Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Report


Examination of Witness (Questions 200 - 219)

THURSDAY 24 JUNE 1999

COUNCILLOR BRENDAN BIRD, COUNCILLOR OBAJIMI ADEFIRANYE, COUNCILLOR TOM DAVIDSON, COUNCILLOR AILEEN HAMMOND AND COUNCILLOR GERRY HARRISON

Mr Burstow

  200. But can you attend the executive and sit in and listen to their deliberations?

  (Cllr Bird) I as an administration councillor can attend the mayor's board. Papers are private and it is hardly welcome but there are very few education items are covered by it sometimes to do the analysis of scrutiny on the scrutiny committee. For three and a half months this year, between February and May, apparently there was not one single education item which needed scrutiny, so you only pick up any issue if an item comes up for scrutiny.

  Chairman: You have provoked great interest in a number of Members who would like to ask some questions. Lord Bassam?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

  201. Is it your proposition that it is only through the committee system that you are able to get information out of officers and members? Can we have a yes or no on that? Is that your fundamental belief?

  (Cllr Bird) We are strong supporters of a well managed committee system without any question.

  202. Before this new system was introduced you got all of your information, this is what you are saying today, simply by going along and attending committee meetings. Presumably, and I am not trying to put words in your mouth, the more committees you are on, therefore, the more information you have as a member. Is that your contention?

  (Cllr Bird) No. You have to specialise in certain areas of the local authority, we all agree that. I was on an education committee and a housing committee and a direct services committee. The only point I am making is that all the current issues coming up from Government, things which are happening in the borough which I would be briefed on at the call over housing committee, direct services or education committees, I no longer get and it reduces my representational role in the community.

  Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am very puzzled by this because there is a general convention that any elected member of a local authority has an absolute right to know anything about anything which is relevant to the exercise of their duties and their functions as an elected member. What is to stop you simply asking the new executive member or the director or one of the senior or leading members of the administration any question you wish to ask them at any time? If you were reliant on the quarterly committee cycles for your information surely what happens in between would mean that you would be missing out on a whole tranche of information that might come into the authority that might assist you in the exercise of your duties?

Sir Paul Beresford

  203. Could I add to that before you answer. Is one of the problems that you need sufficient papers to have the knowledge to ask questions?

  (Cllr Bird) You need to have it in a focused structured way. It is not realistic to say to councillors who have jobs and families "you can make enquiries to ask about things", you need to be told about things in a focused way and be able to relate to your local community and local authority.

Mr Pike

  204. Are you able to give an example of a major decision affecting the ward you represent that was taken without you knowing about it?

  (Cllr Bird) There are lots of things.

  205. You may want to write to us. Can you give us an example of where a major decision was taken in this way affecting the ward you actually represent and you found out afterwards?

  (Cllr Bird) I have talked about my role as a school governor. In maintenance work—only a very small thing—they told the school, I did not know about it, it was added to the capital programme but I did not know. There are lots of circulars that go to schools direct, to the chairs of governors and to head teachers, which we would normally have a briefing on as to what they were and have some local authority insight. For instance, talking about school meals, the fair funding for schools aspect, I need informed local briefings of what it means for our local primary schools and I do not get it now.

  Chairman: We have a number of questions to ask. Could I ask Members of the Committee to put their points before we move on to other questions. I know there are some other witnesses who wish to contribute to this particular point. If I can take questions from Lord Carvarvon, Dr Whitehead, Mr Burstow and Mr Pike and then ask the other witnesses to give us their experiences.

  Earl of Carnarvon: I will be very quick because Lord Bassam has asked two-thirds of the questions that I wanted to ask.

  Lord Bassam of Brighton: My apologies.

Earl of Carnarvon

  206. No, I could not be more delighted. First of all, I have been to all the London boroughs in the last two years represented along the table and was very shaken by Councillor Bird's point that he went as a governor and I imagine a councillor in the same area to a school meeting. You did not have the opportunity of going to talk to anyone in the education department responsible for the primary school?

  (Cllr Bird) I am not saying that at all. It is always possible to say that you can go to the officers to get information and they want to help, the officers are extremely helpful and we have a wonderful Director of Education in our borough. The problem is things arise at governors' meetings— I actually listed the things that came up at the governors' meeting last night, things like the numeracy strategy, the Green Paper on teachers' salaries, fair funding in relation to asset management. These papers had gone to the head teacher. I would normally have known about it being a member of the education committee but I had no input into it.

  207. The point you are making is that previously under the committee system you had the information but under the present system you do not get the information?

  (Cllr Bird) That is correct.

  208. That is agreed by all along the table, is it? That is my point cleared up.

  (Cllr Harrison) I am Councillor Harrison from Camden. Thank God we have not quite followed Hammersmith & Fulham down this path but there is more to it, with respect, than just committee papers. I am on the environment committee in Camden and the leisure committee in Camden. We attend briefings. We go right the way across the borough to look at examples of what that department is doing. The actual paperwork is in a sense a small part of it. We also, having built up expertise, have got direct lines of contact with officers who we can phone up and say "what is going on here in terms of traffic" or whatever it may be.

  Lord Bassam of Burstow: How do you envisage that might change in a new and more streamlined decision making process.

Baroness Thornton

  209. Why would it change?

  (Cllr Harrison) Because it is clear, and our colleagues from Lewisham and Haringey will point this up, what are emerging are first and second class councillors. We are incredibly frustrated.

Chairman

  210. It might be helpful if you could just tell the Committee very briefly what structure has been put in place in Camden so we know the background against which you are speaking.

  (Cllr Harrison) At the moment, and Councillor Hammond will speak specifically on the consultation that has taken place, it is the only major consultation in the country on these new models of political management and it has been overwhelmingly rejected. Aileen perhaps should talk about that.

  Chairman: Can we come back to that. We are talking about the lack of information but I will not forget the point.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

  211. Basically what you are saying is that under the revised system you have got to ask the question before you get the answer?

  (Cllr Harrison) That is right.

  212. Whereas before at the committee everything was produced before?

  (Cllr Harrison) Exactly.

  213. Essentially you are the person who has to feel for the issue and if it is a sensitive issue you cannot find it unless you happen to hit on the right question?

  (Cllr Hammond) You have to know when a question needs to be asked by magic.

  Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: Unless you happen to hit the golden spot. I understand.

Dr Whitehead

  214. I have to say as a former council leader myself I am not sure I recognise this golden age of previously knowing things and people not knowing things now. As long as I have been involved in local councils there have been backbenchers saying they do not know a single thing, they are excluded from information and so on. Clearly it is the role of the local authority to get the systems together and the information right and there may well be local authorities who have bad systems and I would fully accept that. It may well be true that if you are on a committee you know a lot more but if you do not happen to be on a committee, say you were a governor who did not happen to be on the education committee, the system of information may well deny you the right to get that.

  (Cllr Hammond) No, you get agenda papers.
  (Cllr Bird) In Camden we do.

  215. Is it not part of the role of a councillor to go and find things out?

  (Cllr Bird) Yes, if you are a full-time councillor you can do that. You need to have it in a structured way and you need to get an informed opinion from the officers. For instance, I can give you one example: I sit on Notting Hill Housing Trust Committee, a major housing association, and on their agenda this week there were nine or ten items that had local authority dimensions—I listed the ones that came up at the meeting—and yet I did not have an input as a local authority councillor representative on that housing association because I did not know what the council position was. I did not know that these were fresh things which had been told to me by Notting Hill Housing Trust. I read the housing press but I had no local authority dimension.

  216. The thrust of my question to you is do you believe that it is exclusively the changeover from the committee system to a cabinet system and a mayor system that is responsible for you not having this information or can you conceive of information systems under any system which either would allow you to have information or alternatively might deny you that information? Is it structure or is it particular councils making particular arrangements?

  (Cllr Bird) I think it is both. There are always going to be shortcomings in communication systems within local authorities. There always were, even under the committee system. My point is that it has become very much more pronounced than previously.

Mr Burstow

  217. I have two things. One, I was interested in your description of the lack of effectiveness of the scrutiny process in Hammersmith and Fulham and the way in which members of the majority party were not taking an active part in that process. However, could you tell me in what way materially the committee system enabled members of the majority party to play a more active part? Were they playing a more active critical part in the old system, and if not, why not? Secondly, have there been any changes to group standing orders or group processes that have occurred as a consequence of this new system being put in place?

  (Cllr Bird) First of all, group standing orders obviously have been amended. All I can do is refer back to experience prior to the introduction of the system. You did have this learning curve at a committee, at a call-over, which was a very effective form of scrutiny, very focused, and you had continuity and that is what is missing now. That has actually gone now. All the value you get from that has gone and you are faced with a situation where, as Lord Bassam said, if you want information you have to go and find it out and you find out what the issues are.

Earl of Carnarvon

  218. Could I ask a question which relates to the very point you just raised now. It is purely that when you said you cannot get the answer from your member of the scrutiny committee, is it because he is in a different political party, or could you explain that to us as well?

  (Cllr Bird) Most of the questions are fairly technical in that with all the education circulars that come out you need a professional officer to give you a briefing on it. An executive member is by and large not capable of doing it. It is important. You have to have an executive member and you need a structure for that to happen and that does not happen now and that is the information gap that we have.

Mr Pike

  219. All four local authorities have decided to take the option that has been given to you by the Government to try as a pilot prior to the legislation. The important thing to us—and this is one of the advantages of having this pre-legislative scrutiny—is that if you were now to look at the Bill, how do you think the Bill could avoid some of the problems that you see now? Certainly the Government is not intending it to work in exactly the type of way you have been illustrating to us, so how would you think that the Bill could be improved, or would you like to go away and send us a note on that, because that is what we have to look at and that is the whole purpose of our looking at it over the next couple of weeks, and we have a very tight time schedule, as you know?

  (Cllr Davidson) I would say by giving us the option of the status quo plus, of an improved committee system. Many of the shortcomings of the old committee system have been pointed up, probably a proliferation of committees. We could easily cut them down if we had to and the Government could put a limit on them if that is what they wanted to do. The time spent in committee is often a question of chairing and having a properly trained chairman to control the debate rather than just having a free-for-all and arbitrarily saying at ten o'clock, "That's the end of debate. Now vote." We could do that. If we wanted a real scrutiny committee and we wanted a real opposition, PR is the answer and I would be in favour of proportional representation in local elections, perhaps not in the national election, a different issue, but I would like to see local green parties and even independents who have particular axes to grind in a ward or whatever standing and being elected. We are inclusive in Haringey. We want everybody who is interested and wants to participate to come in and participate.


 
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