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

Memorandum by Essex County Council Labour Group (LGA 35)


  Essex County Council is a Conservative-controlled local authority following the County Council elections of June 2001(Conservative 49, Labour 18, Lib-Dem 10, Ind 2).

  This is the first time since for nearly a decade that the Council has had one party control. It has been in no overall control since 1993, with various administrations having held office since that date.

  The County Council had been "piloting" new Political Management arrangements on the Leader and Cabinet model since May 2000 and formally moved to the new model of Political Management on Monday 5 November 2001.

  The new arrangements involved a Cabinet of 10 members, all Conservative with three observers from the Opposition Groups. These observers comprise two Labour members and one Liberal Democrat; observers have full speaking rights but of course no voting rights. Cabinet meetings are open to the Press and Public.

  The Council has set up six Select Committees to carry out Overview and Scrutiny functions. These Committees are "Widdecombed" and all have Conservative majorities. The Committees are as follows:

    —  Audit and Public Accounts Select Committee;

    —  Children and Education Services Select Committee;

    —  Community Care Select Committee;

    —  Culture Heritage and Libraries Select Committee;

    —  Enterprise and Community Development Select Committee; and

    —  Environment and Transport Select Committee.

  The Select Committees have chairs from all parties who are appointed by Full Council, with the Conservatives chairing Community Care, Culture Heritage and Libraries, and also Environment and Transport. Labour chairs Children and Education and Enterprise and Community Development and the Liberal Democrats chair Audit and Public Accounts.

  There is also a Co-Coordinating Committee of Select Committee Chairs, which is chaired by the Liberal Democrats.

  The Council has also set up a Development and Regulation Committee to deal with development control issues.

  It was also agreed in October 2001 to set up four Area Forums for the County. These have yet to meet, but the first meetings are scheduled for May 2002. The chairs of these Area Forums will all be Conservative members appointed by the Full Council. Area Forum chairs cannot be Cabinet Members.


  The Labour Group has attempted to engage constructively with the Conservative Administration in an effort to ensure that the New System works positively for the benefit of all members of the Council and the Public.

  I have to say that we have been very disappointed so far with the results, most particularly in the work of the Select Committees and the Conservative members on Select Committees' response to "Call Ins".

  The Cabinet works very much as a "rubber stamping exercise" and although observers are allowed to speak their comments are ignored. This could be anticipated bearing in mind the Conservative majority and although we would obviously like our views to be listened to, it is no great surprise when they are not.

  Cabinet meetings usually have around a dozen items on the agenda, which by definition are "big" issues otherwise they would not be on the Cabinet Agenda in the first place.

  Cabinet meetings begin at 10.00 am and are normally over by 11.15. This illustrates the lack of debate within Cabinet.

  Full Council has lost a lot of its functions to the Cabinet under the Local Government Act and has yet to find a proper role for itself.

  The Council meetings are still developing under the New System and little has been done to replace the work that has been lost to Cabinet.

  Although the Council has experimented with some innovations such as Question Time for Cabinet Members and on rare occasions a discussion on a contemporary issue, I have to say these appear to be on the Agenda more to "fill out time" than to engage in proper and constructive dialogue.

  The Budget meeting at Council this year in particular was little different from previous years, with the Administration presenting their Budget proposals, the Opposition Group putting their alternatives and then a straight vote, which went exactly along Party lines. There was no evidence at the Budget meeting of Conservative Members "scrutinising" the Budget proposals.

  Area Forums are intended to be a major part of the Council's work; however we are disappointed that it has taken since October 2001 to May 2002 to implement the introduction of Area Forums as we believe Area Forums will be of great benefit to the public in bringing the County Council and Members closer to the people it serves and represents.

Select Committees and Call Ins

  Under the Essex County Council Constitution agreed in November 2001, the call-in procedure is one, if not the strongest, weapon in the armoury of non-Executive members of the Council in holding the Cabinet and individual Cabinet Members to account for the decisions they make.

  Since the formal introduction of the new system in November 2001 there have to date been seven call ins. All have been at the instigation of the Labour Group with one exception, which was called in by both the Labour and Liberal Democrat Group independently.

  Conservative members of the Council have not signed one call in.

  It is our view that the Administration Group members do not truly see their role as holding the executive to account at Select Committee meetings, rather as one of defending Cabinet members, decisions and stopping the opposition groups from embarrassing their administration.

  To support this assertion I would point to our experience since November 2001 to date on Select Committees where call ins have been heard.

  When a Select Committee hears a call in, they invite witnesses to give evidence on the matter in hand and then witnesses are questioned by the Select Committee members on pertinent points of issue.

  After the witnesses have finished giving evidence and taking questions Select Committee members then deliberate and make a decision on what to do about the item under discussion.

  Select Committees at this stage have two alternatives:

    —  having considered the decision, the Select Committee may refer it back to the decision taker setting out in writing its concerns or refer the matter to the full Council also with a record of its concerns. Upon a referral to a decision taker, the decision shall be reconsidered within five clear working days amending the decision or not before adopting a final decision;

    —  if a Select Committee does not refer a decision to either the decision taker or the Council, the decision shall take effect at the conclusion of the meeting of the Committee

  In every case of a Select Committee at Essex considering call ins since the introduction of the New Political Management Arrangements the Conservative Majority on the relevant Select Committee has voted "en-bloc" to take no further action. On some occasions they have even tried to move to Option 2 above before any debate has taken place or even witnesses haven given evidence.

  Our experience over the last few months makes us conclude that the call in procedure is failing in its primary role of holding the Executive to account. This has clear democratic deficit implications but also financial ones. For example the cost of call ins at Essex has been considerable, with little outcome to show for that financial expenditure.

  Having demonstrated our concerns we would acknowledge that in some areas Select Committees are functioning positively. This is most clear in policy and Best Value Reviews, but even then it is unclear just how much notice Cabinet Members and Officers are taking of Select Committee deliberations and recommendations.

Other Major Problems

  The flow of information has been one of the major areas of change. Cabinet papers are very much an abbreviated version with no clear reference to any background papers.

  Non Cabinet Members find it difficult to tap into the Council's Information Systems; it is fair to say that the System is even more closed to the General Public.

  There is a feeling amongst non-executive members that their access to Council Officers and Council Information has decreased under the New Political Arrangements.


  The Labour Group on Essex County Council welcome the Local Government Act 2000 and believe that in "theory" the Act allows for quicker decision making and also more transparency in decision making.

  However as an Opposition Group we feel that our attempts to hold the Administration to account are being undermined by Tory non-executive members.

  The Tories on Select Committees appear to be using the Member substitute system and the whipping system to ensure that Cabinet and Cabinet members, decisions are not effectively scrutinised.

  This in our view presents a major challenge to the Local Government Act 2000 and we would ask Members of the Urban Affairs Sub-Committee to look seriously at the Guidance on Call Ins procedures with a view to strengthen an opposition group's ability to hold to account a powerful administration with a large majority.

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