay more than we currently do, or not?
  (Mr Dobson) I do not have the details of the national picture, but I imagine that we have already seen a very considerable increase in the amount being spent on members' allowances across the country as a result of the introduction of these arrangements.

  299. Is that going to be sufficient to maintain the type of people that we have had in the past with the new arrangements meaning they cannot hold down another job? In your view, is that sufficient?
  (Dr Ashworth) I would say the feedback I have had from members has been very critical about the level of allowance cabinet members have compared to ordinary members. Again, they are using this phrase "parity of esteem" and some authorities, like Birmingham, have to a certain degree in some circumstances equalised the allowances for cabinet members and chairs of scrutiny committees.

 


 
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