Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Report


Examination of Witness (Questions 220 - 241)

THURSDAY 24 JUNE 1999

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

  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 the Government?

  (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.

Chairman

  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.

Baroness Thornton

  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 Camden—and, 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 representation—and I know we do not want to get into a discussion about that—is 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.

Ms Moran

  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 marginalised.

Chairman

  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.

Ms Moran

  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?

Chairman

  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 it anyway.
  (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?

Mr Stringer

  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 evidence?

  (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.

Chairman

  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.

Mr Stringer

  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 committee?

  (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.

Mr Burstow

  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.

Mr Stringer

  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.

Chairman

  239. Thank you. Mr Davidson, I know you wanted to answer.

  (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 proposals.

Chairman

  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.





 
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