Examination of Witnesses (Questions 560-579)
RT HON MR NICK RAYNSFORD AND MR ANDREW WHETNALL
TUESDAY 14 MAY 2002
560. What happens if there is a petition in favour of an alternative arrangement?
(Mr Raynsford) There is no provision for petitions in favour of alternative arrangements, there is a scope for petitioning in favour of a mayorthat is provided by the legislation. There is no statutory basis for a referendum otherwise, but if a petition comes forward in line with the provisions in the 2000 Act for a mayor, then the local authority is likely to present as its fallback, in the event of a no vote, the current arrangements that are in place which in the vast majority of cases will be a leader and a council, other than in the 59 authorities that have opted for alternative arrangements.
561. "Is likely to". If it does not; if there is a very strong will in a local authority and if there is demonstrable support in the community for an alternative arrangement, and it is legally possible under the legislation, you will still not allow it?
(Mr Raynsford) I accept it is legally possible. I did not say we would not allow it, I said it is legally possible but I think it is very unlikely to occur.
562. So you would allow it?
(Mr Raynsford) The legislation provides for councils to define the fallback and alternative arrangements can be prescribed under that legislation, but I think it is unlikely that an authority which is currently operating a leader and cabinet model
563. But it can be done?
(Mr Raynsford) It can be done but I think it is unlikely it will happen.
564. And you would not stop it?
(Mr Raynsford) I am not going to stop it, no.
Mr Betts: That seems to be slightly different to where we started off.
Chairman: We will look at the transcript.
565. Can we move back to councillors from mayors? Can I ask you, Minister, how the Government plans to encourage, perhaps, a broader cross-section of people to stand for elections to local councils? Perhaps you could also comment on how you could encourage employers to be a bit more understanding when their employees want to stand for a local authority.
(Mr Raynsford) I agree whole-heartedly with you that this is an important issue. I helped in the launch of an IDeA initiative designed to encourage good practice on the part of employers, making it possible for their staff to serve on local councils, because I believe this is important. There are other issues that need to be addressed as well, particularly among younger people who are often seriously under-represented on local councils, and among ethnic minorities, as well as women. So for all of these groups we need to find ways of engaging potential candidates for elections, encouraging them and ensuring that wherever possible our parties put forward as balanced a slate as possible. I was particularly pleased in the last local elections in London, in my own constituency in Greenwich, that our party put forward a slate of people that was not just racially and gender mixed but had significant numbers of representatives of every age bracket from the 20s to the 70s, which I think is quite unusual. It should not be, that should be the norm, and I think we need to do more to encourage that.
566. Once these new councillors get elected, in the beginning they are probably going to be backbench or frontline (whatever expression we prefer to use) councillors. How are we going to give them the training and the skills to develop into executive members? Under the old system there was a graduation system, if you like, through the old committee system. Is that a fear you havethat it will be more difficult to train the executive councillors of tomorrow? Will there be disincentives? Will people get elected and, after four years, think "I am stuck in a rut, I am not going anywhere, there is no training, there is no development"?
(Mr Raynsford) I have to say that when I was electedand I admit it was some time agoto a council the apprenticeship of serving in a very junior capacity on the works committee for the first year did not necessarily feel like a helpful career development programme.
Mr Betts: You have not done too badly!
567. And you were not just on the works committee.
(Mr Raynsford) It is a long time ago, I forget which committees I was on, but there was very much the feeling that when you were newly elected you served your term in a junior capacity before you aspired to anything more than that. I do not think we should romanticise the old system. I think there are real opportunities for councillors who are newly elected to be very effective in their scrutiny role and to be very effective as local advocates, as frontline councillors. As always in democratic institutions, those who show particular aptitude and skills are more likely to be successful in getting appointed to more senior positions.
568. As the person, perhaps, with almost the greatest influence in the country on raising public awareness of the role of councillors, what do you think you and your department can do to improve the esteem that councillors are held in by their local communities?
(Mr Raynsford) I have, I am afraid, to decline to accept that kind characterisation of my role. I would like to make a contribution but certainly it would not be the major one. What we have to do is, firstly, ensure that the way that councils operate are seen to be efficient, effective and responsive to local communities. Secondly, we have to ensure that people understand the value and the importance of local councils' work and how they impact on their lives. Thirdly, we have to make it easier for people to engage with local government so that they can express their views, they can help to influence decisions and they can feel they are having an effect. Those aspects are all part of the programme that we have put in place and have carried forward in our recent White Paper, where we are trying to ensure that councils improve the standard of service delivery, improve their responsiveness to local communities and take decisions in ways that local people can see and understand how and why those decisions have been taken.
569. Does the existence of Local Strategic Partnerships in some way disempower local councils by putting power upwards to an unelected body?
(Mr Raynsford) No, I do not think it does. I think what it does is very clearly crystallise the importance of the council working not in isolation, as some councils in the past used to, thinking that they alone should take the decisions, but emphasising the importance of the council working with its partners in its community, whether these be other public services, whether these be voluntary organisations, whether these be businesses or whether these be community groups. The whole benefit of the Local Strategic Partmership is crystallising that relationship in which the council can establish very fully its role as an effective community leader but harness the talents and the commitment of others.
570. Is there not a theoretical possibility that Local Strategic Partnerships would make one decision on a major item of strategy and the council could have another view? Is that conflict not possible, and howif it is possiblecould it be resolved?
(Mr Raynsford) I think it is certainly possible, and it is one of those factors that has led some councils to be nervous about the idea of ceding power to a Local Strategic Partnership. It is very difficult to agree that you will gain from devolving a degree of power. We in Government are often accused of being reluctant to devolve power to local government. Our agenda in the Local Government White Paper is about precisely doing thatdevolving power and allowing local authorities more discretion to take decisions. Equally, I think local government has to be prepared to let go a little bit, to engage communities more and to involve people in local communities in the decision-making. I think if they do that responsibly and they do it thoughtfully and they keep a good dialogue, then the outcome that you have described is very unlikely to happen because no responsible Local Strategic Partnership is going to willingly run counter to the clear strategic view of the local authority on a crucial issue.
571. To be fair, the analogy does not quite hold where there is a conflict between central and local governmentcentral government gets its way, and we know that. In a conflict between the Local Strategic Partnershipadmittedly it is theoretically quite a remote possibilityand a local authority there would seem to be no mechanism for resolving that conflict; they would both have a view and it would not be clear whose view would carry the day.
(Mr Raynsford) The view of many community organisations and voluntary groups is that in any such conflict the local authority always gets its way. I do think there is an issue about local government having a relationship with the communities they serve that is an inclusive one and does not imply that the decisions must always go the local authority's way.
572. On the composition of the actual Strategic Partnerships themselves, how do you ensure that the Local Strategic Partnerships are not full of the "usual suspects" and are actually a genuine cross-section giving a voice to the community?
(Mr Raynsford) That is a very, very important point. There is a risk that one will get a group of almost professional partnership attendants emerging, who will spend more time attending meetings than actually delivering.
573. They can never have a democratic responsibility, can they? They will always be that sort of the "usual suspects".
(Mr Raynsford) They have a hugely important role to play. I know so many people in different communities who have an enormous contribution to give to the development and successful operation of their communities.
574. Why does one person have more democratic credibility than another person in the community?
(Mr Raynsford) I was going to go on to say that many of those people, for very good reasonswhether it is the demands of their work or other considerationssimply do not have the time to serve on a local council. It would be quite wrong to exclude them because they have not been elected, if they have a useful contribution to make.
575. I think it is an observation that a lot of key business figures in one area find it difficult to get to Local Strategic Partnership meetings on a regular basis. I do not want to put too much stress on the word "suspect" but do you think that the Local Strategic Partnership should have a code of conduct as nearly all other publicly accountable bodies do?
(Mr Raynsford) Again, we have had quite an interesting debate in Government about the development of Local Strategic Partnerships because our initial guidance was thought, in many quarters, to be unduly prescriptive, to be not allowing sufficient discretion for the partnership to develop locally according to criteria developed by the partnership and by the local authority. So our approach recently has been to try and allow more discretion, to be less prescriptive in what we impose. I have to say there is a tension here, if I can just pursue this point for a moment, because a number of voluntary groups and community groups come to us and say "You must prescribe because the local authority will not take us into their confidence, they will not give us a meaningful role unless you insist on them doing it." I am resisting that, because I do not think that that kind of prescriptive approach from Government is likely to encourage genuine partnership working. You can see immediately the tension there when some of the partners who feel they are in a relatively powerless position in relation to the local authority look to Government to safeguard their interests.
576. But if I am a major local business and I am making strategic decisions on planning issues that I am trying to have an input to, ought I not to declare my own personal interest and ought I be obliged to? It would seem I am not obliged to on an LSP.
(Mr Raynsford) That is very much an issue, I think, for Local Strategic Partnerships themselves to determine, and I would express a view that anyone who had a clear interest should make that absolutely clear and should absent themselves from taking part in decisions in which they might be thought to be unduly influenced by personal or commercial interests. Having said that, there are a lot of people in business who have an enormous amount to contribute and one would not want them to be prevented from playing a role.
577. Are you the Minister responsible for seeing through Local Strategic Partnerships?
(Mr Raynsford) There is a shared responsibility here because the Local Strategic Partnerships are not just part of the local government framework, they are part of the Neighbourhood Renewal framework and in those 88 areas where Neighbourhood Renewal funding is dependent on the establishment of a Local Strategic Partnership the Minister for Housing and Planning is equally responsible. The two of us work extremely closely together to ensure that there is a consistent approach.
578. The Standards Board for England was established on 22 March 2001, Minister. Can you tell the Committee how many cases have been referred to the Standards Board to date?
(Mr Raynsford) The Standards Board's own code was only published very recently indeed and local authority codes have only had to be in place from, I think, 5 May this year. Cases can only be referred to the Standards Board once these mechanisms are in place. So to the best of my knowledge there will be only a handful of cases that will have been referred to date.
579. Your memorandum states that the Standards Board has a budget of £5.8 million a year. Do you think this represents good value for money?
(Mr Raynsford) It is far too soon to say, but I believe it is right that there should be probity in local government and confidence in local government. In answer to an earlier question about how we ensure that the public have a positive image of local government, ensuring that there is a mechanism to deal with any potential wrong-doing is, in my view, absolutely crucial.