Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1
THURSDAY 17 JUNE 1999
1. Good afternoon, gentlemen, welcome to the
Joint Committee. Thank you for coming to give evidence. I wonder
if I could ask if there are some short introductory comments that
you would like to make in the first place and perhaps in that
connection you would be kind enough to advise the Members of the
Committee of your particular responsibilities in the Departments
as well, that would be helpful.
Thank you. I am Andrew Whetnall from the Department of the Environment,
Transport and the Regions, the Local Government Director.
(Mr Redpath) Tony Redpath, the Head of the Local Government
Legislation Division. We are dealing with the new ethical framework.
(Mr Hewitt) I am Simon Hewitt from DETR also. I work
primarily on the political management structures.
(Mr Gareth Thomas) Gareth Thomas from the Welsh Office
Local Government Modernisation Division. I am dealing with the
Welsh interests generally in the Bill.
(Mr Ian Thomas) I am Ian Thomas from the branch which
deals with central-local relations in the Welsh Office. I deal
with the new ethical framework aspects of the Bill in relation
2. Mr Whetnall, are you going to lead for the
(Mr Whetnall) Thank you, yes. Very briefly
perhaps it would help if I explain where we are in the consultation
process on the draft Bill. The period for initial comments ended
on 21 May and we have had well over 200 responses which we have
been sharing with the Committee clerks. I hope they appreciate
the volume. We have not yet completed an analysis of those responses
and we have yet to talk them through in detail with ministers.
The text we are consulting on remains the one that we published
in the document
which I am sure you have all seen. Quite a number of the responses
said that they would like to see more added to the draft Bill.
I think it may be as well for me to say from the outset that we
can only help to a certain extent on that. The Local Government
White Paper had what we hoped was a coherent programme of modernisation
and change in which almost all the measures were inter-related.
Had we been able to introduce a large Bill to do all of that in
the first and second sessions it would have consumed a very great
amount of parliamentary time potentially. That is obviously the
business managers' concern and they will decide later in the year
just what the scope of any Bill for introduction might be. We
understand that there are people who are very keen to see additional
elements in the Bill.
3. Thank you. Do your colleagues from the Welsh
Office want to say anything?
(Mr Ian Thomas) We are obviously in the
same situation as the DETR using the same Bill. We have had a
smaller number of responses, 20 from across Wales. We have analysed
the responses and most of them are broadly supportive of the proposals
in the Bill, specifically the Welsh proposals for the ethical
4. Perhaps if I might ask this one general point.
One of the objects appears to be to increase public interest and
accountability of local government. A great deal of emphasis is
placed on the elected mayor concept, although I accept that is
not the only one, but that is actually a concept plucked from
other jurisdictions without taking anything else with it from
those other jurisdictions, be they European or North American.
Clearly there is a belief that it will work. I wonder why cherry
picking that one idea is thought to be capable of answering the
problems about levels of interest in local government and accountability
of local government and its efficiency?
(Mr Whetnall) As you say, it is one idea.
It is the leading idea. It is in the context of an analysis that
a degree of separation between the executive, the representative,
the scrutiny and other roles of councillors would help the public
to understand better and help to locate accountability more precisely
in the framework of decision making. There is an element of thinking
that because levels of electoral turn out have been low historically
compared to much of the rest of Europe, and appear also to be
declining, that an idea which provides a slight element perhaps
of personality politics (which interestingly was one of the reasons
why the Widdecombe Committee when it looked at this idea was not
attracted to it about ten years ago), would be a good foundation
for injecting more public interest, more public understanding
and a more precise location of responsibility into the local government
system. I think that is the basic premise which has led that idea
to be offered. It perhaps also explains partly why the element
of choice for local people is offered quite prominently in the
policy proposals. Consistently since the Commission for Local
Democracy started re-exploring the idea there has been an apparent
gap in various opinion polls between the public enthusiasm for
the concept and councillor enthusiasm for the concept. That partly
explains why the mechanisms of public involvementdecisions
by local people, consultation and petitions triggering referendums
are in the package as well.
5. Can I go back to your opening comments, Mr
Whetnall. You said that there have been a number of proposals
for change but there was a problem with the business managers
of actually getting those into the Bill. Can somebody enlighten
me on the procedure. The recommendations which may come out of
this Committee or from other people who make recommendations,
will they be rewritten in the Bill before the Bill comes to Parliament?
Will they be introduced into the Bill as the Bill passes through
(Mr Whetnall) The recommendations of
the Committee will, I am sure, carry a great deal of weight. The
issue, as ever with Parliament, is of a fairly heavily pressured
legislative programme, in other words there is a lot of Government
legislation in relation to the time available. That means that
within the mechanism for deciding the future legislation programme,
and it always has in all the years I have been a civil servant,
there is more demand than there is legislative time and therefore
it cannot be the decision of the individual Departments which
Bills go in the programme or which elements in those Bills. There
has to be a collective decision making process. I hope I did not
imply that there is a problem with business managers; it is more
that it is their proper function to decide in the end on the scope
and principal elements of the content of the Bills.
6. Can I follow up the question which the Chairman
asked at the beginning about mayors. In which other countries
has the Department studied the mayoral system in depth? In the
places where you have studied it in depth have you had a position
paper or a description for those countries which could be made
available to the Committee?
(Mr Whetnall) I think there is an increasing
volume of academic description which has been triggered partly
by this policy agenda. There is material, I know, on the United
States. I know of several bits of work that are in preparation
by some of the academics you are calling as witnesses, Professor
Stewart and Professor Stoker. There is already published work
by Professor Stewart and Michael Clark which gives a useful summary
of the evolution of the mayoral models.
They differ considerably in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and
the United States in particular. There is work on such models
in New Zealand as well. We will be very happy to let the Committee
have a list of all the publications that we know of, both already
in existence and forthcoming.
7. Thank you. If we can have whatever is the
most useful summary of those countries where you consider it to
be relevant as to what we might be trying to do.
(Mr Whetnall) Yes, certainly.
8. I was going to follow that up by saying that
presumably, and I suppose it is a leading question, the weight
of evidence suggests from other countries where they have got
mayoral systems there is greater interest and greater turn out.
Is this generally the trend? I know in the States that is not
the case but it would appear to be the case in other European
(Mr Whetnall) By and large, yes, there
is a higher level of turn out. One has to look underneath that
for factors like compulsory voting in places like Belgium as and
maybe for wider traditions of participation as well. I do not
know quite how you would establish an absolute causal link between
the existence of mayors and public interest. Certainly some contacts
have been made courtesy of the Local Government Association with
mayors from various American cities. Whether it is a function
of the nature of the media or not, they reported considerably
greater media interest in local politics. The two factors may
be related, I do not know whether it would be capable of proof.
Sir Paul Beresford
9. You have got three alternatives offered.
There is a cry, as I have heard it, for more options. I am interested
in why you feel, if you indeed feel, that no change could be a
potential option. Secondly, you talk about the mayors and the
feeling that a mayor is a personality who would engender further
interest and yet if one looks back into fairly recent history
there are some notable names of leaders of councils, Ken Livingstone
being one that the Evening Standard features today, and
there is a large number of others, many of those for good reasons,
a few for not so good reasons. So that in fact it may well be
the personalities rather than the names or the position itself.
I wonder if you could comment on that? Perhaps a negative way
of looking at the system, when I look back to New Zealand is that
the turn out there tends to be, if I recall correctly, negative
in that people will tend to vote for a mayor but then vote for
a council which opposes the mayor so that they get stagnation
through fear and concern, which explains also why they have a
Government system where the Government lasts for three years only
because everybody is fearful they will get somebody they do not
want for four or five.
(Mr Whetnall) I think I would hesitate
before taking you on on New Zealand. I know that some of the academics
I have mentioned have been out there recently and looked at the
system and particularly identified the council manager form as
perhaps the promising model. To take your questions in order.
Why only three models? There is a power to add to that number
by regulation. A lot of consultation responses were interested
in adding further models without necessarily being very clear
what further models they would like. Certainly people were interested
in area delegation. There were questions whether the council manager
system necessarily had to be linked to a directly elected mayor.
All of those models we are looking at. On the status quo,
I think the analysis would be that the Government is itself persuaded
and wants to persuade Parliament that the committee system has
some increasingly serious defects as time goes on. Without intervening
directly and imposing systems, it wants to provide a stimulus
to local consideration of models with executive separation. It
is not imposing them in the sense that it will be open to councils,
if they face a referendum by petition, to argue the case for the
status quo. Indeed, if they win the referendum there is
nothing in the Bill which disturbs them for a further five years,
although they might be encouraged to think of one of the other
models. I think I would have to say that the ministerial analysis
is that the committee system is not the most constructive way
of doing business for the various reasons that are set out in
the White Paper.
10. The system that you are suggesting, as I
see it, has a fairly long list of committees anyway. You have
regulatory committees, planning and so forth, overview committees,
scrutiny, standards committees, area committees, joint committees,
special access, review committees, advisory committees, area manager
committees and the executive independent committees, sub-committees,
full council, etc., etc. I have run out of fingers.
(Mr Whetnall) I paraphrase the committee
system in the sense of the requirement that decisions of the council
should not be delegated to single elected members and should be
taken in politically balanced and representative committees. This
is the thing that the Government wants to move beyond. I agree
that there are plenty of other committees in the arrangements
but, with the exception of those marked out as being outside the
scope of the executive (planning, regulatory and so on), they
are not the central business of the executive decision taking
of the council.
11. To bring you back to the one that was not
quite answered, that was the personality mayor versus personality
(Mr Whetnall) Yes.
12. The potential is that we could have the
personality of the leader under the present system of leaders
being dead and boring. Equally it could apply to the mayor situation.
(Mr Whetnall) I can say that there is
no proposal for personality transplants, as it were. I think the
opportunity for public identification of a particular case, which
may work with the way that politics is by and large reported these
days, is what the Government sees as the opportunity in the proposals.
13. I want to go right back to the first point
you made about trying to re-enthuse the electorate to the electoral
process. Have you considered part of the way of re-enthusing the
electorate in the Metropolitan areas might be bringing in the
police, fire, waste disposal, some of the functions that affect
people's every day life and make them disillusioned with the political
process, bringing that under the new structures?
(Mr Whetnall) I think that is one of
the proposals that has come up in consultation responses so it
will be considered. It would tend to run to a rather more extensive
reconstruction of the form of local government than the Bill provisions,
which are essentially addressed to decision making structures.
Certainly it is in the consultation responses and ministers will
no doubt want to look at it.
14. I want to follow up on one of the answers
that you gave to Sir Paul just now particularly on the responses
you have had to the consultation exercise so far. You referred
to some of the responses indicating a desire to at least add an
area based model of governance to the range of models but you
also said that of course there is a power under the regulations
for other models to be introduced. One of the problems that quite
a lot of local authorities at the moment are attempting to embrace
or address as part of the agenda that the Government has and implement
it is that too much of the detail is in a sense still absent understandably.
I have two or three questions which might help on that. The first
is just a practical question around the timetable for the production
of regulations and when we might either at a later stage in the
passage of the Bill or even during our deliberations have an opportunity
to get some greater detail of what might be in the regulations
that will be laid as a consequence of the Bill. The second is
more specific about area committees because in the documentation
there is a very hopeful reference in paragraph 3.26 to decentralised
structures being tailored to best fit local circumstances, and
I very much welcome that. However, in paragraph 3.27 you go on
to say that their role would be seen as advisory, advising the
council's executive. Is there any possibility and scope at this
stage of introducing on to the face of the Bill a model that would
allow for decision making roles for area based committees? Perhaps
if I pause at that point I might have a couple of other points
(Mr Whetnall) Thank you. On the question
of the timetable for producing some of the drafts of regulation
and supplementary detail, or even producing amendments to the
Bill, I think we understand the point that is being made; it is
difficult to envisage just how the Bill works in detail without
some of that material. Therefore, we are organising the legal
and other resources to get some of it drafted, drawing on the
offers of help and constructive ideas that have been put forward
in the consultation package. Actually I do not think that it would
be honest to say that we are confident that we will have a lot
more material drafted within the timescale of this Committee if
you are planning to report in July.
15. We are instructed to report by 31 July.
(Mr Whetnall) Certainly we acknowledge
that it would be helpful when the Bill is introduced to have more
of that on hand because it is an important part of the explanation.
I detected sometimes a slight tension between consultation responses
which said "there are a lot of regulation making powers and
we hope this will not all be too prescriptive" and those
which said "it is really terribly important for us to be
given more detail as to how all of this works". I think it
is going to be a test of drafting to get that balance right because
essentially the more detail, the more prescriptive. There are
a lot of things, including the way in which councils structure
area systems and decentralisation, which I think the minister
is interested in leaving as far as possible to local discretion.
Your point that the paper says that these area committees should
be advisory is again something that the consultation responses
raised, whether they might be extended to a degree of delegation
on budgets and so on, and it will have to be part of the analysis
in taking all that material forward.
16. Can I draw your attention particularly to
figure six in the document and also the two figures that follow
that. The scheme that is laid out there to some extent suggests
that it has been modelled on the US experience, that is the separation
of the executive legislature, and it is quite clear from that
that a directly elected mayor proposes a policy framework but
does not decide the policy, the council decides the policy framework,
the mayor then takes executive decisions and the cabinet implements
policies under the political guidance of the mayor. The problem
with the model is that it is not the same as the US model in as
much as the mayor is drawing the executive from the legislature
and there is no supreme court to decide on disputes about policy
implementation. What appears to be the case in this particular
model is that there is a potential for almighty confusion between
what is policy, what is implementation, what is an executive decision
and what is a policy framework. How is it suggested that might
be resolved and how can disputes be avoided?
(Mr Whetnall) Partly the answer to that
is the way that the council in draws up the details of its constitution,
and sets out the division of responsibilities in that document
and in the Standing Orders. That can be done in a way which helps
to produce a clear understanding of who does what. My understanding
of the American models is that they can also vary as people draw
down from some fairly stock descriptions of how it works and build
in a degree of local variation. Again, there is the balance that
I referred to between prescription and leaving room for locally
tailored solutions and structures.
17. But, with respect, the executive in this
model will be drawn from legislature which is outside any North
American experience. Therefore, for example, on a whipped vote
to secure a policy outcome the members of the executive who have
been drawn from the legislature presumably would be required to
take part in a whipped vote on a policy outcome which may be something
that they have directly argued against as members of the executive.
(Mr Whetnall) I do not know whether the
whipping would always work that way. One of my favourite books
on constitutions is The Silence of Constitutions.
18. A thin book.
(Mr Whetnall) No, it is quite a large
book. It compares Charles I and Richard Nixon at length. The ways
in which consensus is arrived at in a framework within which there
are two sources of electoral authority are obviously rich and
deep and various. It may be that the American tradition has a
certain amount of court decision and litigation around it that
we would go on seeking to avoid. I agree with you that there is
an art in designing the constitution and it is not especially
something which I think Central Government will have all the wisdom
Chairman: I do not want to curtail your questions
but it is just that there are a number of issues that have arisen
out of the third part of your intervention. Perhaps we can come
back to you in a minute, Mr Burstow, because Mr Gray wants to
come in on this area and I think Lady Hamwee also has a point.
Dr Whitehead, have you finished?
Dr Whitehead: With respect, I am not sure that
I have been illuminated greatly but I have finished, yes.
19. Just on the question of areas, I think your
answer wasforgive me if I am wrongthat you were
listening very carefully to what people were saying during the
consultation process and therefore you might change the distinction
that Mr Burstow has very properly pointed out between the two
paragraphs in the document, one of which is proposed areas, the
other of which says that it must be advisory and not decision
making. Am I right in taking from that that you foresee one possible
outcome from the consultation as being that you would allow area
committees to be decision making? If that is one possible outcome
am I not right in thinking that there is a very real difficulty
with that which is the reason why that distinction was written
in the firstly place, namely that you are effectively doing away
with the council and creating a lower decision making body, you
are actually saying "we are replicating parish councils and
town councils perhaps by decision making levels at lower level
than the district council". That is problem one, you are
actually changing the constitution of the council very fundamentally.
Of course part of that might well be that those area committees
will be of a different political persuasion to the overall council.
That is the case, for example, in North Wiltshire where it is
trying out these experiments at the moment. It would mean, therefore,
that the area committee will be able to take a diametrically opposite
decision from that which would be taken by the overall council
which again fundamentally unbalances the constitution principle
behind the election of the council as a whole. Could you clarify
that, first of all whether or not you might be considering doing
away with that distinction and, if you are considering that, how
you would answer that constitutional imbalance?
(Mr Whetnall) I think what I am saying
is that there are consultation responses which will need to be
considered and we are not close minded on them. I take both the
points you make. One is if you give an absolute transfer of budgets
to area units and do not require those to reflect the political
composition of the council as a whole you have effectively fragmented
the system. One question is whether it is possible to do that
through some form of budgetary delegation which does not go all
the way. Another question is whether it is possible to do that
in a framework where the constitution sets some limits for the
way in which an area committees are to exercise their discretion.
This could be done, for example, within the framework of best
value so the committee has to demonstrate that it is consistent
with the policies the council has adopted on overall efficiency
and economy and so on. I think at present where there is area
delegation there tends to be area delegation within constraints.
My answer is that there is quite a large range of possible permutations.
The Government would not want to go so far as to wholly remove
the purpose of executive separation by having very large amounts
of decision making and spending delegated out to committees, but
there are certain possibilities for taking a course which continues
to allow decentralisation and neighbourhood planning in decision
1 Local Leadership, Local Choice, Cm.4298, March 1999. Back
Executive Mayors for Britain? New forms of political leadership
reviewed-Michael Clarke, Howard Davis, Declan Hall and John Stewart;
University of Birmingham, December 1996; ISBN 0 7044 1759 6. Back