Examination of Witnesses (Questions 347-359)
MR JOHN O'BRIEN, MR PAUL WHEELER AND MS JUDI BILLING
TUESDAY 7 MAY 2002
347. Can I welcome you to the Committee's last session this morning. Can I ask you to identify yourselves for the record, please?
(Ms Billing) Judi Billing.
(Mr O'Brien) I am John O'Brien, from the Improvement and Development Agency.
(Mr Wheeler) I am Paul Wheeler.
348. Do any of you want to say anything by way of introduction, or are you happy for us to go straight into questions?
(Mr O'Brien) If it is helpful to you, Chairman, just very briefly for Members of the Committee who are unaware of us, we are a body that has been in existence for about three years, we are a central body of the Local Government Association and our funding is a mixture of top-sliced revenue-support grant money and money we earn otherwise through a variety of sources. We are primarily involved in trying to promote self-sustaining improvement among local authorities. We do that through capturing, developing and disseminating good practice information from across the sector and beyond and making sure that is rolled out to local government. We provide some direct, tailored, practical support on the ground involving very much the use of peers from local government, both elected councillors, managers and the wider workforce, and bring them to bear to promote improvement, and also, I suppose, most relevant in terms of your deliberations, try to create the opportunity for relevant leadership development, both for managers and the workforce and, also, for elected councillors. It is in that regard that we have submitted our evidence, both about strengthening the diversity of those people and, also, looking to help councils to develop their leadership capacity.
349. I understand that you do surveys of the characteristics of councillors. Could you tell us what you found out about the proportion of people in full-time employment who are putting themselves forward to be councillors?
(Mr Wheeler) This is the survey that we do every four yearsin fact, it is the second one that we have doneand in terms of people in full-time employment it has gone down in those four years, in that elected members are now more likely to be retired or in part-time work.
350. Have you done any work looking at whether people in full-time employment are prepared to put themselves forward for an executive role in the cabinet system or whether they tend more to be back-benchers involved in scrutiny?
(Mr Wheeler) We have done some work but not as a detailed survey. What is evidentparticularly in large authorities where there is an opportunity, perhaps, certainly at leadership level and cabinet level to be full-time and independent remuneration committees are rewarding that in a way that they did not beforeis that there is a greater willingness for people to be, if you like, full-time councillors. Whether that means they leave their work or they take secondments from their work is an issue that we have not yet looked at in any detail.
351. Have you any evidence about people who are in full-time employment, who want to become councillors, who may get a position and then cease that full-time employment?
(Mr Wheeler) There is an overall issue about the pressure on people in public service, including councillors being able to be councillors as well as maintaining a full-time job. It is one of the reasons we have promoted the Good Employer award, which we can comment on later. The evidence now over the last four years is that there is increased pressure and an unwillingness, I think, for people to put themselves forward if they are in full-time work and their employer will not support them. That is both as a councillor and, certainly, the pressure to be a cabinet member in a large authority becomes much more intense unless you have a very sympathetic employer.
352. Are you able to do anything? Are you intending to do anything, as an agency, to encourage employers to be more sympathetic? There is a feeling that the attitude has changed in the last 20 or 30 years and, maybe, that this further reform now in local government could make people less sympathetic.
(Mr Wheeler) I think one of the issues is that the role of councillors and the contribution they make perhaps has ceased to be valued over the last 20 years in the way that it was, both by employers and general society. If you talk to younger people, they often do not understand what being a councillor is about; they often think they are paid employees of the authority rather than elected. There is an issue there about people failing to understand and, as a consequence, being less sympathetic. Why we launched the Good Employer award in that sense was to promoteand it was launched in conjunction with both the CBI, the TUC and a range of other peoplethe idea that being a councillor is a worthwhile activity and one that people should be able to combine with a job. With 21,000 councillors, of whom the vast majority will always be part-time and will always combine it with other duties, we need to make sure that recognition is understood by a range of employers. We were very pleased this year, when we launched it, that we had a whole range of nominations and they are nominated by councils themselves, from large companies like Prudential, to very small companies as well. We invited them to a reception in Downing Street, and we invited employers as well, and what was encouraging about that was that those employers were able to say "Being a councillor is a good thing for us because they bring back skills to their employment that they did not have before." That is the good side of it. I suspect that if you spoke to most councillors that is not their general impression of how their employer would view their work, and we do have instances of people who have been dismissed because they were a councillorand certainly promotion opportunities are curtailed. That may be more the reality, if I am being honest. The question is: can that change so that we have a greater supply of people willing to be councillors? There are many challenges, but the real challenge in many authorities now is to find people under the age of 40 who are in the council chamber who have some relevance in terms of work and childcare. That is across the range. Most councillors now are getting older. That is not to say they are not good councillors, but the pool of talent is not being replenished, and if you want people in work there is an issue we all have to consider about how that is supported. There is a real challenge there.
353. Of course, people have to want to do the job. Certainly some of the evidence that we have taken suggests that councillors feel, in many cases, disenfranchised now by the new arrangements. Are you aware of that from your surveys?
(Mr Wheeler) I think my colleague Judi Billing may have some comments on that as well.
354. Can I just ask you: are you saying we need to pay them more, or do you think this is a major issue?
(Mr Wheeler) I think there needs to be a recognition that being a councillor provides some obligations. Money is but one aspect of it. What a lot of people say is "I would prefer not to give my job up because being a politician locally is slightly precarious; you may be in power one day and not the next." I think a lot of people would prefer the opportunity for their employer to be sympathetic or, for instance, if they were in a cabinet government or leadership government position, to be offered a secondment. The Industry and Parliament Trust, for instance, I know is a very good organisation and they do encourage their members, if people become MPs, to take secondments for four years. That practice has not been extended into local government. Maybe it should, particularly with the new responsibilities, so that people can do it for four years, contribute to their local communities and then go back to work if that is what they choose to do.
355. Going back to the point about disenfranchised councillors, under the new system do you think most councillors would have their hands on the real levers. Do you find that is an issue coming back to you?
(Ms Billing) I am responsible for the Leadership Academy, which is a programme for civic leaders across England and Wales, which brings together councillors from all parties and all types of authority. They are the leaders. They are also the people developing strong interests in chair and scrutiny committees and work of that sort. Yes, there is a considerable concern amongst councillors about the roles of back-benchers, front-linerswhatever titles need to be ascribed to them. They are also, bearing in mind what very, very early days it is for the new management arrangement, finding imaginative ways of dealing with the new arrangements, and with an inclusive council which does not depend simply on a flat committee structure. So, yes, there is concern, but there is also quite a lot of optimistic activity out there in looking at ways of developing the new political management arrangements.
356. However, you are dealing with the leaders rather than the ones who are stuck away somewhere.
(Ms Billing) On that programme, but generally speaking our work takes us into close contact with everyone.
(Mr O'Brien) The local government improvement programme, you may have heard, is a peer-based programme where we work with individual authorities to undertake a review, and it is a peer team that undertakes the review from both elected councillors and officers from other authorities. We have conducted about 130 of those over the course of the last couple of years. I think it is fair to say that this is a recurring theme in nearly all the people we focus on and concentrate on, and it does come back from councillorsparticularly non-executive councillorsabout issues of concern about the new arrangements. Nonetheless, I think there is a significant amount of evidence to say that over time people are beginning to find new and different ways of operating the new system and are beginning to see some of the possibilities. So whereas, originally, they saw themselves entirely in a challenge and scrutiny role, some non-executive councillors are beginning to talk about the way in which they can influence policy in some different ways to the way in which they are working locally. I think we are seeing more of that and more enthusiasm. I would not want to over-egg it because, quite clearly, there is still quite a lot of concern and some people do feel that this system offers them less opportunity than the previous one.
357. Have you any ideas on how we can attract more people to be councillors, apart from the secondment proposal?
(Mr Wheeler) When we did this census there was a lot of interest in where the future generation of councillors would come from, and we can talk about that. Clearly it is not our main role, for the reason I am going to state in a moment, in that 95 per cent of councillors derive from the main political parties, so in terms of the supply of councillors to some extent it is in the hands of the main political parties. How the political parties can encourage their own members to stand is a big responsibility, particularly when you look at issues around diversity. There are other arguments about selection. It is often said that people do not want to be councillors, but I often meet people who do want to be councillors, yet they cannot make their way through the system because they are challenging entrenched groups in particular cities and so on. So there is some supply which is not encouraged, and that is one issue. Some of the issues around persuasion and promotion are also important. We have said in our evidence that one of the things we are keen to do is ensure there are success stories. Generally, people do not want to be a part of something if everyone else is criticising it and saying it has no powers generallythey think there are better things to do with their time and can have a civic life in other waysso there do need to be success stories and we are trying to promote those. I make the analogy that there are lots of things like the Parliamentarian of the Year Award, which is a good thing, we have not yet seen something like a Councillor of the Year Award although we have spoken to a number of people about this, which could be about the contribution a local councillor makes to a community. It might be thought of as a bit of a joke but when you look at what individual councillors do, they can change the life of their constituents very considerably, yet we never honour that. So that is perhaps one thing which people who work in local government can reflect on. The area of promotion and persuasion is important. Another area which is not within our remit but which you may have a view on is legislation on diversity. There are opportunities available now to political parties about making choices about who the candidates should be. Whether there is a need for that, I do not know. So it is at two levels. One is the supply, do people want to be councillors, and the other is the type. One of the issues in the census was that some people who were councillors in the past are choosing not to be so, ie people under 40, and certainly the signs are that among the ethnic minorities what was a relatively small number of councillors may become even smaller unless an issue is addressed there. Both of those need to be tackled. I do not know if you have taken evidence from the political parties, but the issue about encouraging their members to take this forward is one which needs to be addressed. Then the other issues around the Good Employer Award and other people promoting the role, are also important.
358. When you did your Good Employer Award, did you ask any of the large companies who supported you how many of their employees in each area were councillors?
(Mr Wheeler) To some extent the process is self-nomination, so it was by the individual employees in those companies, if they felt they were supported, and that can vary in different parts of the country.
359. There was no structured attempt to find out whether those who were taking part were genuinely supportive of local government?
(Mr Wheeler) There are two examples I can quote. Certainly Corus Steel, which had a nomination in both Wales and in Corby, went through a whole list of details of how they encourage all their employees to take part.