Memorandum by Councillor Sheila Bailey
I have been a Councillor in Stockport MBC for
12 years. I am a member of a minority Party within a Council where
currently the Lib/Dems have control. I have, therefore, had considerable
experience of the committee system and some experience of the
new Executive/Scrutiny system introduced in Stockport last October.
My conclusion, on the basis of the evidence so far, is that the
new arrangements are harmful and destructive, making it more not
less likely that disengagement with local government and the democratic
process will continue.
Local political activists become involved in
local government because of their political beliefs and through
the Party structures. They, therefore, begin by standing for election
against other political activists. Local elections in some areas
can be hard fought, confrontational and sometimes very personal.
In seats where the majorities are small the campaigns can be very
nasty. I have had some experience of this when fighting to win
seats from the Lib/Dems in 1990 and subsequently when defending.
We often, therefore, come into the Council as antagonists, with
different political agendas and with a determination to fight
for what we believe is right. It is, therefore, impossible, in
my view, for this experience to be subsumed into an apolitical
scenario where the job becomes nothing more than bureaucratic
administration with a bit of monitoring and scrutiny thrown in
to give us something to do. In other words the politics cannot
be taken out of local government, nor should it be.
In the previous committee system, the process
provided opportunities for politics to be included in the procedures.
Committees themselves were made up of various political groups
with Spokespeople nominated to speak on behalf of those groups
either inside or outside the Council. Agendas were circulated
in advance, with attached reports, before decisions were taken.
There were opportunities to discuss these reports with other members
of your group and subsequently at the committee. I accept that
the numbers game means that the majority party will always have
the ability to vote through what they want, but the discussion
took place BEFORE the decision was made and not, as is now the
case AFTER. It was important for Party groups to be able to put
forward their views and proposals and for it to be seen by members
of the public who were interested in particular issues as an open
and transparent process. The system that has replaced the committee
structure is neither.
The first effect has been a withdrawing of the
decision making process to a very small elite. They do meet in
public, but can meet in private if they so wish. There is no opportunity
for any alternative point of view to be put forward at these meetings
from any other Party. In the case of Stockport 10 majority Party
members make the decisions and the remaining 53 Councillors are
told afterwards. Decisions can be called in but can't be changed.
However, the scrutiny panels are also set up with an in built
majority for the ruling group and Councillors of the same Party
are defensive and resistant to criticising their Party colleagues
in the Executive.
The result of all this is a detachment of large
number of Councillors from the process, a feeling that there is
nothing that can be done and so why make the effort and a disenchantment
for those Councillors who still see local government as a political
arena and not a bureau for local administration.
I have heard it argued that this new system
will make more time for Councillors to engage with their electorate.
It will make no difference at all. Good Councillors will already
be engaging with their electorate and those that don't will hardly
be encouraged to do so when they have become even more removed
from the decision making process then they were before.
It is hard enough in many areas to find people
willing to become involved in politics let alone stand for Council.
The changes that have been made will make it even harder to persuade
people that they should get involved and that they can make a