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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 315-319)




  315. Can I welcome you to the third session this morning and ask you to identify yourselves for the record, please?
  (Cllr Slack) My name is Tony Slack, I am a County Councillor from East Sussex County Council.
  (Cllr Brant) My name is Councillor Paul Brant, I am a Labour councillor in opposition at Liverpool City Council and the shadow spokesperson for the environment.

  (Cllr Theodoulou) I am Raymond Theodoulou, and I am a Conservative councillor at Gloucestershire County Council.

  Chairman: Do any of you want to say anything by way of introduction, or do you want us to go straight into questions? Straight into questions.

Chris Grayling

  316. Do you think, in each of your authorities, that the role of the back-bencher has changed as a result of the new arrangements?
  (Cllr Brant) I certainly do, yes. In the past the back-bench has always had the ability in the case of a controversial decision to require it to be decided by the full council, effectively by using the process the committee structure operated under. Now there are three principal ways that they are excluded. The first of them is that if they are in the administration there is heavy pressure on them not to use the public structures to scrutinise decisions; they come under Political (with a big P) pressure not to embarrass the administration, and in Liverpool we have elections in three out of every four years, so political embarrassment is something which the administrations wants to avoid. Secondly, the leader has powers under his "urgent" decision-making process to take, effectively, delegated decisions himself which are not subject to any call-in process and are reported purely to the next full City Council, which has no powers to scrutinise, they are merely reported. I mention in my short note a very important example which is still going on in our City, where one of the contractors involved in the repairs service has had its contract terminated. We, as the opposition members, got to hear rumours that this was being contemplated through the tenants' organisations—nothing through the administration—and the only report that came to full City Council was, as I have described it, that a course of action was agreed in relation to a contract. Frankly, that told us absolutely nothing about to whom they were referring, what contract and what course of action. The third way that we are excluded is because of the definitions of the decisions, which are described as either full City Council decision, an area committee-type decision, or a ward decision. Because of the nature of the political composition, we tend to end up with members from just one political party representing one ward. Consequently, there may be a highly controversial decision suggested for one geographical ward area which people wish desperately to have discussed, but because the three members for that ward are administration members it means you have got no way of calling it up unless you have got a maverick in that ward who is prepared to do it, and it happens very rarely. That means it goes through on the nod.

  317. Cllr Slack, do you share the same view?
  (Cllr Slack) I have a different perspective, really. I actually think that the way that it has been handled within my county council has been particularly transparent and all members have been involved in the evolvement of modernisation from the word go. I think there are two groups: there is a group of councillors who prefer the old committee system, but I think the majority of people prefer some of the aspects of modernisation but, particularly, scrutiny. That has enabled back-benchers, if they wanted to—and it depends on the attitudes of individuals, obviously, in everything that we do—to develop new skills, to use their past experience as well, to get closer to some of the services that are being delivered and just be much better informed through close working with members from opposition groups much more than happened in the past, and working closely with the whole variety of officers. So I have a different perspective, I think there is a great deal of potential to be achieved, and I think it is the best situation.

  318. Cllr Theodoulou, you are a new councillor. Has the current system created an environment in which your expectations of your role as a councillor has been met, or not?
  (Cllr Theodoulou) I think that if you are a member of a scrutiny committee or if you are nominated by your party to shadow, as I was fortunate to be, by the leading members of the cabinet you feel that you may have more—influence is probably the wrong word, but you will become more involved in the workings of the council. Also, it brings you into much closer contact with the officials than might otherwise happen. If you are, however, not in that category—you are not a member of a scrutiny board and not a shadow—then I think you might well feel that you are left out of the process altogether. That seems to be the case from conversations I have had with members of the ruling group as well as my own party. There is considerable frustration at the lack of involvement. I was just looking at one of the motions which we had which went to our council, where one of our members put up a motion "This Council deplores the fact that this motion, like all others, will be referred to the cabinet and consequently the principal democratic forum of the county is denied the opportunity to debate the topical issues of the day and the democratic process is thereby blunted and frustrated." I do not think that is untypical. He is rather more vocal than others, but I think many people would see echoes there of the lack of participation which they feel. I cannot speak for the old system but when we were elected most of the people, I think, knew the old system, and so I think there are a lot of people who feel a bit left out.

  319. Do you all have the sense that decisions were taken by the new structures within your authorities? I guess you were not there to see them, Cllr Theodoulou, but, Cllrs Slack and Brant, public consultations were carried out to shape the decision-making and taken about the approach to adopt. Were those consultation processes substantial enough to create a proper foundation for what has happened?
  (Cllr Slack) I think they did their best. I do not think people get particularly excited about the structures and what is going to happen, unfortunately, out in the real world. From my own perspective, members were encouraged to actually talk to people that they knew within their catchment area and talk to the town and district councillors as well. I am pleased to say that one of things that happened is that the county council has what they call a county-wide publication and the structures and plans were included in there, with an opportunity to respond. Organisations were consulted—voluntary and business. It sounds grand but it was a very small percentage that actually responded, I am quite sure. So people were encouraged to take an interest, there was a response and the response was for a leader/cabinet sort of approach. There were series' of press releases as well. So they tried, but it was not really a true test, in all honesty.
  (Cllr Brant) Can I come in on that? What happened in Liverpool was something which I think was quite interesting, in that before the current regime of executive members came in there was an attempt to change the old committee structure, and the way that decisions were processed was that everything was posted as a decision for full council and it was not called in under the old regime, it went to a delegated powers committee, which was politically balanced etc. That enabled one of the key advantages, I think, under the new system to be obtained under the old system, which was that the 95 per cent of decisions which are non-controversial went through within a couple of weeks, and it meant that those on the outside who wanted to see a decision go through quickly saw it happen. However, where there was a form of controversy or greater scrutiny required, any member of council (I think it was five members) could call it up and make sure that it went through, in effect, the old committee structure, up to the main committee and then to the full council. So the change we had between that system and the current one is not so different, except that the originators now are executive members of the decisions themselves (?).


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