Examination of Witnesses (Questions 285
TUESDAY 29 JUNE 1999
285. Members of the Committee, good afternoon.
I am sorry to have kept you, but I think you have been listening
in another place and in another guise, so you will understand
the previous witnesses' set of questions which took us on. Thank
you very much for coming to the meeting of the Joint Committee.
Perhaps, as indeed with our previous witnesses this afternoon,
I could ask you to elaborate briefly on any key points in your
written submission that you would like to draw to our attention
before we move on to questions.
(Mr Davies) Thank you, Chair. If I can
just add that my name is Owen Davies and I am a National Officer
of UNISON. My colleague, Jean Geldart, is an elected member of
our National Committee. So, in fact, you have in front of you
an example of an elected member and an officer working together
on an issue, which perhaps will have something to say to the Committee.
I would like to make four points, three general and one minor
specific point, but one which is of certain great importance to
UNISON. The three general points: firstly, obviously as a union
representing a very large proportion of the employees of local
government, we are delighted that the Government is taking the
need to revitalise and modernise local government so seriously.
We are very aware that this Committee is looking only at a part
of the modernisation agenda because, of course, the best value
and capping Bill, which has already gone through Parliament, is
a very important part of it; but we do feel very strongly that
there are yet other aspects of the need to modernise local government.
These have not yet been addressed and we look forward to further
modernisation, particularly in terms of powers and finance which
are not a matter for this Committee, but we feel are part of the
modernisation agenda. The second point that we would like to make
is that we are very concerned, as were our colleagues from SOLACE,
who have already explained that this very crucial part of the
political management agenda in the Bill is to do with the separation
of the executive and the scrutiny functions, which may have unforeseen
damaging consequences, particularly in terms of the danger of
secrecy being introduced into a system which, at the moment, for
better or for worse, is a relatively open and accessible system.
If the underlying purpose is to enhance democracy, to increase
public interest and enthusiasm in local government, then we do
not see that this is likely to be promoted by making decisions
less transparent and more secretive, more difficult to find out
about. The third general point is that whatever system is adopted,
and whichever one of the three models (or indeed any model which
may be added) is adopted, it is absolutely essential that the
employees of local government, both at the senior levels and at
the more junior levels, are clear who their employer is and who
they are responsible to for their day-to-day actions. We are concerned
that unless the executive scrutiny division is clearly defined,
then it may be become difficult for individual employees, in individual
situations, to know exactly to whom they are responsible. The
fourth point -and perhaps a minor point but one that is rather
dear to our heartsis that as part of the Code of Conduct
for local government employees, the White Paper suggests that
the regulations on political restrictions should be moved into
the Code of Conduct. At the moment, the political restrictions
regulations cover a huge swathe of senior managers in local government
by virtue of their salary level. We would like the Bill also to
look at what activities are proscribed for those officers, because
in some ways we believe that some of the present proscriptions
damage people's civil and political rights in a way that is not
necessary, in order to protect the principles of political neutrality,
which we absolutely accept should be fundamental to local government.
Chairman: Thank you very much. Mr Pike.
286. You obviously say quite clearly in your
views that you do think that the status quo should be an
option that is permitted. There are three options within the Bill.
Do you think there should be more options? If the council does
not decide to go to a referendum, and you argue that it should
not have to go to a referendum, should there be any pressure point
at any stage which says this is not necessarily working right?
You argue that many local authorities are working well, and I
would tend to agree with that, but at the end of the day it cannot
just be the councillors and the council officers and the council
members and people who make that decision, because if the number
of people continue to decline who are voting, then there will
be a lack of public confidence. How would you challenge that?
(Ms Geldart) I think one of the problems
in some of the discussions about this is that there is an assumption
that public confidence is linked to local authority structures.
I have to say that UNISON takes the view that most members of
the public are not terribly concerned about what local authority
structures are. What they are concerned about is the service that
they receive, which comes back to the issue of powers and finance
and I think that really underlies what we are trying to say and
I think we appreciate it is not part of this Bill. In a sense
what is being talked about in this Bill can be construed as being
a discussion about the more efficient working of local authorities
in a fairly narrow sense but, frankly, is unlikely to have very
much influence on public perceptions except insofar as that produces
something which is that much more efficient. I suppose what I
am saying is that I am putting a slightly different underlying
position in relation to what we would say about what the different
structures would be.
Sir Paul Beresford
287. Would you not agree that what the Government
is thinking is in having a mayor you can have a strong figure
that can increase the interest and so forth in the public and
that it may well not be interested in structures below the mayor,
the presence of the mayor and the name they feel is going to engender
more interest? If you do or do not agree with that, would you
not feel that under the present system a strong leader, either
one that is intensely liked or dislikedand I can think
of people who would fit all the patternswould do the same
under the present system?
(Ms Geldart) We were listening to the
previous discussion and I think it is clear that, yes, if there
is one name which is known that can be identified in the minds
of the public with what the council does in a way makes it easier
for people to understand things. There is a lot of confusion in
the minds of most people about what the council's functions are
and I am not sure that having a mayor or a strong leader affects
that. In terms of a perception of where decisions get taken, I
am not clear that it is necessarily in the interests of democracy
to identify with one individual. Having said that, clearly most
members of the public probably would prefer to identify with an
individual. I do not think we have a problem with the idea of
a strong leader. We do have concerns about the proposals. We are
not saying that if members of the public want it they should not
be allowed to have it, but placing the emphasis on a mayor which
carries with it, we think, a lot of other problems is not really
getting to the point of improved services.
288. Is the difference the fact that with a
strong mayor you have got, as we were discussing earlier, the
problem of secrecy? With the strong leader all those matters have
to be put in papers and sent all the way down through the system.
So they are open, they are available, they are in the library,
anyone can get at them. Is that a safeguard worth keeping?
(Ms Geldart) Absolutely, both from the
point of view of democracy and transparency. I suppose in the
best run organisations people would consult everybody before they
came to conclusions, but in practice the present committee system
to some extent acts as a sort of failsafe in that officers and
departments who have not been consulted about issues but who do
have an interest can put their oar in at an early enough stage
to know that considerations which need to be dealt with do get
dealt with. Our fear is that any system in which decisions get
taken whether by a cabinet or by a mayor without that element
of publicity will not only be non-democratic but will not be the
most democratic decisions.
289. Could I take you back to your initial statements
about the issues of powers and finance. I think we clearly must
accept that for the purposes of this examination the whole question
of finance is outside the remit, although I would love to have
a discussion about it. The question of powers is obliquely mentioned
at the beginning of the Local Leadership, Local Choice
paper where it is stated that the Government will "seek such
other legislation as is necessary to carry through the rest of
the White Paper agenda, including the new duty for councils to
promote the economic, social and environmental well being of their
area." Is that one of the things you mean by powers? Do you
think a sequential approach would work or do you think that incorporating
that element into a change in the structures is vital to its success,
particularly in the context of having an elected mayor?
(Mr Davies) We are very much in favour
of legislation to provide the duty to promote social and economic
well being. That is not where we originally came from, though.
Obviously with a trade union approach to this our concern about
loss of powers fundamentally comes from issues to do with the
removal of social housing provision effectively from local councils
or social services authorities being told that they could only
provide community care if they had 85 per cent of that provided
privately. It was those sorts of powers that we were originally
thinking about when we drew up this policy. I am not clear and
I do not think we have thought through whether the duty to promote
social and economic well being will free up councils to begin
to move back into areas where we believe they are uniquely placed
to deal with social housing and other sorts of provision. So I
am not clear whether that clause if it could be introduced on
its own would solve all the problems that we have experienced
or our members have experienced in terms of loss of powers. The
other crucial area is the question of capping and of the business
rate, but we would see those powers as being necessary to re-build
the vigorous nature of local government.
290. Do you think there is a particular issue
bearing in mind the preferred models that the Government is promoting
in the Local Leadership, Local Choice paper? What is in
my mind is the extent to which, say, the political platform of
an elected mayor might look rather sorry in terms of the fact
that that mayor would be elected and then the officers and the
council would say, "Well, you cannot do all these things
because we are sorry, it is ultra vires and you have not
got power to do this and that", and the idea of the strong
mayor would be undermined?
(Mr Davies) You could say that is exactly
what happens at the moment except the excuse at the moment is
finance, i.e. we would like to do it but we cannot afford to do
it. I do think there is a very serious problem in ensuring that
the powers that are allowed to councils under the duty to promote
economic and social well being would provide for the sort of community
planning issues that are coming forward, but at this stage with
no specific proposals it is very difficult to give a very detailed
comment on that.
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: I wanted to come
back to Mr Davies' second point which was about secrecy. He was
concerned about greater secrecy of these various systems that
are being put forward. I am not sure that I recognise the perfectly
open system that we have now. I used to be an opposition councillor
in Sir Paul's council and I certainly did not have a clue about
the decision-making process that was going on and I think I am
right in saying that most of my Conservative colleagues did not
know about the decisions being made either.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: Surely not!
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
291. Surely we have to recognise the reality
of that and the reality that decisions are made in secret and
to try and make sure that system is protected and built on and
given proper advice rather than trying to talk up a rather inadequate
system like the one you have now.
(Ms Geldart) I think you are absolutely
right. The reality in those councils which are controlled by a
single party is that decisions get taken either in the party group
or in a smaller caucus of the party group and I doubt if any legislation
is going to change that. What I think concerns us is that by creating
an executive which can take decisions before any material is published
that will enable those bodies to entrench themselves and to enforce,
in effect, the sort of decision making which at the moment is
subject to some public challenge. I think the reality for opposition
councillors in such authorities is that they are excluded, and
I suspect will continue to be excluded. At least, from the point
of view of the public, access for the press, the possibility of
the community organisations, interest organisations outside, being
able to get hold of what is going on, to raise issues and to campaign
to change themwhich I think is a very important part of
democratic processI might also add that the same is broadly
true of trade unions within the council, who will also be excluded
from any knowledge of what is going on, and obviously some will
be matters which concern us. The reality of an executive system
is likely to be that decisions will be taken before anyone gets
wind of them, and that the best that can be hoped for is a process
through scrutiny committees, which if they are whipped in the
way we all expect in reality they will be whipped, will in itself
not necessarily be the way in which decisions will really get
changed. My own experience and that of my predecessorsI
am certainly not speaking for the authority I work for, which
has introduced a cabinet systemis that about four weeks
elapse between a cabinet decision and the final decision being
taken on an issue. In that period there is a five-day window for
items to be called in to scrutiny committee by a number of councillors:
not by anyone else, not by members of the public. The reality
is, we fear, that this is going to mean that most things will
slip by without the opportunity for the public, the people who
pay the money and see the services, to challenge them.
292. So it is important on the scrutiny committee,
listening to what you say, to get it clearly defined within legislation?
You are expressing, if I am understanding you correctly, strong
reservations about whipping in relation to the scrutiny committee
in an executive cabinet decision taking process.
(Mr Davies) Our paper specifically raises
the possibility of whipping not being allowed in scrutiny, but
also we take what we heard earlier on. In a sense, it is a vain
hope, because party discipline is such that whether there is official
public whipping, or whether there is other pressure put on people,
it is very difficult to see how we can prevent whipping.
Mr Pike: I always allowed great democracy when
I was a leader of the council. The only things we powerfully whipped
on was when we decided what the rate was going to be or the rents
were going to be. On almost everything else we allowed a great
degree of freedom because that is what people were there for.
Chairman: I know there are other questions about
whipping but can we perhaps take those another time. Lady Hamwee.
Baroness Hamwee: I think my point has already
always answered. I wondered, when I saw the comment in the paper,
about how the whip system should be banned. How do you envisage
that this ban could possibly be enforced? That is possibly more
of a comment than a question in the light of the previous discussion.
293. Just on that point and building on some
work that was published last week by the Commission on Local Government
and the Scottish Parliament, one of their recommendations refers
specifically to councils incorporating in their standing orders
rules to the effect that where whipping is applied to council
business, it should be declared at the commencement of the relevant
discussions, and there should be minuted public information and
records. Do you think that might be a way in which this could
(Mr Davies) If these changes go through,
it is to give backbench scrutiny councillors the most freedom
to ask difficult questions without being bullied. It is difficult
to find a legal way of enshrining that, but any measures that
would leave backbench scrutiny councillors free to do the job
I perfectly accept the Government's good intention in the paper,
in terms of a powerful, appropriate, fulfilling role for backbench
councillors. At the moment, we are all struggling to find the
mechanisms which will ensure that this actually happens in practice.
294. You cannot stop a party dissenting in the
(Mr Davies) Then people can stand as
Earl of Carnarvon
295. My question only needs a negative or a
positive answer. As I read it in your paper, you feel very strongly
that there should be a fourth model which would be an improved
status quo. Is the answer yes or no?
(Mr Davies) The answer is yes.
296. The second one. You put a higher priority
almost in putting the business rate back to local government.
(Ms Geldart) Yes.
Earl of Carnarvon: Good.
Mr Burstow: I do not think my questions lend
themselves to yes or no quite so readily. A lot of the evidence
we have had so farand it has been followed through in some
of the answers which you have already giventhe presumption
is always that the nature of the balance between executive and
scrutiny will always be in favour of the executive. I wonder whether
or not that will necessarily always follow, given that in some
authorities, where there is a very strong group structure, and
groups are active, groups will elect their representatives to
their executivesgroups to one degree or another will be
holding their members on the executive accountable through their
group processeswhere, in fact, there is quite the reverse
danger in terms of the fettering of members of the executive.
I was interested in the question you were asked by Lord Ponsonby
earlier on, about the reality of the existing committee system
being a fig leaf over the group processes that take place.
Sir Paul Beresford: But based on flawed judgment.
297. Based perhaps on a unique experiment on
a unique local authority. But perhaps generalising out to other
authorities, which are maybe not quite as unique as Wandsworth,
I wonder whether or not we might have a situation where those
group processes will continue and nothing in this Bill is going
to touch those group processes, so the reality is that the power
will still rest with the majority, where there is a majority.
(Mr Davies) I accept that within groups
it is possible, given the political peculiarities of any given
local authority, for there to be strong scrutiny, but the issue
surely is that this scrutiny will be secret scrutiny, it will
not be public and accountable scrutiny. If the purpose of the
Bill, as we understand it, is to generate more public enthusiasm
and an interest for and concern about local government, then a
systemhowever effective within the party groupthat
is secret, is not going to achieve that part of the Bill's objective.
298. The Bill is described as Local Government
(Organisations and Standards). Apart from the pressure on committees,
it seems to have remarkably little on standards. I particularly
draw your attention to Lord Nolan's report on local government
standards and the great emphasis he gives to planning. He says:
"Planning is probably the most contentious matter with which
local government deals and on which we have received by far the
most submissions from members of the public. We have no doubt
there have been serious abuses. We believe local authority should
examine processes. We have particular concerns about planning
gain and about local authorities granting themselves planning
permission." Would you like to see something more in the
Bill to deal with this important area of standards?
(Ms Geldart) It is not an issue, to be
frank, that we have discussed. I think it is possibly an issue,
which is slightly outside our purview as a trade union, although
as individuals clearly our members who are planning officers would
have an interest in that. Speaking purely personally, I think
there is a major issue there. Whether, in reality, it is something
which can be addressed through legislation I am not at all clear.
My own personal view is that the whole planning system in this
country needs something of a shake-up. That comes back to central
government in the way in which planning decisions are taken and
planning that can be brought which, frankly, is a rather broader
issue. I am not clear that something could be resolved within
the Bill. Having that said that, I do not have a mandate on this
(Mr Davies) Could I add that the Bill does talk, in
principle, about two Codes of Conduct, and one is for councillors.
It talks about a new Code of Conduct for employees, probably based
on the existing Local Government Management Board Code of Conduct.
We generally support the principle of the Code of Conduct for
employees. We have some reservations about the mechanics but what
we also think would be very helpful is if there was a code of
conduct or a protocol to deal with the relationship between councillors
and employees. It is something of the same point that SOLACE were
making about the renegotiation, I think they called it, of the
relationship between chief officers and cabinet members, but we
see it as more of a wider problem. For example, we think that
backbench scrutiny councillors, excluded from the joys of the
committee system and casting around for something to do, may actually
find some pleasure in going into their local council offices and
trying to find out in detail what is going on in their local offices.
Obviously councillors have a right to know what is being done
in the name of their councils, but we think that there needs to
be protocols dealing with the way in which councillors relate.
We have had some very unpleasant examples at a local level of
what could be construed as harassment of individual junior members
of staff by councillors who have very strong and perhaps appropriate
concerns about services for particular clients. We do not dismiss
the part of the Bill that does deal with standards and although
there is very little detail, for understandable reasons, about
the Code of Conduct for employees, we are very keen to see that
part of the Bill enacted and to have a role in ensuring that it
is presented in the right way. We also agree with our colleagues
from SOLACE that there is very little corruption in local government,
but there is a perception in the general public that there is
and as long as that perception exists there is a real need to
do something about it and that is where we see the codes fitting
Lord Bassam of Brighton
299. Reading your paper and having listened
to you for the last half hour or so I rather get the impression
that you do not really think that there is a great case made in
the Government's White Paper and the other various supporting
documents for a great deal of change. You do not appear to like
the cabinet system much or the directly elected mayor system.
You seem to quite favour the existing committee system and believe
that it should be left much as it is. Do you not think there is
a bit of a problem in the heart of local government and is not
the Government generally going in the right direction when it
is trying to design and offer models which would excite more public
interest and enhance local government legitimacy? There is a real
problem with falling electoral interest, whether people are voting
with their feet or not and it does seem to me that your statement
does not really begin to address any of those problems. One could
make the point that having weak local leadership may well serve
better producer interests than consumer interests.
(Ms Geldart) I think the paper reflects
the feedback that we have had from our members, which is that
what concerns them is the service, both the issues about powers
and finance and service delivery, some of which obviously is contained
in legislation currently going through Parliament, others of which
we hope to see come through. Most of our members are at the front
end of service delivery and of course they are concerned about
themselves, but they are also concerned about the services they
deliver and their perception very much is that shuffling the deck
chairs is not the issue. The issue is about services in the front
line and the way they are delivered and I think that is probably
reflected in the tone of our evidence. Having said that, clearly
we do welcome the fact that this issue is being looked at because
we certainly do not think that the existing way in which local
authorities function and the way in which the committee system
functions is not in the best interests of decision making. We
are certainly not arguing for local authorities simply to continue
as they are. I think what we are saying is that local authorities
should be expected to review procedures and there should be a
requirement on them to do that in conjunction with consultation
with the public, but they should have a greater degree of freedom
than is indicated in the Bill to decide what is the best way of
having a process which will deliver services in the most efficient