Examination of Witnesses (Questions 560
THURSDAY 8 JULY 1999
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
(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
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
(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.
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
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
(Cllr Slaughter) Under an unwhipped vote.
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
(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
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
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
(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.