Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)



Lord Pilkington

  120. Would you want an executive of about ten?

  (Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) I cannot see how a large authority can have less than ten. It might choose to have more and I do not see why it should not have more if that is what suits it.

  121. Even smaller authorities would need fulfilling. Three would be ridiculous.

  (Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) Absolutely, I agree.

Ms Moran

  122. A quick question. It would be helpful if there was some expansion on the vision for the role of the—I hate using the phrase "back bench councillor"—community councillor, the very important powerful community councillor. Some of the comments about looking at grass cutting and so on, with the greatest respect, do not do justice to what is being articulated there. I wonder whether there has been anything done to develop the ideas around that, particularly in the context of a potential power? I keep calling it power community initiative because I go back that far but I cannot remember what the current title is. That seems to open up even more avenues of opportunity and exploration for these community councillors which perhaps we have not fully developed our thinking on. I wonder if that is an area that you have done some further work on and, if not, could some new thinking be given to it?

  (Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) There was the LGM/LGA publication about this which identified a number of issues on that.
  (Councillor Jones) There has been a piece of work commissioned by the LGA which in actual fact is an excellent document and is being presented in the democracy task group tomorrow. If such a document is sought I can certainly commend it, I had the opportunity of reading it myself last night.

Sir Paul Beresford

  123. A few small things. I was interested in your comment about improvements for backbenchers or whatever we are going to call them. Listening to the run down of the various forms which this could take it occurred to me that this could actually happen now under the present system if the local authority wanted to get its act into gear and do it, it is in the hands of them. This leads me on to another question and that is about the present local authorities. Many of them run a form of cabinet system anyway but the difference is that the papers are being sent down for discussion with the committees and then on to the full council. This does have the advantage that it is open. Even if the committee is whipped the papers, the ideas, and so forth are discussed and it is there for the public to see. One of the fears that some authorities have is that the new system of mayors or executives will actually breed the possibility of secrecy and difficulties for the scrutiny committees to get to the bottom of policy decisions or, even more importantly, actual implementation of policy decisions. This could lead to more corruption. We even get corruption now in a few isolated cases under the present system. The third and final one, if I can come back to the point Mr Graham Stringer made about polls and mayors. I think when we have a referendum such as the one he is talking about people see the mayor as a "personality" and this I suspect adds to the attraction. I suspect the Government is hopeful that this will lead to a greater interest and, therefore, a greater turn out at the polls. In fact if we look back, like it or lump it, we have had some personalities in the past: Ken Livingstone is one example, Shirley Porter another, and I could name a number of others I am not naming in this room. I think if it is bred on the hope that there will be personalities then we are in for a disappointment. Yes, there will be some personalities, we get personalities with the present system, but we will also get a lot of dull personalities and that will not actually engender greater turn out at the polls.

  (Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) Some aspects of the scrutiny role can be carried out now without legislation and a number of councils are moving in that direction but it is difficult both to do that and run a full committee structure alongside. I think we do need more clarity and the Bill serves its purpose in that sense. Any new system requires safeguards, particularly access to the information, the reasons for decisions, proper recording of decisions. The Bill is vague about this. In our view if members of the cabinet or executive take decisions then they should be recorded by an officer.

  124. How do you define a "decision"?

  (Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) We are getting somewhat circular.

  125. Not really, that is quite important. In the White Paper at 3.64 the officials, when questioned about what is a decision, could not answer.

  (Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) The determination of an issue which affects expenditure and the practice of the authority, off the cuff.

  126. At what level, major or minor?

  (Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) Any determination by a single member should be properly recorded by an official, not just by a member. I think that is an important safeguard. It is clear that scrutiny committees will need to have the right of access to all information on which executive decisions are made, that is clearly essential. Finally, your point about personalities. If I may say so there are several experienced ex-council leaders on the Committee, let alone people giving evidence before it, many of whom have very distinguished local government careers. It is possible under the present system to give effective leadership without being directly regulated by the whole area. Graham Stringer pointed to a dichotomy between views of councillors and the public at large. You can say that 100 per cent of Members of the European Parliament believe that the European Parliament is important but clearly at least 75 per cent of the population of this country thought otherwise. I do not think you can read too much into that kind of statistical comparison. I think you are right, there is a view in Government, perhaps because we have a very charismatic Prime Minister, that there are hundreds of charismatic people around in local government waiting for the call to serve. That may be right but it does not have to be that route. Having said that, the LGA is not opposed to elected mayors. If that was deemed appropriate by the community in a community area, so be it. We would want to make sure that the system works effectively on behalf of the community.

  Chairman: I think we must start to move the Committee on to standards. I know that Mr Burstow, Lord Carnarvon, Lord Bassam and Lady Hamwee have got some further questions perhaps on other areas. We will take those four questions and then perhaps move on to standards.

Mr Burstow

  127. I just want to ask one or two further questions about scrutiny, the exercise of scrutiny, accepting that word is perhaps not an appropriate label to attach to the role as being defined. There is a concern that has been expressed and was in fact discussed in your own hearings a little while ago that the scrutiny process will be devalued to some extent or made less effective in those authorities, such as Richmond, where there is a one party state to a large degree, or indeed the London Borough of Sutton or a number of other authorities where one party has an overwhelming dominance in the authority. What approaches have been suggested within the LGA to try and address that sort of concern?

  (Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) As I indicated earlier, my own party is now working on this concept that the party rules on the way members conduct themselves publicly in terms of challenging decisions and so on and will have to be changed. It is not compatible with the scrutiny system to have a whip applied and we will certainly be changing that rule. I suspect that the words proportional representation may be in Mr Burstow's mind as he asks these questions. We have not got a view about that as an Association. It is a matter that we are looking into. I have a personal view that an element of proportional representation may well be desirable, but it is not a necessary concomitant of this change, as Lord Hanningfield is anxious to make sure. What is essential is that the members of scrutiny committees or structures of that kind must be free to ask questions and voice opinions contrary to that of the cabinet.

  128. Can I just follow up on the question about standing orders and rules within groups because we will set the PR point to one side, although I think it is an area which a number of members may wish to return to in due course with other witnesses. In respect of the standing orders of groups, are there any specific areas or specific changes in practice that groups have that the LGA has identified as being areas that might be recommended as best practice, not enshrined in legislation but recommended as best practice for groups to adopt in the future of any party?

  (Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) I do not know if we have yet taken that view. Councillor Jones and I are both on a committee in the Labour Party which is doing precisely that at the moment and we will be returning to it on Monday of next week.
  (Councillor Jones) My own Authority operates a scrutiny group at the present moment in time and it has already had a dispensation that it is not in any way controlled under the group whip. So they report straight to council under that proviso.

Earl of Carnarvon

  129. I am particularly interested in your reactions on page 12, paragraph 35, where the White Paper is encouraging local authorities to ask the general public what they want in the way of a framework for their local authority. When it really comes down to brass tacks and you are asking them whether or not they want a power station or an airport, you get about a nine per cent reaction from the total authority, probably something like that. I cannot believe that anybody, except the media or university professors, is going to react to whether or not you want a framework as suggested in the White Paper. I see the LGA themselves as saying we think this is a very exaggerated form of public relations. Mr Briscoe might react to that.

  (Mr Briscoe) I think our view would be that for a process of consultation to be successful it has to engage and be informative about the choices that are open to members of the public in order to ensure that the choices that are being made are being made in an informed way and are actually genuine choices between options that are understood. The way in which the framework of referendums are set up in the draft legislation would suggest that there is, first of all, an opening for members of the public to identify a desire to have a particular solution and to require a council to hold a referendum on that. The legislation would also apparently provide that the Government would determine what the questioning was and our view would be that that ought to be something which was determined independently, perhaps by the electoral commission rather than by the Government who are indicating a particular preference amongst options which may not be the preference that was being expressed locally either by the council or by the public when fully informed. Our example of Camden is an example where an attempt to make sure that members of the public knew what they were choosing from produced a different result from the one that might have been expected on the basis of the sort of opinion polls that Mr Stringer referred to earlier. Our view would be that in order to have a real choice—and the LGA recognises that should be a choice not by the council but by the council and its community working together—there needs to be an opportunity for a proper public debate about what the choices are.
  (Councillor Lord Hanningfield) In a large rural county a government imposed referendum would attract a virtually nil percentage turn out. Who is going to vote in a rural village on a government imposed referendum as to whether that county has a mayor? It would have no appeal to the electorate in any way at all.


  130. Presumably you would object to the referendum being only about the mayor or model?

  (Councillor Lord Hanningfield) Yes.
  (Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) That is certainly so. We think there is a case for having a threshold of turn out perhaps for a referendum to be binding.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

  131. I wanted to put these points to Sir Jeremy. Do I take it from what you have said this afternoon that the LGA accepts the case for the separation of powers in local authorities and you also accept the argument in the case of the creation of political executives and that in essence you would argue and would like to bring forward more evidence and perhaps more ideas on what the representational role of councillors might look like in the new modernised model? Is that a fair summary of your views?

  (Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) That is a fair summary with one caveat, that we do not think it is appropriate in every case for that executive/scrutiny split to be made, particularly in large geographical areas and where there is less of a tradition of party politics.

  132. Therefore, I suppose you could say that the LGA is generally in favour of the modernization model as long as it contains other elements of flexibility. So you could have additional and alternative models on offer and whilst you might not entirely favour having directly elected mayors, do you favour the public being given the option in a well-informed debate to plump for that particular alternative?

  (Councillor Lord Hanningfield) We are not against elected mayors. We do not think that can be forced on people. If they want to have an elected mayor, let them have an elected mayor.

  133. When the question was posed about councillors, perhaps only a few per cent like the idea of directly elected mayors, it did rather sound as though you councillors knew best and I am sure that is not what you intended, but it did have a resonance that might read that way and if that was not the intention of the LGA I would not want that to be a recorded view because I think that the public opinion polls, whilst one can always query the basis of polling, have been fairly universal in the range of findings that they have come up with and they do seem to have gathered a considerable legitimacy and also, for what it is worth, they have been very much in line with the outcome of the referendum in London on London having a directly elected mayor.

  (Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) I would not challenge that. One must be a little careful about assuming the referendum is the appropriate method for making political decisions in this country. After all, a referendum on hanging might show somewhat similar majorities in favour of hanging to this. I am not suggesting that the two things are comparable. What I am saying is that it is a question of having an informed debate, as you rightly say and I think some of us at the moment who might be better informed after years of service within the local government than people necessarily who are more involved with the service they are getting than with the structures that underpin them may have a different view at this stage. That does not mean that we are right and other people are wrong. It does mean that we have got to engage in a proper debate about it.


  134. Do you not think that the concept of an elected mayor is very much an urban concept? You are not suggesting that one culture is superior to the other. There is a difference of culture in districts and counties from large urban areas. Do you agree perhaps that the electorate in shire districts and counties might not even begin to comprehend the notion of an elected mayor?

  (Councillor Lord Hanningfield) Lord Bassam was born in rural Essex and if you look at rural Essex there really is no place for a mayor. Harlow, which is a very tight urban area, is contemplating having a mayor and that might be appropriate for Harlow and if they want to have a mayor I will support Harlow having their mayor. All of the opinion research that has been done on elected mayors has taken place in the urban areas and, as Lord Carnarvon said, the White Paper and the draft Bill is very much concentrating on solutions for urban areas. Fifty per cent of the country is still covered by counties and districts and even if they move to unitaries they will still be very rural unitaries. We have got one or two rural unitaries where you have got three or four small towns in a large geographical area. That is why we want this fourth option of whether streamlining the committee plus would be the most appropriate way of doing that, as it would be often in the two tier areas that we have got now particularly in the large counties where the geographical distances are great. You cannot have an elected mayor of Essex, you would have to have a Governor or something and when I start talking about a Governor of Essex everyone thinks I have got some ambitions or something.

Lord Bassam

  135. It had crossed our mind.

  (Councillor Lord Hanningfield) It is not compatible with the large two tier areas at the moment.

  136. I have this recollection that at LGA's Democracy Day last year there was a report of a poll of West Sussex and Arun conducted which suggested that even in those circumstances there was considerable support, majority support, for the notion of a directly elected political leader. I might be wrong but I do recall that from earlier references.

  (Councillor Jones) Can I just say in answer to that, supporting the thrust of the question, this is why we are perhaps hung up on this whole question of diversity. I honestly believe that following the London model it would be of absolute amazement to me if the major cities across the United Kingdom do not follow on from it because they will see it as a challenge, an opportunity for them to be matching, and they will fall like dominoes in my opinion, particularly the large authorities.

  137. I suspect there will be a competitive element.

  (Councillor Jones) Yes, I agree.

  Chairman: I think we will have to move on to standards.

  Baroness Hamwee: Can I ask a different question?

  Chairman: Providing it is on standards.

  Baroness Hamwee: It is partly the impact on officers.


  138. I think we will ask SOLACE to comment because it is unfair to ask Sir Jeremy to comment on his elected members. We really must move on to standards otherwise we will be inquorate before very long.

  (Councillor Lord Hanningfield) I will open on standards. Obviously the LGA supports the idea of high standards in local government and all the commentators say generally, and I expect you would agree, that there are very high standards in local government. It is the exception rather than the rule. Therefore, we have supported Lord Nolan's recommendations that every authority should have standards committees. We have been encouraging our authorities to have their own standards committees and a lot of authorities have taken that up and often with it independent chairmen. We are not at all against there being a national standards committee in the Bill but we are very concerned about the way that it is being set up. In simple words I think it could be a bureaucratic nightmare with all the complaints being referred to the national standards committee. In the early stages we feel there will be quite a lot of either frivolous or vexatious complaints where people want to get their own back on local politicians and things like that or the public complaining that they have not got something and want to put some political bias on it. We feel, as the Ombudsman has, there should be some rolling method of screening. Obviously there should be local standards committees in every authority, they should have an independent chairman, but perhaps there needs to be more than one independent member of those standards committees. Perhaps with those members there should be some way, or in some other way as the Ombudsman has, where we can actually screen the complaints locally before they refer to the national standards committee otherwise the national standards committee might actually have thousands of complaints and will get bogged down in a bureaucratic nightmare. It ought to be dealing with serious cases, we totally agree there, but there should be some system of doing it. We have talked about this to ministers and they say "if you come up with a system perhaps we will look at it". We would like them to take the view that really we should find some simple way of dealing with this so the national standards committee deals with the major complaints or the major problems and looks at them and comes up with solutions with some system of sifting all the complaints that are likely to come through in the early stages at least.

Lord Marlesford

  139. I would like to focus on a particular aspect of standards, which is planning, where the White Paper and the Bill have remarkably little to say other than a small amount in figure 11. Lord Hanningfield, you mentioned Nolan. If I could just remind us all that Nolan's main conclusion on this was: "Planning is probably the most contentious matter with which local government deals and is the one on which we have received by far the most submissions from members of the public. We have no doubt there have been serious abuses of the planning process." One example he gives as a recommendation is: "Government should require authorities to notify the appropriate Secretary of State of all planning applications in which they have an interest". The planning process does not seem to be dealt with in the Bill. Do you think it should be and, if so, how?

  (Councillor Lord Hanningfield) I think the provisions in the Bill would cover the planning process.

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 11 August 1999