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


Examination of Witness (Questions 380 - 403)

THURSDAY 1 JULY 1999

MR BEN PAGE

Lord Carnarvon

  380. Two points. Your diagnosis via MORI produces a figure of just over 50 per cent in favour of a mayor.

  A. The one large-scale poll where MORI has directly asked the question it actually averaged 66 per cent.

  381. Professor Stoker told us it was two-thirds.

  A. It is exactly the same.

  382. It is not exactly—

  A. Two thirds or 66.66 per cent then.

  383. You explained that you have not polled in detail in large county areas with districts.

  A. I do think there is more work to be done in that area to really get a detailed understanding.

  384. So a lot of this is very urban orientated—

  A. I guess so. I am not going to represent other people's opinion polls because I do not work for ICM, but there is that poll which you should have a look at. I am sure that will give you other information.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

  385. I wonder whether you have done any research work on testing whether or not the public are concerned about democratic legitimacy. What drives the modernisation agenda in part is this feeling that the Government and many of us in local government have which is that because of poor turnouts local government is losing the plot a bit and losing its relationship with the public. I wonder whether there is any resonance amongst the public themselves as to the question of legitimacy and whether local government is worth being there?

  A. Local government is not the most exciting subject in the world and people often cannot see why they should bother voting. I have shown the survey that we did for the LGA where we asked people to describe their attitudes to voting in local elections, i.e. "It does not seem to make much difference to services round here and whoever wins." There are concerns about that. It is a question of what the solution is to getting the public to feel they are listening to them, but it is also about being able to do something when they do listen.

  386. Is there any research that opens up that area, the question of legitimacy? In Europe, in particular, there does seem to be greater enthusiasm for local government as expressed in turnout. Do you have any thoughts on that?

  A. They have gone for PR. I personally think that if you are interested in turnout locally probably PR would be effective in encouraging people to vote. What is the point of voting if you are a Conservative in Newham? Have Conservatives ever been elected in Newham? I do not know.

Mr Gray

  387. In the European elections they used PR and the turnout was the worst ever.

  A. That is another issue. There are issues about Europe and there are other issues. If you look at Italy, there they have 80 per cent turnout. They have probably had 80 elections since the war.

Sir Paul Beresford

  388. Politics is like sport in Italy.

  A. I am not suggesting it is a good thing.

  Mr Gray: On what evidence do you base the assumption that if we had PR that would improve turnouts?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

  389. Is there any substantial evidence that says the first past the post is more or less—

  A. I think I would refer to Colin Rawlings and Thrasher on this one in Plymouth who know infinitely more about this than me. What I would say from an analysis of looking at by-elections is that their analysis, as far as I understand it, is that the key driver is marginality. It is a very closely fought contest. Everybody is out there knocking on the doors and your vote is likely to swing the difference between candidate X and candidate A. That is what is going to get you out there to vote.

Mr Gray

  390. So it is the first past the post.

  A. Possibly.

Dr Whitehead

  391. Can I ask you whether within this polling you have actually used what is called a lickert scale, which is doing degrees of warmness or coldness towards the question that is asked and, if you did, have you grossed these up to give you a general satisfaction and dissatisfaction index? Is there actually a sub-text underneath this about whether people are genuinely not very interested—

  A. What are we talking about, local government or mayors?

  392. In your quantitative research generally.

  A. We always use lickert scales when we are asking people about how well informed they are about the authority or how satisfied with this they are or the extent to which they agree or disagree.

  393. So you have actually done a simplification of that, have you?

  A. We are just showing you gross figures for support and oppose or agree and disagree or satisfied and dissatisfied.

  394. Do you weight those in terms of your response here?

  A. You could create an index, and we sometimes do, so that if you say you are very satisfied we will give you a score of two and if you are fairly satisfied we will give you a score of one and create some means.

  395. If people are as generally disinterested or unimpressed by local government as is suggested then you would expect a large number of people to be just about the neutral level.

  A. They are fairly satisfied. If you want to talk about the use of different scales, Bob Worcester has written numerous papers saying that the lichard scale we use and the values we use are the most effective in getting a proper distribution across the range.

  396. I am sure he will have done.

  A. If you look at how people feel about their council, yes, you are right, they are in the fairly satisfied group and the fairly dissatisfied. It is not something that people get excited about.

  397. And that general picture is borne out by that sub-class, is it?

  A. Yes.

  398. I know MORI has also been a leader in this. You have an effect in an election whereby if you poll subsequent to an election more people claim to have voted for the winning side than is actually the case in the election.

  A. That is absolutely true.

  399. And I believe MORI has corrected for that.

  A. If you ring people back the week after the election and particularly years after the election you would find that the result was completely different to what happened. Similarly, if you look at how many people say they vote in local elections, you often find that, for example, in Birmingham 70 per cent of the public reckon they voted in the local election.

  400. Taking that as a background, to what extent would you consider that those views of councils may have been influenced, for example, by what the local press is saying? What is the general view? Certainly some of the research that has been carried out for local authorities indicates that there is a problem moving the tank around, that there are long held public views about local authorities and even when a local authority is performing well, if there is a background view that they are all a load of rubbish that is very persistent.

  A. The public has stereotypes of local government which are outdated and they are not aware of the pace of change in local authorities. If we look at the reputation of local government as corporate entities, as I pointed out here, it is well below some of the services delivered. There are some services that some local authorities deliver where 95 per cent of the public are satisfied with it and there are many private sector providers who would be delighted to have that type of score. Yes, when they think about councils all sorts of negative images are summoned up and the media can in some areas reinforce that and it does become more difficult, but at the same time they are judging things on very basic service delivery. So it is not just based on media perception, it is also based on are the streets clean, are the bins emptied on time, do the lights work, how are my children being educated etc.

  401. Could you summarise that by saying what councils do people are reasonably satisfied with?

  A. I think that is not unfair. I would qualify that by saying some services that councils provide people are very satisfied with. Some services the council provide people are very dissatisfied with. Pavement maintenance is the worst rated service in this country bar none. The amount of money needed to be spent to get it to a level when people would be satisfied; I expect would probably be equivalent to the national debt.

Lord Marlesford

  402. Is it possible for you to let us have the raw data? I do not mean bits of papers that you have filled in—

  A. Tables and that sort of thing?

  403. Yes, particularly on the attitude to the mayor and on the attitude to the executives, the things that you think are most relevant to the options in the White Paper.

  A. Okay. I would be happy to do that.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. Thank you very much for coming and answering our questions.





 
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