Examination of Witnesses (Questions 485-499)
RT HON MR NICK RAYNSFORD AND MR ANDREW WHETNALL
TUESDAY 14 MAY 2002
485. Welcome to the Committee. Can I ask you to introduce yourselves and your team?
(Mr Raynsford) Thank you very much. I am Nick Raynsford, Minister for Local Government and the Regions, and I am joined by Andrew Whetnall, who is familiar to you as the director of the local government section with our Department.
486. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy to go straight into questions?
(Mr Raynsford) I am happy to go straight into questions.
487. Are there any circumstances in which the Government could conclude that the Local Government Act was a mistake?
(Mr Raynsford) Because the Local Government Act 2000 covered a range of different subjects, it would be difficult to conclude that it was a mistake in broad terms. My own view is that it is far too soon to make an overall assessment of the benefits but there are clear advantages and benefits and we need to look closely over the years ahead to see how those develop and whether we can build on them and improve the advances which have been made.
488. Who are you listening to in making an assessment on what those benefits and disadvantages might be?
(Mr Raynsford) There is a specific research programme which has been set in train, quite an expensive research programme, and I believe Andrew Whetnall has already written to you with details of that. That is a formal assessment but, of course, I meet councillors and local government officials on a daily basis and have informal conversations about lots of things, including the way in which aspects of the Local Government Act 2000 are operating.
489. We have received considerable evidence from backbenchers indicating that many backbenchers feel great dissatisfaction with their current role. Would that be of any concern to you?
(Mr Raynsford) I am conscious that some back bench councillors do feel dissatisfied, and obviously that is a concern. Having said that, I think it is important to see the way in which the Local Government Act 2000 does create a new opportunity for people who might in the past have been seen as backbenchers to become, if I can use the words of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, more frontline councillors engaging more actively with their communities, acting as voices for local communities, rather than simply attending meetings in the town hall. It is that new role that is probably not yet by any means fully operational but which holds out I think real potential for engaging councillors with their communities.
490. Is it of concern to you if there are councillors who do not accept that to be front line members and active in their community should be at the expense of taking decisions about policies which affect those communities?
(Mr Raynsford) I have to say that my overriding priority is the effectiveness of local government in serving the communities, and it is the views and perceptions of local communities which must be paramount. There is some evidence, and it is at this stage only anecdotal, that the new structures have helped to make the workings of local government clearer and more accessible to the public, because they are less opaque than the previous structures. That is obviously to be welcomed. But I am conscious, as I have said already, there are anxieties felt by some backbench councillors who have not yet found a satisfactory way of using their new role, both in relation to the overview and scrutiny, and also engaging as frontline councillors with their local communities.
491. Are you saying you have had evidence from the public they are more satisfied with the services provided now than they were with the services provided under the old system?
(Mr Raynsford) As I said in my response to your earlier question, it is too soon for the formal evaluation, which has only just been set up, but I do on a daily basis talk to councillors and council officers and members of the public, and I have to say the evidence I am getting from those conversations is mixed. There are some people who see the new arrangements working very well, there are some who welcome the opportunity to be more actively engaged in the community and spending less time attending meetings, there are others who feel they have been excluded from the decision-making process. That is something I am very conscious of as I indicated earlier, and I think it is too soon to reach a formal judgment but I certainly would not say that the new arrangements were not working.
492. Just looking at the issue the other way round, you talk about the perception of communities, certainly many community activists I have met now have a perception it is not worth having the local councillor along to a meeting, if they really want to influence a decision they have to get the cabinet member there.
(Mr Raynsford) Two comments I would make on that. One is that was often the case and in my experience as a local councillor, which is a rather long time ago now
493. So nothing has changed then?
(Mr Raynsford) I well recall local communities saying, "It is all very well having you present but we ought to get the leader of the council along to the meeting if we really want to get a result." That kind of response I think has always been part of the local government framework. What I am hearing is that some local communities do feel their local councillor is now more engaged with them and is able to articulate views more clearly as a frontline councillor rather than as a member of the executive.
494. But that is purely anecdotal at this stage?
(Mr Raynsford) Yes, I have said that.
495. Do you think the role of full council is sufficiently strong under the new system?
(Mr Raynsford) I do not see any reason to revise the framework that was set up and is currently in existence. I think it is broadly right, but we certainly do not wish to close off the option of reviewing how arrangements are working and whether some changes, some adjustments, might be appropriate in the light of the evaluation I have described.
496. Do you think you might be considering suggestions, for example, that full council could be strengthened by giving it call-in powers?
(Mr Raynsford) In relation to planning matters, are you suggesting?
497. No, not only. In relation to controversial local decisions.
(Mr Raynsford) I think that is one of the interesting ideas that has emerged, and it is certainly one we would want to look at in the light of the evaluation, but I certainly do not see a need at this stage to pre-empt that evaluation by giving a view one way or the other on that proposal.
Ms King: What do you think we can actually do to ensure the executive does not simply ignore the recommendations of the scrutiny panel? Select Committees doing scrutiny here in the House of Commons sometimes feel their recommendations are ignored, for example.
(Mr Raynsford) This is one of the great tensions of politics at all levels. My view of this is ultimately one has to put one's trust in the electorate. I take some comfort from the fact that preliminary assessment of the most recent local elections suggests there was probably more local influence on outcomes than in any series of local elections for some time. That implies that local issues carry more weight perhaps than traditional national party loyalties. If that is the case, that is rather encouraging because it would imply a council which ignored the views of its scrutiny committee and was seen by the electorate as doing so would be at greater risk of losing out in a subsequent election.
499. Do you think many people in local authorities know they have got scrutiny committees in place?
(Mr Raynsford) I think like all reforms it takes time for the information to get around and for people to become aware of how things are operating. I certainly would not pretend there is widespread public knowledge of the structures currently in place. Having said that, I recall a degree of confusion about how local authorities operated previously when the structures had been in place for upwards of a 100 years. So it is not easy always to ensure the public are fully aware of exactly how bodies like local councils or indeed Parliament operate.