Examination of Witnesses (Questions 500-519)
RT HON MR NICK RAYNSFORD AND MR ANDREW WHETNALL
TUESDAY 14 MAY 2002
500. The late Nicholas Ridley had a certain view of local government, if he came to a local council meeting under the current structure, would he feel entirely at home?
(Mr Raynsford) I am not going to answer that because I do not wish to try and put myself in a position of assuming how the late Nicholas Ridley would respond. I think most people who look fair-mindedly at local government would say the current arrangements are preferable to the previous arrangements in that they make clearer the distinction between executive responsibility and scrutiny. They make it clearer who takes the decision and therefore who carries the responsibility and make it easier for the public to understand ultimately who is in charge.
501. That is probably okay for the vast majority of decisions, but occasionally on very big decisions which affect a particular area what the public sees now is maybe a discussion in cabinet but when you get the full council the issue cannot be put on the agenda, their local representative has no opportunity to even speak on the issue on their behalf let alone vote. Does that not really show the public that somehow they have been disenfranchised?
(Mr Raynsford) I think exactly the same used to happen under the old arrangements but people did not know that was actually the case. It was quite often easy for the public to be utterly mystified about the decision-making process and whether or not their councillor had any role in it at all.
502. They definitely know they do not have a role now!
(Mr Raynsford) They will know that their councillor is either a member of the executive, in which case has a direct responsibility or, if not, as a backbench member has the opportunity to raise the issue through full council where that is appropriate or seek to have the issue examined through scrutiny.
503. Minister, for the last four years I have been a councillor on the London Borough of Merton, and we took specific evidence on this from my group leader on that local council. The reality is that the main council meetings have gone from being a point of some tension, way into the evening, sometimes into the small hours, and significant democratic events in the calender, to being curtailed talking-shops at which nothing happens. I have seen backbench members saying, "What is the point of giving up an evening to be here?" That is a message which, to a greater or lesser degree, we have been receiving from a variety of sources. Main council meetings have been emasculated as a result of the reforms. Surely, that cannot be the best way to create a sense of interest and involvement in the community as a whole in their local council?
(Mr Raynsford) I have to say that I have a recollection myself as a former member of a council of council meetings going on late into the night and into the early morning and them being total charades, because the decisions had all been taken in party groups beforehand and all that was happening was that the issues were being rehearsed in public. So I really do not buy the argument that having lengthy, protracted council meetings going on into the early hours of the morning is an enhancement of the democratic process. I believe what is crucial is that there should be clarity about who is taking the decision, who is accountable and therefore who the public can blame if they are not happy with that decision. I believe the new structures do achieve greater clarity in that respect.
504. Under the new arrangements we are going to see budgets going to full council without prior scrutiny by the service committees. How do you think we can ensure the budgets are given sufficient scrutiny before they get to full council?
(Mr Raynsford) It is up to individual councils obviously to consider how they best bring forward budgets in a way which ensures effective scrutiny, whether that involves prior consideration by a scrutiny committee or not, but obviously there are timetable issues there which may make it difficult in some cases. But the budget is one of the critical elements in the annual calendar and clearly there must be an opportunity for full debate on the budget and for identification of any elements in that budget which individual councillors feel are questionable or unsatisfactory.
505. Finally, how do you see effective day-to-day monitoring of expenditure by elected local councillors taking place under the new arrangements?
(Mr Raynsford) I think the new arrangements make it easier for councillors who are determined to scrutinise effectively to look not just at the headline figures but drill down at how those budgets are made up and what the components are and, in particular, to begin to focus questions on how they relate to outcomes, because that ultimately is what good councillors will be seeking to do, to see what is achieved for any given item of expenditure, what is the opportunity cost of not changing allocations of finance and whether there are clear, demonstrable benefits from using money in particular ways. I certainly see the whole scrutiny function as being a far more effective way of achieving that than previous arrangements. One of the reasons we are seeking to give powers, as we are, to enable councillors to take on outside members with expertise on to scrutiny committees with voting powers is to strengthen their ability to do that in just the same way as your Committee benefits from having outside experts who are there to advise you but not to vote with you.
506. You have just emphasised the importance of prior scrutiny on budget decisions, do you not think it is slightly odd therefore that for measures which have pages of regulations and directions and guidance for local authorities in this area you have actually left it open to local authorities to decide whether they want to go into that process or not?
(Mr Raynsford) I do not, and I did mention the timetable. You will be well aware from your considerable council experience that there is a very tight process to be gone through between the publication of the budget through to its adoption and the whole process of government decisions on SSA and grant which obviously does produce a very tight timetable indeed. What we would not want to do is to add to local governments' obligations additional timetable factors which would make it difficult for them to ensure there is proper and effective scrutiny of the budget and a proper decision on that budget. That is why I believe it is right they should have a proper measure of discretion. But, as I have said in response to Oona King's questioning, it is absolutely vital there should be proper and thorough scrutiny and that should not just be about the numbers but the outcomes and results of those spending decisions.
507. It is obvious you have got this question of the timetable firmly in your mind. Presumably that is because the new funding allocations will be consulted on in July. Presumably, that consultation will end in September. How soon are local authorities actually going to know what is going to happen about the new funding allocations? Have you got a timetable in mind for that?
(Mr Raynsford) I will preface my reply, if I may, by saying this is a very large and complex process.
508. I understand it is a very large and complex process.
(Mr Raynsford) Which we are trying to manage in the best possible way against a very tight timetable.
509. All I am wanting you to tell me is what that timetable is, given just how complicated and difficult it is.
(Mr Raynsford) We are committed to there being a consultation on the proposals to allow full opportunity for local government to reflect on options before, in fact, final decisions are taken. That we expect to be this summer, though I cannot give you a precise date yet because a lot of work is still going on to bring together the various component elements which need to be in place.
510. I understand your difficulty in publishing the proposals, but we have a deadline, do we not within which local authorities have to set their budgets. You can then work back from that as to when they need a firm decision from the Government, and then you can work back from that when the consultation process will end. I just wondered whether you could put some dates on that.
(Mr Raynsford) There is one other element in that, which is the availability of the data, because most authorities will actually want to relate any proposed changes to the formula for grant distribution to what the likely impact is on their own authority. Without having up-to-date data that is not possible. The fact that some of the data, particularly in terms of school numbers, does not become available until after September is one of the other factors in the timetable. Our aim (and I am sorry about this rather long-winded answer to your question) is to ensure that decisions are taken within exactly the same timetable as normally occurs so that authorities will have a clear indication of the proposed grant distribution by the end of November, early December, in the same way as we did in the latest round.
511. How can independent voices be brought in to ensure that overview and scrutiny is well-advised?
(Mr Raynsford) As I said in response to an earlier question, we are actually intending to legislate to give powers for local authorities to bring in independent members to scrutiny committees with full voting rights if they so wish. We believe it is up to the local authority to decide what is the right balance and where the expertise is required to strengthen the capability of their overview and scrutiny committees.
512. Is it realistic to expect a small district company with a small population to have access to the independent experts to which you refer on the limited budgets they have at the present time? Will they receive extra resources?
(Mr Raynsford) I think each council would need to take that decision for itself. Obviously, one of the purposes of bringing in additional expertise, which may or may not involve significant financial outlay (in most cases it probably will not, I would suggest)
513. It certainly does as far as Select Committees in the House are concerned.
(Mr Raynsford) I am not going to comment on the decisions Select Committees take in terms of their advisers.
514. The reason Select Committees work is because we have access to the funds to allow us to bring in outside advisers, experts in their fields. Are we expecting a second or a third degree of service for local authorities?
(Mr Raynsford) No, I am not. I am saying that in some cases that expertise may be available either free of charge or at very reasonable cost.
515. Do you have such a list of people who would be willing to queue up and offer their services?
(Mr Raynsford) No, because it varies enormously from area to area, but there are people who are public-spirited and who have got an understanding of the law in many areas who would be willing to give their expertise if requested to do so, in the public interest. Can I also say that the real benefit from having expertise is in identifying savings that can actually result in more cost-effective operation in the future, so the net cost to the local authority could well be less in the long-term as a result of bringing in outside expertise. Finally, can I just offer one other thought, that where you have a small district and they have similar problems to other adjoining small districts, they may wish to operate on a partnership basis using the same expertise and that might help to reduce the cost, if there is a cost.
516. Why would you give them full voting rights? Surely the principle iswhich is the way that the Select Committee system operatesthat we benefit from outside expertise with no axe to grind, no vote and no decision in what we actually do, but which can give us a dispassionate assessment of the issues on one side and the other. By giving full voting rights you are immediately putting in people who have got a perspective they want to pursue. Why would you do that?
(Mr Raynsford) That is the decision which you have quite rightly taken in relation to the Select Committees, but we believe
517. No, Parliament has taken that. We do not have a choice as to whether we give our advisers votes or not.
(Mr Raynsford) Equally, we believe it is for local government to decide this rather than for us to prescribe it. So this will be an option available to local government. Some local authorities believe this will help them to attract people who genuinely have a lot of expertise to offer but who would like to be able to feel a full part of the committee rather than simply as an adviser. It is entirely for local government to decide, not for us to be prescriptive about it.
518. The danger of that is you are going to still further downgrade the role of the local councillor. If you are a local councillor who, say, is not on the executive, and you are saying scrutiny is one of the ways in which they can participate in the process, if you are now saying "Actually, we are now going to bring in a bunch of experts from outside who are going to have the same voting rights as you" you might ask the question "What is the point of being a local councillor?"
(Mr Raynsford) I have to say I never felt that, and my experience of local government, where there have been committees that have involved tenants for example, in the days when that was possible, is that councillors did not feel downgraded by having tenant representatives with voting rights sitting alongside them, and I do not believe that scrutiny committees with experts, whoever those experts may be, sitting alongside them with voting rights downgrades their role at all. The crucial thing is, it is for them to decide this. We are, as part of our whole approach to local government, trying to reduce central government's control, to extend freedoms and flexibilities to local government and to allow discretion for local authorities to take these decisions rather than us imposing them.
519. Let me take one example. Supposing a local authority wants advice on composting, which is clearly a fairly topical issue at the present moment. It is very difficult to get advice on something like that without someone either directly or indirectly having an interest in a particular composting process, is it not?
(Mr Raynsford) I cannot imagine that it would be impossible to find someone with a good environmental background and an experience of composting as one response to waste management who does not have a commercial interest in a particular outcome. I am sure if an authority wanted to look for outside expertise it would be possible to find it.