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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 620 - 639)

THURSDAY 8 JULY 1999

MS JILL SHORTLAND, MS ELAINE PETERS, MR DAVID SMITH, COUNCILLOR MERRICK R COCKELL AND COUNCILLOR NICHOLAS PAGET-BROWN

  620. Can I ask a question to all three bodies who are represented. Would you yourselves support the fourth model which would be something like a cabinet or executive with the existing committee structure?

  (Ms Shortland) I would support a fourth model if it allowed us to continue working in the way that we are working. I could not support a fourth model that was just another model which meant that we actually lost everything that we had been fighting for and feel so passionate about that worked for our authority and our people.

  621. Can I ask you the same question?

  (Mr Smith) The three models in the Bill are all ones which give a specific executive role to a limited number of councillors, one or a very few. The idea of a fourth model which is status quo plus, which actually was not precisely the question but was the earlier point—

  622. Similar.

  (Mr Smith) I think I would be reluctant to have it labelled "status quo plus" because my authority does not want to be regarded with the dinosaurs, it actually does want to change but it is fundamentally opposed to the principle that you have to divide councillors into executive and non executive councillors. I think that there needs to be a model in the Bill. My authority believes very strongly that there needs to be a model in the Bill that allows for there to be a changed, improved version of local government but without the split that is inherent in the Bill at the moment. Whilst that can be achieved at referendum by fighting for an existing system, I have to say it is not a very level playing field in those circumstances if you are seeking to put forward the model that South Somerset have or Epsom and Ewell have contrary to the three that are in the Bill. My authority would say "yes, please, there must be a fourth model which allows for diversity".

  623. I am not saying "status quo", I never used that word.

  (Mr Smith) No.

  624. I actually used the word "cabinet" plus the existing committee structure.

  (Mr Smith) The model that my authority has developed has a cabinet but not in the sense that is recognised in the Bill in that the cabinet does not have decision making powers, it is monitoring and advising and proposing policy and neither does it have what we would regard as a traditional committee model in that it is looking to develop that jointly with members of the public. There is a flaw in the Bill at the moment in that it does not allow us to engage the public formally in that process. If I may just use one small example, if my council decides it wants to give to the local sports council a sum of money to distribute amongst local sports clubs it is allowed to do so. If it wants to set up a board of its own on which representatives of the sports council sit and it wants to delegate that same decision to that body, it cannot give the sports council the vote. I think that is a real problem with the proposals as they presently exist.

  Earl of Carnarvon: I have to declare an interest, Chairman, because I am a ratepayer of Kensington and Chelsea.

Chairman

  625. Would Kensington and Chelsea like to add something?

  (Cllr Paget-Brown) Yes. Could we say we very much favour the option of being able to integrate the committee system as an executive system because we think that the committee system allows decisions to be taken in public and in advance of the public and in front of the public that they affect. If decisions are taken behind closed doors by a small executive cadre and the other councillors only have a scrutinising post hoc role we do not think that really is public involvement. A committee system does allow all points of view to be expressed. It allows all proposals to be scrutinised and cross-examined before final decisions are taken. We have many examples where decisions have been amended, changed or deferred because they have been taken in committee or challenged in committee.

Earl of Carnarvon

  626. Can I just add a very quick one. In the London Borough you will be required to discuss with the public in some sort of referendum way, do you really believe that the public are interested in structures of local government or are they really only interested in the services the local authority provides?

  (Cllr Paget-Brown) I think the public in our borough like to be consulted. I do not think they are at all interested in the mechanisms themselves. One of the earlier questions was what mechanisms are in place for involving the public more in decision making. We have plenty of examples where we have set up recently new ways of involving, talking to the public about anything from a small traffic management scheme which might be controversial in a few streets to major issues which could affect the whole borough, for example the Unitary Development Plan, the Princess Diana Garden in Kensington Gardens. The public wants to be consulted and they want the mechanisms to be consulted but they do not care how the decisions are ultimately reached.

Dr Whitehead

  627. My understanding of what we are here to do is that we are looking at how well the proposed new Bill may or may not work. We are not here to decide "We do not like anything about it" or "We would like another Bill". Within those constraints could I ask each of the councils to envisage for us how the best of their structures might fit in with any of the models on offer and, if not, to what extent one could add additional amendments to make them work? For example, I could see in South Somerset that it would be fairly easy to amend the Bill to allow area committees to operate in the way South Somerset has suggested but it would not be so easy to match up a straight forward committee system with the executive system, there would be contradictions between the two. Those are the sorts of things I have in mind. Consequent to that, particularly interested in Epsom and Ewell, how do you manage a system where clearly there will never be, as it were, a majority party, assuming it continues in its present state, there will not be a majority party, yet a cabinet and both former cabinet systems clearly take some form of decisions and therefore has an effect on the way the council works?

  (Mr Smith) Shall I kick off, Chairman, on that one in particular? The decision making structure of the council is set so that there is a representative of each ward on the main decision making committees, policy and resources committee and the commissions and there is also a different member from each ward on the scrutiny committee. So there is a clear involvement of all councillors across that decision making and scrutiny process. The cabinet is not decision making but it is clearly very influential and it is drawn solely from the majority group of residents' association councillors. It has no power to make decisions but its views, its recommendations, its notes of proceedings, are available to all members of the council and, indeed, to all staff.

  628. Is it de facto decision making?

  (Mr Smith) Rather less so than de facto decision making that other councils will have experienced in a political and closed environment I would say from experience. I think the key to it is that it is open influence because its proceedings are minuted and are made available. There clearly is a problem in terms of putting that into the structure of the Bill which is not only about the three models but the whole structure behind that in terms of how one defines what are executive arrangements and assumes that split. Therefore, I think it would be difficult for my borough to pursue the precise form of its structure within the Bill as it is currently envisaged. What I will say is that my authority has shown its ingenuity in the past, as many others have. We have lived for many years with a situation where individual councillors have no right to take executive decisions but the reality is rather different, as we all know, using the law as it presently stands to get round that. I would regret it if I and colleagues in similar like minded authorities had to spend the next ten years devising legal fictions to get round the executive structure. I am absolutely sure that each authority will end up doing what it wants to do. My authority will never end up looking like the situation that you have heard described in Hammersmith and Fulham. I make no criticism of that, it is just that it will not look like that whatever the structure is.

  629. Perhaps your recommendation then under your circumstances would be to have a much less formal statement of what the executive actually does and therefore would allow your structure to work better?

  (Mr Smith) The fundamental principle for my authority is that the key decisions must be made in bodies in which all wards are represented, which are open and accountable. We would like a situation in which we could also involve the public and interested groups directly in that decision making if we can.

  630. I note you have suggested that the power of economic, social and environmental well-being could be advanced, as it were, into this Bill in order to assist your deliberations.

  (Mr Smith) I think that assists the community planning process which we are all now trying to get to grips with. I think it assists it in two ways. One is that it gives an extra validity to the local authority leadership of that process across a wide variety of public and other agencies. The second factor is that it gives self-confidence back to councillors in order to enable them to do that process after a long period in which that self-confidence has been knocked. I can say that as an officer speaking here rather than as a councillor.
  (Mr Cockell) Baroness Hamwee earlier said let us take the politics out of it and I would just say there is no division in Kensington and Chelsea between us and our Labour minority—we are the inverse of Hammersmith and Fulham, two-thirds Conservative, one-third Labour—they are as one with us on this. Specifically in answer to the question I do not think there is any way by another amendment here, another amendment there, of changing this Bill which is essentially highly prescriptive. It is clear that the DETR are going to lay down the requirements of the constitution, the role of the executive, indeed the size of the executive in Kensington and Chelsea's case, eight areas, in other areas referred to by the Local Government Authority down to three people. There is not the ability within the current Bill for us to do what we in local government wish to do. We are all different, we all have different ways of approaching it. We have reached those ways through history, through political control, through a variety of things. Lord Hunt's Bill would have allowed us that variety and the flexibility. That is fundamentally what we are all asking for today. It is not just, as I say, a little bit here, a little bit there, there needs to be a substantial review of this Bill and whether it is status quo plus—I accept the objections, it is difficult to try and achieve a phrase that sums it all up—in simple terms it is that those of us who are running good authorities of whatever political persuasion believe we should be allowed to continue to do that. Our own people in our localities have chosen a variety of systems by voting for us year in, year out or as they think some of us have let down our local communities and therefore changing political control. We need that flexibility and a far less prescriptive Bill.

  631. Are you effectively saying that there is no way this legislation conflicts with what you want?

  (Mr Cockell) No, because we will inevitably end up with an executive, a mixture. To one side we will have amateur local councillors who are simply there just to represent their communities, a perfectly reasonable thing we all do as part of all our responsibilities today, and we will have this executive group that has great power of patronage, control of council allowances if you wish to go down that Hammersmith and Fulham fully paid way, a change from the tradition that I think a lot of us around this table and many of you have been part of, public service where in recent years we have changed the allowance system to an annual fee rather than taking individual per meeting charges and the risk of self-perpetuation. If we have a cabinet system, say Kensington and Chelsea have a cabinet system, if we have a vacancy coming up and I am running that cabinet I could just cherry pick somebody from outside. They do not need to be on the council if there is a vacancy in a coming up, bring in somebody totally from outside and straight on to the executive, no requirement of experience in a local authority or anything of that sort. There is an enormous risk in that and inevitably there will be an unwillingness to lose power by that executive.

Mr Gray

  632. Does that not undermine the whole Bill? If you put a clause in there that says "other councils, other circumstances, other bodies", for example let us imagine 75 per cent all councillors voting for another model, the council would be allowed to have it.

  (Mr Cockell) If it is such a wide ranging amendment then I fully accept that may be possible. I am not in any way an expert on how you might do this but broadly I do not think small amendments will achieve that.

Dr Whitehead

  633. I notice you said "post hoc scrutiny" only and that is not what is in the Bill.

  (Mr Cockell) There certainly will be no public scrutiny at the time that decisions are made.

  634. As far as I understand the Bill, the Bill suggests that scrutiny can be prior to decisions being made.

  (Mr Cockell) There is a variety of choices that can be made by a given authority. Certainly if it is forced upon us we will end up trying to replicate the committee system in some other way if that was at all possible. There is no insistence in the Bill that there is scrutiny before decisions can be made. Very often the sorts of decisions that we take, frankly the moment they are taken they have implications. So to change them retrospectively becomes very difficult, for instance closing an old person's home. That has staffing implications that may lead very quickly to a closure even with supposed scrutiny at some time in the future.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

  635. Each of you come from very different councils and each of you are defending the good job that you are doing. Can you tell us what the turnouts have been in your local elections and how they have changed over the years and whether you acknowledge that there is any problem at all with what I would guess would be fairly poor turnouts? That is my first question. The second question is I would like to ask you about how you run your own political groups. I must say from my own experience, and fairly limited experience, in opposition in Wandsworth, all the big decisions were not only made within the political groups but they were made within a very few numbers of political groups, sometimes that was a systematic way of doing it and sometimes it was an ad hoc way of doing it. In my experience the reality is decisions were made in political groups in private. Do you not acknowledge that there is some strength in putting in a system that recognises that in reality decisions will be made in private but if they can be made with proper officer support and proper record keeping they are likely to be better decisions?

  (Ms Shortland) Turnout is going down like it is everywhere. I do not believe that the council's structure is what is driving the turnout down. Within my own authority what we have recognised is a need for education. You can go into schools, I have been into schools with 17 year olds who are coming up to vote in a few months' time for the first time and they do not even know how to vote. They do not know what the voting system is or why we have a voting system in this country. What we want to do is to actually start with very much younger children and work with the county council, in partnership with the county council, on trying to build in some fun education activities around local government and why we have local government, what voting is all about. It is interesting if you sit at polling stations how few people actually bring children with them to vote nowadays. When I was a child, and I know that my parents have told me, you always took your children with you because that is what you did, and you showed them what you were doing and why you were doing it. I think we have lost that. I think that is probably where we should make a start with trying to increase turnout with very young children. It will take time. Hopefully if you are looking at 11 year olds, by the time they come to vote we will have increasing turnout because they will know what they are doing. In terms of how I run the political group, we have now a district executive which is only made of nine members and we have the majority on the district executive, it is politically proportional. We do not have group meetings before district executive meetings. What I will say is that there will always be very important decisions for the council which you discuss at your group meeting in advance. I hope that we have now learnt that what we do for the big important decisions is have a group meeting at which we ask the officers to come and be present and that is offered to the other political groups at the same time. My council is at the moment going through a review because we have transferred our housing stock, a review of management structures. We asked the Chief Executive and Director of Resources to come and give us a presentation on where the Chief Executive got throughout that process. That came to the group meeting and obviously we then had a discussion about whether we wanted to accept the proposals that were coming forward and what changes we would want to make to that. The same was offered to the other political groups. In terms of what you are saying I believe that we are moving far closer towards the idea of what you are describing where we have proper professional advice and, I hope, proper training before we make very important decisions.

Chairman

  636. Can I just ask you, following Lord Ponsonby's question, are you saying that you offer a briefing facility to the opposition on a proposal which you have not actually decided to implement?

  (Ms Shortland) Yes.

  637. What happens if you decide not to implement it, do you not have all the political flack from the opposition for something you have decided not to do?

  (Ms Shortland) It is a risk we take. I believe in open government that if the Chief Executive is coming to our political group, we should offer the same presentation to the other political groups. I have a dialogue with the political group leaders, the Independent group leader and the Conservative group leader, and I ask them if they have got any problems that they would come and discuss it with me which they do. We have a discussion about where we think things can be altered. As long as the dialogue is two way then there is not a problem. It is if you get a political entrenchment, if you say "No, we are going to make a political decision on this, we are not going to listen to what anybody else says". The difficulty I have is that we have had a will to change, a will to do things differently and you have to have that will, that political will to want to do things differently.

  638. I think there may be a different culture in different parts of the country. I think those of us from urban areas might be surprised to hear that you could even float a controversial notion which does not get implemented and the opposition would be so kind as not to exploit it.

  (Ms Shortland) They do sometimes. It is a risk.
  (Mr Smith) Two questions. The turnout in Epsom and Ewell was 30 per cent, typical of a decline generally across the country, significantly lower than it has been over the past ten years, although prior to that there was a significant tradition of uncontested elections in many wards. So a slightly difficult one. I think that there is a point in relation to that which is the turnout of the elections would not necessarily be accepted as the sole arbiter of the health of local democracy. I think there is an issue which is one we have sought to address around the extent of polling of citizens panels of, in one case, a ward referendum, a significant amount of that sort of research and activity which sits alongside the electoral turnout issue. That is why my council particularly wanted to go down the route of trying to engage that level of activity directly rather than just at election time. I suppose I cannot miss the opportunity to say that the electoral turnout might have increased if local authorities actually had powers which their local community regarded as being the appropriate ones to their elected representatives locally. On decision making of groups, as you will appreciate, as a Chief Executive I am perhaps not best qualified to answer this. I will say along with Jill here that I am invited to group meetings, majority and minority group meetings, to offer advice as appropriate and that facility is offered. What I can say, having sat in every council meeting for the last dozen years or so, is that I detect no evidence of any organisation prior to the meeting as to how the vote should go when the debate in public happens.
  (Cllr Paget-Brown) The turnout in the 1998 local election in Kensington and Chelsea was 28 per cent down from 35 per cent four years earlier. We have a history of relatively low turnout, partly because the annual turnover of electors in the borough I think is unique, about 40 per cent. We have a huge number of people moving in and out of the borough, and quite a number of people who have other homes and other places where they vote outside the borough. That is one reason why that figure is low. I think it is also worth recalling, as my colleague on my right has said, that in 1945 we raised 80 per cent of the revenue that we spent from local taxpayers. This year, in 1999, that figure is less than 20 per cent. Clearly their financial interests are not as tightly or closely affected as they were some years ago. In terms of trying to get the turnout up, we support the concept of a rolling register because as soon as the register is published we find that a lot of it is out of date, so that would help us. In terms of political decision making, yes, both the political parties represented on the council have meetings in private and obviously as the majority party that is where decisions on policy are discussed and are reached or are sometimes amended. I think it is important to say that there is a lot of consultation on key policy issues publicly before those decisions are made and the public will be involved. It may be a survey on a parking scheme, it may be a questionnaire locally or it may be a large public meeting on something like the environmental policy statement. Both of the political parties, the opposition party as well, have access to officers independently for advice and policy guidance. I think it is important if you are taking decisions you want to be accountable for them but the political group does discuss them and does agree that those are the decisions that 40 of us or 35 of us believe are appropriate.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

  639. When you spoke earlier you were talking about the openness of the committee system and the cut and thrust of the committee system. It sounds to me like you have made your decisions before you get to the committee system.

  (Cllr Paget-Brown) No, that is not the case because the committee system is looking at a wide range of issues and it is only one or two of those that will be discussed in a political meeting. A number of issues which get discussed in committee affect local people but perhaps not in a party political sense. It may be to do with an environmental policy, it may be to do with planning policy and it is very important that people do get an opportunity to make their views known on that. The committee system with councillors representing a geographical area and a political spread of opinions enables that process to happen. As I said in my opening remarks the decisions can be, and have been, amended because of what has been said in committee. It is quite easy for a chairman to defer a paper or to ask for officers to bring it back at the next cycle or to investigate matters further and that happens. If you are asking me about what the level of the council tax should be, that is probably something best discussed privately and then brought forward as the party's proposal which is then put before the electors.


 
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