Examination of Witness (Questions 220
THURSDAY 24 JUNE 1999
220. I do not want to prolong this but your
declaration sets out how you see the proposal and I accept you
are saying status quo improved. Okay, I accept what you are saying
about PR and I do not want to get involved in the argument on
PR this afternoon. I am totally opposed to it but we will not
get involved in that debate. I am saying if this Bill is drafted
as it is at the moment, how would you get over some of the problems
that you have highlighted, or could you go away and send us a
note on what you think could be done to the Bill to prevent some
of the problems that you have highlighted this afternoon occurring
if that format in the draft Bill is ultimately implemented by
(Cllr Hammond) What we would like to
do is tell you what we have done on consultation in Camden, which
has, in fact, resulted in quite a few suggestions from the public.
221. Perhaps we might move on to that. Tell
us as quickly as you can about the consultation and what has come
out of that?
(Cllr Hammond) I was one of the back-benchers
on an all-party committee to consult the public. We drew up a
questionnaire which explained very briefly what the present system
is and we introduced the three options which the Government has
given us. After enormous amounts of persuasion the leadership
said, "Yes, all right, you can accept none of these as being
an option which people might be interested in." We also had
92 organisation responses and 30 public meetings over Camden.
Our experience was completely opposite to that of Professor Stoker.
On the criterion, "Take decisions more efficiently and effectively,"
the highest of the Government's options was 20 per cent.; none
of these was 44 per cent. "Make clear who takes decisions:
cabinet, 23, none of these, 39." "Produce decisions
in touch with local views: leader of cabinet, 19, none of these,
49," and finally, perhaps the most significant of all, "Involve
the public more in decision-making: the cabinet, 20, none of these,
53." This was in spite of the fact that we had not had the
opportunity to spell out the present system plus. When we went
out to have public meetings we found out what people needed in
more detail. In my ward when I went into meetings, after the options
had been presented by officers in a very professional way the
first comment which came up was, "We are not interested in
knowing who is making the decisions. We are interested in influencing
them," and that was the overwhelming view. When we went on
into greater discussions we found that people had no problems
about having a group of people making decisions. In fact, they
preferred having a group of people making decisions and they certainly
were very appreciative that there were public papers produced
before any decision could be made and that they could attend the
meetings. There were certain problems which they identified and
these particularly related to committees which were whipped. There
are two possible approaches to this which came up in discussion.
The minimalist approach, which I think was overwhelmingly considered
to be important, is that one should not have a decision-making
committee after a group decision has been made by a majority group
before the public have had the opportunity to bring their deputations.
If people bring their deputations to a committee after a whipped
decision has been made in group, that denies the entire procedure.
So a minimalist change, an improvement on the status quo, would
be to say the public must have their chance to have a say before
whipped decisions are made and the decisions are made within party
political groups. The maximalist position, hated probably by most
political leaders but which the people rather yearn for, is that
the whip should be much more lightly applied and that on many
issues, unless they are specifically on the manifestos under which
parties were elected, the individuals should make up their own
minds and, in fact, the quasi-judicial committees should be the
rule rather than the exception, which, of course, the new code
of governance really does push us towards.
222. My question is a broader question than
just the councils because, going back to what Professor Stoker
had to say to us about the historic decline of people's engagement
with local government, notwithstanding all your wonderful meetings
in Camdenand, as a consumer of Camden's facilities, I can
imagine that some of those could not be dissociated from the fact
that you are intending to close down the local libraries
(Cllr Hammond) We have reversed that.
(Cllr Harrison) We reversed that last night.
223. Yes, I know, but people felt very strongly
about it and turned up, but I think we need to put that in its
context. Leaving that aside, there is a serious problem, if not
a crisis, about the lack of involvement, understanding and preparedness
of people to involve themselves in local decisions. I have read
through your declaration and I cannot see the things in there
that would help to resolve that. Really that is the crux of my
question to all five of you. "Citizenship and civic education
should be the responsibility of local authorities which must take
steps to improve this for their residents". Frankly I do
not see that is necessarily going to increase the number of people
voting in Camden or Lewisham from whatever it is now to the proportions
that we would want. I am not sure that is going to jerk people
into enthusiasm, which is what we want. There is an issue here
which is if you are opposed to the Bill, which it strikes me this
is about, how do you think we can achieve the results that we
want? That is a question for all of you. I am not convinced that
just tinkering with the process that we have at the moment is
going to achieve that.
(Cllr Harrison) May I answer that? It
seems to me that one of the implications of this split executive
scrutiny system and one of the things that is explicit from my
understanding of the Bill is that the press and the public will
be excluded. We now have supporting us, I think they are coming
to see you, the Newspaper Society which represents every regional
and local newspaper in the country. They are our channel. Earlier
when we were talking about briefings and that sort of thing and
asking the right questions of officers, very often those questions
are almost planted in our minds by the press who might be investigating
some aspect of local government or local policy. I think the Bill
will exclude that wider discussion. If that wider discussion is
excluded then not many 18 or even 80 year Olds will want to get
involved. Can I just give an anecdote, and I am sure those of
us who have been councillors will recognise this one. Is it not
true that sometimes when we knock on a door seeking election when
we are canvassing for ourselves, someone will answer the door
and say, "What do you do for the council? What is your job?"
I represent a ward in Hampstead and I am afraid even in Hampstead
people ask me that question. That is appalling. I think parliamentarians
and local councillors and education departments for the last 30/40
years have failed to give people any sort of idea how local government
works. You can go to a pub in Ireland and everyone knows what
a councillor does because it is on the school curriculum. The
same is true of France.
Earl of Carnarvon
224. It is education.
(Cllr Harrison) One of the aims in our
declaration is citizenship and civic education and civic pride
which will go when you have elected mayors. In Hammersmith &
Fulham the elected mayor does two ceremonial duties a week. In
Camden where we still have a traditional mayor the mayor has about
five or six engagements a day, Derby & Joan clubs and whatever.
They will go to that sort of thing. People are not going to want
to invite a political mayor to their social club or to their function.
I think we have to really address that. I do not think gimmicks
like elected mayors will help that.
(Cllr Davidson) I said earlier on I think proportional
representationand I know we do not want to get into a discussion
about thatis the way to get local people interested in
local issues. Professor Stoker was talking about a 90 per cent
turnout in mayoral elections in Italy but it is compulsory.
Lord Bassam of Brighton
225. It is not actually.
(Cllr Davidson) If you are found guilty
of a crime in Italy your voting record is taken into account along
with your criminal record in sentencing you. In America, of course,
you have something in the low 20s turnout for presidential elections
and that is for the election of the most powerful man in the world.
I do not think it necessarily follows that at mayoral elections
you have higher turnouts.
226. I think it would be very helpful if you
could write to us with some specifics based on the existing Bill
setting out what you consider to be the appropriate safeguards
that would assist with some of the problems that you see evolving
in the pilots. That would help us to form our decision. You did
not respond to Mr Pike. Picking up something that you said right
at the beginning, which I think was slightly off the cuff but
it worried me very much. You said that you know what spending
more time in your constituency really means. I just want to clarify
with you what you think the Bill is saying about the role of what
I call community councillors or back bench councillors, as some
people have called them, and whether you see that the proposals
in the Bill are somehow detrimental? I want you to elaborate on
that particular sentence that you raised at the beginning.
(Cllr Bird) I think it was a general
reflection that the last few papers on the preamble to the Bill
almost defined a creature called a backbencher and this lovely
creature needs to be preserved and looked after somehow and maybe
have a powerful role. That is not our experience. With the best
will in the world we feel very marginalised. We have had reports
from many councillors who were involved in this process who felt
they were excluded from it. It is not like the old system where
if you lost that was it, nowadays backbenchers generally are very
227. We have not heard from Lewisham. Perhaps
I could ask you to give us shortly your experiences and tell us
what the position in Lewisham is and how the structures are defined.
(Cllr Adefiranye) In Lewisham since May
we have had a cabinet mayoral system. What concerns us is that
the decision was based mainly on a very small number of people
on interview with a citizens' panel made up of 50 people out of
a population of 250,000. You can hardly say that is a representative
percentage of the Lewisham population. An issue was made about
access to information. The agenda paper from the council says
that members of the public are welcome to attend committee meetings.
Since May we have had two executive, ie cabinet, meetings which
have met on Tuesdays at eight o'clock in the morning. We have
had the education executive committee and the social services
committee also meeting at eight o'clock in the morning. It is
not easy for councillors to get to those meetings, how much more
difficult for the ordinary electorate. The select committee which
brought this into play in Lewisham has been completely ignored.
I can give you one example. The select committee, a cabinet made
up of majority members and one minority member, suggested having
a mayor and deputy mayor. That was a recommendation from the select
committee. When representations were made to the majority group
all of a sudden we had additional assistant deputies. If I could
just read to you a letter which was written by the last leader,
who was leader a year ago, to the current leader. An excerpt from
that letter says: "What I cannot support, however, is the
creation of assistant deputies. They were not part of our original
thinking and, as a result, the confusion around their roles and
accountability shows. They add an extra tier to the executive
which we were creating in order to streamline the process. It
feels like `jobs for the boys (and girls)' or it is muddle thinking."
That was a letter written by a previous leader to the current
leader. That letter did not make any difference whatsoever. The
opinion of people who speak to us on doorsteps when we go canvassing
is that members of the public perceive this change of direction
as cronyism at best, at worst jobs for the girls or boys, particularly
when a number of jobs/personal ability closely reflect the voting
at Labour group for leadership positions, that is, anyone who
voted for the leader has had a job created for her or him. We
looked at the LGA's hearing report and we are very much in agreement.
We are very concerned that there is no scrutiny process taking
place in Lewisham, both for members or the public, and members
of the council have explained their concern in this area. On paragraph
6 of the LGA, I did give a copy of this to the Committee Clerk
and also my statement which, unfortunately, I am not able to go
through in detail. I did give copies to him as well, so you can,
if you want, look at that later. The majority party is hardly
functioning now in Lewisham. If anything, the adversarial climate
that prevails has got worse. When a group has met it has been
clear that members will not be free of party discipline in the
scrutiny process. In other words, members will not be able to
ask questions that will lead to a more transparent process if
it might embarrass the majority party. The new system is supposed
to be more transparent but what we are getting now is decisions
being made behind closed doors. Not only does the electorate not
know what is going on, but members do not know what is going on.
I have got my ward meeting tonight. Normally, when you go to your
ward meeting you receive a council report. Over the last few months
they asked me what is going to council and I do not know. We are
supposed to spend more time in our community. We have always done
that, but the opposite is that we do not actually spend time in
the town hall now because there is nothing going on in the town
hall which involves many of the back-benchers. Thank you.
Chairman: Thank you very much.
228. One quick question, which is, looking at
your declaration, there are a number of very novel things in there,
including the use of interactive technology, which is my passion,
but what in the Bill precludes you from doing any of the things
you have listed here? I will take the area committees as an example.
(Cllr Bird) The whole precept and philosophy
of cabinet government is that actually decisions are made by a
select few and decisions go down. They want advisory panels, they
want review panels with no teeth, and our philosophy is quite
different. It is quite distinct, it is quite different, because
we actually believe in devolved power and power-sharing and we
want a less adversarial approach. There is a fundamental difference
between cabinet pro-ponents and us on that and we stand by that.
Mr Burstow: Could you give us a little bit more
information about the Camden consultation, either now or perhaps
in writing, particularly to get some sense of how representative
it was as an exercise? You mentioned lots of public meetings.
I am sure many of us have been to public meetings where the attendance
is not very large and it is not necessarily terribly representative
of opinion within the community itself. So perhaps you could give
us that. That is the first point. My second point was to draw
attention back to the press release and the principles. I was
interested in the foreword, where it says that all final decisions
should be made in public and in front of the press. I wonder if
you could talk us through what you mean by the "final"
in this context?
229. As we are short of time, could we perhaps
prevail upon you to let us have the information to Mr Burstow's
question in writing about the consultation? That would be very
helpful indeed. Could we move on to the second question.
(Cllr Hammond) Yes, you will be getting
(Cllr Harrison) Could I answer the second question
very swiftly then. There comes a point when policy, as we all
know, goes through a period of gestation in people's minds and
in people's conversations with their colleagues, their political
colleagues and perhaps with their political pro-ponents.
Then it is written down and then a decision is made on it. What
I think we are saying is that there should be enough checks and
balances before the final decision is made so that the public
has some participation in that. We are opposed to heavy whipping.
We actually think it is completely contrary to what Lord Nolan
has asked about how to behave, and we think that the decision-making
process, therefore, should be much more transparent and we as
individual councillors should be able to use our conscience much
more when it comes to a vote.
230. But is the formality of the committee system
as it stands today, even in its modernised form, one that is really
likely to engender that sort of engagement of the public?
(Cllr Hammond) In some areas it does.
Gerry and I are Chair and Vice-Chair respectively of a committee
which deals with streets and transport issues, parking concerns,
parking areas and that kind of thing. It has enormous public interest
all the time and we certainly think that people have confidence
because the decisions on these issues are made in a quasi-judicial
way, transparently. They hear the arguments put by the officers,
they hear our discussions on the subject, they are allowed to
bring their deputations. We do not make whipped decisions on these
committees and people sometimes have majority views, minority
views, so that they can see the entire decision process before
them and people come to our committees all the time. They know
that these committees sit nearly all the time. They know it exists,
we go to meetings with people, they decide what they are going
to put in their petitions, they bring their petitions, we ask
them questions and the entire process is open.
Chairman: Mr Stringer, may we have what I am
afraid must be the last question now?
231. A number of the witnesses have said that
they have been inhibited from asking questions in the scrutiny
committees. Is there any evidence that you can provide the Committee
with of decisions by your cabinets or leaders that have actually
prohibited you from doing this? Can you provide us with concrete
(Cllr Bird) There are two things. One,
I can give you a breakdown of the first 20 meetings of the committee
of the council, the scrutiny committee.
232. Again that would be useful if you could
hand that in.
(Cllr Bird) Secondly, I can confirm that
we are whipped at Labour group meetings. Labour group meetings
last double the time they did a year ago.
Lord Bassam of Brighton
233. Can you confirm that you are whipped at
the meetings, so that you have to conform to the whip within the
Labour group itself?
(Cllr Bird) The Labour group is the overall
policy body for the Labour Party. They will apply a whip for the
committee of the council.
234. For the scrutiny committee?
(Cllr Bird) Yes, so you would not be
able to vote against that.
Lord Bassam of Brighton
235. Sorry, you are whipped in the scrutiny
(Cllr Bird) If you are whipped at Labour
group you are whipped at the scrutiny committee, fact.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: Hold on a second. Let
us try and be precise about this.
Chairman: I am better informed by these proceedings.
Lord Bassam of Brighton
236. Are you saying that in your council's select
committee/scrutiny committee, you pre-meet as members of the Labour
Party and you decide on the position that you are going to adopt
within the scrutiny function of the council? Is that what you
are saying? Is that what you are telling us this afternoon?
(Cllr Bird) Yes.
237. And are members of the cabinet party to
those whipping decisions?
(Cllr Bird) Yes. On 28 June there is
a committee of the council. This is the scrutiny committee. I
have gone through the agenda and I have been whipped at Labour
group on half the items, because there is an enormous temptation
to do that.
238. I think the Committee, certainly this Member
of the Committee, would be interested to see that. One final point,
if I may, so that we are clear. What you are advocating is a change
from both the old system and the new system? Basically you did
not like the standing orders that applied to Labour groups prior
to these changes as well? You would prefer to go your own way
according to your own conscience (I think you put it) rather than
according to the party discipline?
(Cllr Hammond) To a greater extent, yes.
239. Thank you. Mr Davidson, I know you wanted
(Cllr Davidson) We only set it up in
May, so we cannot say much about it.
Lord Bassam of Brighton
240. Is this Haringey?
(Cllr Davidson) Yes. We did set up a
scrutiny committee last year. They have just decided that they
will take collective responsibility. There are ten of them and
now there are 12 deputies, so there are basically 22 people who
are probably going to be voting en bloc in the group out of 52
of us. That probably means they have got more or less a permanent
majority. What I wanted to briefly say in my introduction was
that I was elected by mistake in the draft of 1994. I was a complete
ingenue. The committee system was my nursery and my university.
I learned about the issues, I learned about how the council worked.
I met officers who came to the committees and also I met other
councillors. Now when we meet at the town hall we greet each other
as long lost brothers because we do not see each other. I do not
know how a new councillor would learn the business under these
241. I am sure that Members of the Committee
would be pleased to receive any other examples. Councillor Bird
is going to let us have examples in answer to Mr Stringer's question
but if any of the other witnesses have got examples perhaps they
can be submitted. I am very grateful to you for coming.
(Cllr Harrison) Can I just read one sentence
from a letter from the Minister to the leader of Camden Council.
We think this is the way out and I think you will agree that the
Bill is not very explicit on any other option. It says: "We
have said in Local Leadership, Local Choice that we believe
it is right for a council to continue with its traditional ways
of working only in those circumstances where local people have
been given and rejected in the referendum a clear choice for their
community to have a new form of local governance." We are
arguing, and we hope that you will take this on board, that there
should be an opportunity for every local authority to have a referendum
on a fourth choice, on a fourth option.
Chairman: Thank you very much. Thank you all
for coming. I know that it was at slightly short notice but thank
you for your evidence and for your attendance.