Memorandum by Essex County Council Labour
Group (LGA 35)
Essex County Council is a Conservative-controlled
local authority following the County Council elections of June
2001(Conservative 49, Labour 18, Lib-Dem 10, Ind 2).
This is the first time since for nearly a decade
that the Council has had one party control. It has been in no
overall control since 1993, with various administrations having
held office since that date.
The County Council had been "piloting"
new Political Management arrangements on the Leader and Cabinet
model since May 2000 and formally moved to the new model of Political
Management on Monday 5 November 2001.
The new arrangements involved a Cabinet of 10
members, all Conservative with three observers from the Opposition
Groups. These observers comprise two Labour members and one Liberal
Democrat; observers have full speaking rights but of course no
voting rights. Cabinet meetings are open to the Press and Public.
The Council has set up six Select Committees
to carry out Overview and Scrutiny functions. These Committees
are "Widdecombed" and all have Conservative majorities.
The Committees are as follows:
Audit and Public Accounts Select
Children and Education Services Select
Community Care Select Committee;
Culture Heritage and Libraries Select
Enterprise and Community Development
Select Committee; and
Environment and Transport Select
The Select Committees have chairs from all parties
who are appointed by Full Council, with the Conservatives chairing
Community Care, Culture Heritage and Libraries, and also Environment
and Transport. Labour chairs Children and Education and Enterprise
and Community Development and the Liberal Democrats chair Audit
and Public Accounts.
There is also a Co-Coordinating Committee of
Select Committee Chairs, which is chaired by the Liberal Democrats.
The Council has also set up a Development and
Regulation Committee to deal with development control issues.
It was also agreed in October 2001 to set up
four Area Forums for the County. These have yet to meet, but the
first meetings are scheduled for May 2002. The chairs of these
Area Forums will all be Conservative members appointed by the
Full Council. Area Forum chairs cannot be Cabinet Members.
The Labour Group has attempted to engage constructively
with the Conservative Administration in an effort to ensure that
the New System works positively for the benefit of all members
of the Council and the Public.
I have to say that we have been very disappointed
so far with the results, most particularly in the work of the
Select Committees and the Conservative members on Select Committees'
response to "Call Ins".
The Cabinet works very much as a "rubber
stamping exercise" and although observers are allowed to
speak their comments are ignored. This could be anticipated bearing
in mind the Conservative majority and although we would obviously
like our views to be listened to, it is no great surprise when
they are not.
Cabinet meetings usually have around a dozen
items on the agenda, which by definition are "big" issues
otherwise they would not be on the Cabinet Agenda in the first
Cabinet meetings begin at 10.00 am and are normally
over by 11.15. This illustrates the lack of debate within Cabinet.
Full Council has lost a lot of its functions
to the Cabinet under the Local Government Act and has yet to find
a proper role for itself.
The Council meetings are still developing under
the New System and little has been done to replace the work that
has been lost to Cabinet.
Although the Council has experimented with some
innovations such as Question Time for Cabinet Members and on rare
occasions a discussion on a contemporary issue, I have to say
these appear to be on the Agenda more to "fill out time"
than to engage in proper and constructive dialogue.
The Budget meeting at Council this year in particular
was little different from previous years, with the Administration
presenting their Budget proposals, the Opposition Group putting
their alternatives and then a straight vote, which went exactly
along Party lines. There was no evidence at the Budget meeting
of Conservative Members "scrutinising" the Budget proposals.
Area Forums are intended to be a major part
of the Council's work; however we are disappointed that it has
taken since October 2001 to May 2002 to implement the introduction
of Area Forums as we believe Area Forums will be of great benefit
to the public in bringing the County Council and Members closer
to the people it serves and represents.
Select Committees and Call Ins
Under the Essex County Council Constitution
agreed in November 2001, the call-in procedure is one, if not
the strongest, weapon in the armoury of non-Executive members
of the Council in holding the Cabinet and individual Cabinet Members
to account for the decisions they make.
Since the formal introduction of the new system
in November 2001 there have to date been seven call ins. All have
been at the instigation of the Labour Group with one exception,
which was called in by both the Labour and Liberal Democrat Group
Conservative members of the Council have not
signed one call in.
It is our view that the Administration Group
members do not truly see their role as holding the executive to
account at Select Committee meetings, rather as one of defending
Cabinet members, decisions and stopping the opposition groups
from embarrassing their administration.
To support this assertion I would point to our
experience since November 2001 to date on Select Committees where
call ins have been heard.
When a Select Committee hears a call in, they
invite witnesses to give evidence on the matter in hand and then
witnesses are questioned by the Select Committee members on pertinent
points of issue.
After the witnesses have finished giving evidence
and taking questions Select Committee members then deliberate
and make a decision on what to do about the item under discussion.
Select Committees at this stage have two alternatives:
having considered the decision, the
Select Committee may refer it back to the decision taker setting
out in writing its concerns or refer the matter to the full Council
also with a record of its concerns. Upon a referral to a decision
taker, the decision shall be reconsidered within five clear working
days amending the decision or not before adopting a final decision;
if a Select Committee does not refer
a decision to either the decision taker or the Council, the decision
shall take effect at the conclusion of the meeting of the Committee
In every case of a Select Committee at Essex
considering call ins since the introduction of the New Political
Management Arrangements the Conservative Majority on the relevant
Select Committee has voted "en-bloc" to take
no further action. On some occasions they have even tried to move
to Option 2 above before any debate has taken place or even witnesses
haven given evidence.
Our experience over the last few months makes
us conclude that the call in procedure is failing in its primary
role of holding the Executive to account. This has clear democratic
deficit implications but also financial ones. For example the
cost of call ins at Essex has been considerable, with little outcome
to show for that financial expenditure.
Having demonstrated our concerns we would acknowledge
that in some areas Select Committees are functioning positively.
This is most clear in policy and Best Value Reviews, but even
then it is unclear just how much notice Cabinet Members and Officers
are taking of Select Committee deliberations and recommendations.
Other Major Problems
The flow of information has been one of the
major areas of change. Cabinet papers are very much an abbreviated
version with no clear reference to any background papers.
Non Cabinet Members find it difficult to tap
into the Council's Information Systems; it is fair to say that
the System is even more closed to the General Public.
There is a feeling amongst non-executive members
that their access to Council Officers and Council Information
has decreased under the New Political Arrangements.
The Labour Group on Essex County Council welcome
the Local Government Act 2000 and believe that in "theory"
the Act allows for quicker decision making and also more transparency
in decision making.
However as an Opposition Group we feel that
our attempts to hold the Administration to account are being undermined
by Tory non-executive members.
The Tories on Select Committees appear to be
using the Member substitute system and the whipping system to
ensure that Cabinet and Cabinet members, decisions are not effectively
This in our view presents a major challenge
to the Local Government Act 2000 and we would ask Members of the
Urban Affairs Sub-Committee to look seriously at the Guidance
on Call Ins procedures with a view to strengthen an opposition
group's ability to hold to account a powerful administration with
a large majority.