Examination of Witnesses (Questions 242
TUESDAY 29 JUNE 1999
242. Mr Taylor, good
afternoon to you and your colleagues from SOLACE. Thank you for
coming to the Joint Committee. We have, of course, your written
submission; and perhaps I might ask you if there are particular
matters which you would wish specially to draw to our attention
before we go on to questions.
(Mr Taylor) Thank you, my Lord Chairman.
There are just a few matters which I would like to outline on
behalf of SOLACE. If I could say that my colleagues: Mr Krawiec
from Southend, Mr Greenwood from Tameside, Clive Grace from Torfaen,
Michael Pitt from Kent, and myself from Kensington and Chelsea;
we are all chief executives representing SOLACE, and not the authorities
who employ us, for the record this afternoon. If I could just
say a few words and then perhaps, with the Committee's indulgence,
Dr Grace could say a few words on aspects relating to Wales, which
are a bit particular to his submission. As you will see, SOLACE
broadly support the original package, which the Government announced
about modernising local government, but we have some slight concern
about this part of it, in that we think something is missing and
that is the community governance duties. It seems to us that if
what is proposed in the Bill is all that there is, then in a sense
it is moving the deckchairs rather than providing the tow rope
which local government needs to reinvigorate. So that is one point
which we would make. The second is that we have consistently said
that we think the proposals through their various incarnations
are too prescriptive and, as the process has gone on, have become
more prescriptive. We have some concerns about that. Our original
view remains, which is that there should be set out some broad
principles, and from those principles authorities should be allowed
to develop their own models. In that context we would observe,
by way of example really, that the council manager option, which
is one of the three which is mentioned, is not in other jurisdictions
limited solely to directly elected mayors. It can exist, and does
exist in New Zealand in that version, but with councils and committees;
and, in the States, to strong mayors and weak mayors and also
cabinets. Our main concern is that in moving to a new system we
do not throw the baby out with the bath water. We think that there
are many good things in the present system around openness, accountability,
recording, scrutiny, which must not be lost. We have set those
out in our submission, together with suggestions as to how they
might be addressed. We also thinkand Members might say
"we would, wouldn't we?"that not enough consideration
has been given to the officer end of all of this. We seeand
those of my colleagues already engaged in this seesignificant
changes in the officer role. We have some suggestions around the
fact that the head of the paid service role should not simply
be incorporated from the existing legislation, but should be redefined
in the new environment which will come about as a result of the
legislation, assuming it is introduced and passed. We think it
is not enough simply to incorporate the existing provision by
reference: that the head of the paid service post will operate
even more as a buffer under the new set-up than it does now. Finally,
we think that the proposals, as they now are, although they introduce
the new idea of an executive/scrutiny split, do not define the
form of executive clearly enough. Indeed, the relationship between
an executive and the management of the organisation: we see a
significant distinction between those and we think it is important
that the elected members, as the executive, should be looking
outward towards the community. There is a danger, at present,
that if the proposals are not more clearly defined: that they
are, in fact, likely to be drawn into the maw of the machine and
perhaps lose sight of the responsibilities of the community at
large if they end up in that position. Those are my only comments,
Chairman. Perhaps, with your indulgence, Dr Grace might say a
few words with regards to Wales.
(Dr Grace) There are three points I would like to
make in this connection and they are set out in a short supplementary
submission which I have given to the Clerk. The first is that
local government is a very significant slice of the National Assembly
for Wales' responsibilities and expenditure. The draft Bill comes
at a formative stage in the development of its legislative and
policy capacity. This is really one of the first opportunities
that Parliament itself will have to shape legislation in the face
of those devolved powers. Given that these are, therefore, new
ventures in uncharted waters, both for Parliament and the National
Assembly, it does seem to be particularly important that special
care is taken; so that the Government's broad constitutional purpose
in giving effect to devolved government is facilitated and encouraged
by the Bill. That is the first point. The second, which is related,
is the relationship between the executive and the scrutiny functions.
The draft Bill envisages a very fierce separation between the
executive and scrutiny functions. Whether or not that is consistent
with the sentiment in the White Paper itself is a matter for question,
because the White Paper emphasises the importance of dialogue
between executive and scrutiny members. If the only relationship
between executive and scrutiny members is when executive members
are requested or demanded to appear before a scrutiny committee,
arguably that will make for a hostile ethos. A more striking point,
from a Welsh perspective, is that the National Assembly has arrangements
which provide precisely for executive members, cabinet members,
to participate and be members of subject committees. Many authorities
in Wales are looking to that model and are thinking of using it
as a model for their own arrangements. For it to be provided by
Parliament in relation to the National Assembly, but precluded
from local government in Wales, seems to be a constitutional illogicality.
Finally, in relation to secondary legislation, it does appear
that certain aspects of the primary legislation, which is envisaged,
would inhibit the development of alternative models. The executive/scrutiny
split is one, but there are others. Further, arguably the guidance
provisions in clause 16 are not wide enough to permit guidance
on some of the critical issues which Alan Taylor referred to.
So in our submission from SOLACE (Wales): certain of the primary
provisions, the regulation power, and the guidance provisions
need reconsideration; and they need to be looked at, as it were,
as a network of secondary and primary provisions.
Chairman: Thank you very much. Mr Pike.
243. Mr Taylor, when you spoke you said that
the draft Bill gives "three alternatives"; and you were
quite clearly expressing a view that perhaps there should be more
alternatives than just the three options which are listed in the
rule. You cannot have an endless list, so how would you overcome
that particular problem? Tied in with that, if one looks at the
present local government structure, do you believe that it could
itself, if it was worked on and improved and addressed, actually
deliver what the main objectives of the Government is with regard
to efficiency, transparency, and accountability?
(Mr Krawiec) If I may take the first
question. We do believe that if you have certain principles which
need to be set down, then you could actually have models formed
within that. Mr Taylor has already alluded to some of them. But
in terms of the current structure, which is what the question
relates to, if one includes section 101 of the Local Government
Act 1972, to allow individual members to take decisions, then
indeed a lot of issues of the accountability and transparency
would, in fact, come through.
244. You mentioned in the models that you talk
about the question of the Head of the Paid Service and so on.
It occurs to me that the elected mayor has a role part that of
chief executive and part that of elected head of the political
machinery of the local authority. How do you see the distinction
that is made in that model between the role of implementation
and the role of policy, and how do you see chief executives holding
the remit between those various elements?
(Mr Taylor) I think one of the difficulties
is that the models as they stand do not make an explicit distinction.
There are enough, dare I say, distinguished leaders and ex-leaders
of authorities here to have lived through this, yourself included.
The relationship varies over time and over circumstances between
a chief executive and a leader and in our submission that in the
existing set up is the key to success in an authority. If that
relationship does not work it is very difficult for the authority
to work. A number of my colleagues are living with this at present
and may be able to make some comment about how they see it changing.
We think it is probably one of the best safeguards for the success
of the political element that there should be some definition
of what is not within the political framework and that is what
constitutes the management process.
Lord Bassam of Brighton
245. Do you not run the risk of being overly
prescriptive if we go down that route? I can almost hear you making
that argument for our benefit.
(Mr Greenwood) We have tried to explain
in our paper that we do not wish to be over-prescriptive about
the role of the chief executive. I think the answer is that there
needs to be a clear understanding of what the role of the chief
executive will be in this revised system, whether the checks and
balances which are inherent in the present system and which are
good and which work will be upset by the changes to the new political
forms of executive, changes which SOLACE fully supports. We think
that those checks and balances have to be addressed as part of
this process of establishing the legislation so that the re-defined
role of the chief executive and other senior officers is covered
at the same time as changing political responsibilities. We try
and set out in our paper the areas where the role of the chief
executive could be defined in general terms. This would give local
authorities their own ability to define the detail of those systems
but within that kind of framework. For instance, one of the points
we raise is that the chief executives should be responsible for
ensuring there is a system for the clear delegation of decisions,
that is not to say who would take those decisions. So we are trying
to lay down the prescriptions for a system which will work in
(Mr Pitt) My Lord Chairman, I wonder if I could make
a point about this. The point I would like to make is that there
is plenty of room at the top of large local authorities for both
the distinctive political leadership role and the role of members
working out there in the community with an external focus and
doing what is an enormous managerial job. If you take my own authority,
we have 33,000 employees and a budget of £1000 million net.
So there is a tremendous amount of activity at the top of the
authority and it is a bit of a paradox that I spend part of my
time being a director of a TEC board, also on two health authorities,
which in many respects are political leadership roles, but at
the same time some of my elected councillors are there at county
hall rolling up their sleeves dealing with some of the managerial
matters. I think what we are looking for here from SOLACE is some
sort of clarity and some distinction between these quite special
and distinct roles.
246. I understand from Mr Taylor that what you
are suggesting is rather more a description than prescription.
You are suggesting a prescription should be inserted in the legislation
as to what is a strictly implementation element of council work
and what is a policy formation area. Is that right?
(Mr Taylor) I think we need in subsidiary
legislation some more explicit role. If you look at the existing
1989 legislation, it is by and large pretty restrictive in terms
of what the Head of the Paid Service's role is and was introduced,
if my recollection is correct from that time, to deal with what
were perceived to be particular issues in particular authorities.
I am not sure whether it did that either.
247. Would you need a further distinction, though,
if there were a paid mayor who, according to figure 6, is responsible
for proposing the policy framework but not for agreeing it and
then a chief executive who is responsible for implementing policy?
You seem to have a three-way split in that model.
(Mr Greenwood) I think we have tried
in section 4 of our paper to outline what we see as the role of
the chief executive in the new political structures which are
proposed under the Bill and related ones which could also be proposed.
We think it should apply in all circumstances. What we are saying
is we would not expect at this stage the role of the chief executive
to be on the face of the Bill, but we do think it is extremely
important that the Bill does recognise the need to re-define the
role of the Head of the Paid Service and possibly other senior
officers and we would suggest that perhaps the Bill should refer
to the Secretary of State making regulations which will govern
the role of the chief executive subsequently. We feel it must
be dealt with at the same time and as part of the same process
so we can all develop those checks and balances alongside the
changes in the political structure.
Earl of Carnarvon
248. Mr Taylor, you say you are speaking not
for your own authorities but for SOLACE. You mentioned the possibility
of an alternative model which I think was referred to by Mr Pike.
Do you think that the models in the White Paper are appropriate
for large rural area authorities? I know Mr Pitt is from Kent.
(Mr Taylor) He is probably the best one
to respond to that since his is a large, arguably rural, authority.
249. I am used to the Association of County
Councils and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities etcetera
and the Local Government Association we have already met. I think
it is agreed by some of us that the whole White Paper is very
urban orientated and in my old authority of Hampshire I could
not see an executive mayor working for Hampshire County Council
fitting in at all.
(Mr Pitt) First of all, the thrust of
the consultation paper and draft Bill of raising the profile of
members and making them more visible in their communities work
for all local authorities of all types. We already operate a leader
with cabinet system and I think that has helped decision making
within the county council. So that particular model I am very
comfortable with subject to the reservations we have already raised.
I will stick my neck out and say that I can conceive of a form
of directly elected mayor for a county. It may be an inappropriate
name, one might want to use the name governor or some other appropriate
term, but I see no reason why there should not be a very clear
figurehead who stands up in a county for the county council's
policies in the same way as in an urban area.
(Mr Krawiec) My Lord Chairman, I was formerly at Stafford
which was a rural area surrounded by a town and certainly there
would be some difficulties in terms of the concentration of the
executive functions, where particularly in rural areas a lot of
the members want to do the representative role in looking after
their particular patch and I think that applies to the county
council areas as well.
250. May I probe this slightly more, Chairman.
We have talked to a group of backbenchers from the London boroughs.
Where the new ideas are being tried outin Camden and Haringay
as examplesthey are finding it very difficult without the
old committee system. We have had an example of going to a school
as a school governor and ward memberI am talking about
an urban areaand not being able to get into contact, which
they would have done in the past, with the chairman of the education
committee or the education officer. This seems to be a weakness
in the new ideas and I wonder whether there is a model of an improved
committee system which would be acceptable to many chief executives.
(Mr Taylor) Certainly we do not see the
committee system as dead. The whole set of proposals still envisages
a significant element of it. We have, in our submission, identified
the point about availability of information. Information flows
were one of the great glories, (if that is the right term), of
the present system. The information is there in public. The public
has a right to see the decisions taken. Our suggestion is not
precise or specific but what we say is that there should be a
responsibility. We suggest it should be on the chief executive
to ensure that the council has adequate systems for dissemination
of relevant information to all members of the council. We think
that is important if the inclusivity, which has been, in principle,
part of the local government system, continues. How that works
in individual authorities I suspect is going to depend, both on
the character of the area and structure of the authority, and
also on the characteristics of the members of that particular
authority. This is because over time and in different places you
find that different sets of people have preoccupations about and
interest in different things. The essential of any information
system is that it is going to be flexible to respond to that.
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford
251. Could I ask Mr Pitt to follow up a point
before we get too far away from it, about the high profile of
the governor. Do you not feel that a leader of the councilI
used to live in Kent where you had a long tradition of very powerful
dictatorial leadersthe local papers were full of Mr X battering
the opposition and forcing through policy. Do you not think they
had high profiles?
(Mr Pitt) I think they do have. I think
you are right to say that the history of Kent is of strong leaders.
We have a very strong leader at the moment. They do enjoy a high
public profile. I do not think that is true of counties up and
down the country.
252. What about if the governor was elected
from the electorate of Kent and it was as tight as it was in Kent,
at the moment, where there is a tiny majority in one party and
he belongs to the other party?
(Mr Pitt) I think those complications
would apply in any local authority. There have to be arrangements
to cope with that.
253. We have not got that.
(Mr Pitt) Sorry, in any authority where
you have a directly elected mayor system, there is always the
potential for a difference of view between the directly elected
mayor and the authority itself.
254. The experience in the United States, of
governors of states, is that it is not a happy one.
(Mr Pitt) Yes.
255. I wanted to come back to the paper, which
you submitted to Hilary Armstrong originally, and the reference
in here to political neutrality. You referred to these systems
having a potential to increase the politicisation of opposition.
I just wondered if you could elaborate on the ways in which you
see the new systems as having that potential, and the checks and
balances that might be put in place to avoid that.
(Mr Krawiec) The problem we see in relation
to that is the duty of the chief executive as it is to the whole
council, as to what is proposed in terms of the legislation. Clearly,
and as Mr Taylor saidand many of you have local government
experiencethere are a lot of informal discussions going
on, not particularly at chief executive leader level, but which
will be at executive level: the indications of what advice has
been given and what guidance can be given. Currently, if a member
of the opposition comes to a chief executive who can give guidance
as to where processes are going, without giving some of the detailed
discussions on that, when you are so closely allied with the executiveand
you clearly would be in terms of the chief executive situationthen
you would be tarred with that particular situation, as being glued
to that particular thing. It is difficult to see how you can say,
"My loyalties are not to my individual leader" (or minister
as a civil servant) as opposed to a full council, if one goes
down that line.
256. That is the problem. What is the solution
you are proposing?
(Mr Taylor) The solution we suggest comes
back to Dr Whitehead's point earlier, where he was suggesting
that if you had a directly elected mayor, in a sense in part it
was a directly elected chief executive. He did not quite put it
in those terms but that is really the element of it. There has
to be someand we have not attempted to set it outdefinition
of where there is a freedom for action and a responsibility to
the whole council for certain fundamental aspects of public arrangements
of the authority vested in a particular officer, and we suggest
the head of the paid service. That is what would, in part at least,
respond to Dr Whitehead's point, and respond to yours as well,
but beyond that we do not go. My experience is that, in various
authorities at various times, it has varied. That is a flexibility,
which is important, but there is arguably a base line. The base
line has to be, as we say, that the chief executive continues
to account for the whole authority. There are certain things which
are defined, and we have suggested some for which that executive
chief is responsible for ensuring those are in place.
257. Taking that a stage further, in your paper
you also referred to the almost inevitability perhaps of the further
development of political advisers. They exist already, to some
extent, and the acceptance of that is that they may be developed
further. Do you have any concerns about how that develops in such
a way as to displace some aspects of the chief executive? For
example, we have heard Professor John Stewart theorise along the
lines of the emergence of cabinet secretaries as a new form of
creature in local government and ultimately displacing the chief
executive. What do you think of that particular scenario? Is it
a realistic and possible one? What would you do to avoid it occurring,
from your point of view?
(Dr Grace) Chairman, it is an entirely
plausible scenario, especially if steps are not takeneither
within the legislation itself or guidance or secondary legislationto
ensure that there is a definition of the role of the senior officers.
Also, to give effect to some of the sentiments which are in the
White Paper, for example, about staff appointmentswhere
the White Paper quite clearly envisages a separation between the
role of councillors at very senior appointment level and below
thatthat this should be a managerial matter. If that kind
of proposition is given, in effect, in the legislation or secondary
legislation, it would help to make clear that there are important
roles for senior officers to perform, as well as for councillors
to perform. The White Paper points in different directions. In
one place it says that executive members will take day-to-day
decisions. Elsewhere it says that the chief executive and the
chief officers will be responsible for implementing policy and
securing service delivery. Yet elsewhere it uses those very same
terms in relation to executive members. There is a need for clarity
in that. Certainly the White Paper is not clear and the Bill does
not give effect to those kinds of provisions at the moment.
258. Just to pick up on a comment by Mr Pitt
earlier on, which was a reference to there being room at the top
of large local authorities for clear separation to be achieved
between various roles between elected members, chief officers
and so on: that does then beg the question of small authorities
and how small authorities will cope with this much more intense
form of political management and political structures. How do
you think a small, average-sized district council would work in
these contexts, and do you think the models set out in the Bill
are appropriate for some of the smaller district councils and
(Mr Pitt) I wonder if one of my colleagues
from a different authority could express a view on that.
(Mr Krawiec) There is a problem there. There is a
difficulty. It is a bigger problem than just in the way you have
set it, if I may say so. If there is a need to split off political
advice or geographical advice, or whatever, then for smaller authorities
that would be a significant call on those resources. That is why
we have argued, from the SOLACE point of view, that we need a
wide modelincluding some of those particular smaller shire
rural authorities of the committee system or whateverwhich
could actually take account of their particular requirements.
This is because there is an issue there in terms of the need for
resource to tackle particular matters. The big danger of the elected
mayor, leader, cabinet leader, I suspect in this particular set
of circumstances, is in a situation where they would want to do
allocation of council houses, for instance, in terms of the management
roles, as opposed to the outside looking matters set out in the
White Paper and in the Bill.
259. Mr Taylor, I would like to be clear about
the remarks you made at the beginning when you said that the draft
Bill and the White Paper were really just moving the deck chairs
around. Does that mean you accept that local government is sinking?
(Mr Taylor) I think it needs a bit of
a lifeline. I am not sure that it is in the Titanic situation
at all. I think there are a lot of good things and you would expect
me to say that and I will not take the Committee's time going
through them. From our perspective as a Society there is a need
to re-invigorate some of the processes. I think there are enough
people who have sat through enough unnecessary committee meetings
to know that that does need some attention. The two parts of this
Bill as it currently sits are, first of all, to deal with this
curious notion that we have had for some years that a single councillor
cannot take a decision. We all know that councillors effectively
as individuals, as leaders or whatever, have been making decisions
and we have had arcane processes to justify that for too long.
That is not really a very justifiable position. On the other side,
as regards the propriety element, the second part of the Bill,
we have a situation where it seems to me that only the lawyers
really understand the rules about pecuniary and non-pecuniary
interests and they can debate them endlessly and the reality is
it traps the unfortunate rather than the heinous and something
needs to be put in place to rectify that as well.
(Mr Greenwood) The White Paper that was produced last
June on modern local government certainly had elements which all
fitted together and seemed to point in the same direction. I understand
the reasons for this, but it has been legislated for in a piecemeal
fashion. I think it is important to keep that big picture in mind
as we progress through a series of Bills that one assumes will
come forward. To me the really big issues which will give local
government a brighter future, which it is certain to get and deserves,
are about the community governance role and the quality services
aspect. To me they are extremely important and the political structures
to me are a means to those ends in large part and I think what
we are saying is we must keep the big picture in mind as the legislation
comes through in chunks.
(Mr Krawiec) We are also looking for constant improvement.
We are trying to change things all the time. Manchester United
might buy Ronaldo if he came onto the market as it might well
improve the course of their play.