Examination of Witnesses (Questions 640
THURSDAY 8 JULY 1999
MERRICK R COCKELL
640. Does the chair of the committee have a
call over with officers of the papers before they go out?
(Cllr Paget-Brown) Yes.
641. Does the majority membership of that committee
meet prior to that committee?
(Cllr Paget-Brown) Not in all cases,
642. It does sometimes?
(Cllr Paget-Brown) Occasionally, yes.
643. Chairman, we heard the actual figures of
turnout in two of the authorities, can I ask South Somerset if
their's are broadly comparable, around 30?
(Ms Shortland) 38.
644. A question to all of you on the role of
what the papers call backbench, and I would call community, councillors.
The paper states that there will be a powerful role for all councillors
and we have heard some views that might not be the case in your
view from the Bill. If you were to put forward recommendations
to enhance the Bill, particularly to empower more fully the role
of backbench councillors, what would they be? That is the first
question. Secondly, can you see a further role for backbench councillors
were the social and economic well-being powers to be introduced
into the Bill?
(Mr Smith) I think my answer is easy
because if the fourth option that we have talked about were to
be adopted in some form then it would clearly solve the problem
which I think we would all see in terms of the present structure
and the damage it does to the role of councillors. All the things
that are on the positive side, the ward representational role,
the community leadership role, all those aspects are there and
can be there within both the existing system and the sort of improved
system that a number of us have talked about. They are not either/or,
they are capable of being delivered anyway. The removal of the
possibility of a large number of councillors being involved in
most of the decision making is one that is not mendable under
the proposals. It does seem to me that potentially that is a surrogate
for somebody saying "have we got too many councillors?"
I do not believe that we have and I do not think that is the right
argument but it does look to some of us as though the way this
is structured is actually seeking to address someone's different
645. So, to be clear, you are saying you cannot
foresee any enhanced role at all for backbench councillors under
the proposals in the Bill?
(Mr Smith) What I was saying was I think
we can enhance that role and I think we will enhance that role
and a number of authorities will anyway but I do not think it
needs the Bill to enhance the role of councillors.
Earl of Carnarvon
646. Too prescriptive.
(Mr Smith) You can reduce the amount
of time they take sitting in committee and you can increase the
amount of time that councillors can spend with their constituents
and can spend with other agencies and can spend working in partnership
without this Bill frankly.
(Ms Shortland) If you were to compare what we are
presently doing, the alterations that we have made to try and
fit in as close as we can with the Bill, with the prescriptive
Bill that we think we are reading, that would actually lead to
a lessening of the role for ordinary members because they would
not be able to sit on an area committee and make decisions. The
amendment that I would want to see within the Bill as it is presently
worded is an acceptance that not for all local authorities is
this going to be right. What you have got to say is that the sharp
executive scrutiny split is not appropriate for all authorities.
As long as an authority can clearly demonstrate that they have
scrutiny mechanisms built in to their present way of working they
should be left alone and allowed to continue their own improvement.
It is only at some point when it is clear that is not working
that you should then start trying to change it. I think the Local
Government Association have got some pretty clear views as to
what the framework should be. As long as that authority fits into
that framework and slots into that they should be allowed to do
that rather than trying to have it too clearly prescriptive which
is where I feel that the Bill is quite wrong. The only other thing
I was going to say is because of the need to have cross-tier working
and because we have got strategy groups, every member at the moment
is so fully involved across all levels, whether it be in a thematic
role in a strategy group or whether it be in a geographical role
in an area committee.
(Mr Cockell) I do not believe in a separation between
what you call community councillors and executive councillors.
All councillors are ward councillors be they the leader of the
council right the way to the most junior person on the council.
They all have local responsibilities and I do not think there
should be some division between some who are above that and some
who simply reflect that side. I do not believe anybody has gone
into local council to be a bystander, to sit on the outside and
watch other people making decisions. If you want the suggestion
of an amendment, I think one of the most vital powers currently
that are held by all councillors probably in all authorities is
that they can attend any committee meeting and speak at any committee
meeting be they on that committee or not. That allows real representation
of one's residents.
647. To speak but not vote?
(Cllr Cockell) Speak but not vote. To
go before that committee, to make their views known and then to
allow that committee to take those into consideration as they
reach their decision. That of course would go under the Bill and
I think that is an extremely important right that all elected
members have. So as far as an amendment, I think if the current
Bill went through without the fourth option we have talked about
then members should be given the right of access to that executive
to make their case. That is a suggestion but I do not accept the
Mr Pike: Obviously the point you were making
at the end of trying to suggest an amendment that might from your
viewpoint improve the Bill is using very much what this type of
procedure is for. You will appreciate that the Modernisation Committee
of the House has suggested that we should do this more to try
and improve legislation before we actually get to the stage where
we have the actual Bill rather than a draft Bill. The questions
I want to ask, there are three quick issues as I recognise time
is pressing on. One, the experience of candidates: do people feel
that there is a drop in the number of people willing to stand
for local councils and is that addressed in any way by the type
of thing that is within the Bill that we are looking at today?
If councils are going to be more beefed up and more functional,
will that attract people to stand and to give their time? The
second point I would raise is the question of mayors. We have
heard MORI and we have heard other people say that opinion polls
show that people are heavily in favour of an elected mayor. My
question to you would be do you think people though are thinking
of a mayor performing the traditional role of a mayor which is
very different from what we are talking of a mayor with a cabinet
where they will not be performing the traditional role of going
to the old people's home and schools and other things? I am not
saying about the idea of having a person doing that but is it
the wrong thing to confuse that position with that particular
role? The final thing is you will recognise that within the draft
Bill over half of it is dealing with ethics standards. From all
your experience as councillors, do you see a major problem in
ethics standards or do you think that within the Bill we are taking
a sledge hammer to crack a nut and having something which will
actually create more frivolous complaints and perhaps cause a
lot of people on the standards panel and whatever to follow through
to national level, create a lot of time and divert back a lot
of resource for dealing with it? I am sure we all accept that
corruption is something none of us want to see and believe it
should be stamped on. We all start from that point but it is whether
what is in the Bill really is the way forward.
Chairman: Before you answer that, can I just
ask Mr Stringer, does your question follow on any of those?
648. Yes, one did. With your permission I will
add that on and the other part even though it does not exactly
follow it but it does form part of the whole. If I can start with
elected mayors. As Mr Pike said there is overwhelming opinion
poll evidence both from urban areas and almost exactly the same
figures from more rural areas that the public want elected mayors.
What do you say to the charge that you are actually defending
a very unpopular status quo situation and having the direct election
of a person to the head of the political organisation would help
reinvigorate local government? Secondly, there has been some defence
particularly from Chelsea and Hammersmith of the committee system.
Are you aware of the advice of the Audit Commission Report of,
it might be a year or two ago, probably about five or six years
ago, that looked at the committee agendas across a large number
of councils? I think it found that the best councils had about
25 per cent of papers that were policy issues and the rest of
the issues were basically things that could have been delegated
and should not really have been part of the decision making process.
Are you aware of that and do you believe that your committees
perform better than that?
(Mr Paget-Brown) In terms of the first
question which Mr Pike asked about candidates, we do not find
it is a problem to attract strong candidates. We have to have
a waiting list of people who would like to be candidates and we
try to make sure that there is a list, that the wards can then
select people who have got experience or a particular interest
which they can bring to the council that perhaps we do not have
there already. I am worried that the proposals in the draft Bill
may diminish that. There will be some people who will have a vested
interest in staying on the council, in being candidates, in getting
an executive role and perhaps a salary to go with it, and others
who frankly do not just want to sit there being scrutineers for
four years with little else to do but look at the proposals after
they have gone through. Candidate quality is not a problem. You
asked about the mayor and whether the general perception is that
an executive mayor would be rather like a traditional ceremonial
mayor. I do not think in Kensington and Chelsea, and that is really
all I can speak about, that people have a problem with the role
of the mayor as it has traditionally been, above politics and
ceremonial and a figurehead. Nor do I think they have a problem
in identifying where decisions are currently made. You can say
with an executive mayor you can immediately identify who has taken
the decision and who is responsible for policy in the borough
but I think our residents and the people who vote in Kensington
and Chelsea know where the decisions are made, they know they
have access to the leader, to the policy and resources committee,
to their local councillor and to the committee and they make use
of that facility if and when they wish to do so. The third question
was about ethics. I think it is right that the Bill and the Committee
focus on the whole issue of ethics in local government, I am sure
it is of wider public concern. I think the requirements on declarations
of members' interests are already quite strong. The members are
required to disclose any financial interest and to leave the room
when any matter which may affect them comes up and to declare
any other interests as well before a meeting starts. I think it
is right that whole area of ethics and the conduct of elected
members should be looked at and maintained. The final question
about the Audit Commission and were we aware of it, yes, and were
we aware that only 25 per cent of papers were policy papers. A
lot of papers that come to committees are for information and
may be taken straight through without discussion or there may
be something in the For Information Paper that a member wishes
to raise, to discuss, to draw attention to and that will lead
to the chairman, the officers who are in attendance at the committee,
taking note of what is said and that will feed into future policy
decisions or other decisions. The other side of all this is that
one of the roles of the council which perhaps has not been mentioned
very much is that we have to look at the implementation of policy.
It is all very well discussing policy proposals, policy issues,
is this the way we are going to go, but if in fact you do not
implement the policies effectively then there is not much point
in doing that. Part of the role of the committee is to look on
a regular basis at how policy is implemented.
(Mr Smith) Picking them up in turn, Chairman. In terms
of difficulty with councillors, I do not believe there is evidence
of that locally. As I said, our experience has been that we have
had more contested elections and more greatly contested ones than
perhaps we were doing ten years ago. I think there is an issue
about how the Bill might affect that as I do not believe that
in my area, and I do not believe it is untypical, there are a
large number of people waiting in the wings to assume the role
of these executive councillors on a virtually full-time basis.
I think that whilst that may be true in the larger urban areas,
I believe there is an urban/rural split in relation to this which
may not exist in relation to the MORI poll. So moving on to that,
yes, I was aware of the various results which have been quoted.
I am not aware yet that anybody has put the question as to whether
people would vote for and support a system in which their ward
councillor had a say in decision making. The question is being
put in a way that encourages people to think about mayors and
I think there is some confusion about roles of mayors in terms
of the current role and the future anticipated role. I think there
is an issue there about accountability because I think there is
a valid point that at the moment there are elements in which that
accountability is not clear in some systems. It does seem to me
that if one is looking for the way to write the fourth optionif
I can just go back to thatit seems to me wrong to describe
that as just status quo plus and everybody can have their go with
what they like. It seems to me you have got to put some requirements
on that. One of the requirements would be that it shows where
the accountability lies and another would be that it shows how
the community is involved in the decision making and another one
would be that it demonstrates effective processes for decision
taking. No doubt others would add other requirements but it does
seem to me that is a way of addressing that. On standards, I think
it is right that there is a process which is publicly observable
for the regulation of standards so I think the Bill is largely
right but not quite and the respect in which it is not quite is
that it has taken away real power to look at this on a local level,
it has pushed everything up to the regional boards. It seems to
me that local councillors faced with model standing orders that
someone else is pushing down on them, and whenever they have got
a complaint to investigate having to push it up to the regional
investigating officer, that does not encourage an ethos in which
they are actually taking care and looking for the rules themselves.
I then say that nevertheless that whole system is there as a safeguard
to cover the very small number of cases in which it would ever
need to be used. In that respect it could be a sledge hammer to
crack a nut, as the original question was. Finally, on committee
agendas, I disagree slightly with my colleague here in terms of
information items. My own authority moved some time ago to move
information items to a separate part of an agenda and under its
new structure has weeded them out entirely. It does not recognise
the need to put information items to committees at all. What it
does do is recognise the need to keep all councillors informed
of what is going on and, therefore, that is dealt with by an entirely
different process but not within the committee structure.
(Ms Shortland) I will try and be fairly brief. I will
not add anything to the discussion about candidates, what has
already been said I totally agree with. I definitely agree that
it would be a disincentive for people to stand if they thought
they had only got a role as a scrutiny role because it is not
seen as very exciting. I think people want to have full involvement.
The issue of mayors, I would totally agree that people are very
confused about what a mayor is. You ask anybody in South Somerset
"are you in favour of elected mayors", they will tell
you, yes, they think their mayor does a wonderful job, opening
fetes and supporting charities and all the other sterling work
that the elected mayors do in the market towns and parishes. I
think that would be something that it would be very sad to lose.
If you impose an elected mayor for a local authority like South
Somerset there would be this confusion even greater than and parishes
would then be thinking "Well, can we still have our mayor
if you have got your mayor?" I think that would be a very
sad loss to this country if we did not have a mayor doing that
kind of work at a very local level. In terms of the standards,
I think it can be a major problem and I have no doubt at all that
there are some nuts out there that do need cracking. I think it
is about public perception and in our council we have always encouraged
people to err on the side of caution when declaring interests,
"if in doubt get out" is the theme and that sort of
thing. I am very interested in the Government's proposals about
having a standards board but we need some more information as
to what kinds of things they are proposing before we can make
a full comment on it. My understanding is that we have not even
had details as to how it would work, whether we would have something
referred to the standards committee on the council and then up
to the board. The latest thinking is that it would go straight
to the board and then come back to the council but I think that
would be quite unworkable because you would have complaints coming
in all over the place. Every time somebody disagreed about a planning
decision they would complain about the councillors that made that
decision. In terms of the last question, we have a very high proportion
of delegated decisions. I cannot really comment because we do
not have that much on committee agendas any more.
649. Thank you very much. Ms Peters, you have
sat and listened to your colleagues, is there anything that you
want to add before we close the session?
(Ms Peters) In the previous session there
was a question about officer roles and supporting executive and
scrutiny and perhaps I could just make a comment there. I do think
that all the officers I have ever worked with would find it very
difficult to be put in a position where they have got to support
primarily either executive or scrutiny because I think most of
us feel that we were appointed to serve the whole council, that
is the nature of local government. Certainly we see it as a partnership
between all officers and all members. We believe in giving objective
advice and I would hate to see the day when officers either have
to make a decision or be directed towards supporting parts of
the council but not necessarily working with others.
650. The Bill and the White Paper deals with
standards in theory but it does not seem to deal with standards
very much in practice. Lord Nolan referred particularly in his
report of 1997 on standards particularly to planning where he
felt there were quite a lot of problems, for example procedures
where local authorities grant themselves planning permission,
deeming consent and matters like that. Do you think that this
Bill could be extended and expanded to improve the standards in
(Ms Shortland) Yes is the simple answer,
I think it could, but I do think it needs a lot more thought being
put into the detail.
651. Any other comments?
(Mr Cockell) If it could sort out the
total confusion over pecuniary and other interests where members
simply declare any relationship they have with any item on an
agenda, almost to the level of being ward councillor because it
is referred to in a committee, that would be of great benefit
Chairman: Thank you very much for coming and
giving evidence and answering our questions.