Examination of Witnesses (Questions 460-479)
MR DAVID CLARK AND MS MAIRI MCLEAN
TUESDAY 14 MAY 2002
460. Independent of the executive?
(Mr Clark) I think that under the current system where the officers are accountable to the aggregate body, which is council, which is the executive, and the executivethe council is the executivethen that is incredibly difficult and has yet to be tested.
461. What do you mean by that? Are you saying there is not a problem or that there is a problem of some sort?
(Ms McLean) I think there is a problem and we are working on the solution. The best thing about the problem is that at least it is on the table now as a problem and people are looking at the need to give the sort of advice that will not jeopardise anybody's career.
462. Should that problem not be sorted out before the legislation put scrutiny in its place?
(Ms McLean) I do not think it is possible because you have to work the process in order to see how the solutions are going to emerge. If we were to think of solutions prior, we would think of splitting and in my opinion that would be a very bad idea.
(Mr Clark) What is happening on the ground, and we know this from evidence, is that good local authorities are allowing their officers Chatham House rule meetings with other people, if that is what they require. It is no different from before. I served an authority for five years which was Labour and during the time of budget making both myself and the treasurer had Chatham House rule meetings with the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, to the knowledge of the Labour group, and that was how these things went on. It did not threaten my career. A lot of good authorities are running like that. They are not necessarily at each other's throats all the time. There is a view of serving the public in this. They are prepared to make systems work, and I think good people do make good systems.
463. How important do you see the scrutiny and overview role in this new system? Is not the whole system essentially different from the one that went before? Decisions are made in different ways. Is it not really trying to replicate Parliament where scrutiny has become very important indeed if backbenchers want to have any say in things that are very important?
(Mr Clark) I think it is a sadness that it tries to represent Parliament because it is a misunderstanding of where executive authority lies. It is understood that civil servants work to the executive in the parliamentary system. However, having said that, it does give an opportunity for individual members with individual interests to pursue those interests in a different way and, particularly in large authorities, to pursue the interests of their more localised communities through area committees and area scrutiny arrangements in a way that actually was excluded from these large aggregate education committees and social service committees, and whatever. I must accept that it is work in progress but I do not accept the proposition that it should have been all worked out beforehand because this is really about a team game between the community, the local authority and Parliament trying to work it out together, rather than suggesting there is a sum total of knowledge in any one area.
(Ms McLean) We may find it is not working. There has to be room for us to say, "Following this experience and these efforts, we feel that this cannot be workable any longer in the way that it used to be". If the advice that is given is constantly that sort of independent advice that has always been given, then it should be possible with the more member-led aspects of the new legislation. We may tend to forget that it is not the officers who will be challenging; it is the members who will be challenging.
464. Do you recognise any problem at the moment in this area, a problem of any significance?
(Mr Clark) In the sense of what?
(Ms McLean) In the sense of overview of the scrutiny committees having access to advice which will enable them to challenge?
(Mr Clark) It has certainly not been reported to me and through the Local Government Association I have not heard it as a problem. I think the bigger problem actually is overview of scrutiny members knowing how to ask the questions, not where the answers will lie, because there has not been very much training in that.
465. Is that then the area of difficulty?
(Mr Clark) I personally would say that how to phrase the question that a bureaucrat cannot deflect is always a trick for a politician to learn. We do not have a core of understanding yet within our industry to enable politicians really to penetrate some of those issues, not to the executive members but to the director of social services or the director of education who might be working in a sense directly for government, let alone for the local authority.
466. Is it an officer's role to assist members to frame those questions?
(Mr Clark) I certainly would be interested to see the training that the Liberal Democrats, the Labour Party and the Conservative Party are putting to their councillors.
467. I am not taking about councillors.
(Mr Clark) I am saying that how one plays it on that side is not, in my view, just the local authority's responsibility. We strongly believe that political parties have responsibility to actually enable a core of people to come through with those sorts of skills.
468. Is it an officer's responsibility as well?
(Mr Clark) Yes, to make sure that members are in a position to ask questions, unquestionably.
469. Is that being done?
(Mr Clark) I think it is. The difficulty is knowing what questions people want to ask. It is a very big business running a large, metropolitan authority and knowing what every individual wants to know is tricky. At the moment, we do have a difficulty with the iteration of that, that is actually trying to be learnt. My point is that under the old committee system I can recall vividly as a person and also as an observer sitting saying very little and knowing even less about what was going on. I do not think we have lost a great deal by that.
470. One of the key components of the Act is this power given to local authorities to promote well-being, social, economic and environmental. I notice in your submisssion that you are saying that that power, in your experience, has been little used. Would you like to comment further?
(Ms McLean) We think it is being little used, but I do think that is because people are not wishing to use it. We are still in the very early days of all of this. With the proliferation of partnership working, schemes will emerge where we would be able to use that power well. The concerns that we were raising in the submission are that until there is clarity and until we have some discussion more widely about the ways in which these powers can be used, it is not going to be possible, because of all the regulation we were talking about earlier, for a lot of the lawyers around the country who have to advise us. No, under the regulation that cannot be achieved. We seem to be facing a situation where, as a new chief executive I was certainly told: "Well, there is no precedent. Just do it and see how you get on." But that is not the way of local government and I think unless we resolve the use of the power of well-being we are going to stifle innovation. We are gradually through our partnerships finding ways that we may call on those parts of the Act. But, as we said in our submission, we feel that there does need to be considerably more work on this and then a positive re-launch where we could understand whether we are throwing a lot of this out of the window altogether or just in what context we may be able to use this power.
471. Who should be doing that further work? Should the government be doing it and, if so, what exactly should the DTLR be doing?
(Ms McLean) What SOLACE would want is to see that done by the government in partnership with us.
(Mr Clark) Also, there is a good government-sponsored programme that actually provides an opportunity to link it up, which is the local PSA arrangement whereby if one were to be thoughtful about what it is that is trying to be achieved in the locality, this might be a power to fall back upon. I think it was interesting in that it was about a level of respect. People responded to it because at least you were being treated as an equal: you can do things if you want to. The reality for many local authorities is that they are doing most of the things they want to do anyway and the rest are doing what the government tells them to do. On the side there is a chance to innovate and think: we will do that one on Thursday because we are a bit busy at the moment. There is an element of that about the power of well-being at the moment.
472. Can I ask you about area committees? Probably these are three different questions rolled into one. The first is; how well do you think they are working? Are they, for instance, working better in unitary authorities than in two-tier authorities where those authorities in many case seem to find it difficult to have a dialogue with each other, never mind with the local communities? That is the first point.
(Ms McLean) The first point is that in a lot of areas local area committees were already working well. I will leave David to take the second point further. The point I would like to make is that you have indicated that in two-tier authorities perhaps they do not work well together. It is my experience that in a number of ways they are beginning to work better. In the local strategic partnership, the PSA that David has already mentioned, and in terms of local area committees, we are certainly seeing that it makes no sense to have duplicates. As I said in our submission, we do have a number of examples of people working very well together. We believe that the crux of this Act is how well officers and members manage to make those committees work. The idea of having key decisions published ahead of time and taken through area committees before they get to the executive, the idea of many of our members, particularly backbench members who have felt potentially excluded to be taking these executive decisions through area committees prior to the executive we feel makes them work better. We still have the problem with area committees which is that in some places they work very well but in other places they work very badly. It seems to be difficult to understand why.
473. Would you like to comment further?
(Mr Clark) The only thing I would add to that is that I have seen no evidence that the issue of whether it is two tier or single tier has an effect on the area committees. For me, the only evidence I have seen is that where they are actually based on real communities, rather than manufactured lines on a map, they are better.
474. But where there is real will to make them work, they are working?
(Mr Clark) Yes, as far as I can tell.
475. Can I ask you then about the varying degrees of derogation that councils are making to these area committees? What is your experience of that?
(Mr Clark) It is very varied, as you say. It tends to be budgetary led. The odd thing about it is that if one were to do a diagram of a number of them, the decisions being delegated are very few. The budget is being delegated but it is within quite a tight-knit framework because I think there is an idea that if people in the locality wish to make a variety of decisions, in fact that is very difficult to doI will not let cars down my street but they are allowed to stop at that end. Sometimes it is difficult to work out which decisions are generally at the local level. It seems to me that what so far has been working quite well is where effectively what has been delegated are purchasing decisions within an overall framework run from the local authority itself. Having said that, in the larger authorities, particularly the counties where you have got police, the district council and the county and whatever else working together, you have policies being driven out of area committees and that seem to be reflected, whether it is East Kent or West Kent or whatever. That is actually quite helpful and shows that there are differences and it seems to bring a bit of government closer to the people.
(Ms McLean) We would say: do not judge too soon. These are very early days.
476. What about the rationale for delegating the budgetary component? There are some authorities that delegate X amount per councillor. What is the experience across the country of the rationale for that?
(Mr Clark) I do not know about across the country. It varies. I can speak from anecdotal evidence and from evidence that I have that it is popular. It is a bit like one of the questions I was answering about an executive member. Knowing who is responsible for something and being able to get at him through the ballot box seems to me a very laudable aim. Likewise, at the local level, knowing who can deploy resources in your local area and on whose door you can knock on a Sunday morning, as I am reliably informed one does with politicians, and to ask what you are doing about this, seems to me quite a laudable aim, too.
477. It does mean that you can redistribute more from poor areas to rich areas.
(Mr Clark) That is a potential benefit.
478. If anything?
(Mr Clark) I would have thought it a potential benefit, yes.
479. Going back to the issue of well being, do you think that local government really still has not got its mind round the fact that things have changed there and maybe officers are feeling they must cover their backs and go off to the local authority solicitor before actually agreeing, to make sure that it is all right to do this?
(Mr Clark) I think the pace of change for the elected member over the last 10 years has been such that very few systems would have been able to take the strain. Speaking now both as a former chief executive as well as holding my current role, keeping up with the changesand I consider myself to be relatively bright and paid full timewas very difficult. It is perfectly fair to say that for many local authority members the speed has been very rapid.