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

Examination of Witness (Questions 320 - 339)



  320. What I am getting at is, would you not question the validity of the whole project?

  A. A thousand interviews in the metropolitan areas, which is what MORI has done, gives you a margin of error for those metropolitan cities, where of course the attention is most heavily focused, of 3 per cent—95 times out of 100. I understand, and we can look it up in the evidence if you want to from Gerry Stoker, that he has also commissioned a poll form ICM across Britain as a whole which also shows, if I remember correctly, 66 per cent in favour. Lewisham's own poll, which again I am not directly connected with, I believe showed 57 per cent in favour. So the evidence on that one is probably fairly consistent, that the idea of a directly elected figurehead is "popular". Beyond that, we need to perhaps look and say, "What are people's concerns and are they being addressed?" The answer is that it goes some way to making local government more accountable, as they see it, but perhaps not far enough. If you look at some work we were doing recently in what is called a community workshop, the public we have been saying, "This is all very well but it is rather irrelevant to the services delivered."

Baroness Thornton

  321. Could I take you back a bit, Mr Page? Could you tell me more about how much work MORI has done in the field of finding out about people's views on local government? Could you fill me in on that, because in a way we dived straight in and I would find it useful if we backed up a bit and you told me about MORI's work in this area?

  A. MORI is probably the leading provider of research by the private sector to local authorities and we have conducted over 600 large-scale surveys for individual authorities up and down this country, starting in Southwark in 1979. In the paper I have given you trend data and I have also sent to the Committee a list of the actual work that we have done, but it is very substantial. We also are involved in providing opinion poll data for the evaluation of best value for the DETR and every year we work for around 100 different local authorities. A lot of that work is not just opinion polls and the sort of surveys we were talking about earlier in the metropolitan areas, it is actually qualitative work where perhaps we are talking to small groups of residents without a very fixed script to truly try and understand what they see as the issues, what concerns them, and talk about that in their language.

Mr Burstow

  322. I wanted to explore some of the quantitative work specifically related to the polls in metropolitan areas that we started to discuss just now, and then perhaps ask one question about qualitative work because it might be useful to hear a bit more about that. In the written evidence you have already supplied, you refer to the issue of the various models of governance that are being proposed by Government in this document as not having a high salience with the public. I wonder if you can now or in written form later give us the statistics which came out of the polling in respect of the numbers of people who had no opinion one way or another?

  A. It is about 15 per cent. Also in the polls we did for the new local government network, one person in five, 19 per cent, said they were opposed to the idea.

  323. My question about the qualitative work is really to ask if you have any views about the development of citizens' panels which are now being set up by a number of local authorities and indeed by central government as well, whether or not they do provide a useful tool for local authorities in determining policy matters and issues around service delivery, and indeed whether or not they present any methodologically unsound evidence to the way in which they work?

  A. Local government's increasing use of panels—and MORI runs over 20 panels for individual local authorities—means that giving people (ie members and officers) robust and reliable views of what the public's views are of services and indeed councillors, the whole way the authority operates and what people's priorities are for an area, helps the local politicians make better informed decisions. It does not replace decision-making but it helps them make better informed decisions. However, it is worth saying in passing that in methodological terms the most compelling reason for having a panel is in order to understand how the views of individuals on that panel are changing. If you just want to know how public opinion is changing you can do tracking research, and it is fair to say that so far although they are only two or three years into this programme most local authorities do not do very much work looking at why individual's views are changing, so one could argue in methodological terms the use of panels is not necessarily always the most appropriate. However, some people are using panels not just to understand what their residents are thinking but also to develop closer relationships with groups of residents, so you have a choice for the panel—if you are interested in this argument—between conditioning and attrition. If you want people to keep taking part, you have to make it worth their while, and I am sure Lewisham can tell you a few things they do with their panel. It does involve giving people information, making them realise why they should bother taking part in these continued surveys that they are being asked to do. By giving people that information and by getting them into closer contact with politicians, there is a danger they become atypical but this is something which needs to be weighed up. Certainly on the Government's People's Panel, there is very little evidence of that happening and it is more an issue about attrition.

Earl of Carnarvon

  324. Mr Page, how much investigation has been done, how much polling, in rural areas? You have not mentioned that yet.

  A. I am not aware of any that look exclusively at rural areas, although I would imagine that the ICM survey could be broken down to look at rural areas. One thing we have done is to look occasionally at people's views in the counties and in two-tiering at the idea of mayors, and there is a great deal of confusion as to what might happen if, say, a county had a mayor or perhaps a prefect or a governor, then there were local mayors in each of the boroughs. Secondly there is a bit of concern in London which is, "Hang on, we have a mayor in this borough, there is a Mayor of London and an MP and an MEP and there is a Greater London Assembly", and some people find that rather confusing.

  325. I am not surprised. Could you tell me what information you have as regards the public understanding the separation of functions between the executive and the scrutiny committee? I imagine that the general public would think that would gobbledegook.

  A. If you start talking about the scrutiny committee, most people do not know what you are talking about. Having said that, they do want a reasonable system of checks and balances, and they are not particularly obsessed about the speed of decision-making, what they are interested in is the quality of decision-making and feeling they have been consulted before rather than after decisions are made by their local authority. At the moment, as you will have seen in my evidence, people very strongly agree that they are not listened to by their local authority. So there is a lot of interest in what the scrutiny function is but people at the moment have very little understanding of what is proposed.

  326. Would you say the public who have been polled are very interested in what the local authorities provide?

  A. Yes.

  327. But less interested in how the local authority functions?

  A. Yes. As I have said here, the bottom line is improvements in service delivery. If we hold public meetings and ask people to come along without getting them there by various means, you will not find massive attendances to discuss the committee structure in local government. You will find many more people turning up to discuss crime or transport or something which concerns them.

Mr Gray

  328. I want to press a little more into the value of the quantitative research in your evidence and two or three aspects of it, if I may. The first is, in your reply to Sir Paul you mentioned it was primarily based on 1,000 people in five metropolitan districts, would you therefore agree it has very little relevance to the rest of the country?

  A. I am just saying that is for the metropolitan areas. There will be differences in county England but the debate is centring on those metropolitan areas, which is, I imagine, why we were asked to do it.

  329. No, it was not, because the Bill would apply to local government across the nation.

  A. I appreciate that but we were talking about mayors, which is an issue in metropolitan areas.

  330. The debate is not about metropolitan areas at all, but I suspect that your view of it may well be that is the case, and it may well be your evidence is about metropolitan areas. One of the things which this Committee has to consider is whether or not there should be a different view taken on two-tier local authorities, for example in counties, from metropolitan authorities. You are saying that your evidence is primarily related to the mets?

  A. The poll we conducted primarily relates to mayors but I have also referred to the ICM poll which you have already had—

  331. That is another matter. We are talking about your evidence.

  A. I referred to the ICM poll in my evidence as well.

  332. I am talking about quantitative research which MORI carried out and what you are saying is that the primary view you come to from that quantitative research primarily relates to the mets?

  A. But also the People's Panel which is 5,000 people across the whole of the UK and 55 per cent—and the chart is in my evidence and it is across the whole of the UK—say they support the idea of a directly elected mayor as a way of having more say. I do not have the evidence in front of me to say this but I suspect that is supported more strongly in some metropolitan areas than in, say, bits of Cornwall, but basically the bottom line is that it appears that it is popular, but there is perhaps more work which needs to be done to unpick this.

  333. Let us not talk about what you think, let us stick to your evidence and the actual quantitative, statistical analysis, the arithmetics and facts, not your views. I just call your attention to paragraph 8 where you talk about the three models and you say that the research was not statistically reliable.

  A. Qualitative research is not designed to be extrapolated from. What it does do is give us an understanding of why people hold particular views. Actually we probably interviewed about a hundred people on that and, if you really wanted to, you could say it was accurate to 10 per cent, but I am not going to advance that argument. What it is giving us is not hard data but it is trying to give you an insight into the views of the public particularly when they start to look at these issues in more detail.

  334. How different do you think your results would have been if you had offered the people you asked a fourth option, namely to leave it as it is?

  A. You would like me to give my opinion on that? It is certainly the case that it partly depends how much information we give people. It depends what the media is saying at the moment because it is not a high salience issue and people will be swayed by what the papers are saying. I imagine a fraction of people, and we have 20 per cent in that poll in the mets who are opposed to the idea and 15 per cent who do not know, but I still suspect that if people had a gun put to their head and were shown the Bill and had it explained to them ad infinitum they would probably tend to choose the mayor. It may not be the most popular option but—

  335. —so you said to people, "Would you not like to be better represented?", to which they would say yes, and you said, "In that case, which of these three things would you like in order to do that" and you come up with a statistical model which is not a very satisfactory one of what the results are. Is it not a slightly devalued exercise?

  A. You can see what the questions are, those are people's honest answers to them. I am not pretending they have a detailed understanding of the issue but I do think the idea of a directly elected mayor is appealing to people. Admittedly the work has concentrated on urban areas but I do think there is something in it.

Dr Whitehead

  336. Can I ask you to undertake a little inference as well as giving us your opinions? I believe, I know, MORI did a lot of work at the time of the Local Government Review—

  A. We certainly did.

  337. 31, 32 county-based polls?

  A. Yes, and many individual districts.

  338. Indeed. Also Hatter & Goschalk I believe—

  A. Brian Goschalk.

  339. Yes.—grossed those figures up and did quite a lot of work as a result of surveys which were methodologically pretty identical across the counties?

  A. Yes.

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