Examination of Witness (Questions 420
THURSDAY 1 JULY 1999
420. We have had evidence from a wide variety
of organisations so far and one of the things that has come across
from certainly some of those who represent local government from
the other side of the table as councillors has been the idea of
the option of maintaining the current system but perhaps in a
more streamlined form, making changes to it so that it works more
efficiently and so on, as another option which ought to be set
alongside the three options that are in the White Paper. I am
not clear from reading the report of the process whether or not
that option of maintaining the status quo plus, of actually
looking at how you could make the committees work better was explored
and whether that was an option that members participating in this
conference could actually ask questions about and indeed come
to a view on and indeed vote for at the end of the process?
(Ms Ryan) It was an option that we were
given. When we voted on it we had a directly elected mayor, a
leader and a cabinet, a directly elected mayor with cabinet manager,
no change, or something completely different. There was a very
small percentage of people who wanted no change. The majority
of us felt that the present system meant that there were a lot
of decisions made behind closed doors particularly in Lewisham
where we have a very dominant partywe only have one opposition
memberand that everything was decided in party meetings
before they went to committee. So the present system was a lot
of time talking, huge stacks of paper work, but very little time
on the important decisions and it was not an effective structure.
Sir Paul Beresford
421. So you felt less secrecy, less paper, faster
decisions, in spite of the fact (which may not have been explained)
that the way it is set up could in fact lead to more secrecy,
more decisions behind closed doors and less scrutiny?
(Ms Ryan) We did talk about the disadvantages
of the ideas of the new system of the cabinet, the cabinet/mayor
split and we talked about the danger that it would not be genuinely
cross-party and that you would still get very party politically
422. I think that is inevitable.
(Ms Ryan) The way politics is
423. I want to follow up on something you said
just now. The emphasis was placed on no change. Was there during
the course of the day and in the workshops and so on that took
place any discussion or questioning of possibilities for change
that may have fallen short of having a directly elected mayor
(Ms Ryan) We were not prescribed the
options. We were given the options that the White Paper introduces
but we also were running our own workshops, as it were. If we
wanted something different we were perfectly at liberty to present
that back to the whole conference. A different option was one
of the five things voted on and four per cent of people wanted
something completely different to any of the proposed options.
424. My final question for the moment is last
Thursday we had a number of councillors from local authorities
in London who came to give us evidence and one of the councillors
who came to see us was from Lewisham and he had a number of concerns
not so much about the process that got Lewisham to where it now
is with its system up and running but more about how it is working
in practice. One of the things he put to us during the evidence
we heard from him was that the meetings of the various committees
are now taking place at 8 o'clock in the morning and councillors
were finding it very difficult to attend and, he was alleging,
so were the public. What has been the experience of yourself and
indeed other residents in the borough since the changes were brought
in? Are they actually achieving what you were led to believe during
(Ms Clarke) The changes are very, very
(Ms Ryan) We had an AGM two weeks ago and obviously
at the moment we do not have the laws to be able to directly elect
a mayor, so we cannot judge the changes that have not happened.
We have changed roughly to that sort of pattern, but again it
has only been a few weeks at the most.
(Ms Clarke) I think the issues you are raising are
obviously real concerns and throughout the conference there was
a lot about party politics in local government, I think that came
through very strongly, that people wanted decision-making to be
more open, more accountable. You are absolutely right that this
system does not guarantee that. I think people were saying we
want this and we want it to be open. How it works in practice
obviously still remains to be seen.
Mr Burstow: I accept that a month is a very
short period of time in which to evaluate anything and that was
a point that was not put to the councillor that made the presentation
to us at the time. He said that since May they have had two executive,
i.e. cabinet meetings which have met on Tuesdays on 8 o'clock
in the morning, an education executive committee and a social
services committee also meeting at eight o'clock in the morning,
but that it is not easy for councillors to get to those meetings
and he said how much more difficult it would be for the electorate.
That was a concern that was presented to us by an elected member
of Lewisham. I really just wanted to know if that was a concern
that was being reflected in the community.
Earl of Carnarvon
425. We have not been told the political make
up of Lewisham Council as a matter of interest.
(Ms Ryan) Labour apart from one, we have
(Ms Clarke) And I think it is two Liberal Democrats
and 67 councillors altogether.
Earl of Carnarvon: Of which three are not of
the same party.
426. A lot of what you are saying in the change
is linked to the position that the Council is in with one party
being very dominant. Do you think that that is a major factor
in wanting to change the system because of that dominance and
is it not necessarily related to the issues that we are debating
within the Bill but perhaps more to the issue of whether the voting
system is right, proportional representation or transferable votes?
I am not an advocate for either of those. I am very much a first
past the post person. Secondly, in London and the metropolitans
you have the problem that when you have your elections you have
all the councils up for election at a time, so when control changes
it changes with a massive movement, does it not?
(Ms Ryan) The opinion of a lot of the
people at this conference was that hopefully the directly elected
mayor would have to be less party political. In Lewisham a mayor
would have to get such a large percentage of the overall vote
that they would have to be attractive to people from all political
parties or else they would not get the number of votes needed.
Mr Gray: Can you imagine a circumstance under
which a directly elected mayor of Lewisham would be a Conservative?
Mr Pike: They had two Conservative MPs not so
Mr Gray: In a sense what you are describing
is something that is fairly predictable, that Lewisham will be
very heavily Labour dominated. Maybe you are addressing something
which the Bill does not answer.
Baroness Thornton: I hope you do not mind me
saying, Mr Gray, but Lewisham Council has had Conservative MPs.
It is not the case that this is an overwhelmingly Labour area.
If you just look at the figures, it has had Labour, it has had
Conservatives and it has had Liberals.
427. I think it may have been some time ago.
(Ms Ryan) If people had the idea or the
hope that there would be less party political bias on this one
person that also might increase the voting turnout. You are saying
that you are almost guaranteed a Labour councillor, for example,
in Lewisham. I sometimes think maybe people would not turn out
if they wanted to vote for somebody else because they would think
it just would not matter, their vote would not count. If you were
talking about somebody who would have to be representing more
than one party to get the quantity of votes people would think,
"Well, actually, my vote might count" and so they would
be more likely to turn out to vote.
428. If you have got a small majority then one
vote makes a difference. I am not sure that is addressed necessarily
in the three structures that are offered in the White Paper. What
in your view is wrong with Lewisham at the moment? Why do you
need any change?
(Ms Megbele) For me I think it is the
way the council is working in Lewisham. If councillors are expected
to be at council meetings at eight o'clock in the morning it becomes
a problem in the sense that they do not have enough time to represent
their local people, they do not have that link and there is no
communication and they do not really know what the people want.
It is alright before the election for them to go round and introduce
themselves and get to know people and the people get to know them,
but once they are elected to that position they do not have any
contact with the people and most people do not really know who
their local councillors are. Another problem I think Lewisham
has is councillors should be made to represent the areas where
they live in as I think they would represent them better because
if I am fighting for an area where I do not live I will probably
not know exactly what the needs of those people are, but if I
am living in that area I will be able to say to them that I live
in this area and I genuinely know what their problems are and
I can represent them better in that sense.
429. I accept that. Leaving aside the structure
for a moment, are you happy or unhappy with the services which
have been delivered by Lewisham Council over the last five years
or whatever it might be? Are you getting poorer services and therefore
looking for a solution in the structure or are you starting from
saying let us have a chat about the structure and which we like
best? For example, a rugby club can spend all its time talking
about a constitutional rugby club and it would not mean any more
goals scored. Do you think that what we are doing here is saying
the services you are getting in Lewisham were bad and let us find
a way of putting that right or are you saying the services were
(Ms Megbele) We are quite happy with
the services, but there is always room for improvement. The councillors
are the decision-making end of the whole thing. They need to have
this contact with the people to know exactly what people want
and what improvements people are looking at. I think I am happy
with the services in Lewisham, but there still needs to be some
430. If what you are saying is we are quite
happy with the services but we want the people to be more closely
connected with their councillors, why is that achieved by having
an elected mayor and a secret cabinet that meets in secret? Surely
the first point you made about having the councillor living in
his/her area and the other points you made, which I think are
very, very strong and powerful points and quite right, makes the
council better. Why should any of these structures that are proposed
in the White Paper make that better?
(Ms Ryan) One thing we were very, very
strong on, almost unanimously in the conference, was the scrutiny
role and scrutiny structures. At the moment that role is not there
very much because it is more party political based. Even though
they say they have got open council meetings, they have actually
all decided what they are going to do in the pub before they came
to the meeting. We hope the new structure in Lewisham will put
a very strong emphasis on the scrutiny role.
431. Exactly. If you had a secret cabinet with
the press not admitted and the people not admitted that cabinet
would still be dominated by one party probably, the chances are,
rather like the new Parliament. So surely you would still have
the same thing except you now would not know about it. Why would
the structure make that any better?
(Ms Ryan) We did view the backbench councillors,
which was the terminology we were using, as having that scrutiny
role as well so that although they might be making these decisions
there would be these other people who knew what we wanted because
they would have the time to spend with us. They would know exactly
what we wanted and they would say, "Hang on a minute."
432. At the moment you have got a very powerful
group structure. You described beforehand the fact that they drive
through their policies and 63 out of 67 of them come from one
party and your criticism of that. If you had this system with
a secret cabinet dominated by one party surely it would be exactly
the same or worse and all you are saying is, "I wish we had
a better balance on the council which would be more democratic"?
(Ms Ryan) Obviously we did have conversations
about negative possibilities. We talked about the danger of the
thing not been genuinely cross-party and also about the idea of
too much power being with too few people. We had one thing that
was not on the suggestions of the paper which was somehow electing
the cabinet as well as the mayor or else you might end up with
a mayor choosing the cabinet and have the old boys' network and
the old boys' club where all the guys that drink down The Rover
would be voted in and because you drink in The Ram you would not
be. So we did talk about that sort of problem.
(Ms Ryan) We were all concerned about adding an extra
Chairman: I do not think the witnesses can take
it much further. Can I go to Dr Whitehead and Lord Carnarvon please.
433. Can I ask you about the process of the
workshops. You were presented with these various options and presumably
you took an initial view. Would you say as the workshops progressed
and you discussed it between yourselves further that you came
to a more definite conclusion about wanting a mayor or did you
go slightly off the subject but still feel overall it was a good
thing or did you feel there were other options? How would you
describe the way it went?
(Ms Megbele) Initially what people wanted
to know was who could stand for mayor in Lewisham because they
needed to know. Most of the councillors in Lewisham are Labour
councillors so they wanted to know whether it was going to be
all Labour candidates or would they bring out an independent candidate
and everybody would vote on them based on their own opinion. It
was based on that answer that people were able to make their decision.
What we came to if it was going to be an independent person that
had nothing to do with the party or was not a member or a councillor
in Lewisham already because if you pick a councillor in Lewisham,
which is a Labour council, if they are putting votes for them
they will be based on the power that the party has in Lewisham
not based on that person's own strength or something like that.
Based on that, we said that it would be alright to have a mayor
and then have people working with him and then it would give the
other councillors a chance to have more contact with the local
people thereby bringing back to the mayor and his cabinet what
the people really want and then influencing the decision-making
process to an extent.
434. That is how the discussion unfolded?
(Ms Megbele) That is how the discussion
(Ms Ryan) In the initial small group discussions in
the initial plenary session we had there was a lot of interest
in how political management of local services is structured but
we talked a lot about community goals and having pride in where
we lived and collective values rather than political or managerial
processes. We started to discuss those more as we got more information
but all of us at the beginning definitely had an idea of how we
wanted it to be, how we wanted our services provided and also
we did talk a lot about the distance between the local communities
and the elected members.
(Ms Clarke) The workshop was not really about do you
or do you not want a directly elected mayor. It was about what
does the community want in terms of their council and what is
its relationship with the council, what are the issues, what is
wrong with the current system. Following on from that throughout
the day we introduced the idea of the Government's proposed models
and what people thought about those in relation to the issues
they had been discussing about contact with local ward councillors,
which Edith talked about and openness and transparency and that
kind of thing.
435. Maybe it is not possible to provide a short
answer but what I was thinking about is whether the proceedings
of the workshops actually reinforced your original views or amended
them or changed them? Did you come out at the end of the work
shop thinking, "I have got a much clearer idea but it underlines
what I thought previously", or did you think, "Oh no,
I have come out with a pretty different view of how things ought
(Ms Ryan) The way we viewed it was that
it was actually supporting our initial goals and our initial ideals
and so it strengthened that, maybe by introducing a different
system of getting there but it did reinforce what we were asking
and expecting and wanting rather than completely sending us off
on a completely different road. We were still going to the same
place but up the A4 instead of the M4.
Earl of Carnarvon
436. Mrs Megbele said that she was looking for
someone independent. I happen to be the only independent member
of this group not allied a political party. How do you expect
to find someone who knows Lewisham well enough who is independent
of politics to stand against the Labour Party in Lewisham?
(Ms Megbele) We did have that argument
actually and people came up with maybe someone who has a business
in Lewisham who has been in Lewisham for a very long time and
knows what local people want and who has been involved with local
people. People came up with different candidates and there was
this thing about their job description, what will they be doing,
how do you know who the right person is, what are we going to
be looking out for in a mayor in Lewisham? That is what people
looked out for. We did not just sit down and say let's pick an
independent candidate. We do not want someone who walks in off
the street who does not know what is going on saying, "I
want to stand for this position", no, he has to know what
the local people want and he has to have been really involved
with Lewisham and be someone who will fight for the local people.
(Ms Ryan) We do have some quite strong community leaders
and community figures and we would want somebody like that who
is not politically based but knows the community and works for
the community to be able to stand.
437. The vast majority on the executive committee
and scrutiny committee would probably be from the same political
(Ms Ryan) Probably.
438. How would the unfortunate mayor be able
to carry through what you hoped he would be able to do?
(Ms Ryan) People power. Is that not what
democracy is supposed to be all about?
Baroness Thornton: I wanted to ask you whether
you thought the process you had been through of being on this
panel was a good way of finding out views and what you felt about
what you have been doing.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: Was it worth doing?
439. Was it worth doing? Do you think it is
going to make things better in Lewisham over a period of time?
(Ms Megbele) For me it has been quite
gratifying. I have lived in Lewisham for a very long time but,
to be honest, I did not how things worked in Lewisham. I never
even knew who my councillor was in my own ward until I became
a member of this panel and it opened my eyes to a lot of things
that were going on in Lewisham. I can rightly say to people because
I run the local group in my area, they know that I am a member
of the citizens' panel and they throw questions to me which I
come back and throw to people when I attend meetings and things
like that. I have learned a lot and I am happy that I am a part
of it. Let me put it this way: I might make a suggestion and although
they do not take what I have said somehow what I have said maybe
influences decisions about services in Lewisham and things like
that. Because I have got young children growing up in Lewisham
I know in the future I may have helped to influence decisions
about their lives and their future. It is a very, very good thing
for me to be part of.