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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 560 - 579)



Earl of Carnarvon

  560. I wanted to go to a slightly different area. No members of the executive committee can be on your scrutiny committee, is that correct, in line with the draft Bill?

  (Cllr Slaughter) Yes.

  561. In terms of service by officers, does the same officer advise the executive and the scrutiny committee or does a separate officer from the same department advise the scrutiny committee?

  (Mr Peterson) We have the two parts of the system serviced by different teams of officers, but that is largely, if you like, the more routine committee work and support. In terms of advice, high level policy advice, we cannot pretend to have a split as yet whereby we have a team of policy advisers and research staff to support the scrutiny function, and it is clear that under these new models that type of role needs to develop, but we are working within a finite budget with a finite number of staff at the moment, so effectively for policy advice, one set of people still has to advise both sides.

  562. But can I ask Councillor Slaughter then about the position of the scrutiny committee. I take it that the majority party would have a majority on both the scrutiny and the executive committee?

  (Cllr Slaughter) The executive committee is wholly the majority party and the scrutiny committee obeys the current rules of proportionality.

  563. Yes, but that is the majority?

  (Cllr Slaughter) That is the majority.

  564. If you have a caucus meeting of the Labour Party which you explain is in the majority, then the thinking both of the executive and the majority of the scrutiny committee would be the same, the thinking in terms of policy?

  (Cllr Slaughter) We are all elected as ward councillors for the same small geographical area and we know each other no doubt very well over the years and one would hope that the type of decisions that the executive would take would not be wholly out of line with what their colleague back-benchers' views of the same party would be. If that was happening continually, then it would show that something was really rather wrong, and maybe they had elected the wrong people to be on the executive. As far as that is concerned, I think the pressure to maintain a strong voice for the Labour Group, what you call the caucus, comes principally from the back-benchers because essentially within the Labour Group everybody is there together as equals. It allows everyone to have equal time to voice views if they want to put forward a motion and so forth and if the majority, and clearly there is a majority of back-benchers within any group, decides on a view, then that would be binding on the executive, so it is a very ready and easy way, albeit it is not an open and public way, for back-benchers of the administration party to mandate the executive without any difficulty and, therefore, what tends to happen is that if it is the budget or something like that, it will be taken automatically as a Labour Group decision, so I do not think the Labour Group's role is problematic from the back-benchers' point of view; indeed it enhances the back-benchers' position with the administration. It may, however, be problematic from the public's view or the opposition party's view.

  565. We have had evidence at previous meetings that back-bench members who are not members of the executive or the scrutiny committee find it difficult to get information, whereas in the previous system of committees they found it very easy to get information. Can you comment on that? This is the Camdens, the Harringeys, people like that.

  (Cllr Slaughter) Well, we do not force people to serve on the scrutiny committee, but we have four scrutiny panels which deal with a whole range of duties, plus the main scrutiny committee which is the pre-implementation scrutiny committee which has a rotating membership and, therefore, certainly all of the Labour members are on it, but, more important than the rotating membership is the fact that any two councillors, not executive councillors, can call in items of that committee and question members on it. All councillors, as they do in any local authority, have complete access to officers subject to the relevant legislation. The fact is that we do pay all councillors £7,500 a year.

  566. I am not interested in pay.

  (Cllr Slaughter) I think it is a relevant point because there has to be an element of self-starting in this. There has to be an element that if you are going to put yourself forward as a community representative to be elected that you do not say "I cannot get information", the information is there. I know that officers are helpful to councillors, will allow them access to information. Councillors sometimes have to go and ask for that information, just as backbench MPs do.

Sir Paul Beresford

  567. The problem some of them are finding is that there is insufficient information freely and openly available as under the previous system for them to know what they to ask for.

  (Cllr Slaughter) I find that surprising because the Access to Information Act applies. Reports are still produced in the same way, they are in individuals' names rather than in committees' names, but the same officer contact, the same source of material, is still listed. In terms of availability the information is exactly the same, certainly in our authority.

Dr Whitehead

  568. What notice does your executive take of the results of the scrutiny panel?

  (Cllr Slaughter) I think it takes a great deal of notice. The first point is the fact that it exists at all is probably the most significant point. The way that it functions is very much like this Committee functions. If this was the committee I would be in the same position I am today, the chair of the committee, the vice chair who is the leader of the opposition, members of both parties, members of the public would sit round as they are here. If it was an item which had been called in for which I bore responsibility then I would be sitting here and I would answer the questions on it. If they are detailed technical questions then I would ask Mr Peterson to answer the questions as well but that has never happened before. If you compare that with the old days I would be sitting where Lord Bowness is sitting and I would be chairing the meeting and I would be controlling the agenda, if I did not like the questions then I would get an officer to answer it or I would move on to the next business or I would put it to the vote. I am the victim here rather than the person in the controlling seat. The fact is that you have to go through that and sometimes the questioning can go on for hours on one particular issue.

  569. At the end of the questioning the scrutiny committee presumably will produce some conclusions and a report that will be publicly circulated and that will pose some recommendations, I assume it would, for the executive. What mechanism is there in Hammersmith whereby those recommendations have any actual effect on what the executive does subsequently?

  (Cllr Slaughter) That is not what our main scrutiny committee does. We do have a number of scrutiny panels who have a review role and can undertake that type of task. What our main scrutiny does is it is looking at the decisions that have just been made before they are implemented and it simply has the power either to approve or reject them.

  570. It has the power to approve or reject them?

  (Cllr Slaughter) Yes.

Sir Paul Beresford

  571. Under what sort of procedure? Is it by vote, patronage?

  (Cllr Slaughter) Under an unwhipped vote.

Dr Whitehead

  572. If it says "we reject it" is that binding on the executive of the council?

  (Cllr Slaughter) I am interested in what Sir Paul says about patronage. I am not being dense but I am not entirely sure what is meant by that. In my experience councillors tend to be very independent minded people, certainly in London councils, I do not know what happens around other parts of the country. We have a high turnover of members. We have very opinionated and on the whole very articulate members who are very well prepared to speak up. There is a slight difficulty which is that people are not used to speaking up against their own party in public and I think that is a cultural change for people which they are going to have to get used to. My view on that is, yes, of course the local press will take an interest but (1) that will die down and (2) there are only so many stories you can get in the local press that people will read anyway, so I would rather try to preserve a more vibrant local democracy than worry about an internal Labour Party row in the local press. They have the ability, and I think they will over time have flexibility. There is that cultural reticence but I do not see any signs of patronage in the sense of people— I do not know what you mean by that, I genuinely do not.

  573. Can I briefly pursue the point that I was attempting to resolve and that is you say the scrutiny committee can take a vote and can accept or reject something that they have called in.

  (Cllr Slaughter) Yes.

  574. What then happens?

  (Cllr Slaughter) Obviously if it is accepted then it will go on and at the moment there is a ratification process but post-legislation that may well not be necessary. If it is rejected then it is remitted to the executive for reconsideration. I think so far only about three or four things have been voted down.

  575. That is a bit of a blunt instrument, is it not, with respect?

  What would normally happen in a Select Committee in the House would be that the Select Committee would produce a number of recommendations and proposals for the particular subject in hand and those would then receive consideration in terms of the Government's response.
  (Cllr Slaughter) We are talking about two very different types of scrutiny here. The type of scrutiny I am talking about I do not think exists, certainly in the House or elsewhere, it would be the equivalent of allowing a free vote in the House of Commons on a Second Reading Debate. In other words, as every decision is processed, and there may be 40 or 50 decisions per week for example which need member decision making, then any vote can be called in, usually about six or seven of them are called in. In other words, the majority of them are sufficiently uncontentious and they simply are enacted. Six or seven are called in and then debated at the scrutiny committee, what we call the committee of the council, and if the committee of the council decides to reject any of those then they cannot be implemented, they have to be submitted for reconsideration. These are decisions for the council which can be at least postponed or modified by the scrutiny committee. What you are talking about is the more traditional select committee type of scrutiny we do in another way which is by a series of four scrutiny panels which cover a whole range of council activities. They are composed of backbenchers and they have a brief which they can look at, the performance and the particular issues within areas of responsibility, housing, education and so forth.

  576. Just very briefly, I am still slightly confused about (a) how this works and (b) how this relates to what is in the proposals in the current draft Bill. The scrutiny committee, as far as I understand it in Hammersmith as you are describing it, is effectively a second go at what may be executive decisions.

  (Cllr Slaughter) Yes.

  577. And then separately there is the scrutiny panel or scrutiny panels which look at how the council works and may have a performance review committee?

  (Cllr Slaughter) Yes. I do not think that second type of scrutiny is anything new, a lot of councils have been doing it for years, they have had performance review committees and all that sort of thing. Any of this type of scrutiny can be done under the current legislation.

  578. You are talking about a hybrid model of, as it were, a legislative check on the executive.

  (Cllr Slaughter) Yes.

  579. Which then requires the executive to go and have another go at it.

  (Cllr Slaughter) Yes. I think that is terribly important and I do not know of any other council that is doing it. It is an answer, I do not think it is an absolute answer, to one of the criticisms that has been lobbed at this sort of decision making which is that they are elitist or they are secretive. We very strongly support the idea, and of course it happens anyway, that the decision making process, the discussion between members with officers, should take place in private but before the decisions are implemented they can be open to the public and other councillor scrutiny. To give some teeth to that process there is a power, unwhipped in the majority of cases, for those other councillors to overturn a decision at least to the extent of remitting it for reconsideration.

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Prepared 11 August 1999