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



Examination of Witnesses (Questions 440-459)

MR DAVID CLARK AND MS MAIRI MCLEAN

TUESDAY 14 MAY 2002

  440. What mechanisms exist which allow you to make your feelings known to the appropriate minister?
  (Mr Clark) From the point of view of the local authority individually or from the point of SOLACE?

  441. I am talking about SOLACE. You are obviously expressing concern. What do you do about it?
  (Mr Clark) I can reassure you that not just the Minister for Local Government but also Ministers in Home Affairs, the Department of Health and elsewhere regularly consult. I think we have something of the order of 40 or our members who would actually ask: would you do it like that?

  442. As an organisation, you are SOLACE, you make direct representations on your concerns to the minister. Does he respond?
  (Mr Clark) Yes. If I may respond a little to that question from Louise Ellman, which is that part of the difficulty is that ministers are in boxes too and one is occasionally struck by the fact that propositions from the Department of Health, from Home Affairs and from DFES might not always be quite as joined up as they hit the ground as they could possibly be.

  443. Can we just concentrate on the minister responsible for local government?
  (Mr Clark) Let me give you a case in point. The last time we met with him we were looking at something that is in the White Paper about the burden of statutory plans, particularly on smaller authorities and whatever else. His response to that was: can you put together a team of people that has done it to help me do that? I do not think one can be more open than that.

  444. What factors do you want the Audit Commission to include when developing the corporate assessment framework?
  (Ms McLean) One of the factors that we feel may have been excluded and that is now being considered is to look at behaviour and standards and to measure those as much as measuring more tangible matters. Our concern is that if the measurement continues to be on tangible matters, then hard-pushed officers and councillors will give more of their attention to that. We said in our evidence, and we believe it to be true, that if the CPA found a way and it is possible, to measure the way people behave with each other and the standards that are adopted, this would greatly encourage a better standard of behaviour. Frankly, unless we measure it, we are not going to encourage people to pay attention to their behaviour. If we do not encourage people to pay attention to their behaviour, a great many of the benefits of this new legislation will be lost.

Chairman

  445. The Audit Commission is probably one of the fastest growing quangos. Is it value for money?
  (Mr Clark) I certainly think one could put forward a proposition to say that it should examine what its core business is, and that you could therefore examine it, once one had gone through that sort of review. Clearly its core business to me is probity, which it does excellently and it has vital role. One could always spin off into areas just occasionally because they are interesting, and I understand that.

  446. You think it is actually beginning to draw too many resources out of local government?
  (Mr Clark) No, I do not think that, and not because that is where resources come from. I just think there is a large number of players in the IDA, the Audit Commission, all kinds of people. I think it is a very valid question to say who does what within that family to ensure that taxpayers are getting value for money from all of the family.

  447. You do not think they are clear at the moment as to what they are doing?
  (Mr Clark) They are absolutely clear. I would say that they have a wide range of products. One always looks at core business when one has a wide range of products.

Dr Pugh

  448. There has been a perceived shift from the ordinary backbench member to the cabinet member. That is well documented. Has there been a comparable shift or a similar shift from members themselves to chief executives and the like? In other words, has officer power grown through the new arrangements?
  (Mr Clark) I do not think so. There is some evidence in smaller authorities where the canvass is quite small that you can rub up against each other but I think in the majority of authorities, all of the ones that we would point to as excellent models, are a bit like the Roman or Greek chariot with two horses: good strong managerial leadership on the one hand and good political leadership on the other, and these are different roles. Where that works, you can see an authority really driving forward. I do not think we have seen that much of a shift, not as a direct result of this.

  449. If you are a solitary cabinet member ringed by a group of experienced professional officers and you yourself have to make the one single decision which could be a bad or a good decision, you are almost invariably going to go with the officers, are you not?
  (Ms McLean) I think that also depends upon the way the organisation sets itself up. We think this is an absolutely crucial question. There is a radical challenge to the way officer-member relationships have previously worked in the new Act. We heard a lot about partnership but we are fairly clear that if we do not work out that partnership between the executive and the administration, then we will not be getting this right and we will fall back into less good ways. In the example you gave, if you are stuck in that situation, I would say the system you are in is not working. You should not be stuck in that situation.

  450. But in the past you would be surrounded by committee colleagues who would have their input and could reinforce a decision contrary to the one the officers want. That does not occur any more.
  (Mr Clark) It does occur. I can give you an exact reverse of that position. The suggestion was that what this authority needed was intermediate care, that the old people's homes are all inadequate and that they need to be closed. All the members privately say that is right but they also say, "It is political suicide, so I do not care what your advice is, we are not going to do it". It can actually work completely the opposite way.

  451. Can I respond by saying, "Well, you would say that, would you not?" Can you give me any examples of chief executives across the country who have quite expressly condemned the new arrangements—and you would expect one or two of them to do that anyway—if it was not representing a shift in power to chief executives as opposed to elected members? Give me just one example of someone who has condemned the new system.
  (Mr Clark) It is very rare for somebody to condemn the decisions of their paymasters. I have not seen it often.

  452. The paymaster is the government here?
  (Mr Clark) No, the paymaster is the chief executive.

  453. To be fair, local authority chiefs, elected members, from time to time have condemned outright the new arrangements; they have said they are bad and they do not like them. Backbenchers have said that, but not all. Some have benefited and some have not. Name me one chief officer anywhere in the country who independently, on retirement or whatever, has said, "The new system is a bad system. We do not like it".
  (Mr Clark) I cannot think of one.

Mr Betts

  454. In some ways this is slightly less open now. In the past it was quite clear that the committee made the decision, even if it was delegated to a small committee. You could not delegate it to an individual councillor under the old rules. The officer's recommendation was there, it was clear what they had done, that they had come up with a recommendation. Councillors then considered it and decided whether they wanted it. Now can it not be done a bit more behind the scenes, where senior officers to the cabinet members responsible persuade them to take a decision, which then is not quite as open and transparent?
  (Mr Clark) It is potentially a risk but in fact some of the systems in place usually do not let that happen. Indeed, under the old system I have seen that happen as well. I remember one of my most bitter experiences was seeing a group of people in wheelchairs arriving at a council meeting when I was a councillor, thinking that the meeting was taking the decision. In fact, the majority group had taken that decision two weeks previously, and it was really going through on the nod. In many ways I think that was tragic. They were lobbying the wrong meeting. Under the new system there is a possibility for people to get more involved now. I think new technology has helped. For people with disabilities, these things are actually on the web and they can access that, particularly people with mobility disabilities. Personally, I have found that very powerful. If people want it to work, by and large I think they will. I do not see the secretiveness necessarily being within it. I do think, however, the good thing might be that this time they can see who has actually made that decision in a way that was perhaps a little obscure under previous arrangements.

  455. Now that individual is actually responsible for the executive decision?
  (Mr Clark) Yes.

  456. Do you think we have got people of the calibre and with the training and back-up to enable them to go to that position and really make a decision on all this very complex and sometimes differing advice that they get?
  (Ms McLean) That is a very important point which was touched on earlier about training. One cannot give an homogenous answer to that. I think it is patchy. In some places there are absolutely excellent people; in other places there are people who have had much less experience. In my opinion there are more people who are requiring some of that training and input and not just training; it is more the discussions that takes place outside the meetings. Touching on your earlier point, the point that was made by the previous speaker—it almost assumes that there is an us and them attitude between officers and members, a desire to control, a desire to take power from members. That is not my experience. I can only speak from experience. My experience is that there is partnership working where I understand that members are jointly in the best interests concerned with officers of their community.

Mrs Ellman

  457. How can overview and scrutiny committees get independent advice?
  (Ms McLean) This is an interesting question because in local government officers have always been required to give advice across the board to all members. We are not employed by only one group or another. We are answerable to all of them. Although I can see why this is a question of interest in some places, for us in local government it has always been that way. We are used to that. However, we do think it is necessary to take some action to ensure that there is not a split, which could become unhealthy, and in our own local authority we are working on ways of rotating officers who constantly advise those panels. But in local authorities, that is not unusual.

  458. Tell me, what would happen to the career prospects of an officer who gave advice to a scrutiny committee, which then challenged the executive and embarrassed them and caused an overturn of the decision? Are you seriously telling me that that officer would not feel their career prospects jeopardised?
  (Mr Clark) May I say that they may well, if it is set up as that sort of given. I can recall when the concept of the monitoring officer was brought in and the responsibility for blowing the whistle on a chief executive or on an executive member or whoever else, and that this could be a career-threatening opportunity for heads of legal services. That has actually not proven to be the reality.

Chairman

  459. They have not blown the whistle very often, have they?
  (Mr Clark) They have on one or two occasions and on one occasion very recently I accept that it was very career threatening. My view about the advice is that it rather depends on what advice you are giving. You posed the question originally about how would they get independent advice. I would like to think that virtually all members get independent advice from the officers rather than partial advice.

 


 
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