Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320-339)
COUNCILLOR TONY SLACK, COUNCILLOR PAUL BRANT AND COUNCILLOR RAYMOND THEODOULOU
TUESDAY 7 MAY 2002
320. That is a fundamental difference, is it not?
(Cllr Brant) It is, I agree. I have tried not to be too negative about it. I did say one of the main advantages of the new system is that the speed of decisions on the uncontroversial matters is very much quicker, but in my view that could be obtained with a tweaking of the old system and we could retain a lot of the benefits of the old system of scrutiny. When it came to implementing the cabinet leader model, there were powerful members of the Liberal Democrat group who were vociferously opposed to an elected mayor and made it plain throughout the whole discussion of the council that "over their dead bodies", effectively, was it ever going to happen. Although the leader of the Liberal Democrat group was quite in favour of itI cannot imagine whyin the end he was forced by his own group not to go down that line. There was a public consultation, there was a very low response rate, and it was fairly equivocal. Surveys that were done by an independent group suggested that the majority of people in Liverpool would have liked to have seen an elected mayor model, and then of course you get into questions about how well do they understand the implications of what they are deciding and that kind of thing, which was the reason why, in the end, the administration railroaded the cabinet leader model through and are still vociferously opposed to any elected mayor model.
Chris Grayling: Your view is that the ruling group, therefore, sat on the popular desire of the people?
321. Of course, Mr Grayling would not want you to regard that as tendentious.
(Cllr Brant) Put it this way, they did not want to risk getting the wrong answer.
322. The theory of the current system is that back-benchers work with the community and executive members make decisions. How satisfactory a division is that?
(Cllr Brant) Back-benchersand, indeed, all councillors, in my viewshould be working with the community. In Liverpool, certainly, the area committees have no devolved budget and have no decision-making powers. Therefore, you might get a ward councillors coming along and saying "I want to have, say, traffic calming in my area", and the committee says "Yes, we agree it", everyone votes in favour of it and the decisions disappears down a black holeabsolutely nothing happens. There is no budget associated with the committee and there is no power associated with the committee, so you tend to end up with the well-informed community groups turning up to lobby the area committee. I would say there has been a gradual falling off of people who have been attending them because they feel they are not engaged in the decision-making process and they realise that if they want to get budgets and influence and powers they have to talk to the executive members. So my concern is that we are being cast somewhat in a supine role and we could end up, in fact, alienating people from the democratic process if they feel that we are there as a puppet, really.
(Cllr Theodoulou) Can I respond to Mr Grayling's point? I think we had a failure of process in Gloucestershire and that undermines the legitimacy of what we have set up. As I said, I am a new member so I can, perhaps, see these things rather differently from others, but the consultative process managed to get 6,000 odd votes cast, or ticks on pieces of paper (we do not know who put these ticks on the pieces of paper but they came in). It was quite expensive, I believe. They did try to do a widespread radio and press release, but at the end of the day they made up their minds because 6,000 people out of 340,000 of the electorate actually put a tick on a piece of paper. Of those 6,000, 4,000 voted for the present system. So 4,000 people out of 340,000 decided which system we have. I think, personally, that is a flawed system and it is very unfortunate. I do not know what the experience of other councils was in that respect.
323. Do you think it should be decided without regard to local views?
(Cllr Theodoulou) No, I think there should have been a referendum. The reason there was not a referendum was on the grounds of cost. It seems to me that if we are going to decide the value of democracy on the basis of cost, then that is not a very good system. That is what we have got, of course.
324. In any system there will be some people who will simply be largely ward councillors, who get on with their work. As advocates of your own wards, how has the system either handicapped or improved your lot?
(Cllr Slack) I think it is fair to say that the members who have been working with the communities just see this as another avenue to add on to what they have already been doing. From a personal point of view, it has been a good lesson for some members of the public. This is detail you may not want to go into, but if they want to put forward a road-calming petition, that can actually be presented to the county council chairman, that person can actually addressor, in the past, couldthe cabinet direct. They have introduced a system now where some of the decision-making is delegated to individual lead membersfor, say, transport and environmentand he actually receives an oral presentation from a local resident direct to him. So once that sort of process is publicised locally more and more people will realise that perhaps there is a way they can actually have direct input on decision-makers.
325. So you have lost an opportunity for representation?
(Cllr Slack) I am there with them because I helped facilitate the actual petition and do the presenting, which is probably what used to happen in the past. So as long as the councillors can actually identify with the sorts of things that are happening, I think it adds value to their role.
326. This question is probably addressed to all of you as well. There has been talk about parity of esteem and the fact that the cabinet member has great status and the back-bench councillor has rather less status. Does that really matter much to your constituents? Is it something that residents perceive as important?
(Cllr Brant) I do not think, if truth be known, most of the residents have a clue about the constitution of the city council. If we offered them an opportunity to learn about it they would probably regard it as quite an unimportant matter. They are concerned about whether they get their street swept and whether their nursery education is provided to the right standard. As I said in my short summary, one of the aims of the new regime appeared, certainly, to be to make the accountability clearer so that people know who is taking the decisions. In Liverpool we have got local newspapers, a local TV station and local radio, so there is a fair degree of media activity, but I would still say that, save for the leader of the council, I doubt whether anything more than a tiny percentage of the population could name an executive member. So, in reality, they are judged by the party in control, in the same way they were under the old system. I do not think that members of the public see a particular difference in the parity of esteem between executive members and back-bench councillors because they probably do not understand the difference.
327. Cllr Theodoulou, they do not side-step you either.
(Cllr Theodoulou) That is broadly similar, I would say, to my view, except to say that if people do not have self-esteem in what they are doing and they feel they are being side-stepped within their organisation, then they will not stand next time. I think there is a serious possibility that people will feel that "You cannot make any difference so why bother standing. It is only hassle".
328. You have not reached that stage yet though?
(Cllr Theodoulou) No. As I said, I am rather fortunate, I am on one of the leading scrutiny committees and I am a shadow to the major portfolio holder for finance, so I feel quite involved and I feel I do get a lot of exposure, but I know a lot of people do not feel that and I think they will be discouraged.
329. Can you give us any examples of where overview and scrutiny committees have changed a decision?
(Cllr Brant) We had a situationand it is in your constituency, as you knowwhere the United Utilities plant was creating quite severe odours (it is a treatment plant for sewage) and there was enormous public concern because of the impact it was having on residential communities nearby. The scrutiny committee called in United Utilities on a number of occasions and subjected them to a fair degree of scrutiny and had officer input (I knew something about the Environment Protection Act because of my work) and were able to put them under quite a degree of scrutiny. In the end, the council issued an abatement notice against them which is currently going through the court. I think that would not have happened unless the scrutiny committee had put a lot of pressure on the administration members to do that. The obvious problem with that analogy is, of course, that it was a case of the council acting together and scrutinising an external body where the party political considerations were not playing a part in that decision-making process. So the scrutiny committee could really gel together and act in unison. In areas where it is the administration's decision that is being scrutinised, unfortunately, the administration members are under a lot of pressuredirect and indirectnot to be too inquisitive, at least not in public.
Sir Paul Beresford
330. Your example could have happened under the old system as well.
(Cllr Brant) Probably it could have done, yes, although the way that the committee structure operated was very much more agenda-based, and the ability to
331. You could put the item on the agenda, could you not?
(Cllr Brant) That is true. The ability to call in witnesses never, in my experience, happened under the old scrutiny system.
332. But it did exist.
(Cllr Brant) It did exist, yes.
333. Are there any other examples?
(Cllr Slack) We had one example where the scrutiny committee called in a decision taken by cabinet and they improved the process and the whole concept of how to make decisions. From the previous year. In terms of changing the decision, that did not happen. So I should imagine all of us work very hard at scrutiny, trying to look forward and trying to anticipate what is going to crop up and try and get in first and influence it then.
(Cllr Theodoulou) I think our view of scrutiny has been rather primitive, because I think we have been on a steep learning curve and we are still learning. We have only just realised that part of the call-in process was not properly explained to us, so we have been acting on the wrong rules there. We did not realise that we could call in expert witnesses to scrutiny, and we now propose to do that. We have come across the problem of resources and fear that this will lead to substantial budgetary implications. So I think we will probably be more aggressive in the future in our scrutiny and probably wish to call people forward, but we are going to be confronted with a severe resource problem.
334. What about the quality and independence of advice to scrutiny committees when you are looking at decisions made by the ruling party in authority? Is there independent advice available?
(Cllr Brant) There is not any independent advice in Liverpool; the same officers who act as executive directors come to the committee to explain decisions and there is, inevitablyit is human naturea degree of defensiveness about their decisions, because very often they have been responsible for proposing them to the executive member in the first place, so they are perhaps not the most obvious person to provide an independent, fresh light. We have, also, no independent budget, although I put a motion to the council demanding that there would be one, and the chairs of the committees rebelled and the administration agreed it, but they still have not given a budget to the committee. So we are not in a position to call in expert witnesses unless they are prepared to do it for free. That does hamper us to a significant extent because, very often, you are dealing with a case where the officer corps have lined up with a certain position and to get them to accept that there is another view is very difficult. Without independent expert evidence it is very difficult. For example, I was arguing that we should have a doorstep recycling collection in the city. An executive member stood up and said "There is no market for the product. There is no point collecting this stuff, we are just going to landfill it." On its face, a logical answer. However, I also happen to sit on the waste disposal authority and I know, because of things that have happened afterwards, there is a brand new paper mill open in Shotten which is desperate for recycled paper.
Chairman: I think I had better stop you there. I am a bit worried about the time.
335. Are you going to more meetings these days under the new system?
(Cllr Slack) Yes. Some of that is by choice, because whereas we have the cabinet system they meet monthly and if back-benchers want to get involved they can go along and sit in, they get the agenda papers in advance. Sometimes those back-benchers can actually speak on specific topics that crop up on the agenda and, quite often, if it is a local issue, they are invited to make a comment in any event. So there are more meetings for people to go to. Some people choose not to.
336. So there are more meetings; even though the committees and the sub-committees have all gone, you have got more meetings to go to. Is that the general position?
(Cllr Theodoulou) Because I was not there I do not know, but I suspect that the whole of this scrutiny issue has caused many more meetings and sheets of paper to be written. So to that extent I am sure that is something knew, so there will be more meetings about that.
337. So you are working harder than you were? Is that right?
(Cllr Brant) I would say there are less formal council meetings but there are more informal group meetings to decide whether we call in decisions and things like that. Yes, I am attending more meetings to do with the council process.
338. You may have more and more meetings, and if people refuse to stand you will have fewer and fewer people.
(Cllr Brant) Yes.
339. To follow that through, the thrust and the emphasis of the legislation so far has been to free you up so that you can spend more time with your constituents. What you appear to be telling us is that you spend more time in meetings. Is that correct?
(Cllr Theodoulou) There are some people who do not go to meetings because they are excluded, as we have said earlier on, so they have got plenty of time to go and talk to their constituents. Whether they do or not, I do not know.