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


Examination of Witness (Questions 680 - 699)

TUESDAY 13 JULY 1999

PROFESSOR JOHN STEWART

Earl of Carnarvon

  680. I was lost as to whether he was a paid officer or whether he was elected.

  A. I think you are on an important point. If you create a situation where the mayor is the executive or even the cabinet is the executive, though the position of chief executive will remain at least in form, head of the paid service I think it will subtly change. I visited Oslo which had appointed a cabinet. They had a chief executive and they also had a cabinet secretary, but three years later only one of those posts existed, the cabinet secretary. The chief executive position could lessen in significance with an executive mayor.

  Earl of Carnarvon: Well, Lady Hamwee asked the question, but Dr Whitehead will know about the difficulties in Hampshire when there was a county secretary who was head of the legal department, the chief executive was also a lawyer and on the Baines system he was chairman of the officers, and then you had semi-executive chairmen on top of that and it was an extremely difficult balance to keep between highly paid officers and a chief executive who was not a mayor, but who was leader of the majority party.

Baroness Hamwee

  681. I was going to ask a question about officers and I think Professor Stewart has gone a long way to answering it, about whether in the models which involve an executive cabinet or an executive mayor you have any comments to make about the likely effect on the career structure and so on for officers.

  A. It is very difficult because we are dealing with a very uncertain area and that is why I much prefer experiments so that we can learn about them. I think there will be a tendency for the role of the chief officer as head of the department or the chief executive as head of the officer structure to lessen in significance because of the existence of executive councillors exercising executive powers. That is not an argument for or against, but it is just that it is a tendency that I think will happen in the situation and I think there is some evidence, and it is significant that in quite a lot of countries the equivalent of the chief executive is not called the chief executive, but the chief administrative officer and I think that conveys the flavour of it. I think there are one or two issues that are really uncertain because Local Leadership, Local Choice is a bit ambiguous. One of the tensions even in the present system is that an officer has two responsibilities: he has a responsibility to the majority party; but he has also a responsibility to the council, and sometimes there is a tension between the two. This Paper is still maintaining the position that the council is a single corporate body and that officers will be responsible both to the executive and to the general body of the council. I think there are features of that where the tensions will actually grow, particularly on this very difficult issue of advice given by the officers to the cabinet which the cabinet rejects and whether the other councillors are entitled to know that or whether we take a model closer to the Civil Service.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

  682. I wanted to move on to the question of standards. Do you think the proposals are sufficient or over-elaborate, and particularly in the relationship between the national Standards Board and the local standards committees, do you think there needs to be greater clarification in the division of those responsibilities? Another point here is that the draft Bill does not propose replacing surcharges with compensation orders, but do you think that is an issue which the Bill might look at?

  A. Let me begin my answer by saying that I have not studied the standards section to anything like the same depth that I have studied the organisation section. I genuinely feel that it would have been better if the legislation had covered all the related issues in it and that is why I am interested in the abolition of the attendance allowance and that is why I would be interested in it dealing with the surcharge issue all as part of the same legislation, so the answer to that part of your question is yes. I think the role particularly of the local standards committee is very uncertain in the present Bill. It is obscure what it does. At the moment a large number of authorities have set up standards committees with significant external representation usually at a fairly high and important level. There is quite a fear that if the standards committee has not a clear role at the local level, you will not get those people. I was briefed before I came today and I got a little note from Sir Richard Knowles, the former leader of Birmingham, who is on the standards committee, which is chaired by a former President of the Law Society of Birmingham, and he makes the point to me that if the functions of the standards committee are so vague and uncertain at the local level, he does not particularly want to serve on it and he does not think any independent people would actually want to serve on it. In Hertfordshire, the standards committee consists entirely of external people. It consists, I think, of the Bishop, the Lord Lieutenant and I forget the other two, but they are of that status.

  683. When you say "functions", do you mean defined powers of the standards committee?

  A. Powers to consider cases first of all I think they would ask for, and defined powers and sanctions they could actually use, but I think the way you have phrased it is the correct way. At present it seems to be very uncertain what their role is. Training, yes, which is important, and drawing up the code of conduct, that is important, but after that what is their role?

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

  684. I want to go back to this cabinet idea because the Cabinet, by definition, in central government consists of the heads of major departments and the parallel in local government would be the chairmen of the committees. Now, I acknowledge that you might want to refine and slim down the committee system, but do you see any mileage in having what would be real cabinet government where the chairmen of the major committees would sit on the executive? I would like a further opinion because this Bill of course restricts it by restricting the numbers on the executive, so do you think a cabinet system on the model of central government and, if you like, a sort of bastardised version of the separation of functions with the committees behind the chairmen fulfilling the role of committees in the American Senate, do you see any mileage in that sort of proposal?

  A. I see some mileage in that proposal. Some of that is actually in the nature of the proposals. As I understand it, what is envisaged about the cabinet is that it would consist of a group of individuals and each would be given portfolios. Those portfolios could well be the existing committees, so you would have a councillor for education on the cabinet and a councillor for other matters. If they had to make proposals to the council, if, in other words, they had to get a policy approved, then that could well go to a committee to appraise those proposal, but the committee would not be an executive committee under these proposals, but it would be examining the nature of the proposals. It is interesting you quote America because in the cabinet system in Oslo, and I have to explain one feature of the cabinet system in Oslo, the cabinet are not members of the council, but the cabinet resign from the council when they are appointed to the cabinet. That is because it happens in the Riksdag as well, the separation of functions. Therefore, they are like the President and they cannot move things in the House, so it goes to a committee like a congressional committee, their policy proposals, and the committee then moves them.

  685. Could I press you further and say do you think that is a good idea because if you had a chairman then you would have something like what is in central government, a head of department and committees which would be an executive grouping, but if you went for the American style, the Oslo style there you would have, if you like, true democracy in the council, where many of my colleagues came from, and true muscle because the committees would have the power of congressional committees. Do you think this is a runner?

  A. I think it is a runner and it can be made in these proposals. It is because the advocates of the proposals have presented it in such a limited way and have not emphasised the importance of the council—

  686. This would break at a stroke the over-powerful party which bedevils the English executive.

  A. Not necessarily because I imagine the party would whip its members on major policy in this situation but it would mean that it was properly debated and argued about in the council.

Baroness Thornton

  687. My question was about whipping actually. It was about what role do you think whipping has to play in these models with which we are presented?

  A. I was going to add one point to that and then come to your question. This may mortify people but if the council plays this role you will find it meets more frequently than our councils meet. In American authorities the size of our local authorities the council meets either weekly or fortnightly. It may devote six meetings to considering the budget. So once you say that the council is the important body it means it has to re-think its procedures. One of the failures of a lot of the transitional models is that they have not thought through that issue. Whipping? My position on whipping in the present structure is that whipping is carried to excess. I defend the existence of party politics in local government, if people want to vote for it, because it gives a degree of cohesion and direction to the working of the authority but in many authorities whipping is carried to excess on all sorts of issues which raise no party point. Basically whipping is used in many authorities to carry through the officer recommendations. Sometimes councillors have said to me, "The opposition made a very good point but there was nothing we could do because we had been whipped beforehand and therefore it went through." One deputy leader said, "I think the group should meet after the committee rather than before", which is an interesting idea, if rather impractical! So in other words, I would defend whipping on major policy issues where the party point of view is at stake in it. I would expect that to apply to most of the policy documents going to the council.

  688. What about the scrutiny function though?

  A. A lot depends, of course, on what you are talking about in relation to the scrutiny function because before I emphasised four different sorts of scrutiny and clearly in assessing performance you would not ideally want the whips to apply in that situation. You have to face the fact that even if the whip is not applied there will be a reluctance on the part of the average councillor loyal to his party to criticise with the press there the leadership of the council. So that is the dilemma about developing the role. There is another danger which is the reverse. It is not positive scrutiny, it is, let's say, a faction in the majority party or the opposition using it just to attack. I have known some councillors say, "Now we have got a scrutiny function we can really get at the officers." I think there is a danger that it is used in a negative way. Councils will have to think about protocols to govern the role.

  Baroness Thornton: Thank you.

Mr Stringer

  689. We have heard evidence both from backbenchers and from leaders and chief executives of councils who have adopted an executive scrutiny model that really what is going on is that the decisions are still being taken in the political groups but you have just got a new front of house to the council effectively. Given that I believe from the White Paper that the Government is determined to separate out the executive and the scrutiny function, how would you go about making the executive and scrutiny function, given your four roles of scrutiny, work and not just have it falling into a pretence?

  A. I think a lot would depend upon the executive.

  690. Can I ask one more. Is that your experience that the evidence we have had before this committee is actually what is going on in those councils that have adopted that model?

  A. Not universally. Particularly where the emphasis has been placed on the more positive types of scrutiny, policy development, developing new ideas, advice to the executive, in other words, things that the executive themselves wants to see actually happen, there is evidence that that is operating in a[1] more positive way and is more meaningful. What is not developing is the criticism of performance in the situation. Broadly, my answer is if an executive wants to see scrutiny develop then it can encourage it.

  691. Can you encourage it by structures? What proposals would you put in the Bill that would make scrutiny more effective and efficient?

  A. I want to get away from the idea that there has got to be one model of overview and scrutiny committees. I would want it to be made very clear that many of these things are going to involve informal groups and informal panels and so on and so forth in this situation. There is a danger in the legislation as drafted at the moment that it looks over-formalistic on the scrutiny and overview function.

  692. Can I press you on that. Is there any advice you can give the Committee apart from saying some of this would happen informally that would improve the legislation in terms of how scrutiny would take place and to stop it in effect disappearing into the smoke-filled rooms which is where we know most of the decisions are taken in town halls?

  A. There are things you cannot legislate for. My advice would be after the Bill there should be struck the provision for regulations governing a number of the things which it is suggested regulation should actually be drawn up for, and one of those would be regulations governing overseeing and scrutiny in this situation. I think attempts to deal with it by regulation will be doomed to frustration and lead to further regulations as people attempt to overcome the problem. I would also not want regulations to govern the relationship between the executive and the council. I would want a fair degree of freedom for the council themselves to settle the way the divisions took place.

  693. In answer to Sir Paul Beresford you made some sceptical comments about the opinion polls showing support for elected mayors. Could you expand on that?

  A. Yes. I think opinion polls are very good for telling you certain things. They are very good for telling you things that people understand and know about. To ask the question Are you in favour of an elected mayor? without explaining what an elected mayor is is not going to get a meaningful answer. I think many people thought they already had a mayor and the mayor was elected. To just ask the question out of the blue is wrong. To show just how people did not understand, in the big cities the question was asked after a previous question, which you could say was a leading question, Did you know that London was going to have an elected mayor? The interesting thing which shows how uninformed people are is that 51 per cent said they did not know that. You are asking a question in a situation where people do not understand the nature of what is being asked. It may be that in a referendum 67 per cent would vote for it but I do not think you can place any weight on that statistic.

Mr Burstow

  694. Can we come back to the evolving power to promote well-being and ask a couple of questions on that. There was a debate in the House of Lords last Monday initiated by Lord Hunt which explored what the Government's thinking of this was and what the timetable of this would be. My reading of that debate suggests that it is as distant as ever as to when the Government will find legislative time. Can you say what your view is as to whether or not we want a duty to promote well-being or a power to promote well-being because they are not necessarily the same thing and can have quite a big impact on the way local authorities work and on the way in which authorities are open to litigation in due course.

  A. I believe we need both. The duty is described as enshrining in law a new conception of local government, a conception which many authorities are aspiring to. In some ways the duty is a symbolic duty, but it is given teeth by the power. It is also important to remember that there is another duty being proposed and that is the duty to do community planning which is bringing together the various partners in the area and consulting people locally and I see the three as all bound up together.

  695. Do you think that vision of community leadership fits comfortably in the context not just of local government legislation and the White Paper on Local Government, but in the context of some of the other legislation and White Papers, for example, the Social Services White Paper, the School Standards and Framework Act and so on in terms of the tenor of those pieces of legislation?

  A. I think there is a problem at the moment actually in the lack of ability in dealing with cross-cutting issues in local government. We are seeing a series of initiatives coming from government and in many ways that is a sign of a government that wishes to do things, but many of them are not clearly related to each other or related to the modernising of local government agenda. It is said that the Education Department has required eleven new plans from local authorities since the election and it is not clear how those plans relate to each other, nor how they relate to community planning, nor how they relate to local performance planning. In other words, the interrelationship between the modernising agenda and other parts of the Government's programme have not been worked out and some local authorities are struggling to work it out for themselves.

Earl of Carnarvon

  696. I am interested in some of the things you have said, Professor Stewart, and in relation to the general public, I quite agree personally that the general public are interested in the services that are supplied by the local authority and they are not particularly interested in how the local authority sets itself up in the way of committees. As you know, in county councils there is no such thing as a mayor and there are plenty of county councils in this country where they know the senior member of the county council who is regularly on television. Can you really ask a member of the public, "Do you prefer A, B or C model in the way that the local authority functions?"? I cannot see them answering that question unless they have got a basic knowledge of local government.

  A. It is for that reason that I think that opinion polls tell you nothing because people are answering them without any knowledge of what is involved. I think if a referendum was held and it was really proposed and opposed, people would begin in the campaign to learn about the arguments for and against, but there would have to be a lot of work getting out of the misapprehensions. If you take the cities, there will be tremendous confusion about the position of the present mayor in the authority and indeed I think it might have been much healthier if we had not got the word "mayor" in for this role because the mayor is understood in a different way.

  Earl of Carnarvon: As Dr Whitehead will know, the Mayor of Southampton is the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth, or is it the other way around?

  Dr Whitehead: Lord Mayor of Portsmouth.

Earl of Carnarvon

  697. During the last 40 years that I have been involved, there have been more rows about whether Southampton should have a lord mayor in the same way as Portsmouth. The mayor in terms of the general public is a figure for a year who is going around doing good jobs. Is that not the view that the majority of the public would have of the mayor if it was not for the London situation where people are beginning to realise that the Mayor of London is an executive person, not a ceremonial person?

  A. Yes, that would be the first thing to have to get over to people. I do not think if you just ask the question in an opinion poll that people have got over that. They are thinking of the traditional mayor that they actually know. I also think that it is very difficult to say how people would actually vote in a referendum if they understood it. If you were campaigning against having the mayor in a big city, one of your slogans would be that they are trying to turn the mayor into a political figure and they are trying to get rid of the old mayor and turn it into a party hack or something like that. That would be one of the ways in which you would campaign on the other side. I think the role of the mayor certainly in the big cities has not been fully appreciated.

Dr Whitehead

  698. There is also an added complication in that the Mayor of London is in fact a First Minister of the Regional Authority and the functions really are not the same as is being suggested for the mayor of a city. I wanted to return to the vexed question of whipping. Are you saying, and again this is an issue of coming out in the wash, that with some constraints, the whipping system would be tolerable within some of the new structures or are you suggesting that under certain circumstances it would simply paralyse the system? I have in mind here one particular problem which occurs to me which is that since the executive is chosen from the council and those executive members are, therefore, members presumably of the majority group who under circumstances where a policy was at stake in the council would be presumably whipped to vote with the council on policy, but may have participated in a policy discussion suggesting the opposite with the elected mayor, they would, therefore, be neatly torn in two when it came to discussing that matter with the council.

  A. That sort of thing can actually happen at the moment where many authorities at the moment have policy development groups sometimes constituted on an inter-party basis, and in the end the recommendation of that can be defeated in the political group. It is not unknown even in the House of Commons for people to vote in different ways from maybe what they actually believe in a situation.

  699. Do you think that the recommendations of the Macintosh Committee, which I think has suggested in Scotland that you might have an announcement that a particular vote was to be whipped before it was taking place, do you think that would have any effect at all?

  A. It is an interesting suggestion because it clearly would be a constraint upon applying the whipping in trivial situations. I do not think you can get away from that. If you have party politics in local government, I do not think you can get away from whipping on issues of significant policy because that is in a sense what the party will have put as its position in its manifesto at the election and is entitled to get support in that situation, and back-bench councillors in the party will see one of their roles as being to support the majority party.


1   It would also be appropriate if the legislation allowed councils to hold the residual responsibilities rather than the executive, as seems to be implied by the Bill (Explanatory Note Clause 3). Back


 
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