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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 432- i
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
Communities and Local Government Committee
COUNCILLORS AND THE COMMUNITY
MONDAY 2 JULY 2012
DAME JANE ROBERTS
PROFESSOR COLIN COPUS, LIZ RICHARDSON
and PROFESSOR MICHAEL THRASHER
COUNCILLOR PETER FLEMING, TIM GILLING and CAROLINE ABRAHAMS
Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 91
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
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Taken before the Communities and Local Government Committee
on Monday 2 July 2012
Mr Clive Betts (Chair)
Examination of Witness
Witness: Dame Jane Roberts, former Chair of the Councillors Commission, gave evidence.
Chair: If we can start the first session of our inquiry into councillors and the community, before we begin with our first witness-Dame Jane Roberts, you are very welcome to the Committee-all the MPs round this table have been councillors previously. We probably ought to declare our current connections to councillors and council work. I am a vice president of the Local Government Association. We will just go round the table. Perhaps other members with a particular interest to declare could do so.
Simon Danczuk: My wife is a councillor.
David Heyes: I’m clean.
Heidi Alexander: I am a vice president of the LGA.
Bill Esterson: My wife is a town councillor.
Stephen Gilbert: My mother is a Cornwall councillor.
Heather Wheeler: My husband is leader of a council, and I am vice president of the LGA.
Mark Pawsey: I have nothing to add.
Q1 Chair: Jane, for the sake of our record, right at the beginning could you introduce yourself? Say who you are and the organisation you represent.
Dame Jane Roberts: I am Jane Roberts. I was a former leader of a council, and I chaired the Councillors Commission from 2007 to 2009.
Q2 Chair: You are very welcome, and thank you for coming. It is with the Councillors Commission that we would like to start. It is a very appropriate place for our inquiry, because you had a long and detailed look at some of the issues that are now being considered by the Committee. Could you tell us, as an overview, what are the key things you recommended that have been adopted since the commission, and what are the key things you recommended that have not yet been taken on board that you would like to see implemented?
Dame Jane Roberts: Could I put this in context? The report of the Councillors Commission was published at the end of 2007. We met again just over a year later, in April 2009, to review progress. Since that time there have been many changes in the Local Government Association and in the leadership and control of council, and particularly a change in government. I do not think I am the right person to talk about 2012 and what changes have taken place in the last year or two, but more broadly, and more importantly, I would like to frame it in a much wider context, if I may.
Chair: Yes, of course.
Dame Jane Roberts: You will probably know that the remit of the Councillors Commission was set up by the then Secretary of State, Ruth Kelly, and subsequently Hazel Blears. Our remit was to look at the incentives that encourage and the barriers that deter people from putting themselves forward as councillors; to get more what were rather coyly called suitably able and representative people to put themselves forward; and how to get more public recognition and value for the work councillors do. We could have plunged straight into matters of training, support and remuneration and all those sorts of things, which are important-don’t get me wrong-but we thought we had to look more broadly, if we were going to come up with sensible recommendations, at the role of the councillor at the beginning of the 21st century. As we were looking into the role of the councillor we had to step back further still at the wider canvas to look at local democratic systems more generally and what changes there had been over the course of the last few decades, because that wider strategic context had to inform the studies we took on board.
At the end of the day, the Councillors Commission was a very comprehensive piece of work, but other reports came out from the LGIU; Lord Richard Best; Ed Cox and Saffron James; the Joseph Rowntree Foundation; and the Local Government Network put one out a little after that. The all-party parliamentary group had also commissioned a report. There was a slew of reports on the back of the Lyons inquiry that also reported in 2007. Certainly, some of the thinking in the Lyons inquiry influenced us. We were a smaller subset, but we had influence on some of the things Sir Michael Lyons also reported. That was the background. In that context, we came forward with 61 recommendations. What I would like to stress more importantly than individual recommendations are the principles we laid down. If I may take some of your time to go through those five principles, in my view-I think my fellow commissioners would agree with this-they were as important as the specific recommendations we made. Would it be okay if I did that?
Dame Jane Roberts: They are not very long. The first of the five principles was that local authorities are key to promoting local democratic engagement. That was essentially the meat of our recommendation 1. You might think those are warm words, apple pie and motherhood. I can talk much more about that. We were very clear about what that meant in practice. Local authorities were key to promoting local democracy, essentially. Secondly, promoting a sense of efficacy-ie the feeling that an individual is able to influence the democratic process and the course of events-is key to better engagement. It is a sense of agency and that something will happen if I press a button. Thirdly, councils are most effective as locally elected representatives when they have life experiences similar to those of their constituents. Clearly, they are not identical. As MPs you will know that; you represent many different people, but we thought it a really important principle that you have a sense of and share some of those experiences. Fourthly, key to effective local representation is the relationship with and connections between councillors and their constituents. Lastly, it should be less daunting to become a councillor. A councillor should be better supported once elected, and to stop being a councillor should be less daunting. The word we first used was "risk", but we thought that might frighten the horses, so the word "daunting" was used instead.
They are the five principles that, in my view, would hold for all elected representatives at whatever level of governance, but obviously that was outside our remit. Our remit was local councillors. It is important to frame it. You are asking me where we are now. I do not think there is wide acceptance of those principles. I suppose we were trying to say that, if you are going to look at the role of councillors and local government, you need to see, as Sir Michael Lyons talked about, that single system of government. How does it all fit together? Frankly, at the moment it is all a bit of a hotchpotch. Most people do not have the faintest idea who does what. What does a councillor do? What does an MP do? What does a non-executive director of what was a PCT do? People do not have the faintest idea how all this works, and you cannot begin to get people involved, engaged and participating if they do not understand what they are being asked to engage in. That is a real problem.
Our recommendation 1 was absolutely key and was fleshing out how we thought local authorities could give effect to promoting local democratic engagement. In our 61 recommendations we were so keen not to have lots of new national prescription and statutory duties here, there and everywhere, because I’ve been there and done that; I know it is the last thing councillors want. We did think that there should be one new statutory duty to promote local democratic engagement. I can talk more about that, because it was not just warm words, apple pie and motherhood. There were four tiers. Would it be helpful if I explained? The first tier was simply that local authorities, not just councillors, as institutions in their patch should communicate effectively with people about how local governance works. Who does what? Who is responsible for what? If your local police station has closed, what can you do about that? It is a kind of jigsaw. There is a lot of information out there, particularly now with the social media, the net and all the rest of it, but it is very fragmented. It is very unclear how it all joins up at a local level. The first wrung of promoting local democracy was simply about making as widely known and as comprehensible and understandable as possible who does what, why and how, and who is accountable to whom for what.
The second thing was to promote people getting involved at a local level, whether it is a tenants association, school governors, friends of a local park, tree wardens, whatever you have in your patch, so it is made easier for people to know how to get involved. They could dip their toe in the water. Professor John Stewart, whom I am sure you know well, says that if people get involved a bit they get more interested and are likely to get further involved, so it is about making it easier to take the first wrung.
Thirdly, it is about making it much clearer and accessible how to become a councillor. It has been, and remains to some extent, quite a well-hidden secret. When I had a conversation with the late Simon Milton, who was chair of the LGA, he ruefully reflected on the fact that at the time-I know it has changed since-even the LGA on their website had no information about how to become a councillor and what councillors did. To be fair, that has changed. That was the third wrung.
The fourth wrung is that, once people do become councillors, they should be far better supported than is often the case in many local authorities. It should be easier to become a councillor; you should be far better supported once you are there, but also it should be less risky to stop being a councillor. They were the four parts of recommendation 1. While we said we thought there should be a new statutory duty, we were very non-prescriptive about how local authorities in a detailed way would take that forward, because clearly there would be different and more effective ways of doing that in Somerset, Northumberland and Camden. That was accepted by the Secretary of State at the time and incorporated into the White Paper "Communities in Control" at the time. It went into legislation and received Royal Assent. It was not implemented in 2010, and I believe it has now been repealed.
Q3 Bill Esterson: On the issue of councillors representing communities, you have said things about Operation Black Vote and the Fawcett Society. Can you say a bit more about how that could come about, and perhaps also comment on socioeconomic background and age as part of the issue of diversity?
Dame Jane Roberts: We used Operation Black Vote and the Fawcett Society as examples very much in the context of seeking to get better representation by people from black and minority ethnic communities and women. People will do that in different ways. We use those as examples of organisations that have been, and could continue to be, really helpful in any particular local patch. Operation Black Vote worked in Bristol; it has worked in many different places, hasn’t it? We were not saying you should use these organisations. It was an example of where some local authorities had used those organisations and it had been helpful. It was a mixture of saying to local government, "You guys"-mainly, they are guys-"need to do better in terms of black representation; there need to be more women and people from minority ethnic groups." We know in terms of socio-economic background there have been big changes. Looking at the report, we know that if you look at the education qualifications of councillors they are considerably higher than those of the general population. I am sure that is true for MPs as well. If you look at those who come from a working-class or trade union background, there have been big changes over a period of time.
If you are concerned, as I am in, democratic engagement across the board-national, European and local government-you should be very concerned at what has increasingly become a political class, which has always been there to an extent, that looks and talks very differently from those whom they represent. I know it will never be exactly the same, but there is an increasing divergence. That seems to be a bit of a problem, particularly at local level; if you want people to get involved, it is at the local level where they might first get most interested: their children’s school and the local park.
If you are worried about democratic engagement across the board, surely we should look to people’s involvement at a local level as a key link. We talked about the key link in the chain of governance. That is where people get their first experience and see how things work, such that it makes sense. For most people, these things just do not make sense. There is a group of people over there, mostly in London, who do things about which we have no idea. I know you all work very hard. It is not that people do not work and try very hard. It is about having more people like us out there representing us and doing things on our behalf.
Q4 Bill Esterson: To what extent do you think councillors are reflective of the people who are members of political parties? What is the role of parties in attracting a wider range, assuming you accept the premise of what I have said?
Dame Jane Roberts: The first question was: are councillors different from those in parties?
Q5 Bill Esterson: Are they representative of the sorts of people who are in political parties?
Dame Jane Roberts: I am sure from your own experience, you will always get that. Only 1% of the population-or has it fallen further-are members of a political party? It is tiny. We know that in areas where political parties are not very large or active you can get both councillors and MPs selected by single figures, or just into double figures. Obviously, those people will be the most interested, active and well organised by and large, but incumbency counts for a lot. In many places, once you have been selected as a councillor, it is very easy to remain selected for a very long period of time.
Q6 Bill Esterson: How do you deal with that tendency to stay in power?
Dame Jane Roberts: It is a very interesting question. Ultimately, it is a matter of culture.
Q7 Bill Esterson: How much of a problem is it?
Dame Jane Roberts: We commissioned a lot of research on some of this. If you look at the pattern, there is a bit of a split. There are numbers of people who become councillors for one term and then stand down. There is a disproportionate percentage of women and people from black minority communities-I forgot you asked about age, which I will come back to-who are in the group who stand down. There are quite a lot of people who stay for a very long period of time.
To go back to your question about age, when we were doing our research the average was 57 and then it went up to 58. Your research now shows it has gone up further still and the average age is 60, so it is white middle-aged men aged 60. I do think that is a problem. Interestingly, in London and in some other places that has changed. We gave examples outside-Reigate and Banstead and a number of other places. There were three chunks of research. The third chunk of research was to look at five authorities that had a particularly good record of broadening that out. The political parties did that, but mostly one or two key people were determined to change things at a local level and brought change about, which was why I got to the point of thinking and saying, and I repeat now, that all these things are not that difficult. If you really want to change things and implement a whole heap of recommendations, it is not very difficult. What is really difficult is having the political will to change it, because at an institutional level I do not think people are really that interested in change.
Q8 Bill Esterson: Should we be focusing on the ability of potential councillors, or the diversity?
Dame Jane Roberts: You are presenting them as though they are mutually exclusive, and I do not think they are necessarily. You are implying that diversity is a sort of mechanistic head count. Perhaps I am putting words into your mouth. It depends on what you mean by "ability". What makes a good councillor? What you are looking at is a balance of skills across all the councillors. You want to get a mix both of your population and of different skills across the council as a whole. The key ability is to engage and listen properly, not just pay lip service, but some councillors will have come from a community activist background, will want to remain there and spend most of their time on scrutiny. There will be others with a much more strategic sense who want to change things at a leadership level. They will have to communicate well. There is a whole range of skills that councillors need. You will not get all of that wrapped up in one person, but you might ideally see it reflected across the council as a whole. I would say in response that you need both, and I do not think they are necessarily mutually exclusive.
Q9 Heidi Alexander: I am interested in the proposals that your commission put forward about having a defined role for the councillor that could be adapted locally. Can you say something about the thinking that lay behind that role description, and what purpose you think it would serve?
Dame Jane Roberts: It was connected with the issue that I keep going back to: people have no idea how things work, and about who councillors are and what they do. I may be a bit out of date, but if a couple of years ago you had looked at most councils’ websites they would have given very little idea of what councillors did. It was an attempt to help councils, councillors and the wider general public to understand what councillors did so they had some idea. I have lost count of the number of times-it may well be your experience as well-that people just assume you do this full time. Most councillors do not, and in my view should not. The idea of the role description was to be there as a suggestion. We were trying so hard not to be too prescriptive with lots of "must dos". This was a role description that had been drawn up; it was one of a number that seemed very useful. A number of local authorities had adopted it. It gives you some idea in terms of people who are aspiring to be councils and the general public, and, once you are there, it gives guidance in terms of induction and training. It can be used in many different ways. I think it was taken up.
Q10 Heidi Alexander: Would you write the same role description today if you were reporting from the commission, given some of the changes that are coming through from Government with regard to the localism agenda? Do you see the role of the councillor changing?
Dame Jane Roberts: I think the general principles we have talked about as regards the role of the councillor hold true. The role description has a number of different facets, but essentially we were saying the general principles held true. We talked about councillors being two-way translators, bringing the voices of the different communities that they represent into the council to inform the decision-making process, and similarly making sense of and explaining the decisions that have been taken in the council to constituents, employers, partners and all the rest of it. I think that still holds. That was why we talked about the importance of communication skills, connecting people with the institutions of governance. That still holds.
Things change, even in the period of time since our final report. Twitter did not exist at that point. The internet certainly did. We talked about training, induction and all the rest of it to exploit all the opportunities in the social media. There are changes of that sort at a more operational level, but in terms of the localism agenda I think the bigger question, which I referred to at the end of my written submission but which we did not talk about in the Councillors Commission per se, is to think more broadly about what councillors do, what leaders of councils do, what directly-elected mayors do, what MPs do and what MEPs do. Do they all meet? Do they talk? In some places they might; in lots of places they do not. If one is saying that the role of a directly-elected mayor or council leader is about place shaping, which is a phrase that I like-talking about maximising the wellbeing of a place-what is the relationship among the leader, directly-elected mayor and MP? We have to think through all of those things.
As to the localism agenda per se, all national governments, whether or not they use the term "localism" over the course of the period of time, have used that rhetoric, but, as Professor Travers has shown, over the course of the last century increasingly the agenda in today’s parlance has become less and less localist, certainly in terms of powers and funding. When I looked at the DCLG website very recently, it talked about having a strategic view. Then it said, "What do we do?" and it said, "Weekly bin collections".
Q11 Heidi Alexander: You talked about the role of the councillor as being like a two-way conduit between the public and the council officers who speak a foreign language half the time. In your report, you talked about officers having a lack of understanding of the political dynamics within an authority and the political pressures upon locally elected representatives. Why did you say that? Is there a body of evidence out there that you felt justified that statement?
Dame Jane Roberts: I cannot quote it, but there was at the very least anecdotal evidence. When I was leader I remember being asked to speak to groups of civil servants at a course organised by a firm of recruiters to officers at tier 3 and tier 4 because there was a great demand. I cannot quote the evidence, but it is my own personal experience as well. It was reinforced: when there was a change in the political management arrangements between executive and scrutiny the contact that officers had with councillors was much less, certainly below the director and AD level. With the best will in the world, any good local authority should recognise that and help with training so that people do understand, and it works both ways. If, for example, you come in as a professional social worker, part of your social work training is not how councillors or how local government work. It is very easy for councillors to assume that local government officers know how it works. I think there is a meeting of minds. I did not clock that for a while. I think the chief executive at the time and I had a big meeting with large numbers of staff and a question was asked. I cannot now remember what the question was, but it clearly revealed that the person asking it had no idea how councillors worked, but why would they? All of us have some responsibility to recognise that and take steps to do something different.
Q12 Stephen Gilbert: Back in 1998 I was in the unusual position-it is probably still the case-of being the country’s youngest councillor at 21 on a district authority in Cornwall. I was also the only member out of 50 or so who had a job. When you talk about principle 3-the need for the councillor cohort to reflect the population-it strikes me that one of the biggest inconsistencies in that is that most councillors in the country do not work; most people in the country do. How do we make it easier for people who have jobs to be councillors?
Dame Jane Roberts: I strongly agree with that. Your record was probably beaten. Somebody in Somerset was elected at the age of 19. You are absolutely right, and it is a really big problem. The problem is that, if you are in a position where many councillors do not work, the council will be organised in such a way that it is for the convenience of those who do not work. I had a conversation with a unitary authority, whose name I will not reveal, most of whose members were not working. All the meetings were held in the day. There are choices to be made. You can organise a council in such a way that that does not have to be the case. The response was, "Most of our members are getting on; they are too tired by the end of the afternoon." You need a balance of older people and younger people. If so, you have to organise the council in such a way that it is possible to have a balance. When I was leader and we had events where councillors from all three main political parties were speaking, I made a point to say, "If you want to be a backbench councillor, it is important we make it possible for you to do this on a limited amount of time."
We happened to have meetings in the evening. I appreciate that if you are in Lincolnshire County Council, for example, you have a huge number of miles to travel, which is why you should not be prescriptive, but you could have meetings at different times. Even Camden would not do this. When I was chair of the education committee I said, "Why don’t we move the time from seven o’clock to 4.30? We can get some of the teachers who have just come out of school, parents and sixthformers." The response was, "Ah!" Not all meetings have to be at the same time; they could be at different times; you could change them. You have a fixed time to finish; you have succinct agendas; you have proper support and IT. All sorts of ways, which we talk about in this report, would make it possible. If people are currently doing it full time, there is no incentive to do it in any other way.
Q13 Stephen Gilbert: The issue is the intransigence of incumbents to want change that you have referred to already. Can I pick up on what you said about support? I do not think that any of us could do our jobs effectively if we did not have the professional support we have got, and yet we expect councillors, in the case of Cornwall with a budget of over £1 billion a year, to do it without professional support. Is there a role for providing secretarial support to councillors?
Dame Jane Roberts: Absolutely. It is antediluvian. To be a councillor and representative of a local place is the embodiment of place. In this day and age, geographical place is still hugely important for us all, and local government is the embodiment of that. These are important roles that need to be properly supported to argue the case, which is partly why we talked about national minimum standards. It is quite difficult because it is seen as "feathering the nest"; similarly with the national framework for allowances, but they should be properly supported, whether it is council surgeries, case work, diary management, research, ward or division information, whatever it might be. Of course there should be proper support.
Q14 Stephen Gilbert: Leading neatly on from that, one of the things I have struggled with, looking at some of your conclusions, is that you favour the multimember ward system. I have got experience of both having served in an authority in Cornwall and the London Borough of Haringey, which had a multi-member system. When you talk about the two-way translator and the sense of place being so important, surely that is best articulated by one person representing an area rather than three, or not.
Dame Jane Roberts: I have had this discussion. Every MP I speak to always says that, partly because, I guess, there is one MP per constituency, and for very understandable and creditable reasons. There is a great sense of identity. MPs say, "It is my constituency; it is my place." I understand and respect that. I have been a councillor in only one authority, but in two wards. We did come down strongly in favour of multi-member wards for a number of different reasons, which I can go into, but I do not see why the fact there are two others of you means there is not that strong attachment to the ward. It means you have to make sure that constituents understand that there are three and who they are, but there are lots of advantages to that. It means, for example, that you can have a spread of people of different backgrounds, genders and skills. There were times when someone would come to one of my surgeries and say, "It would be really useful if you speak to X because they’ve had experience."
For all sorts of reasons, it is much more sensible to have a multi-member ward. For example, I had a baby when I was a councillor. It meant it was possible for one of my co-ward councillors to do surgeries for a month, so I did not have to do it. It is all a bit of a juggling act, and in a way it has to be. That is not a bad thing, but you have to make it possible. I think that one of the advantages, as well as having diversity and a balance of skills, is that it makes it more possible to juggle things in that way. I do not buy the idea that you cannot have a sense of attachment to place on that basis.
Q15 Stephen Gilbert: In terms of juggling and looking at it from the employer’s perspective, if an employee wanted to go off and become a councillor, to address that balance of working people on councils there are risks for the employee in terms of how the employer is going to react, and there are risks for the employer in terms of having a member of staff who is not around all the time and the unpredictability that leads to. In your report you talk about a financial compensation scheme for businesses. Do you think that is feasible in the economic climate we are in? If that is not feasible, what other things can we do to minimise the downside for working people in relation to their employers?
Dame Jane Roberts: They are really well-made points, and there is a big section here about employers. I would start off by saying that there are risks but there are advantages also to employers. When we went into it in a bit more detail there was the well-known example of Rolls-Royce, but a survey was done at the same time. We had a good conversation with the Institute of Directors who did a survey at the time, because most businesses are small and mediumsized enterprises. For them, if you have three or four employees it is a whole different ball game compared with Rolls-Royce or BT. Even with smaller employers, particularly around place, there are real advantages. Is this financial compensation scheme viable in the current austere times? The truth is probably not. But we did not even think that was the most important thing; we thought the most important thing was the nature of the relationship with the employer. When I look back now, as leader I worked very hard to engage local businesses in all sorts of ways. It never occurred to me at the time-I say this with some chagrin-to talk to them about their employees standing as councillors and the advantages. It just did not occur to me. We had really good relationships with them. That was a bit of a lesson. It is about engaging with local employers, which you would want to be doing anyway, whether it is about the economy, jobs, schools or education, but also talking about some of the advantages.
We talked to lots of employers. There was a chunk of employers who would not be keen on their employees becoming councillors, but I was surprised that a sizeable chunk were very prepared to think about more flexible or parttime working. Most of them did not have HR policies to cover that, but really would like to. One of our recommendations was that there could be some sort of template and information to employers about being much more proactive in the nature of the relationship, obviously if the councillor wants it because there are some councillors who do not tell their employers. We respect that. But there are others where there are letters saying, "Thank you from the local authority." There are all sorts of ways, but at the moment employers are a bit like the general public: by and large they have no idea what councillors do.
Q16 Heather Wheeler: On the point about Rolls-Royce, there are two South Derbyshire district councillors who are Rolls-Royce employees. We are very grateful for the community involvement that they give us day in and day out. I am interested in the level of support and training that councillors need to enable them to do their job. I think you have pretty much suggested that it is patchy, to say the least. Do you think a bit of it is because some councillors do not want to take up the training, not just that the councils are a bit useless at offering it sometimes?
Dame Jane Roberts: Sometimes that is the case. What we recommended was a quid pro quo. There should be training but an explicit expectation that it is taken up, so absolutely yes.
Q17 Heather Wheeler: That is interesting. You have already given your views on the lack of administrative support for councillors, but I wonder whether this fits in slightly with the benefits of having a national framework for members’ allowances, or whether it ought to be dealt with locally, because in effect they are a sort of employee but they could be self-employed and could have their own secretarial support. What do you feel about that?
Dame Jane Roberts: What we were suggesting was a national framework, not national prescription. The reasoning for that-you will know this from your experience as MPs and councillors-is that it is very difficult to raise allowances for councillors. We came across shocking examples. The average at the time was £5,000 a year and for leaders it was £16,000. If you look at any other cases, whether it is non-exec directors of all sorts, it is really shocking, but it is very difficult to do that. The idea of a framework was simply to have suggestions that varied by the type and size of authority. There would be plenty of room for decisions to be made. If local authorities wanted to set up their own independent panel, it did not preclude them from doing that. It was there as a national framework to be used to make it a bit easier, especially for those local authorities where allowances are pitifully low, to do something about that.
Q18 Mark Pawsey: It must be very interesting to you to see us covering much of the same ground you covered only five years or so ago. Do you think there is an inevitability that we will end up with broadly the same conclusions that you did: that there is not much point in looking at the role of the councillor without having a broader review of how the democratic system works in this country? Do you think we are going to be able to concentrate just on the individuals who are responsible at a local level, or do you think we are going to get dragged into the broader debate that you referred to?
Dame Jane Roberts: I would argue that you should get drawn into the broader debate. I have not mentioned it here, but we argue throughout the report that part of the issue is about the perception of local government and of councillors. I am not evangelical by nature but I am an evangelist for local government. I am no longer a councillor. I think it is hugely under-sung and undervalued, but I am in a minority of 0.05%, or whatever it might be. That is not the general perception; it is not the general perception in Whitehall, in Government, in the media or out there. At the same time, all the changes that have come about-lack of trust and lack of engagement at all tiers of governance-are becoming a greater problem. There is only so much Whitehall can do about that.
You have to see local government as part of the solution, not part of the problem. This is not a party-political statement. The previous Government introduced a paper on the governance of Britain that did not talk about local government. The current Government refer to localism but talk about weekly bin collections. It is a real problem we have to grasp. I think it is an issue about the powers of local government and about finance; it is an issue about perception. Unless you tackle all of those and see that local government is potentially an important part of the solution to the democratic malaise, we will not go anywhere; we just go round and round in circles. You will not get people standing who are more widely representative and able councillors because, while the perception is that it is for also-rans, why would you do that?
Q19 Mark Pawsey: How would you increase knowledge of local democracy, particularly given that there are different systems in different areas for perfectly good reasons? In some areas there can be as many as five people responsible for the delivery of services. How would you make sure people are better informed?
Dame Jane Roberts: I would adopt all 61 recommendations of our report. You would not have to do 61, but certainly 55. There were one or two that were put in to be provocative, and they were. It is at all levels, isn’t it? But, ultimately, that is why recommendation 1 in my view was the key one. The local authority was to be the key in saying, "These are the conditions that obtain in our patch, South Derbyshire; these are the people, institutions and the way these things work." You could really make a push in South Derbyshire, but at the very least you need to do much more in terms of schools and citizenship. Citizenship is seen as being a bit of a doss. Lewisham had a fantastic scheme; it had a young mayor, and, as we quote in here, it had a 45% turnout, which was higher than in the local elections. Most young people have no idea who councillors are and what they do. You have got to start at that level. There is a whole range of different things you can do. All of us might know what a county, a district, a parish or a town is, but in many parts of the country when you talk about local government it is bewildering to people. We did not advocate this; I advocated it-we were very diplomatic in this. Unitary authorities make a whole heap of sense because there is one authority. People have talked about three different tiers of government might be responsible for one roundabout. It is bonkers, and then we expect people to understand and engage.
Then we talked about multi-member wards and making these tiers more clear, but it is very baffling. Some places do all-out elections; some do it in thirds. You never know quite who you are voting for, where and how. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have a local election day? Do it by region, not on a super Tuesday as in the States. Have local elections in that region. You would have a real razzmatazz about it. In some places on local election day, there is nothing there. I tried to do more of this in Camden. Make it much more of a razzmatazz, whether it is through schools. There are all sort of things you can do. Now with the social media there is a huge amount more you can do, but if you did it in one time in one go by region you could have a good local debate. There are all sorts of things you can do.
Q20 Mark Pawsey: How confident are you that if the recommendations you made a few years ago were implemented we would achieve the objectives we are all looking to see in terms of age and socio-economic profile of councillors moving forward? Will that do the trick?
Dame Jane Roberts: The evidence is very clear that if people want to make change-there are places where key people want to make change-they can do so. The issue is the political will to do so.
Q21 Simon Danczuk: There is one thing we have not discussed. Is not a big part of the equation the culture within local political parties? Is that not a big factor in all of this?
Dame Jane Roberts: It is indeed. There is so much to talk about. It is a bit of a problem, but we live in a complex world. There is no one magic bullet, so, yes, absolutely. The political parties are key to all of this. There is a lot of evidence that it is much more difficult to get selected than to get elected, so the political parties are absolutely key to this. There is a problem in some parties in some places-not everywhere-that I witnessed. Where things have changed the political parties have done it, but in other places it is too inward-looking. Bright new things do not get training; they are suppressed; they are a threat to the leadership. We have to face that head on.
Chair: Thank you very much indeed for talking to us about the Councillors Commission and quite a few other issues as well. That is a very helpful start to our inquiry.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Professor Colin Copus, Professor of Local Politics, De Montfort University, Liz Richardson, Research Fellow, University of Manchester, and Professor Michael Thrasher, Professor of Politics, Plymouth University, gave evidence.
Q22 Chair: Good afternoon and welcome to the first evidence session in our inquiry into councillors and the community. For the sake of our records, could you say who you are and the organisation you represent? That would be a helpful start.
Liz Richardson: My name is Liz Richardson and I work for the University of Manchester.
Professor Thrasher: I am Michael Thrasher from the elections centre at Plymouth University.
Professor Copus: I am Colin Copus from the Local Government Research Unit at De Montfort University.
Q23 Chair: Thank you for coming and for the evidence you have supplied so far. Let me begin by asking Professor Thrasher if he could say a little about the survey he has done on the characteristics of those standing at local elections. Just give us the main findings to kick off our session.
Professor Thrasher: It struck us some years ago that there were a lot of surveys of councillors, but not of the candidates. We knew a fair amount about the people who stood and won in local elections but not those who stood and failed to win. We began a national survey in 2006 of England and Wales, and we have been carrying out that survey ever since. We randomly select candidates from the nomination lists published by local authorities. We used to send a postal questionnaire. In 2011 and 2012, the survey has been conducted online. Essentially, the findings from the 2012 survey, which I sent to this Committee, are broadly in line with surveys undertaken both by post and, last year, online. The broad picture is that the people who stand for local election are very similar to those who sit on the local council benches. There is not a notion or understanding that if only these people would resign and stand aside, or the electorate would get rid of them at the ballot box, we would have a brand new set of local councillors, so in the sense that local government is often characterised as male, pale and stale-in other words, it is dominated by men and largely older white people-that is also true of candidates. The only difference is that candidates are slightly more likely to be women, but only slightly so; they are slightly younger, but then you would expect that because they have not sat on the council benches for four years, and they are just as white as the councillors. It really drove home to us that, no matter what happened in terms of the ballot box, local government was not going to change.
What we were also trying to do was find out why people stood for local council election; who they were; and what motivated them to stand in the first place. For some of the questions we asked we now have five or six years of data to support. Sometimes we ask questions that are, if you like, contemporary in nature. For example, this year, for obvious reasons, we asked the candidates. Just to remind ourselves, the candidates are local party activists by and large, so this is really a window into the soul of local parties and how they are thinking. We asked them questions about whether they approved of directly elected mayors. No. Did they approve of elected justices of the peace? No. Did they approve of police and crime commissions? No. Did they approve of referendums? Yes. That surprised me somewhat. Did they approve of recall elections? In other words, if councillors are found to have been at fault, can we call them to account rather like they do in California and elsewhere, and have another election? They are in favour of that.
The questions vary: some are repeated, so we have rather good documentary evidence now about their attitudes, and there are other questions that occur for just one particular year.
Q24 Chair: We now have questions for all the panel now. If, as we go through it, there is something one of your colleagues says that you agree with, just tell us that you agree with it. That is absolutely fine, and we can get through more questions that way. Is it important that we try to encourage more people from under-represented groups to stand? Who should be doing that? Is it mainly a role for the parties? Should councillors themselves be a bit concerned about getting into that sort of territory where they get involved in encouraging people to stand?
Liz Richardson: There is not necessarily very full evidence about the argument that a more diverse group of members would change policy outcomes or guarantee a better representation of interests, although that is the idea. The jury is out on that one. It also puts candidates in a tricky position. When we talked to candidates they said, "It means either that is the only thing I can talk about or the one thing I just can’t talk about because it pigeonholes me." The main reason you would want to try to increase the diversity of representation is to do with reputation. Jane Roberts talked about the perception of the reputation of the democratic system. It looks really bad, and it is symptomatic of the lack of openness of the candidate selection system, the lack of active recruitment from parties, and occasionally bad attitudes towards candidates. Insofar as it is symptomatic of all these bad things, it is a good thing to push parties on.
Dame Jane Roberts already mentioned the research we did. We did five case studies of places that slightly bucked the trend and did better. Parties were doing brilliant things: they were fasttracking; talentscouting; mentoring; advertising for non-party members who agreed broadly with the ideology; and they were using apprenticeships, but the gap was in the role for officers and councils more broadly. Our work was one of the studies cited in support of the creation of the duty to promote democracy. I was really happy about that but it was a bit of a damp squib, which was a real shame. I do not think it was repealed because it was necessarily a bad idea but partly because the current Administration prefers the idea of community rights than duties on public bodies. Duties just are not very popular at the moment. The role for the authority in promoting democracy to increase representation and diversity is a key gap.
Professor Copus: I would add a note of scepticism. We have to ask the big question that Jane Roberts talked about: what is the role of the councillor? In much the same way, we have to ask the question: what the role of local government? Without asking and answering that question, it is very difficult to start to talk about reforms of systems and the composition of councils. One of my worries is what this does to the system of representative democracy as we understand it at the moment. If we are looking to increase diversity among the councillor population, what is the expectation on councillors who are elected? Are they expected, as under the system at the moment, to be representative of their entire community, or will they come under pressure to represent just parts of that community? That is the danger.
In some of the work I have done among councillors from ethnic groups, they admit they come under pressure to take up issues that are very specific to those communities, but they are quite resentful of that. Many argue that they are not there simply to represent one part of a community. Most councillors subscribe to what I call the Burkean approach to representation: generally, they are here to represent the interests of the community. There is a real question about what would the increased diversity bring. It may bring what Liz referred to: just not looking so bad.
Political parties are responsible not only for recruiting campaigns but the way in which politics in local government is conducted. I have come to the conclusion that, even if you radically changed the composition of council chambers, without doing something about the way in which political parties conducted the business of local government, you would not get much difference anyway, along the lines that you were finding by certain people winning rather than losing.
Q25 Chair: Why is that?
Professor Copus: To give an example, the disciplinary mechanisms of political party groups in local government are often far more rigid than those you would experience as Members of Parliament. There are not one, two and threeline whips; if there are, that is an unusual process in local government.
Q26 Bob Blackman: I totally disagree with you.
Professor Copus: All I can tell you from the conclusions of my work is that, if you meet in private and make a decision and councillors are bound by it, there are fewer opportunities for people to be able to have the sort of public debates you would expect from a more diverse councillor community.
Q27 Chair: Let me challenge you on that. If the debate inside private meetings is between a different group of people, and there are more young people, women and people from ethnic minorities at those meetings, surely you have a greater chance of influencing their outcome which then carries through into the public arena.
Professor Copus: You may well do, but, if a group is still controlled by a white male middle-aged population, the likelihood of increased numbers changing that is contestable.
Q28 Bob Blackman: Can I ask all three witnesses a question? You have identified a problem, which I can understand, about increasing the diversity. What do you think in your survey and evidence is the barrier to that selection process? Is it the local political party? Is it the attitude of certain individuals? Is it the community which says, "There’s no point. Don’t even bother"?
Liz Richardson: One of the big things we found was that the parties are trying to secondguess what voters will stand. When they do that, they secondguess the electorate to be more conservative. It is difficult to say; we do not know because people do not get put into winnable seats.
Q29 Bob Blackman: Are you seriously suggesting the political parties are saying that people are more likely to vote for white males rather than women, for example?
Liz Richardson: That is what we are saying based on evidence from talking to candidates and potential candidates.
Q30 Bob Blackman: In areas of high ethnic minorities, parties would rather have white males than representatives of those local communities ,which might be quite substantial communities?
Liz Richardson: Where there are, for example, large minority ethnic populations parties are happier to put in minority ethnic candidates because they see that as a no brainer, but diversity candidates, if you want to call them that, are more likely to get "no hope" seats than winnable seats in other situations, because parties think that the electorate will not stand for someone who looks different. That is a very crude summary, sorry.
Q31 Bob Blackman: I invite you to come to my borough and do a survey, because you will find it is completely different. In my experience, most parts of London are completely different from the world you are describing. It may be true in other parts of the country that this is a problem, but my experience of London politics is completely different from that and from what we have heard from the rest of the panel. We want to hear clear evidence. I am concerned that the evidence we are hearing so far is not the world that I inhabit.
Liz Richardson: I could send you and colleagues a breakdown of the last elections, if you want.
Professor Thrasher: When we ask people what motivated them to stand in the first place and whether they themselves decided, "I can do this?" four in 10 say, "I made the decision myself." The remaining six were asked to stand. That immediately tells you that in the majority of cases people are asked to stand. We asked those people who decided to stand what the biggest reason was. They said, "I can make a difference." That is in their mindset. As to those people who were asked to stand, they were asked mostly by a fellow party member or sitting councillor, so it is an informal network within parties. That really is the nub of the problem, inasmuch as if the party networks are circumscribed, in that the party members are talking to fellow party member who are largely male, white and older, you have to break outside those networks.
We ask candidates, "Why do you think certain groups-women, ethnic minorities or young people-are under-represented on councils?" The answers are different; there is no one size explanation that fits all the problems. In respect of women, they talk about family commitments and the problem of balancing all these kinds of resource issues. In the case of ethnic minorities, interestingly enough, because most of our respondents are white, many of the responses are neutral. They do not have a strong opinion one way or the other that it is a problem of too few people coming forward, or a problem or families. They prefer to sit on the fence, perhaps rightly so, because they do not know what the explanation for that is. In terms of younger people, they say they are not interested in politics and too few come forward. If one were looking for solutions to a problem, quite definitely they all feel that local authorities are not in the business of recruiting candidates for local elections. It is not the job of local authorities to do that. By all means, publicise what local authorities do and display how to become a candidate and what the timetable is, but do not try to recruit candidates. That is the job of political parties.
Q32 Bill Esterson: To pick up your last answer about why people stand for election, perhaps all three of you can say why people stand again.
Liz Richardson: When you ask people why they stand, their explanation is that they feel a strong sense of civic duty. If you are thinking about how you might market or appeal to people in terms of new potential candidates, the idea that you try to do the best for your community is a very strong and powerful one. Another reason people get involved is that they drift into it. As Dame Jane Roberts said earlier, they might start doing one thing and then drift into doing some more stuff and there you are. As Michael says, it has been shown, both in the UK and US, that being asked is a very strong driver. There lots of different forms of civic activity. There is a very large study on that and some very good evidence. Obviously, there is power and self-interest. You cannot discount that; you need a little of that to get going.
As to why people stand again, the main issue is why people stand down. We do not know what puts them off and why they stand down. Some authorities are now starting to do exit interviews to try to find out a little more about what put them off. Was it something to do with them or something we did to them? The idea is to find out why people leave rather than why they stay, because why they stay is a little more obvious.
Professor Copus: If I may pick up the thread Liz was leading into-because that takes me to your question-the issue about why parties select whom they select and for which seats is often driven by the realities of politics. If you are involved in politics and putting yourself forward for election, you will want a winnable seat. I remember that the first time I stood for a council I was asked, "If we wanted to select somebody from a minority group, would you stand down?" My reaction was, "Over my dead body. This is a seat I want to fight." The realities of politics are such that, if you are putting yourself forward, you are asking people to make considerable sacrifices by expecting them to step aside to enhance diversity. Those issues need to be considered, because they are also part of the wider picture of why people stand for election in the first place, why they stand again and why they decide to stand down.
The conclusion I have been led to is that councillors stand again because there is a sense of an unfinished job. That unfinished job is never finished. They are always confronting a new set of problems; they are always confronting the realities of working very closely and immediately with a community. There is a sense that if you stand down you are letting down a group of people. With the greatest respect to members of this Committee, the lives of councillors are much more immediate to the people they represent. They are on call 24 hours a day. I had one Christmas Day phone call from a constituent. This is not unusual-obviously, Christmas Day was. You may be stopped anywhere with inquiries being made about either something very specific or a policy decision taken by the council. That becomes a self-fulfilling motivation for people. The desire to stay engaged with that community is part of the reason why councillors continue to do the job. I have to say they are largely unrecognised and unrewarded, and often vilified for what they do.
I just draw your attention to a new programme starting today on BBC television about a corrupt council. I know immediately that councillors will be stopped in the street and told, "You’re just like that Christopher Eccleston character." This is something that local authority members have to put up with, and they do, and continually seeking reelection becomes almost like a drug.
As to the reason members are standing down, there is an awful lot of overseas research. I have not seen any relating to this country, but often it is to do with the professionalisation of politics, and local government in particular, which means the job is transformed into something a member did not originally expect.
Could I mention briefly one thing which relates to the question of age more than anything else? The other day I was interviewing a councillor in his early 70s. He had been an elected member for 42 years, which means that when he was elected he was in his early 30s. He was one of those young people we are now seeking to stand. The difficulty is that when you get those young people elected at what time do you dare say to them, "You’re now too old"? That gentleman has given 42 of his life to serve his community. It is a very difficult nut to crack.
Professor Thrasher: Was your question about councillors or candidates?
Q33 Bill Esterson: I started with candidates and went on to ask why councillors stand again.
Professor Thrasher: The answer to the question is that a lot of councillors do not stand again. They have one shot. They do enjoy it but they do not have another shot at it. More than a third of candidates who stand do so on the basis that they are a paper candidate only. They do not do any campaigning in their own ward, but they will campaign in other wards, so they are helping out the local party. Other people stand because they are the only volunteers. With regard to councillors we did an analysis some years ago. We worked out that the average councillor sits for seven years, which means they probably have one period of re-election and then exit, so they are re-elected once and then exit. They exit either because of the electoral political cycle, which sees them off because they are not sitting in a safe ward, or simply because they have had enough. In our survey we asked the specific question, "Why do you think so many councillors stand down after four years?" Most people answered that the job was too timeconsuming.
Q34 Bill Esterson: Colin, earlier you touched on underrepresentation of ethnic minorities. Do you think that the issue about people who just represent the part of the community they come from is true only of ethnic minorities, or does it happen in other groups as well?
Professor Copus: People have a very complex relationship with the electorate and the idea of what it is that a councillor represents. From my research, many councillors will say that for them up there with the key issues about what they represent is their political party. If you look at the figures, in many respects they speak for themselves. I think I have quoted in the paper that in England about 93% of all councillors come from one of the three main political parties. A clear focus of representative attention for a large number of those members is their party; they see that as the vehicle through which they represent the public.
Q35 Bill Esterson: Therefore, the group that that party mainly represents. Is that the point you make?
Professor Copus: That is the link, but it is not exclusive because many members often get labelled "parochial" because they focus very much on their ward or division. That ward or division and its needs and requirements takes priority over the council as a whole. For those more policy-oriented members, that parochial member can often be a problem and almost stands aside from the real job of the council, which is to represent the entity called "the council". But the idea of representative focus is many-faceted, so some would be looking at their ward; some members would be looking at representing their parties; some will see themselves as spokespeople rather than representatives of certain minority communities. There is a difference between acting as a spokesperson of a group and seeing yourself as representative solely of this interest. In my work I have not come across anybody from minority communities who admit that their job is just to represent that community. I think that if we did start to find that we would be moving into quite dangerous territory.
Q36 Bill Esterson: In your submission, you said about 93% of councillors were members of one of the main political parties. My reaction to that point is that people vote for them. Do you see a way forward from that?
Professor Copus: It is very difficult. I come to that conclusion as well. You have to say that if 93% come from the main political parties then the electorate must be happy with that, but the electoral system and the way in which the ward boundaries are drawn also adds to that. The difficulty of independents securing elections is partly a political opportunity structure as well the fact that political parties are able maybe to control what is happening within wards or divisions. But the issue is about how parties respond. If that is perceived to be a problem-I made the point that the biggest under-represented group is those who are not members of political parties-parties have a responsibility for the way in which they can start to introduce, say, a slightly lighter touch to the conduct of politics and elections, for example endorsing and supporting candidates. This is particularly the case with elected mayors, maybe less so with councillors, though I think there is also a case for councillors, in that parties do not necessarily need to stand candidates if there is a candidate there that they find broadly acceptable. If an independent happened to be from an ethnic minority community and put themselves forward as an independent, it is likely that a political party would stand a candidate against him or her who might be from an over-represented group. It is not just about selection; it is also about the process of election and how parties can be perhaps a little more sensitive. It is great when your party wins all the seats on the council. I have been a member of a council where that has been the case. You just have to ask yourself: do you need that many? Can we take a different approach? Rather than just addressing recruitment of party candidates, parties also need to address how they respond to nonparty candidates.
Q37 Bill Esterson: Michael and Liz, do you have any thoughts on independent councillors, and whether that would make a difference and it is a good thing?
Professor Thrasher: Independent councillors are more likely to be male and older. Does that answer your question?
Q38 David Heyes: I would say that community leadership should be central to the role of the councillor. You have all used that terminology in your work and in the evidence you have put to us. Do you all mean the same thing by it? Briefly, what do each of you mean when you use the term "community leadership"?
Liz Richardson: It has been 12 years and we still do not quite know what this thing is. Moreover, for people who do know what it is there is too much of a disparity between people who are good at it and do lots of it, and people who are not very good at it and do not do very much of it. One conclusion some people might draw is that there are too many councillors doing too little community leadership. The other way to see the problem is that it is about getting out there and mobilising other people to contribute to solving problems, or making things better; it is about brokering controversial issues; and it is about making decisions jointly with communities. That raises a few big problems. The first is that it means that being a councillor in a ward or area is not just about having a war chest, like a community grant scheme, to distribute your largesse among the community. It means you need to see power as something to be shared and it is not a zero sum game, and decide criteria for resource allocation jointly with communities, so everyone can make decisions together. That is a really hard one. You need to persuade communities to generate alternative solutions by deliberating with them. That is a really hard one. Also, say "yes" to people more often by taking some risks. That is really hard. I think that being a community leader is quite a hard thing and challenges a lot of assumptions about politics.
Professor Thrasher: I do not really know about this, but I will just make two points. Firstly, only about 60% to 70% of incumbent councillors reside in the ward that they represent, so I think we run into problems when we have this notion of community, with the councillors embedded within their communities. They live outside of the community that they represent on the council; this is particularly true in London, of course. Secondly, community is not a fixed sense in the electoral definition, because local ward boundaries are changed, so what we perceive sociologically as a community is not necessarily the same thing or fixed electorally. Currently, there is a fetish for electoral equality, both in terms of local ward boundaries and in terms of constituency boundaries and the more you struggle for electoral equality the more you have to ignore what notions of community and community boundaries are. That raises problems, I think, in terms of what constitutes community leadership and who has it and how difficult it is for councillors who do not live in the place that they are representing to become community leaders.
Professor Copus: All I would add to that is it is about leadership of place and leadership of communities of interest. Those two are not always conflicting but not always necessarily compatible aspects of leadership. I think there are councillors who see themselves very much wedded to leadership of place. What Michael said is absolutely right about not living within the wards, but councillors can very, very quickly adopt the requirements-and indeed they do-of individual wards. If they lose their seats or they are deselected and they move somewhere else, they very quickly adopt to placing that new area as a priority. The idea of leading place or at least being prominent and wedded to place is something that elected councillors understand. Leading communities of interest takes a broader and more complex set of processes and you tend to find that the two are often played by councillors with different takes on what being an elected representative is.
Q39 David Heyes: I would like to get into this in greater depth, but the Chair is not going to let me. Just one follow up question: is there a skills gap then, between each of your conception of what the community leadership is and what is available in the current cohort of councillors and candidates? What can we do about it, if there is a gap?
Liz Richardson: Partly what I was trying to argue is that the gap is not just skills; it is about fundamentally how we do politics and who has power and who makes decisions. Over and above that, yes, people need support and training. The regional employers’ organisations provide quite a lot of brilliant training. I have been involved in a scheme called the North West Employers Member Development Charter, Level 2-I know, I do not make these things. The basic question is if you plough money into giving training for councillors and sending them on what could be seen as jollies but which are not, does it then generate benefits, not for you lot, not for them lot, but for the community? I, as an academic, make them jump lots of hoops to give academic standards of evidence that there is community benefit from investment in skills. I think that is what is useful to try to protect that type of investment in something that looks potentially frivolous at a very, very pushed financial time.
Professor Thrasher: I am going to pass, if you do not mind, and defer to my colleague.
Professor Copus: One of the real problems in local government is the selfdenying ordinance at the moment and that there is an unwillingness to want to support the development of councillor skills and abilities, because it is seen as though you are spending money in constrained times. There are most definitely skills gaps, but, at the same time, there are elected members who have levels of ability that, in other areas of occupation, they simply would not get the opportunity to show that ability and they are a key asset to local councils as well.
One of the questions that used to be asked about councillors and is not anymore, because we have moved into a new territory of diversity, is about the calibre of elected councillors. This is a very, very old discussion, which, as I say, has now been sidelined, but you get the elected members who are elected and there is absolutely no problem, in my mind, in training and developing those members. What you have to be careful about is that you do not train them to become council officers, and that you recognise that the role of an elected member is very distinct to that of a council officer and, indeed, is part of the mechanisms by which the bureaucracy of the council is held to account. I have to say that an awful lot of training I have observed tends to train members in being what officers think would make good members. Really what we need to find out about is the skills that members need to develop.
Q40 Simon Danczuk: Some councillors that I have met do not need any encouragement to try and emulate council officers, but moving on to other matters, starting with you, Colin, it is related to the community leadership stuff. You talked about localisation of decisionmaking and in your written evidence you put forward a raft of suggestions-some interesting ones-really getting down to a ward level in terms of what changes could be made to engage councillors in engaging with their community. Any particular two of those, out of that list that you provided, that you think really do the business?
Professor Copus: I think the delegation of budgets to wards.
Q41 Simon Danczuk: Do you mean significant amounts of money?
Professor Copus: Clearly, the amount involved would have to suit each individual council, but I think the ability for members to spend money on specific local projects would require them to negotiate and to compromise and to build alliances within their wards or their divisions to be able to prioritise particular projects. They would be the ones who would be making those decisions. They would be accountable for the expenditure of that money and it would be them who would have to take the responsibility at the ballot box for making the decisions that they make.
The other area where I would like to see the role of members strengthened within their wards is the ability to make decisions generally. I know we talk about general competence powers as being something that relates to local government as an entity, but I mean the ability to take policy and political decisions of an executive nature only within the ward. I am aware of the issues of how those decisions would have to align with the broader executive decisions, but the reality of the structure at the moment is that we do, in most councils, have executive members and those members who are not in the executive. That does not mean to say that executive decisionmaking cannot be shared within wards. That then recognises the reality of the new institutional structure-well, it is not that new; it is over 10 years old now. So, certainly, budgets to spend and decisions to take.
Q42 Simon Danczuk: Michael, Liz, just briefly then before we move on: how much influence do backbench councillors have in the current system and is that an issue?
Professor Thrasher: You are asking the wrong person; I am sorry.
Liz Richardson: There is a massive role here for the decentralisation agenda. I completely agree with Colin that you could push a lot more down to the neighbourhood or the area or the ward level to give backbenchers or frontline members a bit more of a run at it, but it is about the earlier point I was making about that not becoming a war chest that is then distributed. As I said in my submissions, one of the accusations that you do not want to talk-that members that I speak to do not want to talk about but the citizens all want to talk about is what the Americans call "porkbarrel politics". I am not saying it is right; I am just saying that that really does not help the situation. Having jointly agreed criteria for resource allocation within and between neighbourhoods with citizens and members is my big thing that would help this; it would delegate budgets without it becoming a politicised, unfair situation.
Professor Thrasher: On just a practical level, though, if you are about to change the ward boundaries, that is going to make it interesting, having wardlevel budgets.
Simon Danczuk: Yes, good point.
Q43 Mark Pawsey: Could I just ask a couple of question about the support councillors receive? We had some evidence on that in our earlier session and the difference between the support for an MP and a councillor. Professor Thrasher, you spoke about councillors only doing one term and then another term. Is one of the reasons, from the survey you have done, that councillors stand down that they do not receive enough support in the role?
Professor Thrasher: We have asked that question in the past; it might sound strange, but no. Councillors generally believe that they receive a level of support from the local authority that they demanded, so they were generally pleased. This is only the councillors, of course, who can speak about this-or former councillors, of course-but they were generally approving of what the local authorities had done for them in terms of assisting their role of being a councillor. It was generally positive.
Q44 Mark Pawsey: Could either of the other witnesses tell us whether you think councillors would be more effective and enjoy the job more if they had more support?
Liz Richardson: There are two things that councillors in several areas have said to me. They would appreciate having more electronic systems that allowed them to track jobs-for example, Newcastle already has this; there are lots of examples. That is very practical. The other big thing is I did some work; we tried to look at where the volume of correspondence comes from for councillors-the drowning sensation. They said that where it is bad they get weird and wonderful correspondence from officers who just drown them in this stuff so they cannot be accused of hiding anything, but it is all irrelevant.
Q45 Mark Pawsey: Can I follow that point, because in your evidence you spoke about, where there was support, councillors being inundated with data from officers and it getting in the way of them doing their job. You say that partly is officers covering their back by saying, "Yes, of course I told you. I sent you an email." How would you deal with that? How would you solve that problem?
Liz Richardson: The two things that might help are if you got a nominated officer or a series of nominated officers who could act as a conduit or an intermediary. Neighbourhood workers in Bradford act as that person who has a sense of what is useful for my members that I am supporting and what is not, and can filter out all this rubbish. With democratic services and member services within authorities, it is usually one lady and half a person, isn’t it? No one really cares about them and no one takes them that seriously and they do the most amazing job. They used to provide a lot more administrative support for members under the old committee system than they do now. I think those roles could be beefed up.
Q46 Mark Pawsey: Professor Copus, you spoke about the need to ensure that councillors are not trained to be officers, but is there not a danger that the more training you do the more like officers they become, rather than representatives of the community, and they start getting involved in technospeak? Also, some authorities seem to be run by councillors and other authorities seem to be run by officers. Have you got any views about whether one or the other is a better model?
Professor Copus: I have to be very careful about that; I still have an academic career to maintain in local government.
I think on the issue of support to members, there is most definitely a scattered pattern across the country. Some councils provide exemplary support to members, others provide minimal support, but the issue is: what is the nature of the support that the member wants? Often what councillors will say is they want information. It is very easy, as has just been said, to drown in information. What members really require is the appropriate information in the right size, at the right place, at the right time, and on the right issue, so the question is not just about providing members with material.
The way I would look at it is that servicing the requirements of the politician should be seen as just as much a task of the authority as running any one of its services. After all, this is a politically representative institution, and you have to support politicians in conducting their activities and doing their job. For example, if a member wanted to conduct some research into recycling policies, who would they go to, who would they ask and where would be that point of contact? If they went to an officer in the appropriate department, the chances are that particular request would sit somewhere until he or she perhaps found time to get round to doing it. So the idea that policy and research support to members is something that is done on the side is no longer sustainable. I think local authorities have to bite the bullet on that and provide proper services to their members.
When I visit councils I get two stories. I am always told by members that "officers run this council" and I am told by the same group of officers that "members run this council. This is a memberled authority", so I am often left wondering, "Well who is running it?"
There is an inherent conflict between the elected member and the fulltime officer in local government and it comes about from the fact that the job and the relationship between them is very different between the relationship that Members of Parliament will have with their committee staff here and with researchers at the House of Commons. What you have in local government are professional managers there to provide and oversee a particular service. In many respects, officers could almost run their entire career without coming that close to elected members. One authority I was in the day after the last local elections, I said to one particular officer, "What did you think of last night?" and I could see that they were racking their brains to think what had happened last night-"Was there something good on television? What did I miss?"-and it was the local elections. Often you get that deep divergence.
At a certain level, however, members and officers work extremely closely and that is where you almost start to see the end scene of Animal Farm, where the animals are looking through the window and they look from the farmers to the animals and they cannot quite tell the difference. In some settings you can look for a member and the officer and not quite tell the difference, because they are talking the same language. You only have to look at the pages of the local government press to see letters or articles written by councillors; if I had a pound for every time I heard a member say, "Going forward", I would be fairly wealthy. I think there is a need to distinguish between the roles.
Chair: We had better move forward now.
Q47 Heidi Alexander: Professor Copus, I think in your written evidence you said that there are two competing conceptualisations of councillors: the parttime lay councillor and the fulltime professional councillor. Do you think that we need both types of councillor for a healthy local democracy?
Professor Copus: I think the short answer is yes. They were deliberately extreme models in the submission but they are models that I think there are examples of, and there are strengths to having both those types of members. Again it recognises the reality of the institutional arrangements we have at the moment: the executive overview and scrutiny. Particularly in large authorities, it is a reasonable expectation for leaders, cabinet members to be fulltime and there is a real debate here that needs to be had, I think, about whether we move towards salaried councillors and indeed, if we do move towards salaried councillors, how do we do that? What would be the level of salary? How would you organise that?
On the other hand, it is absolutely vital that we have a group of elected members that do not become part of the machine. The danger with the fulltime member is that they become too close maybe to the council that they are running and so, therefore, you do need those lay members who see themselves as one step removed from the authority. So I think there is a role for both.
Q48 Heidi Alexander: Do you think if councillors were paid more money you would attract more able candidates?
Professor Copus: I think you would have to pay an awful lot more, depending, of course, on what you mean by the term "able". There are large, large numbers of very able councillors already in office. The question is: are they given the tools to be able to do the job, and is the remuneration appropriate? I think the answer to both of those questions is probably no.
Professor Thrasher: We asked candidates whether they think that councillors are insufficiently paid and they disagreed. They reckon they are paid enough.
Q49 Heidi Alexander: Oh right, okay. Liz, do you have any views on this issue?
Liz Richardson: Only that the way that allowances are structured does not seem to give the right signal about the balance of work, in terms of sitting on external bodies and sitting on strategic decisionmaking committees; possibly you are trying to balance more things and it is more work, but it is prioritised financially more than doing your basic breadandbutter constituency ward work. That signal does not sit right with the community leadership message for me.
Q50 Heidi Alexander: My final question is: do you have any views on whether councillors are more effective when they operate in singlemember wards or multimember wards? Do you want to start?
Liz Richardson: No, I do not really have anything to add.
Professor Copus: I overheard what Jane Roberts was saying earlier, and I share that conclusion. If there is more than one member, there are opportunities to share workloads and for members to specialise as well in particular aspects. It is often in threemember wards you will find a member who is much more concerned about the policy side and you will find members who are much more concerned about nursing the ward, so it does enable that workload to be shared somewhat. I do not think voters are confused in any way; if they need to find a councillor they can find them. There may be some confusion around the old adage of, "If it is one person one vote, why have I got to vote three times?" I have come across that, but I think the ability to share the workload is crucial.
Professor Thrasher: The 1835 Municipal Corporations Act established multimember wards for the simple reason that the radical utilitarians wanted annual elections to keep people on their toes. The 1888 county councils act and the 1894 districts act established multimember wards because they wanted whole council elections. The Victorians could not decide whether they wanted annual elections or threeyearly then, or fouryearly now.
I will answer your question from the other side, from the voters’ point of view. Voters prefer elections every four years, and to get rid of the whole council or not. In terms of turnout, if it is a whole council election, as in London, then they will vote in higher numbers than in the metropolitan boroughs where they vote annually, which is different for parliamentary turnout, where it is the other way around. So there is strong evidence that whole council elections do encourage voter turnout. In terms of whether it works on the ground or not, I do not know.
Chair: Thank you all very much for coming and giving your evidence.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Councillor Peter Fleming, Chair, Improvement Board, Local Government Association, Tim Gilling, Acting Executive Director, Centre for Public Scrutiny, and Caroline Abrahams, Director of External Affairs, Age UK, gave evidence.
Q51 Chair: Good afternoon. Thank you all very much for coming and for the evidence you have submitted so far. We are running a little bit behind schedule, so I hope that does not inconvenience you at all, in terms of the time you have to get away. Okay, thank you very much. Just for the sake of our records, could you say who you are and the organisation you represent?
Tim Gilling: I am Tim Gilling. I am the Acting Executive Director at the Centre for Public Scrutiny.
Peter Fleming: I am Peter Fleming. I am the Leader at Sevenoaks District Council and I also chair the Improvement Board at the Local Government Association.
Caroline Abrahams: I am Caroline Abrahams. I am the Director of External Affairs at the charity, Age UK. I used to work for LGA; I thought I should let you know that. It means that I cannot not know what I know from that experience as well.
Chair: Yes, we have all declared our interest in local government in the past, so thank you for that.
Q52 David Heyes: Briefly, if each of you could say, just to start us off, what you think is the most important aspect of a councillor’s role.
Tim Gilling: It is difficult to come down on one particular aspect that is the most important, because we expect councillors to fulfil a number of roles, which span representative democracy and participative democracy. So, on the one hand, we expect councillors to be elected to represent us or to be representative of the place and we hold elections over a given period, in one respect to judge how well councillors have performed that role. But I think increasingly, particularly in these more modern times we expect councillors not only to interact with citizens at election time but to interact with them throughout all of the work that they are doing in a much more participative way. I would say it is difficult to pinpoint one particular role that councillors play.
Peter Fleming: I have to say I agree with Tim. It is spot on; it is a hugely complex world that we live in now. Just to add on to the things that Tim said, we are also expected to work with other parts of the public sector and to bring lots of people together and convene services beyond those that were traditionally local government. If you look at the changes that are happening in health and other areas, our role has expanded rather than contracted and what we expect from our councillors is everything from that very hyperlocal representative all the way up to somebody who is championing the whole place, the whole of the council area or even, dare I say it, the region.
Caroline Abrahams: My answer would be that I think the most important thing councillors do is exercise good local political leadership. I think that is true whether you are talking about a backbench councillor engaging with the issues in their ward and then taking action to try and progress those, or whether they are portfolioholders with a huge span of responsibility and responsible politically for the spending of vast sums of public money. I think in the end the exercise is the same, and it is different from being an officer, to follow on from the discussion you were having with previous witnesses.
Q53 David Heyes: Tim, in your evidence you referred to the vital role of scrutiny. Some of my councillor colleagues-the backbench councillors who spend time on scrutiny-often say that is not a good use of their time. They want to be out in the community rather than sitting in endless scrutiny meetings and reading reams of briefing papers before they start. Is that the best way for councillors to use their time?
Tim Gilling: The situation, as you have described, of councillors spending time in long meetings with large amounts of incomprehensible information does not sound like the best way for councillors to add value. So I suppose your question goes to the heart of how overview and scrutiny is carried out in councils, and there are a range of ways in which scrutiny can be carried out. It can be carried out along a model that mirrors the parliamentary select committee system. There is a place for much more formalised work, of councillors sitting in a formal session with invited witnesses, asking them questions and getting responses. There is also a perfectly valid role for councillors to be out in their communities, working perhaps in groups of two or three, going out to where people are, talking to people in the shopping centre, in the market or at the school gate, and bringing the product of that work back into the process.
There is a range of ways in which scrutiny can work and all of them are valid. Some councillors will be very good in a formal session. They will ask incisive questions, they will listen to the answers and then they will follow them up. Some councillors may say nothing in a formal meeting, but be very good at talking to their neighbours and colleagues that they work with. So I think there is a real cultural issue about how scrutiny works in authorities and it works differently in different places.
Q54 David Heyes: I have some targeted questions for each of you. The one for Peter is: democratic legitimacy, low turnouts-does that make the legitimacy of councillors questionable?
Peter Fleming: I am just going to pick up a little bit of the question that you-
David Heyes: That is cheating a bit, but we will allow it.
Peter Fleming: I think scrutiny is a bit of a negative term and it has a lot of negative connotations. In the best councils, their scrutiny is also doing other things, such as targeted work. It is always a joy to listen to a bunch of academics. I was quite glad you overran, because I have to say my toes were curling at some of their views, because it does not play out on the ground like they were saying. In reality, those backbench or frontline-we would struggle to find a term-are out there shaping policy as well and doing some of that really, really important work on whether the council is looking at all the options. They are not just looking at the history; they are looking at where the council goes in the future. I feel hugely supported as a leader with the work that my scrutiny and policy groups do, so I do not really see the world necessarily the same way as other people do.
Q55 David Heyes: That is helpful, but how legitimate are you, given low turnouts?
Peter Fleming: We are a layer of representative democracy. The issue that we are going to struggle with is, with localism and the devolving of powers, do we get to a point where the chairman of a residents’ association, who has never stood for election, will have quite considerable potential powers? Voter turnout is an issue for all of us and I think not many of you will have been elected on huge turnouts either.
Q56 David Heyes: Okay. My targeted question for you, Caroline, is about older people in your present role. This survey you have done had a lot of stuff about the high expectations that older people might have of councillors. Is that fair? From my experience, councillors spend an awful lot of time working for older people.
Caroline Abrahams: That is brilliant, and when it is done well it makes the most enormous difference. I think as older people get older, as it were, the upper age range, over75s, have lower expectations. That is what our survey found in terms of what was likely to be achieved. I think that is partly because sometimes perhaps councillors could put a bit more emphasis on feeding back, as well as going off and doing some good things. I have no doubt that very often they do take up issues and do do their best, but doing that bit at the end, the feedback loop and making sure that older people know what has happened. Obviously it is true of other local constituents as well; it is not just about older people, but if you do not know what has happened on the back of the issue you raised, then it is hard to be satisfied. So I think part of what that is picking up is an issue around feedback, which is not always done as consistently well as it could be.
Q57 Mark Pawsey: I want to ask one or two questions about community leadership. I am just wondering if you can comment on the role of the councillor with community leadership and, picking up Professor Thrasher’s point, does it matter that the community is not the same as the ward?
Peter Fleming: I thought there was a really interesting point made earlier, and it is about communities of interest. We have spoken in this Committee about communities of interest before, which go beyond ward boundaries. If you take the age issue as well, older people are a community of interest, as are mothers in Caffè Nero on a Tuesday morning, talking about issues that-
Q58 Mark Pawsey: Sure, but is it the role of one councillor to pick up that particular interest, or should there be a group of councillors who pick it up? If you define it geographically, then whether it is singlemember or multimember, there is an allocated area of responsibility. If it is mothers in Caffè Nero, any councillor could lay claim to that.
Peter Fleming: Absolutely, and so they should. A councillor is elected to represent a geographic area, and within that geographic area there will be many communities of interest that may spread beyond those ward boundaries. Whilst there are things that are very wardfocused and very wardbased, the reality is I do not know many members who would not help somebody, or a group of people, who straddle a ward boundary. You do not get into local government just to look after a-
Q59 Mark Pawsey: Right, but should there be a geographically defined area, in the same way as Members of Parliament, for example, do not interfere in constituency matters arising in another area? You are saying that is not a problem as far as local councillors are concerned. What happens if it is different parties and the councillor of ward A of one party starts interfering in the matters of a councillor in ward B who is from a different party?
Peter Fleming: Absolutely, but if you look at the roles and responsibilities of councils, if you take an issue like planning, that is wardfocused and wardbased, so a ward councillor, or multiple ward councillors, will look after planning applications within their ward.
Q60 Mark Pawsey: Unless he is on the planning committee when he has a broader brief.
Peter Fleming: Absolutely, but what I am saying is that we have multiple roles. It is a complex issue. If I go and speak to an older people’s group, they will not necessarily all come from my ward. Does that mean that I cannot legitimately speak to that older people’s group? Of course not.
Q61 Mark Pawsey: Right. Any other comments?
Caroline Abrahams: I would just say I think that neighbourhood matters, so whatever arrangements are in place locally for how responsibility is divided up amongst the group of councillors, I think it is really important that there is a councillor who is very clearly seen as representing the interests of people living in a specific area. One of the things about older people is that they tend to be around their specific area rather more than many of the rest of us, who go off in the morning to go to work and come back again. My mum knows much more about what it is like around where we live than I do, frankly, because she is there much more. I think it is also true of mums and dads with little children in Caffè Nero, who are also often more around the localities. I think smart councillors recognise that you need to talk to people, like the older people living in the area or, indeed, other people who are there a lot, to find out what is going on in your patch, so that you can then represent them and you are in touch with that. So I think it is a winwin.
Tim Gilling: I would say that community leadership operates at a number of levels. At the basic ward level, it is about knowing the needs of the people who live there, bringing people together to sort out problems, getting things done. At another level, at a corporate level, it is for all the councillors acting together to have an understanding of the place in totality and about setting an agenda, in consultation with people, about what that place might look and feel like.
Q62 Mark Pawsey: Okay. Are there any things that could be done to enhance that community leadership role? What about the issue where there is a community that does not want to be led? Maybe they are quite happy to articulate their own vision and their own problems maybe in a neighbourhood plan, without the input of the local councillor; is that a problem? Should we empower the local councillor to take control, or are you happy just to leave things as they are?
Peter Fleming: They are being empowered by the legislation at the moment. The Localism Act starts to empower local communities to do things that they have not been able to do before.
Q63 Mark Pawsey: That could be done without the local councillor.
Peter Fleming: I see that the role of the local councillor is changing, and it has been changing over history as well, but we are in probably an accelerated period at the moment, where local councillors will become much the convenors of place or their local neighbourhoods or their areas, and help bring some of these things together.
Q64 Mark Pawsey: What about if the community does not want to be convened? That is the point I am making. What if they say the local councillor is not relevant? We had evidence about the proportion of councillors who do not even live in the ward they represent, so why can that community not marginalise the councillor?
Peter Fleming: I think talking about whether the councillor lives absolutely in the ward that they represent is a slight red herring, because you do not know that they do not live in the ward, like the other side of the road or something like that. Especially in London, where the wards tend to be quite small in places, this concept of them having to live right in the heart of that community they represent does not say that they are going to be either a good or a bad councillor.
I think communities are going to be empowered, but I think there is still a massive role for councillors and, in fact, one that is increasing rather than decreasing.
Q65 Mark Pawsey: Ms Abrahams, if the older community does not engage with their councillor, is that a problem?
Caroline Abrahams: I am not sure it is a problem for the older people. I think it might be a problem for the councillor, to be honest, but people will do what they want to do, I think. They will vote where they think they can make a difference. I suppose, too, if you have a good experience of your local councillor that makes you want to engage with them all the more. Equally, if it has not been so good, then I think people will probably vote with their feet a bit.
Q66 Simon Danczuk: The truth is, is it not, that councillors in a ward cannot get much done, can they, if the cabinet member’s against them and if the director of whatever services is not supporting them, they cannot make something happen in their ward. It is very difficult to do that. Do we not need to devolve decisions down to the individual councillor in each ward? What do you think, Tim?
Tim Gilling: There is something interesting in the nature of how decisions are taken in local government, so if we are thinking about promoting particular models of decisionmaking there are a range of options, of which that is one. From our perspective, as an organisation, we would like to see decisionmaking framed around a set of principles and those principles are about being transparent, about being inclusive and about being accountable. Devolving decisions down, in terms of giving councillors money to spend, can, as we have been hearing, help solve some really local issues. The risk, I suppose, is that there is a danger that that spending becomes focused on one particular community that a councillor is particularly sympathetic with. It is vitally important that, if we do have that model, it is transparent about what the resources are, who is taking the decision and how people can influence what that decision is. That is the same with a councillor making a decision in their ward as it is for the whole council taking decisions about budget strategy, or whatever it might be.
There is certainly lots of evidence, not least from the low electoral turnout, that people are disconnected, perhaps, from the processes of decisionmaking. They are not disconnected from the issues. They are very passionate about the issues and the problems and challenges they face in their lives. What they are probably beginning to lack confidence in is the political process through which they get things changed. So having something happening that is much more local to them that they really feel they can own and have a stake in is probably a good thing, but there is a risk that that system works in a different way and we need to mitigate against those risks, but that is not to say that it is not a good thing to try out.
Peter Fleming: There are examples up and down the country of councils that do devolve both money and responsibility to ward councillor.
Q67 Simon Danczuk: They will be the exception rather than the rule though, won’t they, Peter?
Peter Fleming: I live in a twotier area, and I know that both the county members in my area and my members have the opportunity to either have a budget that they can spend or bid for money to spend in their locality. I know that that is not unusual within local government now, so I do not really think that that is where we are.
Q68 Simon Danczuk: You do not think that we need to devolve decisionmaking down to wards.
Peter Fleming: I think it is difficult to prescribe that sort of thing from any national level of, "You must devolve". I think the Localism Act gives a lot of pointers as to where decisionmaking could be devolved if there is an appetite from the local community, because that is the other part of it. Part of the role of councillors is, perhaps, going into the future, to build some of that community empowerment to be able to take on some of those roles from the council, but I think we have to also keep in mind that budgets are being squeezed. I think there is a danger that, on the one side, we are being squeezed at the centre and then we are also trying to devolve services to a very small area; as we know, it is quite often more expensive to deliver certain council services at a very local level than it is to do it across the whole county.
Q69 Simon Danczuk: What do you think, Caroline?
Caroline Abrahams: We certainly have quite a lot of evidence of ward councillors making a real difference, so from that point of view I would not want to suggest in any way that that cannot be an effective role; it very often is. That is on very breadandbutter issues like wonky pavements, seats, toilet facilities and that sort of thing, which are important for older people in their areas.
That, of course, is not to say that it could not also work well in certain circumstances if the budget was devolved. I imagine if that happened, to follow on from what Peter was saying, that local councillors would then face quite difficult decisions being lobbied by the local mums-is it a play facility you want locally if there is any money going, or is it a seat to help older people who get a bit tired on the way to the shops? I think, again, that might be at least as much an issue for councillors in what is going to work best for them. I can see from their point of view there can sometimes be advantages to the decision not being quite so close to home, as it were, but I think it all lies in the skill of the councillor as a political operator. The good ones that we saw certainly know how to get things done, contact the right people, know how the system works and are able to make a positive difference for the people living in their area, which is great.
Q70 Bill Esterson: Can you tell us what the LGA is doing to encourage more people to stand for a council and what success you have had?
Peter Fleming: We run Be a Councillor, which is all about finding people who are councillors from groups that are not well represented and putting them forward as the face of Be a Councillor, which is a national campaign supported by Parliament as well, to which we are really grateful. Again local government is a complex mixture of places and outcomes in places. In certain councils that we can all think of, not that far away from this place, we have hyperambitious younger councillors from certain political parties who are all on a trajectory to go somewhere else with their political careers, and in other places you have older people who have different experiences that they bring to councils.
Q71 Bill Esterson: I can only assume you are talking about Bob, as he is from a council.
Peter Fleming: I am not talking about anybody specifically. There is always more we can do, and I think the more important thing is about the oneterm councillors and the support that we can offer people who, both at local council level and at the LGA level, we invest quite a lot of money, time and effort into people. The thing that we really need to concentrate on is not just "be a councillor" but "stay a councillor".
Q72 Bill Esterson: We have talked with the other groups about independent councillors and about the three parties monopolising councillors; 93% of all councillors represent one of them. Does that bring a different perspective?
Caroline Abrahams: I have not got any specific evidence on that but, interestingly, one of the councillors who we have got a bit of evidence about, who has been fantastic, commented at the end of his remarks to us-and he is a borough councillor-that "politics does not come into our actions taken at this level". He was talking all about being a very responsive and intouch local ward councillor. For him really it was not about the politics; it was about what more he could do to help everybody in his area. I thoroughly applaud him for that, without being naive, of course, about the politics and the importance of that.
Q73 Bill Esterson: Tim, perhaps you can think about how you boost public understanding of local government, and whether that is a barrier to coming forward as a candidate.
Tim Gilling: You heard some evidence earlier on that people do not seem to generally understand what local government does, but then they do not generally seem to understand who plans and delivers health services or any other particular aspect of public service, so there is a disconnect from that point of view.
I have never been a councillor, although I have worked as an officer supporting democratic structures. Councillors need to talk much more about what councils do. There is a risk that we begin to promote particular partypolitical agendas if we do not simply confine ourselves to talking about what councils do and the value that they add to people’s lives and the difference that councillors could make to those services if they were to stand.
I suppose for the constituency of councillors that we particularly represent-those who serve on overview and scrutiny-where party politics can play an element is if there is an element of whipping in overview and scrutiny committees. Our experience is that it happens very rarely, and lots of councillors on scrutiny committees say to us that they leave their partypolitical hat at the door, because overview and scrutiny is about being very constructive; it is about being consensual; it is about examining the evidence; and it is about talking to the right people, so lots of councillors report to us that whipping does not often happen, although it does happen in some places, they report. But our experience is that best practice, certainly in scrutiny, is that councillors do not operate it in an oppositional, partypolitical way, but it is interesting that this goes to the heart of the culture of the council, I guess. We run an annual survey of local government scrutiny every year, so we try to test out how well councils and councillors feel scrutiny is working in their place. Some councils say, "Our scrutiny process is great because we have lots of callins and we are challenging the executive", and some councils say to us, "Our scrutiny process is great because we never have any callins. We are sorting out problems outside of the process of decisionmaking." It goes to the heart of the culture of the organisation, and the relationship between the political parties in any one place.
Q74 Bill Esterson: Caroline, do you think that the parties should look at the way they recruit?
Caroline Abrahams: It is interesting, because very often in the debate around councillors and their representativeness, one of the issues that is often picked up is the fact that many councillors are older people and there is a worry about how easy or how intouch they are with younger groups within the community. Of course, that is not a problem for Age UK, as it were, but I think the problem that does arise is encouraging and supporting older people who are councillors to think as older people themselves and to be themselves as well as worrying hugely about what they are doing as councillors.
I will just give you a very typical example of that: I met a delightful man last week who was a lead member for adult services in a northern authority. He was saying he had visited a care home, and he had been hugely struck by how much difference it was making to older people with dementia to have a memory board, which was a board with all kinds of old objects from the thirties and forties. For example, he talked about one woman who had seen this-she had not said anything-but seeing this had got her talking and it was all wonderful. Then he was talking to the care home staff and what they were telling him was that it cost them £80 to hire this from some specialist organisation that provides these things for drama companies and TV and things. He remembered that there was a little local museum in his area that had some of these things and so he has joined it up. He is hugely committed to the issue, and he has been intelligent and sensible; he has made a concrete suggestion and then he made it happen by getting over the scepticism initially of the care home staff and his officers and driving it through. He is sensitive to the issues for other older people because he is an older person himself, and he is happy to admit it. I just think it is a nice example of the kind of difference in a very natural, unpolitical kind of way that councillors can sometimes make.
Q75 Bill Esterson: Can I move on to money? This one is for you, Peter. In some places, councillors end up on all sorts of outside bodies and end up earning-I have come across councillors on six figures with all the outside bodies that they are on.
Peter Fleming: It is not me.
Q76 Bill Esterson: Where is the LGA on allowances and, that example apart, would more money attract better candidates?
Peter Fleming: I do not think it is necessarily helpful to the work that you are doing at the moment, because of course a lot of this has been covered not that long ago with the Councillors Commission work. In saying that, I think for some people in some places, it may be a barrier. One of the ones that is regularly quoted are people on benefits, and the effect that getting an allowance has on their benefits, and whether that a barrier to people on benefits standing as councillors and representing potentially other people on benefits at a council level. That is one end of the scale.
Q77 Bill Esterson: Just to come back to the point about the sixfigure councillor, there are councillors who quite like staying as councillors because of the money, and that is a barrier to other people and causes all sorts of other problems. I do not know if you have addressed that.
Peter Fleming: Sorry, I was starting at one end of the scale; I was going to work my way up. On my council, I have quite a few younger councillors, but they all have incredibly well paid jobs, so am I saying to people, "If you want to take an executive position on my council, actually you are going to take a massive pay cut rather than a pay rise"? I think the examples of six figures are very, very rare. For the majority of councillors, the allowance just about, or just does not, covers the cost of them being a councillor. So I think we need to be, perhaps, a little bit less Daily Mail about the idea of loads of councillors on six figures. That is just not the case. In fact, if we are looking at it, I think in certain areas councillors’ allowances are a barrier to people coming in, mostly because they will be worse off than they are either on benefits or in work.
Tim Gilling: There are two things from me on this. One is that the level of allowances really speak to the esteem with which we hold the office of councillor. I think we do, as a society, need to value the role of the councillor, and the level of allowance that councillors get in a particular place does, to some extent, reflect the value that we put on the role.
The second point on allowances in terms of the difference between a cabinet member or an executive member and somebody who might be chairing or serving on a scrutiny committee is one around parity of esteem. Again, it is an opportunity, I think, for councils to say, "We do value the role of overview and scrutiny as much as the role of an executive councillor", and in some councils there is a marked difference between what the allowance is, or the remuneration that an executive councillor gets, and something that a scrutiny committee chair or chairman might get. The figure that we set on allowance can say something about the extent to which we value what those people do.
Q78 Heidi Alexander: Councillor Fleming, I think you said earlier about the changing role of councillors, perhaps, with some of the changes that come along with the Localism Act. Do you think that the training and support that is provided to councillors needs to change to keep pace with that changing environment?
Peter Fleming: One of the things that slightly annoyed me about the previous session was when they said there is one person in democratic or member services. It is ridiculous, and even the smallest councils tend to have a number of people who are there to support the role of councillor. Lots of councils do very good induction and training, which is updated so that members are constantly getting a flow of new information, whether it is on planning, the NPPF, or on the Localism Bill. They make sure that their members are absolutely uptodate, because they are decisionmakers and they have to make decisions within the confines of the law as it stands or will stand. I think councils do a lot work, and within the LGA obviously we have a clear set of training opportunities for members that we will deliver to councils and groups of councillors in their own authorities, or schemes to further councillors’ ability, so that they can take more leadership roles either within their councils or in a more national role.
Q79 Heidi Alexander: Has the LGA done any research about member development budgets and the extent to which they have been protected in the last couple of years, given the financial pressures that authorities are under?
Peter Fleming: I do not know that, but I can get you that.
Q80 Heidi Alexander: What is your sense?
Peter Fleming: All budgets are under pressure, so I would not take a reduction in member development budgets as saying that they have been singled out for reduction. All budgets are under enormous pressure and you need to see it in the context of a 28% reduction in government grant.
Q81 Heidi Alexander: Tim, do you think councillors are supported and properly trained in the scrutiny functions that they have to fulfil? Do they get the support for that part of the role?
Tim Gilling: In some places undoubtedly they get excellent support. I have been privileged to work for a council where there was a very dedicated policy team supporting a range of scrutiny committees. If I reflect on the national picture, another finding of the national research that we do shows that over the last few years certainly the discretionary budgets that scrutiny committees are able to use to go out and do interesting work, and get people to come and talk to them, has gone down, possibly at the very moment when the maturity of the scrutiny function, if I can put it like that, is reaching quite a high level. I suppose to some extent that reflects what Peter was just saying about all budgets being under pressure. I guess there is a risk in councils that, when you are looking to cut resources, with anything that is funding accountability or scrutiny, and is not a frontline service, there is a temptation to look to make a disproportionate cut there. However, I would say there has never been a more important time for councillors to be supported in terms of understanding how the pattern of services are changing, understanding the best questions they can ask about what impact that will have on people who live in their place, and then understanding what to do with the information that you have gathered. There is a range of skills that councillors need these days, very much around analysing data. There is lots of data. How do you handle data? How do you understand it? How do you interpret it? How do you then go out and test it? How do you go out and perhaps listen to people that Caroline represents, in terms of listening to peoples’ stories? There is a range of skills, some of which will be manifest in a more formal scrutiny environment, but very many are the softer ones that councillors will use outside.
Scrutiny support is needed absolutely, and of course we will provide a range of support, which is partly funded by the Local Government Association, to councillors, but we do other things, and resources are very much under pressure at the moment.
Q82 Heidi Alexander: Caroline, have you any thoughts on that area in relation to older people, and engaging with older people, and the particular skills that councillors need?
Caroline Abrahams: From what we have seen from the older people we have talked to, it is people who treat them with respect, who talk to them, who are approachable, who have taken the time and understand that you need to publicise how to get in touch with them. That is perhaps easier in some smaller settings than in busy cities, but an example here is of somebody explaining how councillors hold a surgery once a month in the local library, their contact details are on the noticeboard outside the parish office and published in the parish newsletter every quarter. As well as that very basic but quite important stuff, it is also people who understand a bit about what is around locally and so do know that there is an elder forum to go along to and talk to people at, or who are actively engaged with local community groups. It is about how to be a good councillor as much as anything. I bet it pays off too, in terms of votes when it comes to election time. It really makes a difference and people do appreciate it.
Q83 Chair: One final question to each of you; to begin with, Tim. There is a suspicion, isn’t there, at least in some councils, that the scrutiny committees are just there to try and find backbench councillors something to do now all the powers have been transferred off to the cabinet? Is that really the case or have you got examples where the scrutiny committees and backbench councillors actually have some real impact and influence over the strategic direction of the authority?
Tim Gilling: I do. Undoubtedly, there will be some councils where the culture is that backbenchers are doing something else over here. But we have a lot of examples, principally through our own Good Scrutiny Awards, which are now in their fifth year, where we look particularly for good examples. Reflecting on some recent experience of those, in Gloucestershire the council ran a one day scrutiny commission on the Environment Agency’s flood strategy for the Severn Estuary. This strategy had caused lots of residents and businesses over a very wide area a lot of difficulty. They were finding it difficult to engage with the Environment Agency so the councillors at Gloucestershire took responsibility for that; they brought people together. That has resulted in the Environment Agency not only reviewing the way it is handling its Severn Estuary duties, but they are also saying that this new model of consultation they have adopted in the Southwest is going to be one they will now use nationally. That is an example of some local councillors dealing with an issue over a wider area, as Peter was describing, affecting the strategy of a national agency.
Bradford Council recently ran a very inclusive scrutiny review and developed a food strategy for the city of Bradford, which is about encouraging local communities to become much more active in growing and supplying their own food, so people have much better access to cheap local food supplies. In Cardiff, they carried out a scrutiny of the nighttime economy and the way in which activities that fund it were perceived, and tested out its value to the city. That really affected the way that the council now views and handles what happens in Cardiff city centre at night. So there are some examples there, and we have many more that I can supply.
Chair: That is very helpful, thank you.
Tim Gilling: But absolutely at the heart of the culture of the council should be a view that says, ‘Scrutiny can add significant value to the work of the executive’. It is not all just about waiting until the executive has done something and then telling them it has gone wrong. Lots of councillors tell us that some of the best and most satisfying work they do is about contributing to policy development.
Q84 Chair: Caroline, just to pick up from a service-user point of view, councillors can be very, very good at engaging with service users in their roles as ward councillors. When it comes to scrutiny, they think that their sole job is to actually interrogate council officers at the occasional hearing, and do not see a need to actually engage with service users to get their perspective on things. Is that your experience or have you got some good examples where councils have been engaging very well with older people?
Caroline Abrahams: I haven’t got any evidence particularly in the context of scrutiny. I have to be honest about that. What I certainly have got is evidence of people saying what was good about their local councillor was the fact they took the time both to talk to local older people, but also to monitor the situation for themselves. They put those two things together and used that as a means of actually holding the council to account, and indeed other people where that was relevant. What is impressive about that, I think from my point of view, is that is clearly a councillor who has a bit of a strategic grip of how you go about being really effective, has planned the use of their time, knows there is something coming up that they need to be ready for and has actually planned all the work that they need to do. Part of that has been talking to local older people as well as making up their own minds about the issues.
Q85 Bob Blackman: Peter, you have been a councillor for quite a time-13 years I think. I do not know about the structure of your council or others, but how would you answer the criticism that would go: council meetings do not make decisions; they are a bit irrelevant; the public and press do not turn up; there are no committees so the press do not participate in that; the cabinet or the executive make all the decisions-actually the decisions are made before they even get into the meeting, so what is the point in the press and public arriving?-turnout at local elections goes down; and interest goes down. Should there be an alternative structure, and if so, what should it be?
Peter Fleming: There are lots of layers in that. The first thing is, in my own council we have pre-cabinet scrutiny; every cabinet paper goes to a scrutiny committee first. I have the minutes of their meetings. If they do not like a decision I am just about to make, or have some ideas or views, we can take those on board prior.
Q86 Bob Blackman: That is fine, because that is the councillors presumably scrutinising it. But if I am a member of the public thinking about a decision that your council is going to take, or a member of the press inquiring, what happens there?
Peter Fleming: We have seen this across all politics: people do not follow politics in its broadest sense anymore, but they do follow the things that interest them hugely. We are looking at local maternity services at the moment. There are a group of people who really care about local maternity services and will turn up to meetings, and the press will take an interest. We are working with Mumsnet to make sure that we pick up as many people as we possibly can.
Q87 Bob Blackman: That is you exercising your scrutiny role over the health service. That is not a decision that the council is taking.
Peter Fleming: No, it’s not. It is about helping the health service in making their decisions. I think we need to stop necessarily thinking about the scrutiny role as something that happens after the event. That’s not where we are anymore. The majority of councils have realised that looking at something after it has happened is not the way ahead. Most scrutiny in local government now actually looks at stuff before it happens and helps shape. They do that by talking to local people and local groups, by bringing their experience from their wardlevel work to those meetings, and helping drive that policy of the council forward. The most forwardthinking councils and executives within councils take that and move it forward.
Q88 Bob Blackman: If I am a normal resident of your area and I don’t know anything about the decisionmaking structure or whatever, how would I influence the decisionmaking structure to get what I think I want for me and my local people? I am not a councillor; I don’t even know who my councillor is. What do I do?
Peter Fleming: I would be disappointed that you would not know who your local councillor is.
Q89 Bob Blackman: I would challenge the vast majority of councillors in this country that they are well known in their area. It is just one of those things that happens because of the sheer volume of people they represent.
Peter Fleming: I would say when you have an issue of vital importance to you, whether it is new parking restrictions, a planning application at the end of your road or something else, you soon find out who your local councillor is. Most people are disengaged with all politics until it matters to them.
Bob Blackman: Absolutely, I agree.
Peter Fleming: That is the reality. What is important for local government is to make sure that, when that person does engage because there is an issue of importance to them, there is an easy access to their local councillor, and their local councillor knows how to make things happen or at least point the person in the right direction. One of the issues that Tim sort of touched on is an issue in my area where you have three levels of local governance: you have a county, a district and a parish. I spend quite a bit of my time signposting people, although as soon as you begin to understand how county councils work-and they are a whole world amongst themselves-you can actually get in touch with officers yourself and help that individual, so they do not need to see that there are different layers. The reality is that when somebody really cares about an issue in their area, they will soon find out the person who is their local councillor, even if they have not been involved or interested in local governance before that point.
Tim Gilling: Very quickly on that point, this is about transparency. Organisations, whatever they are doing, and councils in particular, have to be very transparent about who takes decisions, when and how they take them, and how you can get involved with them. The Local Government Act 2000 envisaged a snappy little document called the Forward Plan that would help with some of that. I am not sure that it has particularly helped in very many places. The point I want to make on transparency is that we should not restrict transparency to publishing historic spending information; we need to be much more transparent about the culture and how decisionmaking is actually carried out.
Q90 Chair: One final point-a bit tongue in cheek maybe. How frustrating for councillors is it when they have done all this work on the ground, really engaged with their communities, there is a bit of publicity to be had and they are on the frontpage of the local paper, and on the television news there is the local MP with a letter to the Minister using their particular access to gain all the publicity for the good work done?
Peter Fleming: Obviously I have a great relationship with my local MP. There is an inbuilt tension there. Actually, the biggest inbuilt tension is the fact that some MPs think all that councillors are are people potentially after their jobs.
Q91 Bill Esterson: Name them.
Peter Fleming: I couldn’t possibly name them.
Chair: Too many.
Peter Fleming: Once you put their minds at rest that you are not actually interested in coming to this place, I think the relationship soon gets better.
Chair: On that note, thank you very much indeed for coming in and giving us evidence. Thank you.