Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Report

Examination of Witness (Questions 180 - 194)



Ms Moran

  180. I do not think there is much dispute about the need for change. I wanted to come back on something you said, that we need to look at the strict separation of roles because the whole thing is about creating a dynamic. There is the danger, I suppose—and perhaps you can enlighten me -of a potential power imbalance in that dynamic, not least because some people will have information and others may not, and access to information through those relationships is going to be absolutely crucial here, not just for the participants, so that each of the new executives and the community councils (as I like to call them) are able to have an effective role but also a real accountability and transparency for citizens. How would you see that being safeguarded so that there is not an instinctive taking of power and information to the elected mayor or, indeed, the executive, which is the usual process that happens in political structures?

  A. Thank you for the last sentence because that really enables me to start my comment, which is that I hope we will all be honest enough in this room to say that in any known political process and institution, access, control and manipulation of information is one of the things that is done in order to make politics work or not work. So I will freely admit that under the system, yes, people will try and control access to information and I think you have put your finger on it. What we need to do is try and ensure as level a playing-field as we can and I think there are some things that we can do about basic provisions in relation to access to information, both to the papers that have gone to the executive, the recording of the executive's decisions and the advice that the executive receive, which I think we should be quite strong and positive about. We also need to think about giving the assembly not only formal access to information but the formal capacity to engage in analysis. It is one thing to have facts and figures; it is another to have some capacity to enable you to work through those facts and figures and produce a coherent argument and a coherent position and I think that is something we would need to think through again. I will just add that it seems to me that the attraction of this model—and it is certainly the way it works out in other European cities—is that actually an awful lot more is then pushed into the public domain. There is actually a lot more debate. One of the reasons I strongly favour the mayoral model is that one of the problems with our local political system is that people do not discuss local politics. The election is actually a referendum on whether you like the national government or not, but I think that the mayoral model will mean that there will be politics about Birmingham, politics about Leeds; it will be about whether or not you are delivering in those cities. I actually think it will be more open and more focused on the needs of those particular localities.

  181. Could I ask you one slightly different question. The danger in the focus that we have at the moment is not just that we are focusing on the structures but we are looking at the top-down approach. The question really is that we have had some concerns, I think, in this Committee at other times about the fact that it is not clear how the proposed structure would relate to devolved and decentralised structures, area committees and so on. Do you see a direct relationship and how do you see that working, because some of us come from a background which is very much about devolving power to the local level and seeing that as the way in which you engage the citizens so that they come out and vote?

  A. I would argue very strongly that the ideal model is one where you have an effective and strategic centre and still a powerful and influential periphery as well. That to me would be the ideal model. In the case of Barcelona, which I mentioned previously, they have formally established that. So although around the mayor there is an executive committee and they provide much of the strategic leadership in Barcelona—and I think they have done a wonderful job over the last 20 years in providing that strategic leadership—they also have ten district or area committees which, in effect, have the responsibility to look after the needs of these individual neighbourhoods or townships within Barcelona and they have significantly got powers and responsibilities, and, most importantly, real connections and links back into the executive so that they can get things done for their area. So if an authority and if a population want to have a combination of the two, that seems to me perfectly possible and, indeed, in many instances would be desirable, provided that within the communities there is enough sense of identity that people can feel that the neighbourhood of the area base which they are working on is one they can relate to.

  Sir Paul Beresford: Professor Stoker, I am interested in the strength which you give on polls because I am perhaps a little cynical about them. One only needs to look at the New Zealand poll on proportional representation, which was followed immediately afterwards by the notion now that they would like another poll so that they could throw it out again, so that one would be taking a risk of something getting out of line, particularly, as I hope you will agree, that the public who vote in a poll for a mayor see someone charismatic, strong, perhaps a benevolent dictator, and one can think of a few of those in local government and central government where the public support them, but the reality is that this will not happen. The reality is that we do not have enough charismatic people who would be interested in all the towns and all the villages, urban and rural, actually to do this and carry it through. The reality is likely, if we could use the New Zealand system again, you will get the public, and New Zealand is a classic at this, voting for a mayor who stands in one direction but will vote for a council in the opposite direction because they actually do not want anything vibrant in the middle and you get stagnation. You do not get this vibrant discussion, you get stagnation, and you can see it in many of the areas in New Zealand at the moment. If we look back at the past systems, which you derided, there are those that have actually worked, whether it has been a charismatic leader or a council group. I can remember in the 1980s in some areas in London there were high turnouts, 50, 60 and nigh on 70 per cent in some of the wards. People were interested and talking about it. Politics to the Italians is the lifeblood so I thought it was a little unfair when you used that example. It would be possible to use the present system we have got with the changes that could actually bring much of what you want into the system without going through these drastic and quite dramatic changes, perhaps changes that the public would be against. The voter apathy at the moment, the general apathy against politics, I wonder if it is going to become worse because we have got more tiers of government and local government and more elections and there is going to be voter apathy because of that apart from anything else? Perhaps the thing that really concerns me about some of the systems put forward in the White Paper are the ones that I think will lead to a tendency towards corruption. We have got very little of it now, there are examples but in spite of that we have got an openness in the committee system where decisions are made by the cabinet system in the council but then they have to go on open papers through the committee system where it is available to the press, it is all in the library, it is clear and it is open. It is the implementation of policy and some of these systems that deeply concerns me. One has visions of T Dan Smith who managed to pass the system, what could he do with these?

  Chairman: There is a lot there.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

  182. Not much of a question.

  A. So I am not allowed to mention the Italians but the New Zealanders can be brought into the question.

  183. Fire away.

  A. The New Zealand model is the council manager model with a non-executive mayor. In some ways I think that model has some attractions and it may well be that it has some of the disadvantages that you have outlined. I must admit that in the material I have read on the model on the whole the assessment is somewhat more positive, arguing that it has actually created a dynamic which has been helpful and valuable in some of New Zealand's cities. I suspect it is an area where we probably need to do more investigation. You cannot expect any academic not to mention the need for more research at some point in the conversation. In relation to your broader points about apathy and politics, I am sympathetic really to the broad line argument which is there may be a whole range of factors in here which this set of changes will only partly address. I feel I would rather partly address them through this model rather than in effect do nothing. I fully accept that many people have done useful things and are still doing useful things in local government and some fine leader figures have emerged. The turnout figures on average are absolutely straightforward and clear. It may be that turnout in particular elections has been good in particular wards but overall the reality is they have been disastrous. On the corruption point I think the evidence is very unclear. I think that the systems themselves are not actually more or less prone to corruption, it is all about the culture of politics in those countries. Mayoral figures in Italy, and to some extent in Germany and in some parts of the States, have actually been the white knights against corruption within the system, so they have actually been leading a charge on the part of the public against corruption. You mentioned T Dan Smith. Corruption had occurred in our system and it often occurs because in our system people can hold power informally without being formally held to account. That is how T Dan Smith did what he was able to do. The advantage of the model that I am talking about is you know who is in charge and they can squirm as much as they like but they cannot deny it is their responsibility.

Mr Pike

  184. On the decline in the number of people voting in local government, can I put to you one of the things in the period you are looking at is there has been a decline in voting because the powers of local governments have declined over that period and the ability to actually do jobs has declined. As they have had less ability to be able to say "we will do this if you vote for us", the number of people who have bothered to turnout has declined. Linked in with that, ever since the Herbert Commission dealt with the London reorganisation in the 1960s, have we not actually dodged coming forward with a real solution for local government? We have still got two tiers in some parts of the country. So you have a mayor with a local authority that collects the money but spends less than 20 per cent of the money. You have got Greater Manchester where the City of Manchester has a cigar shape, a sausage, in the middle of Greater Manchester where it cannot deal with transport because transport is a much wider issue. Are these not things that we really need to be tackling as well? Looking at the Bill, when you look at the functions and the difference between whether you have a mayor or a cabinet taking the decisions do you think there is a clear definition between who does the decision taking and who is actually to implement them? Do you think there is too much left to secondary legislation in the draft Bill as it stands at the moment?

  A. Gosh! Okay. On the powers front, my point is that in metropolitan districts turnout was in the mid-30s in 1973 and it has bumped along at the 30s, so it was actually pretty disastrous even at the time that local government was supposedly more powerful. Notwithstanding that point I would say that, yes, as part of a broader reform package we have got to look at the powers and capacities of local authorities to undertake things that are in the interests and, indeed, wanted and desired by their own communities. I think you are right, this is not the only reform, I think there are other reforms. If I skip to your last point, in a way what I would argue is that the point about separation of powers is that it does create this dynamic. This is the point I have made before. I do not think you will ever get a system where you can clearly spell out in formal constitutional terms absolutely to the final nth degree the responsibilities of the different sides of the executive and the assembly. I think there is inevitably going to be both an element of personality affecting that and an element of customer practice. One of the more amusing parts of doing interviews in different European cities I have found is when you get to that stage in the interview and you say to them "if such and such happened and such and such happened, what would you do?" and then there is this desperate silence for about 20 seconds and then they just shrug and say "I do not know, we have not got any rules on that, we just make it up as we go along". We have got to accept that within any political system there is inevitably some way in which although we try and lay things down there is a sense in which things have to be worked out by customer practice and, hopefully, by commonsense on both sides.

  185. Would you say there is too much reliance on secondary legislation or do you think it is the correct balance within the draft as it is?

  A. I really am not a person with strong opinions about that one way or the other.

  Mr Pike: You have no view.

Mr Burstow

  186. First, I would like to return to the area committee issue which was referred to by Ms Moran earlier on. I wonder whether you might be able to say to us whether or not you perceive any obstacles within the legislation as currently drafted to establishing decision-making area committees? That is the first question. The second one is really about overview and scrutiny committees. One of the areas of concern potentially about the operation of overview and scrutiny committees in our current majoritarian system is that they will be made up of the same party as the executive and will be, to some extent, effectively weakened as a consequence of that in terms of doing the job that the Bill set out for them. How do you think that particular issue might best be addressed? Are there any other measures that could be incorporated in the Bill that could address it, and moving on from there to officer support, you referred in your evidence to the LGA, to "Chinese walls" needing to be put in place in respect of officers' relationships with members, particularly in respect of scrutiny. I wondered if you could briefly expand on that a little. Yesterday the Mackintosh Commission was published, looking at the relationship between the Scottish Parliament and Scottish local government, and one of the things they pointed up was the suggestion that whipping on committees ought to be a matter that is formally recorded as part of the process so that people know when a whipped vote takes place. It does not actually stop whipping but at least everyone knows it is taking place. Do you think that might be a proposal that could be taken on board in the English system?

  A. Thank you for all of those. Yes, I think you are right, that at the moment it would be difficult for these decentralised committees to be formally decision-making committees under the Bill as it is currently drafted and I think that is something that the Government should have a look at because I think there should be enough flexibility in the system to enable those authorities that want to go down that route to think about going down that route. Secondly, I think it is very interesting that the Government introduced the terminology "overview and scrutiny" and I think that captures the fact that we are probably talking about two functions here at least to be performed by these committees. One is the review of policy, which I think probably inevitably, if it is a high-profile political issue, will have some element of whipping and a straightforward party discipline in it. It is difficult to imagine it not, but I would hope that the scrutiny function, the function that is about investigating the performance of the authority, could be something where there could be a much more substantial role for opposition members and, indeed, much less emphasis on whipping. Indeed, to work effectively then I think that the de-emphasising of whipping needs to occur. There are some authorities that have already begun to experiment in very imaginative and interesting ways in terms of trying to operationalise that. In terms of the "Chinese wall", I think again on the whole I prefer it if we kept the single officer core principle which we have operated on in British local government, but I do think it means that through secondment or through the good offices of the chief executive, those people who are working to support the overview and scrutiny committees will have to have some backing and support to enable them to feel free both to produce information—"to kill the fact" is, I think, a phrase that I have heard thrown around—and also some effective analysis that will, in effect, challenge perhaps senior or other officers within the authority. Again I think it is a challenge but I think it is do-able given the skills and qualities of many of our local government officers, and I am sympathetic to Mackintosh's suggestions in relation to whipping. I think Mackintosh particularly picked up very strongly on the whole the way in which in some senses we have developed a much more elaborate whipping culture in local government over the last 20 years than seems appropriate or proper and I think if we can wheel that back in some ways that particular mechanism might help. It would be worth thinking about it.

Sir Paul Beresford

  187. Would you not have the difficulty that overt whipping would be reduced and replaced by covert patronage?

  A. Yes. I think you have to accept the fact that you might formally reduce whipping but it is certainly possible that people will be influenced in other ways. I am not trying to be naive about the way politics works in any of these systems. Oddly, these people behave like politicians, and I mean that very positively.

Mr Burstow

  188. I just wanted to ask, one, could you possibly let us have the details of some of those authorities that are being innovative in these areas so that we can at least have a look at the material in a written way at some point? Secondly, I obviously did not phrase my question in a leading enough way to get the what I was looking for, so I will rephrase it in a slightly different way this time. One of the comments that has been made by many—and I have made it myself in a number of places—is the concern that there are a number of authorities that are one-party states. That arises from our current voting system. Do you think there is any need for us to examine the voting system in the context of improving the scrutiny process?

  A. Yes, the answer is I am personally an advocate of introducing proportional representation into local government and I do think that it has the advantage that you are suggesting, which is that it means that even in those authorities which may still have a majority group, it guarantees an effective opposition and I think it would actually have a positive effect on increasing turnouts. In relation to scrutiny commissions, there is going to be a report published by the New Local Government Network, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which is going to be released on 7 July, so we will try and make sure that you directly have a copy of that.

Mr Smith

  189. I have two quick questions. I think the first one was covered by Peter anyway. To what extent do you think that these proposals in the draft Bill are addressing the symptom and not the cause of the problems in local government, i.e. the loss of power over the last 20 or 30 years, and that needs to be addressed? Secondly, do you accept that there is a separate political culture in Wales, where there is a much more collegiate and collective system of decision-making which is reflected through local government and, indeed, reflected in the structures in the National Assembly for Wales, which does not provide a clearly separate executive in its function?

  A. I do not agree with the analysis about its affecting to deal with the symptoms rather than the underlying causes. I think that one of the things we have to recognise is that the role of local government has not just been a matter of its losing powers or not losing powers. The role of local government has fundamentally changed. It is now a community leader. It has to work in a different way. It has to work with partners in the private sector, in the public sector and in the civic community if it is actually going to tackle the problems everyone cares about. It never did have the powers directly itself to do that. It has to have the capacity to reach out so that it can tackle problems such as economic development, crime, the environment. It actually requires to work with these partners. So, frankly, it needs to learn a new form of governance where it builds power rather than simply relies on the powers given to it. So I think the changes go fundamentally towards creating that better capacity for community leadership and that new style of working that is central. I am not sufficient of an expert on Welsh local government really to give you a definitive answer but my immediate reaction is, given the problems of turnout in some of the local government elections in Wales and given the problems of unusual behaviour on the part of some Welsh councillors, it seems to me that there is a prima facie case for considering these models in Wales just as much as there is in England and, to be honest, in Scotland, too.

Dr Whitehead

  190. I have a very quick question. In the light of what you said about the need for the mayor to be a community champion and so on, do you consider it a problem that there has apparently been a decoupling of the proposal in the White Paper to introduce a new duty for councils to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their area, and do you think that without that it may well be possible that, as it were, the mayor's platform could be diluted once the mayor is in place?

  A. Basically I agree that I would prefer it if that duty were given to local authorities as well. I do not think it is necessarily completely undermined, but, yes, in the ideal world I would prefer it if that duty were incorporated in the same legislation and came into place at the same time, as it is in the London case.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

  191. When we took evidence from the LGA—and I think it is partly reflected in Sir Paul's observation—there was a suggestion that the opinion polls that had been undertaken on the directly elected mayor were in some way simplistic and perhaps for that reason produced a somewhat misleading result. I would like to know what your response is to that. I think the other suggestion was that there was a suggestion that somehow councillors knew best about the model of governance that would be most appropriate for their area. I would quite like your reaction to those two observations?

  A. My reaction is really quite straightforward. We are talking about a system of representative democracy here and it seems to me that that is a decision for the public to be heavily involved in. You are talking about the way you want to be governed. It seems to me that as citizens we have a right to be involved in that discussion. I have to say that in my discussions with many councillors I would not say that they are overwhelmingly informed about the alternative models and the way that they will work and operate. I think they operate to a considerable degree on the basis of blind prejudice and an unwillingness to actually think through the implications of different models. I think you have to take the public opinion polls on face value. No matter how we have asked the question, no matter who has asked the question, the response always comes back which is, "yes, we are seriously interested in this idea". Frankly, I do not find it surprising because basically you are asking the public "would you rather be involved in making the decision about who your civic leaders are or would you rather it is filtered through a councillor system where you cannot name the councillors, you do not know who they are and you have got no idea what they really stand for?" I think that the opinion poll evidence is clear and it is not as if we are unique. When the Germans and the Italians changed to the system they found overwhelming popular support for this option as well. I do not find the opinion poll evidence surprising. Indeed, what is amazing is that it is so cumulative. Four, five, six, seven different types of surveys, work that has been done in a more sophisticated way in terms of citizens' panels and citizens' juries, again comes up with the basic response which is that the public is seriously interested.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

  192. You said blind prejudice of the people who have been working in it for years. It is easy to say that but we all know in this room that the English electorate are very badly informed about the machinery of their government and you have described the councillors as full of blind prejudice but you are putting an enormous trust in the electorate of whom a recent survey showed that some people thought that National Insurance paid for the police and the health service. Are you really confident to use the words "blind prejudice"?


  193. We will ask Professor Stoker respond to that and then I think we ought to close this part of the session.

  A. I am very happy as a democratic to ultimately sign up to the wisdom of the public.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

  194. Like Napolean I. Referenda do not have a very good history in European history.

  A. A democratic system ultimately relies on the fact that an ordinary citizen's opinion is just as good as anyone else's opinion. I think we need to take much more seriously the public's willingness to express their views in these areas. I agree that we do not necessarily want to hand the whole thing over to Government by referendum but in this particular instance we can say that the public are at least as well informed in their judgment about the issue as any councillors will be.

  Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: Napoleon I benefited greatly from referenda, remember that.

  Chairman: Professor Stoker, thank you very much on behalf of the Committee for coming. Thank you for giving us so much time, we are grateful to you for all of your observations. Thank you.

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