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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 580 - 599)

THURSDAY 8 JULY 1999

COUNCILLOR ANDREW SLAUGHTER AND MR HENRY PETERSON

Mr Stringer

  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 or slower?

  (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.

Baroness Hamwee

  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?

Baroness Hamwee

  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.

Ms Moran

  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 happens then?

  (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 are backbenchers?

  (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.

Lord Marlesford

  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 councillors.

  598. Not to opposition councillors?

  (Cllr Slaughter) No.

  599. Are minutes of the meetings available to all councillors?

  (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 public.


 
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