Examination of Witnesses (Questions 580
THURSDAY 8 JULY 1999
580. Part of the purpose of these proposals
is to speed things up. As you are describing that delaying mechanism
it sounds like some of the very worst councils in the council
and the way that they treat their planning applications by not
actually resolving difficult decisions. Is your process quicker
(Cllr Slaughter) It is obviously quicker.
We used to have a 13 week cycle. We did have an urgency committee
that could take matters of contract decisions and things like
that but we used to have a 13 week cycle. The old service committees
used to meet four times a year. The reason we did was that over
the years, because we found the committees so completely redundant,
we just cut down the numbers and how often they met and everything
of that kind. Under the new cycle if a decision is challenged
then it can take six weeks for it to go through. That is not unreasonable.
Do not forget that most decisions are still delegated to officers
and we do have a provision for extreme urgency cases. We only
use it once or twice a year. It is quicker. I think the efficiency
comes more at the earlier stages in terms of making decisions
which are clear, well thought out and have been discussed in the
right forms with the right people at the right time and only in
those forms. That is where the efficiency comes.
581. So if a decision is rejected it goes back
to the executive. Before it comes back to the scrutiny committee
do you go to the Labour Group and take a whips' decision?
(Cllr Slaughter) As I say, I sense a
slight reticence, particularly among administration councillors,
to vote against their colleagues in public at the moment. That
may be a reason why not a lot of decisions have been overturned
at the moment and why they prefer to refer it to the Labour Group
to sort out at that stage or even have a quiet word previously
and say "can you not amend it in this way" or what have
you. Even when things are far more open and combative and people
are prepared to do it in that way, which I hope will come over
a short period of time, then I still do not think many decisions
are going to be overturned because it would not be commonsense,
would it? As I said before, it would mean that the executive and
the rest of their group were completely out of step. If something
is overturned it is usually for a good reason. It is usually because
in the course of the debate of the scrutiny committee actual problems
have been exposed. It may well be that either it will be brought
back in a better form or it will be abandoned. If it is simply
a confrontation, a tussle, that has to be resolved it will have
to be resolved either at the Labour Group or at the full council.
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
582. I want to ask two general questions. The
first is about the more traditional mayoral duties. How do you
have time to carry out the traditional mayoral duties or are they
being left by the wayside or is somebody else doing them for you?
The second question is about trying to quantify that the system
you are operating is better than the previous system. Have you
set up measures for doing that? Do you track that? You are saying
that you want to enhance public access, do you measure that in
any way? You said you had a 13 week committee cycle, other councils
have far fewer, a six week cycle in Wandsworth I think I am right
in saying. Have you actually tracked the speeding up of your decision
making process against other councils, not against your own 13
week cycle? How do you measure the success of the system?
(Cllr Slaughter) On the first point,
we have a ceremonial position which is the chair of the council
who undertakes purely ceremonial functions. Maybe 60 per cent
or 70 per cent of what the previous mayor did will be done by
that post. The other 30 per cent will either be done by me or
by other members of the cabinet if it is within their portfolio
area, if it has a policy ring to it, if it is opening a housing
development it will be done by the housing executive. That seems
to work better, it is very much horses for courses. In terms of
speeding up, I really do not think that we should get hung up
on how often committees meet. The reason we have committees meeting
very infrequently is that we regard them as a liability rather
than an asset to the authority. We still had a three week cycle
then of what we called our policy resources and urgency committee
and effectively then we had the streamlining of the efficiency
without some of the accountability previously. What we are trying
now to do is to build the accountability in there as clearly as
we can. In terms of monitoring what we do, we have tried to do
as much as we can by way of analysis in the first year. We regarded
the first year as an experimental year. We had a very thorough
opinion from John Howe QC on the legal implications of what we
were doing which went far beyond what we were doing. We had an
independent review by KPMG of exactly the sorts of issues you
are talking about, about whether it will make the decision making
better and things of that nature, how the scrutiny system is working.
We have introduced a number of amendments, particularly to the
scrutiny system, in the light of those reviews. In terms of getting,
if you like, performance indicators for councillors, and we regarded
that very much as our experimental year and we have taken this
as our first full year of operations, we will look at performance
indicators for councillors and we will be looking at performance
indicators for the council over the next three years until the
next local elections. At the moment we are the most improving
local authority in Inner London. I would not say that is as a
consequence of what we are doing at the moment because I think
it is too early days but I would like to see that trend continued.
I would like to see positive results. At the end of the day this
is an end in itself and the means to an end. The end in itself
is is it more democratic, is it more open, is it more accountable,
is it more efficient as far as we as politicians and the public
having access to what we are doing is concerned? The means to
an end is does it mean that we have a low council tax in five
years' time, does it mean that we have less dustbin collections
and things of that nature, does it mean that our school standards
are higher? I cannot answer that question at the moment.
583. I have two questions if I may and the first
follows that point. I entirely take your point that you made at
the beginning about local people not being particularly interested
in the procedure but have interest groups, community groups, groups
which are concerned with particular issues, had comments to make
about how the procedure is working and their ability to have an
input to the processes? The second is to ask whether you have
any comments arising from your experience which might apply to
the budget making process which after all many would regard as
perhaps the most important series of decisions?
(Cllr Slaughter) The answer to the first
point is that in a way has been the most positive response. Although
I would not pretend that there has been any huge interest from
the general public, neither have we tried, because it has been
an experimental year, to promote that. We are going to try that
for next year. I have talked to many local groups, tenants associations
The Committee suspended from 4.17 p.m. to 4.26
p.m. for a division in the House of Commons.
Chairman: Lady Hamwee, can you ask your question?
584. I have asked the question and Councillor
Slaughter had answered the first part I think.
(Cllr Slaughter) The first part was how
is what we are doing being greeted by partner organisations. The
answer is this is probably the most positive part of it, and we
regard this as very much a three stage process at this stage.
Stage one is the restructuring which enables individual councillors
to take responsibility, individual councillors collectively to
get a better grip, a more professional grip, on the way authorities
are run and to make links. Rather than constantly being introspective,
as the committee system invites them to do within the council,
to go and make those positive links out in the community. Our
links with the Chamber of Commerce, the health service, the police,
tenants organisations and so forth are now much better than they
were before and that has been a very good response in a short
time. Also the individual portfolios relate much better. We have
individual deputies in the cabinet who are responsible for regeneration
and responsible for social exclusion.
585. Can I just ask one question following that,
if I may, very quickly and that is whether you have any concern
on the standards side. I take your point about links being made,
discussions being had outside the council meetings, and I entirely
approve of that, but do you feel that there is scope for discussions
going on which are then not transparent? I can see that there
might be rather cosy relationships.
(Cllr Slaughter) I think the two things
that you have to have very clearly on board in terms of the decision
making process is firstly an effective scrutiny process, which
we have talked about. I think the pre-implementation scrutiny
is an essential part of that otherwise you can be accused of by
default not allowing people proper access to what you are doing.
The other part is having proper paper systems so that all decisions
that you make are made transparently on the basis of officer advice,
on the basis of written reports in that way very much as they
were under the committee system. It is a three stage process,
get the structures right which enables you in turn to build these
links with the community and community organisations, which I
think over a period of time will raise the status of local governments
which I think is pretty much at an all-time low at the moment,
and that in turn will enable local government to take on greater
responsibility, to be given greater freedom by Central Government.
That is a long-term strategy. In relation to your second point
which is on the
586. The budget.
(Cllr Slaughter) That is a difficult
one particularly as we continue to be in a time of budgetary constraints
as far as local government is concerned. It is always the decisions,
because they are always crunch decisions about what is to be funded
and what is not, which people want to make and want to discuss,
they are highly political decisions. I would say that is probably
the process that has changed least. The only way that it has changed
is we have taken it from the compartmentalised committee system
whereby essentially only some members took a view on the education
budget, some members took a view on the social services budget,
and we now try to talk about things in the round, we now try to
deal with the budget as a whole and get an input initially from
all administrative councillors into what budgetary decisions we
are making. It still has to be a very political decision.
587. You have referred to the scrutiny panels
which presumably are composed of backbench councillors. What is
it that they are scrutinising? In other words, I took what you
said that they are function based or departmental looking at those
issues but can they, for example, just wander into a particular
area of council's business and say "we would like to do a
detailed scrutiny of this and make proposals"? If so, what
(Cllr Slaughter) They have terms of reference
which are very wide. There is a great danger, because the scrutiny
systems are only just getting going, of trying to run before you
can walk. The last thing I want to see is the scrutiny systems
fail because they are not as well established in officer mentality
and so they impede the council's work as decision making processes.
In the short-term what they are doing is effectively calling to
account the lead members and officers within their area's responsibility
for what they are doing, looking at things like performance indicators,
looking at what projects are being pursued and what projects are
not being pursued, looking at whether there are particular crises,
asylum seekers, the homeless, what have you, and going into more
detail in relation to that. There is a member who is in charge
of the whole scrutiny process who is of the same status as members
of the cabinet who has the responsibility for looking after the
agendas both of the four scrutiny panels and the main scrutiny
committee. Only from last month, because we have gone for complete
separation, I try to detach myself and my colleagues completely
from that. I do not have a great deal of say. They will say "this
is what we are thinking of looking at this time which is in your
area of responsibility, can you comment on it", but I do
not have any veto on what they may wish to discuss.
588. What proportion of backbenchers are actually
on the scrutiny panels?
(Cllr Slaughter) Roughly speaking each
backbencher will be on two out of our scrutiny panels.
589. On the scrutiny panels what proportion
(Cllr Slaughter) They are all backbenchers.
590. Just to be clear, you are saying that they
can scrutinise performance and so on. Have they any proactive
role in initiating policy or making substantial policy agendas?
(Cllr Slaughter) This is early days for
us because the system of scrutiny we used last year was modified.
What I am telling you about now is effectively a system that is
only getting going in this cycle. I think that is a very interesting
question and it is an ambiguity in the draft Bill and in the consultation
document I think, which it is. We all understand scrutiny in terms
of review, in terms of challenge, in terms of holding people to
account, scrutiny is policy making and the two are so closely
allied if you are going to look at the service and see whether
it is performing well and then make recommendations then effectively
you are almost into policy making there. How far that overlaps
and duplicates the role that the executive has, I think that is
another one of those very difficult questions. If we are going
to have this clear separation of the executive then policy making
overwhelmingly has to lie with the executive and it is only a
tangential role as far as the scrutiny role is concerned. That
is just a personal opinion.
591. Just on the role of backbench councillors
as they are called in the Bill, what I prefer to call community
councillors, you have suggested that they are now free to have
an enhanced role in the community. What sort of support and facilities
and structures are there to enable them to do that and for the
information and contacts that they need, particularly the information,
to be fed through to inform the process?
(Cllr Slaughter) They have accommodation,
full access to computer systems, full secretarial support, access
to research facilities at the town hall, access to officers, £7,500
a year and presumably they have some motivation as well if they
want to be councillors.
592. You have not answered the latter part.
(Cllr Slaughter) Which is what?
593. How they feed what they are gleaning from
this community role into the process.
(Cllr Slaughter) That is a continuing
process, is it not? I am not being flippant about this, we are
trying to give training and support to councillors but, as you
know, there is a lot of turnover, particularly in London councils,
on average at least about a third per term of councillors tend
to turn over. There are long learning curves. A lot of what happens
is just a learning process. We are trying to lay down guidelines.
It is not just a question of doing surgeries and it is not just
a question of putting leaflets out, you have also got to be involved
with different groups in your area, you have got to represent
them, you have got bring their views forward. As I say, there
is ready access, and this includes opposition councillors if they
are prepared to take the opportunity, to members of the executive,
to feed views in at an early stage because a lot of areas of local
government are not politically contentious. There is also the
opportunity, of course, for constituents to challenge decisions
with or without the support of ward councillors in that way. On
the whole I think that councillors are very good at that. It is
a sine qua non of being a councillor, is it not, of being
able to champion the interests of people and the organisations
in your ward area. I have never found that as something which
actually needs a great deal of support.
594. Are your mayoral cabinet meetings open
to the public?
(Cllr Slaughter) No, they are not. If
they were open to the public then we would simply have another
one which was in private. Other than the fact that the public
do not turn up at council meetings and therefore you can have
a private discussion in a public meeting, I do not understand
how you can decision make, how you can plan, discuss things with
officers, throw around ideas, come to decisions, have rows. The
highest level of scrutiny is the cabinet scrutiny of the officer
board and that is one thing I think is improving a great deal.
In the old days the individual chairs of the committees were isolated
within their committees against a corporate management team, with
all due respect to Mr Peterson, which met every three weeks, knew
exactly what was going on, were in the town hall all day, were
paid professional rates, and it was an unequal battle. Now we
meet every three weeks as a collective body, we interchange ideas
and there is more parity there in that sense I think. We have
rows within ourselves with the officer board but that has to take
place in private. The important point I think before you start
spending public money, before you start actually implementing
things which are going to affect people's lives, is the public
and other councillors have an opportunity to challenge it.
595. Are the mayoral cabinet meetings open to
other councillors who are not members of the cabinet?
(Cllr Slaughter) To administration councillors
but not to opposition councillors.
596. Not to opposition councillors?
(Cllr Slaughter) The rule is that people
who can attend are the members of the cabinet, the managing director,
the deputy managing director, officers who are relevant to the
particular item that they are discussing, which is usually one
or two. Those are the people who have to be there. The people
who are allowed to attend are the other chief officers and other
members of the administration group.
597. Are the agendas of these meetings available
to all councillors?
(Cllr Slaughter) To all administration
598. Not to opposition councillors?
(Cllr Slaughter) No.
599. Are minutes of the meetings available to
(Cllr Slaughter) No. At the end of the
meetings where decisions have been taken they are then published
shortly afterwards, a few days later, as the agenda which is going
to be implemented. It is from that published agenda of the decisions
that have been taken at the cabinet where people can call in matters
for scrutiny and discussion by opposition councillors and by the