Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260 - 279)

TUESDAY 29 JUNE 1999

MR ALAN TAYLOR, DR CLIVE GRACE, MR MICHAEL GREENWOOD, MR GEORGE KRAWIEC AND MR MICHAEL PITT

  260. I think I take that to mean that you believe that there should be a radical change. Last Thursday we heard from a number of dissatisfied councillors that where those local authorities had already taken a step to separate executives away from the scrutinising role that had not happened in reality, it was a charade. While the committees on one side that were supposed to be scrutinising things existed, there was a problem certainly with the flow of information, but actually the political structures behind the scenes were exactly the same as they had always been and councillors were going in to these scrutiny committees heavily whipped. Is that your experience and do we need to take account of those strong political structures in the legislation?

  (Mr Taylor) I think I would need to turn to my colleagues who are experiencing it at the moment.
  (Mr Greenwood) Certainly those issues have been discussed within authorities that are trying to operate this experiment, including my own. I am acting as secretary to the cabinet as well as chief executive. It seems to be an entirely consistent approach like the Civil Service. In a council that genuinely is picking up the modernization agenda as set out in the White Paper those are things to work through because it is a big change for Whips to feel that they are losing some control and it is going to take some time and so the initial issues that are being scrutinised in my own authority are the less controversial ones and I think with learning will come more relaxation and more comfort with the process because the benefits of speedier decision making hopefully feeding through to more prosperous communities and better services will be clear to everyone.

Sir Paul Beresford

  261. One of the points we put to a professor who came last week was that you are actually going to have overt whipping replaced by covert patronage, so it is actually not going to make one iota of difference.

  (Mr Greenwood) That could be the case, but much will depend on the way those changes are led.
  (Dr Grace) This is a critical point. If you go back to the key constitutional legislation for local governments, which is currently the 1972 Act, you find an absence of references to political parties and there was then an attempt in 1989 to make provision for how politics came into play within the local government constitution and whatever one thinks of that as an attempt, it was a genuine attempt and it has been workable. There is a real question in the current provisions as to where politics sits and there is a danger that almost like a sort of catastrophe theory scenario where you have a constitutional structure which is made to operate but actually you can slip off the side of it because politics can come in from left field and that is not provided for within the local government constitution. The issues in terms of committees—and this really refers back to Lord Carnarvon's point—are significant here. I come from a small authority, though I am not speaking on behalf of it, but significantly the members there were very keen to hang on to what they saw as the benefits of the committee system and try and absorb them into a system that took on the features of an executive and responded to the Government's agenda but nonetheless kept some of the features which gave them access and a stronger sense of involvement. It is worth remembering that scrutiny within the White Paper includes the provisions of policy development and a much wider range of functions than many have taken it to mean when they have looked at the word scrutiny.

Baroness Hamwee

  262. When I first heard about the proposals I worried that by giving such an overt executive role to members there might be a long-term threat to officers' careers, to morale, possibly even to the calibre of people who are prepared to serve at a senior level as an officer in local government. I hope that that fear is one that I should put out of my mind, but it is a point on which I would like to hear from you.

  (Mr Pitt) My Lord Chairman, I think Lady Hamwee puts her finger on the precise point as to why our evidence is as it is, because we think there is a need for some sort of protection to ensure that that does not happen in authorities. I think it would be very regrettable indeed if the very high professional standards which have operated in local government for many years were to be lost as a consequence.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

  263. I wanted to pursue that point a bit further. I went to Dieppe last year and I paid their mayor and their general secretary a visit and the general secretary (who is the equivalent of our chief executive) had a moderate office in the corner of the building and the mayor occupied one of these rather nice wood panelled offices and I rather sensed that that is where the power was. Is it your concern that the directly elected mayor model is going to absorb and take away from the chief executive more power and responsibility and authority and is it also your concern that this will happen with the executives and cabinets? Secondly, how would you begin to define or re-define these roles and responsibilities and where would you see the power ultimately resting? Do you see a tussle?

  (Mr Taylor) Dieppe sounds a bit like my own authority! The answer is that many of us exist in well understood relationships about these things. Emphatically, no, this is not a rearguard action trying to grab hold of powers which were fast disappearing. It is rather a suggestion that the thing needs thinking through to ensure that somebody on the staff has independent responsibility for ensuring a number of key elements around propriety and appropriateness of the provision of services by a public sector organisation. Over time, no doubt, the relationship will develop, but we think there is a base line to be established rather than saying we want to hang on to particular things.
  (Mr Pitt) May I put that back in a slightly different way. Having worked in a lot of local authorities, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the best local authorities have strong, powerful members and strong, powerful officers. It is negotiations between the two that give you the best possible decisions and the best possible organisations. Whatever we come on to now with the new arrangements, somehow we want to try and increase the chances of that happening in as many authorities as possible.
  (Mr Krawiec) Also, that we are concerned that the council, as a body, is the final decision maker. That is where the ultimate power should lie in an overt fashion. Any system which comes into place should allow that to be: the final power to rest in the open with a full council meeting. Any system needs to take account of that in the final analysis.

  264. It is the case, is it not, that one of the malaises that has dogged local government for many years is inadequacy in leadership calibre and also a lack of clarity in the respective leadership roles. Part of the organising project here is to try to sort out things, so we are clear as to who does what and where accountability lies.

  (Mr Krawiec) We have no problem with that. The final thing is that it is overt and transparent in terms of situation. It could be argued that some of the proposals in the draft Bill: that, actually, some of the things behind the closed doors are covert rather than overt. At the final analysis clearly always things happen, in talking, in discussions, but the ultimate power must be, must lie with the council, the council must be supreme.

Lord Marlesford

  265. I would like to focus back on counties, not metropolitan counties, and take Kent, since we have Kent here. I would like to try and find out, because I am a very unclear, what real difference it would make to change the present structure. Now, let us take Kent. We have heard that Kent has traditionally had, and has presently got, a powerful county council leader. I do not know what you mean by powerful but presumably you mean in terms of getting the council to do things that he or she wants it to do. How much is the leader of the Kent County Council a public figure? What proportion of the electors of Kent would know the name of him or her? And what real difference would it make—and perhaps you could give some examples—if there had been a different structure, with a directly elected person in charge of the Kent County Council, with a much higher profile?

  (Mr Pitt) Chairman, this is a chance for me to clarify something from the earlier debate. I was not advocating, as such, a directly elected mayor. I was just not ruling it out as a possibility. I would like to make that clear in case there are many members of the press here. Coming to the point of Kent—and I think in many respects Kent is an unusual county council in having those figureheads over quite a long period of time—therefore, in considering the future, we have to think of other countries where the profile of the leader is much lower. But there are many examples of my leader taking a very strong public stand on issues. Back in April of last year he published and widely circulated a policy document with 68 targets, with targets which can be monitored over time, and which he personally will be held to account, I believe, by the media and by opposition members. For me, that is strong political leadership, which a lot of authorities do lack and which they need. So all of the things, which we are trying to do in relation to the Bill, is to move in that direction; so that the people of Kent, or whatever county it is, do know who these figureheads are, and know who to blame if things go wrong or who to give credit to if things go right.

  266. You are just saying that this is happening in Kent without the changes the draft Bill envisages.

  (Mr Pitt) I think, Chairman, that this is a consequence of personalities which we just happen to have in that county. I could quote many examples of other places in the country where those circumstances do not exist.

  267. But there is nothing intrinsically, it is just if you get the right personality?

  (Mr Pitt) That is absolutely right.

  268. It is really a function of the right people going into local government rather than the sort of flags you let them fly on their cars.

  (Mr Pitt) It could be a combination of both. I think it is about the right people going into local government. It is also about creating the right systems and arrangements, so that these people are encouraged to take up those roles.

  Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: Are we not being a bit gloomy about this? You say about this strong leadership in Kent but I could mention a leader of a district council in Canterbury. It is much more widely spread in the country. If you open any local paper these people are compared as a cross between Hitler and Mussolini by their opponents. To say it is not happening, when I stay with friends I usually find a headline: Leader X doing something else. Now, there may be these little timid figures that we never hear of, but to alter the whole local government system when these leaders exist in many areas of the country, are powerful and known and fill the local papers, as in Kent. Do you really think—you may not want to be indiscreet in this way—that there is a need to put the whole system on its head for the possibility of improving the weaker element, of which there is in any system? There will be weak elected mayors.

Sir Paul Beresford

  269. Before you answer that, could I add something which follows from that. It is that one of the advantages now, where you have a weak or a strong leader, is that all the decisions go through a committee stage; where you were saying earlier that they are clear and seen by media or anyone who wishes to in libraries, etcetera. One of the difficulties you may have if you get the strong leader that you wish, is that you are opening the door to Tammany Hall and some of the systems which have been suggested in this paper, because of the secrecy system and because of the dominance of whipping or patronage or both. Even with our open system we get isolated instances of really quite dreadful corruption. Are we going to allow an opportunity for this to happen?

  (Mr Greenwood) That is really one of the key elements of our submission: that we are saying that those possibilities, remote though they are and rare, they do theoretically exist to perhaps a greater extent in these new systems. That is why we feel the redefinition of the role of the chief executive as the head of the paid service to provide different checks and balances, which is needed in this system, has got to be an integral part of the process of considering the changes.

  270. The problem with that suggestion is that I can think of one local authority in England recently, on at least two occasions, where it has been between the officers and the members working together that there has been corruption. It is even with the committee system.

  (Mr Greenwood) You could have the monitoring officer as a separate post and the finance officer as a separate post. There are other checks and balances and further checks and balances.

  271. The alternative could be to add a fourth or more to the three options and that is what we have now, recognising the modifications that many local authorities, including, Kent have.

  (Mr Greenwood) Certainly SOLACE's view is that there is room for more variance of the political executives. Certainly our views, perhaps the way the Bill is drafted is over-prescriptive, but the changes to me that are most significant or valuable or important in the Bill are about the way decisions are made. To permit individual members to make decisions in law is long overdue. Whether that is an elected mayor, which seems to be in the mind of some members who are asking questions, or not, I do not think matters. The key change is about the way decisions are made: replacing the committee system with what, I believe, could be a much more effective system, as long as it contains the checks and balances.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

  272. Yours is a much more pragmatic view than exists in this Bill. When you say whether it is an elected mayor or not, this Bill is not saying that. We are asking you about the Bill. Now, I know you are very discreet civil servants, but are you coming out and saying that this Bill is too prescriptive?

  (Mr Krawiec) Yes, we are.
  (Mr Taylor) At various stages of this process we have said that a breath of fresh air is interesting but you must not be too prescriptive. What is happening is that as we move forward at each stage there is a bit more prescription.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

  273. And you have asked for some more as well.

  (Mr Taylor) We have asked for a different form.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

  274. I wanted to move on to something, which Dr Grace was talking about in his first comments, and that was the role of the scrutiny committee. He talked about the Assembly in Wales, where the executive would be on the scrutiny committee, and how that may be replicated within local government in Wales. I wonder if I could hear from the English chief executives whether they thought that was a good thing. I wanted to make the more general point which is that we see here with this Committee and we see in Scotland pre-decision scrutiny and it certainly came across to me from last week's backbenches that a lot of the backbenchers are extremely unhappy with the proposals because they feel they will get even more marginalised than they are now, but it does seem to me that the scrutiny committees would be somewhere where backbenchers together with the executive could have a proper role. I was wondering whether you, the English chief executives, thought that the scrutiny committees should be beefed up and taken more seriously because, I have to say, the impression we got last week was that they were not taken particularly seriously by the executive?

  (Mr Taylor) I think that is understandable. It is an early concept; it needs time to develop. My personal view would be that members of the executive should be entitled to be on the scrutiny committee. Maybe you could say that there are certain circumstances, it is a matter for the authority, in which they would not be and my own authority which is experimenting with a scrutiny committee, it is just about to be one-year-old, does not have them on, but they do attend before them and participate in the process, that is another way of dealing with it, a process which can be friendly and aggressive depending on the nature of the particular subject. So far as pre-decision scrutiny is concerned, I think that is envisaged in the consultation paper because it does envisage policy development being part of the scrutiny role and I think it is important that it should not be seen every time as someone coming up behind and criticising. For my book, members at large are not going to be content simply with a critical role. The opportunity for participating in the development of ideas leading to decisions is one of the most important elements of their job now and I think it needs to be for the future.
  (Mr Krawiec) I think it is quite an important point to make because I am not totally convinced in my mind I know the difference between what is policy and what is executive on certain occasions. For instance, in my authority we have had to go through the process of rationalising the old people's homes because of over-provision and the budget, which is policy, I think. We decided to close three. Policy or executive? Which three? Policy or executive? The one which causes the most angst to the backbench members and the scrutiny members was which homes should be closed if they are in their particular patch. I think that analogy is quite useful to decide things that just do not fit easily into different boxes.

Earl of Carnarvon

  275. My question is putting you back as officers now. I was chairman of the policy and resources committee and not a member of a political party, so I was the nearest thing to a chief executive that was not an officer of Hampshire County Council with a budget of £1.5 billion. The local authority officers worked on what we called in those days, as I am sure Mr Pitt will remember, the Baines[1] system. Do you expect the Baines system to continue, i.e. the chief executive of the new authority will be chairman of the officers' group reporting to the leader or the chairman of the policy and resources committee?

  276. Can you explain that a bit further because, after all, this is your problem, is it not?

  (Mr Pitt) We have had two goes now at the cabinet system and up until the end of last year the cabinet at Kent County Council tended to meet privately with a limited amount of officer advice, some of it written, sometimes an individual officer would attend. My view was and still is that that system did not work particularly well. Since January of this year the seven most senior members have met with the seven most senior officers every Monday morning from nine until about eleven o'clock. Each of the decisions made is backed up by a professional paper written by the appropriate officer, oral advice is given by officers and there is clear negotiation between members and officers on the decisions being made. Also, we then have proper documentation of those decisions being made after the event. I am in no doubt that the quality of decision making has shot up since January and I think the members of cabinet would warmly agree with those sentiments. I think if there is some advice to give it is about the engagement between professional officers and the senior politicians and how that is done and getting that process right will make a real difference to the quality of decisions made.

Mr Pike

  277. I would like to put two points. The first one is on referenda. What do you feel about referenda, who should conduct them, when would they become binding, what type of thresholds, what type of issues? I remember in Manchester in the late 1960s after a change of control we did have a vote on a number of issues. I think the only one that any notice was taken of was where Manchester decided not to go for local radio and did not have the first local BBC radio station which went to Leicester at that particular time, but I think the rest of them were totally ignored and it was a very, very low turn out. Secondly, obviously the draft Bill contains a lot on standards. As I have read your paper, and you refer to that in section 10(h) and again in 17, these are important issues. Is there a real problem on standards and ethics within councils? It has to be dealt with obviously when it is a problem, but do you think the Bill has got it about right or would you feel it needs to go into a bit more detail?

  (Mr Taylor) As far as referenda are concerned, my Lord Chairman, I think our view is this is firmly in the area of the elected representatives. If somebody decides to have one we will get the ballot boxes out and do it. I think it is very much a members' decision. As far as standards are concerned, I think most of my colleagues would agree that the standard in local government is very high, I do not think there is any doubt about that. The reality is that the legislation which we currently have, as I said earlier, is difficult to understand, difficult to apply, was written for a different era and does need some form of updating. I think there is a question about whether what is proposed may also turn out to be a bit too complex and all of us will have had experience of the use of the question of ethics in the political argument and attempts to use it as part of the process of gaining advantage. One would have some concerns that we may be creating more opportunities for that than is justified in this almost three-tiered system which is being proposed. It is not a general problem, but it does need updating.

Mr Burstow

  278. I wanted to follow up on Lord Ponsonby's question about scrutiny because we have dwelt a lot on the executive side of the equation so far in this session, but there is going to be an important new senior role in local authorities for those who take a lead role in the scrutiny overview process that local authorities set up as well. Given the answers you gave earlier on which suggest that you wish to maintain the notion and reality of chief officers and other officers serving the whole council and not just one part of it, can I just set out a scenario for you, which is you or one of your fellow chief officers attends a meeting of the cabinet, you proffer advice to the cabinet in a written form setting out a range of options. You then, because you have to record the decision of the cabinet, are present while they weigh the pros and cons of the issue and come to a decision. You then have to attend a call-in meeting of the chair of the relevant performance, on which they will be considering items, if they wish to call in for further scrutiny and so on. If you have a fairly effective chair, who starts asking some fairly pokey questions of you about what they might want to be pursuing, they may even be asking you for advice as to whether they should be seeking further questions. I could try and elaborate on a specific case study but I am not going to. I think I have done enough to give you a sense of what we are looking for. There must be a tension there, at the very least, as your role as the adviser, proffering advice to the cabinet; and your role, the chief officer's role of any department or whatever, tendering advice, to enable the chair and the members of the scrutiny committee to exercise their role effectively. How are you going to square that? Surely the tension will ultimately lead to a split of roles?

  (Mr Taylor) I do not think you are suggesting that the chief executive did it all.

  279. That is why I used the words "chief officer", thinking of other departmental heads as well.

  (Mr Taylor) We suggest that there should be a responsibility on the chief executive to put in place arrangements, which may well mean that if there is a fully developed scrutiny role, there is somebody who is charged with doing the research and support for the scrutiny committee. What is important is that somebody has the responsibility to make sure that, frankly, the executives do not short-change the scrutiny brigade, because that could easily happen and we see that as being a responsibility of the chief executive. It does not follow that the chief executive, or a particular chief officer, is going to have to sit always on both sides of the fence, although under the present system, I have to say, it is not so far away from the experience that we have, where we may well advise members of the majority party privately about something, and then have members of the minority party coming in to talk about the self-same issues. You have to indicate where you have to draw the line.

  Mr Burstow: Going back to your point about making arrangements to handle particular posts that would be supporting the scrutiny function, are you specifically saying that there may be a need to have additional specific staff dedicated to that function, albeit under the direction of a chief officer, such as a chief executive—


1   Mr Baines, chief executive of Kent County Council, formally deputy clerk of Hampshire County Council. Back


 
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