Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300-319)
DR RACHEL ASHWORTH AND MR STEWART DOBSON
TUESDAY 7 MAY 2002
300. In a lot of cases it does mean that the leader of the council has very considerable powers of patronage.
(Dr Ashworth) Yes, and the nomination to scrutiny committee in the majority of authorities is nomination by party group or leader.
301. Mr Dobson, could you tell us how successful scrutiny of outside bodies has been so far?
(Mr Dobson) There have been a number of examples. We have, as it were, done a couple of pilots on National Health Service scrutiny which, obviously, is not fully in effect yet but we were actually invited to scrutinise a couple of sets of proposals for the merger of various hospital facilities in the city. That, I think, was reasonably successful and it has whetted the appetite of our
302. Who gave advice as to the reasons that such changes were being proposed?
(Mr Dobson) In essence, the committee was almost entirely dependent upon the explanation and advice from the NHS managers.
303. So the people who were proposing the change set out their reasons, the committee then decided that they would think about it and came to the same conclusion as the people who were giving them the advice?
(Mr Dobson) Yes, to a large extent that is true. This was combined with a public consultation exercise. There was a lot of concern from the public, so the committee, I suppose, at least ensured that the managers were put to the test of answering that appeared to be the main concerns of members of the public.
304. What clinical advice and what clinical support was the committee given? Were there any medically
(Mr Dobson) No. Thinking ahead to when it becomes fully operational at the start of next year, that very issue is, I think, a very important one: who will act as the professional and technical advisers to the overview and scrutiny committee? We are in discussion at the moment with the local NHS bodies about whether there might be
Mrs Dunwoody: I am sorry. Yes, I think the point has been made.
305. Dr Ashworth, to what extent are councils co-opting people from outside on to scrutiny committees and why do you think it is important to have non-councillors on those committees?
(Dr Ashworth) I think it is important to have non-councillors because there is a chance it might ameliorate the impact of party politics, in particular the dominance of one political party.
Chairman: Is that not a bit naive? Surely, if you are going to co-opt people on you do not co-opt people without knowing how they are going to vote.
306. Not unless you are not very bright.
(Dr Ashworth) I think it depends on the committee. Some committees, in particular education, have always had co-opted members and they continue to do so. Others are bringing users in. Again, housing is another common committee. These committee members are interesting because they are comparing the before and after. I have got a quote here from a co-opted member on the education committee who says: "Decisions affecting education, such as budget setting, building or closure of schools, are taken elsewhere in the authority. Calling in a decision is virtually meaningless as a significant number of members will already be members of the administration and, therefore, unlikely to readdress the decisions made by their political colleagues." Other co-opted members feel that scrutiny has been positive.
307. Can I ask a last brief question to both of you? Overall, how much would you say overview and scrutiny is costing and is it actually making a difference to the quality of services that councils provide? In a nutshell.
(Mr Dobson) It is very difficult to put a cost on. If I think of the special budget that we have plus the dedicated team that has been set up, I suppose we are talking about somewhere round about a quarter of a million pounds. In terms of the value it has brought, certainly there have been a number of examples where, due to the activity of the scrutiny side, areas of the council's business have been looked at in much more detail than I think would otherwise have been the case and improvements and reform has followed from that.
(Dr Ashworth) The estimate of Cardiff County Council is that they need to spend £1 million to get the scrutiny function working effectively. I would say the impact so far depends on the authority. Many members feel they are just rubber-stamping decisions that have already been taken.
308. Value for money? Yes or no?
(Dr Ashworth) Not at the moment, but it could be.
309. This is probably dangerous to say, but on the basis that we have had a mayoral monkey, are we going to get a gorilla elected in Birmingham City?
(Mr Dobson) I could not possibly comment on that.
310. What exactly is happening in Birmingham?
(Mr Dobson) The position at the moment is that the Secretary of State remains minded to direct us to have a referendum, still believes that we misinterpreted the results of our public consultation last year, but has said that no final decision on whether or not to direct us will be made until at the earliest the summer of this year, and not until the work that is going on arising out of the Electoral Commission's report has been completed. So we do not know, but we still face the prospect of having to have a referendum.
311. Brighton and Hove seem to have worked the trick in which they had a referendum for a mayor and, on the basis that it was defeated, were able to revert back to the old committee system.
(Mr Dobson) Yes, the alternative arrangements trick.
312. Would there be much support for that in Birmingham?
(Mr Dobson) I am not sure and I am also not sure whether that option will be open to us because the DTLR have not told us what the precise terms of any direction might be, but I suspect that they will lay down both yes and no proposals.
313. The 2002-03 Local Government Act is supposed to give local authorities greater freedom. What would you want? A bonfire of regulations and directions and let you get on with it?
(Mr Dobson) I think there are a number of examples where legislation has gone too far, and I mentioned one at the start. Personally, I would put a large part, let us say, of the so-called access to information regulations on the bonfire, yes.
314. Would you trust local councils to decide what is best for themselves, or do you think the Secretary of State really does know best?
(Dr Ashworth) I would trust local authorities. I think over the past 20 years they have developed this relationship where they look to the centre for advice and guidance, and I think part of the problem with scrutiny is that they have been given a blank sheet of paper and they do not really know where to start. They are looking, all the time, for a sort of checklist of activities that they have to undertake in order to fulfil the role.
Chairman: On that note, can I thank you both for you evidence. Thank you very much.