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

Examination of Witness (Questions 420 - 439)



Mr Burstow

  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 party—we only have one opposition member—and 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 biased things.

  422. I think that is inevitable.

  (Ms Ryan) The way politics is—

Mr Burstow

  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 or cabinet?

  (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 the consultation?

  (Ms Clarke) The changes are very, very recent.
  (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 one Conservative.
  (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.

Mr Pike

  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 long ago.

  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.

Mr Gray

  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 okay?

  (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 improvements.

  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 layer—

  Chairman: I do not think the witnesses can take it much further. Can I go to Dr Whitehead and Lord Carnarvon please.

Dr Whitehead

  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 went.
  (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 to be?"

  (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 party.

  (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?

Baroness Thornton

  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.

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