Examination of Witness (Questions 195
THURSDAY 24 JUNE 1999
195. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank
you very much for coming to the Joint Committee. Mr Bird, I think
you are the co-ordinator. May I ask you, as we did with our previous
witness, to make some brief observations on the points that you
particularly want to expand upon in addition to the submission
which you have made to the Committee before we move on to the
questions. Perhaps you could just indicate to the Committee in
your opening whether there are any particular points that your
colleagues might wish to make briefly before we go into the questioning
(Cllr Bird) Thank you very much, first
of all, on behalf of our group for agreeing to hear us. We are
a recently formed group. We represent a number of Labour councillors
in some ten London authorities and a number of local authorities
outside London. Our newly formed grouping is concerned about the
effects and implications of the draft Bill. Our mainstream ethos
supports a real modernisation of our local authority structures
as outlined in our declaration of principles of which you have
a copy. Today we bring to the Committee back bench perspectives
which we would urge you to take account of. Particularly these
back bench perspectives are from local authorities who have been
part of the experimental phase of the cabinet model and the directly
elected mayor model. It is steeped in the ethos of democracy,
devolved decision making, power sharing, enhanced interest in
local government, ultimately the quality of services. We do not
claim to represent all backbenchers but we most certainly do represent
an increasing number who have seen the writing on the wall both
for what they feel are the democratic checks and balances being
lost as well as their own roles. We bitterly resent the insulting
tone in relation to backbenchers in the Bill and understand all
too well what spending more time in our constituencies really
means. That is my opening statement. What we would like to do,
if it is okay with you, is I will be speaking about the Hammersmith
& Fulham experience where they have 12 months of experimentation
under the leader cabinet model and it won the Local Government
Chronicle Innovation of the Year Award. I would like to speak
of what has happened in relation to scrutiny in that authority.
That is the main item that we are bringing today that we want
to share with you. We would also like to ask representatives of
some other London authorities who have interesting perspectives
of what has happened in the experimental model so far. They are
representatives from the London Borough of Camden, the London
Borough of Haringey and the London Borough of Lewisham where there
is a directly elected mayor. These members would like to speak
in fairly short terms about what has happened in their areas.
196. I am sure that the Committee would be happy
with that. I would in no way try to hurry you but we will have
to rise by six at the latest.
(Cllr Bird) There are, of course, many
areas of our principles that we would like to cover but obviously
time is pressing on. The experience of Hammersmith & Fulham
is that they introduced a cabinet model with a leader mayor three
days after the election in May 1998. This had been prepared by
the officers some six to nine months previously. It was introduced
and a classic format was set up which was much publicised at the
time that there would be an executive and there would be a balancing
scrutiny function. The measures we want to bring here today are
two things. One, that 80 per cent of what was in the public arena
12 months ago is now behind closed doors and we are very concerned
about the emerging ethos of decision making being closed to both
the press and the public. Secondly, we are very concerned about
what has happened to the scrutiny function. The scrutiny function
under a cabinet model is supposed to be a countervail to the executive
for a number of reasons which I would like to talk about this
afternoon. We asked the research officer of our council to prepare
a document, which I have laid with the clerk, covering some 20
meetings of the Committee of the council to analyse what has happened.
May we pick out any particular areas of concern there which have
emerged which should have application to other local authorities.
A number of things have emerged: first of all, that the main thing
is that there is an absence of scrutiny by administration members.
It is absolutely overwhelming. Of the 107 reports which have been
what is called in, only three have been called in by the majority
party, and I think it is fair to say that the issue of calling-in
and scrutinising by administration members is just not happening.
In a way it is like the political version of management by exception,
that people cherry-pick which ones they want to be scrutinised.
Let us talk about that and what it means and speculate as to why
it is happening. I have been going to council meetings since about
1976, both as an employee and as a councillor, a councillor since
1994, and we need to understand the political process and the
political culture that we have actually grown up in. Why do councillors
not scrutinise? The first thing that needs to be understood and
accepted is that the administration councillors in particular
could be opposition councillors, and this applies to both parties,
the principles. They have fought a common battle to get elected.
It is called party loyalty and it is ingrained and I think we
should accept that. This extends to friendship, socialising and
other forms of bonding. The other thing we need to consider is
that the formal and informal whipping culture is still very strong
in British local government. One of the writers recently said
that whipping is in the head, and I understood what he meant.
There is also acute reluctance to criticise your own side in the
partisan public area, even when they are patently wrong: "He
is my friend. It will be disloyalty. I would only show up his
lack of knowledge of judgment. It would be churlish on a marginal
issue when I am not sure and fear being shown up or humiliated
when the superior briefing of the executive member, who is often
under pressure himself, backed by the heavyweight directorate,
comes crashing down. He may be a swine but he is our swine."
That is the underlying message. Administration members will occasionally
ask information questionswe have found that in the scrutiny
processusually of a fairly bland nature but certainly never
in a challenging way and never against a major policy issue. A
rotating membership on scrutiny committees is an inherent weakness;
there is no follow-through, a general feeling of, "Why bother?
The scrutiny committee cannot amend a report but can only refer
it back to the executive or mayor's committee for further consideration,
when in all likelihood nothing, or nothing substantial, will emerge."
A feeling of powerlessness permeates both the administration and
opposition back-bench members, on the scrutiny committees. The
scrutineer is, in effect, taking on both the executive and the
directorate and that is what you might call a fairly heavy thing
to do. Subject items are often specialist, so that even if you
had dedicated scrutiny support officers, if you did, it is hardly
an even playing-field. Partisan abuse, sometimes disguising lack
of knowledge, effectively ends any continuity of rational and
informed discourse about the issues. Everyone jerks into line.
This does happen. The collective confidence is not there to overcome
that. The executive member who is bringing in some scrutiny is
also under structural pressure as well. He has taken the items
through the mayor's executive board. The decision has been made
and he feels he must deliver the agreed result. Effectively he
is whipped every time whenever he comes to the scrutiny panel.
No concession is possible unless the executive member has a rare
confidence or influence. The new councillor is at a special disadvantage
in attempting scrutiny. They have never had the training or experience
or the insight gained from the focus committee call-over system.
They will not have the departmental or corporate perspective.
Back-benchers, even if they have been committee-trained in the
past, will not have a command of current issuesit is very
important thatand how they relate to their own local authority.
They become increasingly out-of-touch. Opposition membersI
think we need to consider that as well, because this affects all
parties on scrutiny committeesare even more disadvantaged.
They do not even see the mayor's or the executive's papers, so
that is a very important issue in the Bill, whether that should
be public or private. We think it should be public. They only
see the published decisions. For items debated at the scrutiny
panel, can they rely on the briefing given by the officers for
something which the latter are de facto already committed
to in the political process. This increasing loss of knowledge
and consequent degrading of perspectives leads to cherry-picking
of scrutiny items and partisan behaviour. Effectively, opposition
back-benchers scrutinise in the dark with one arm tied behind
their back. Do not under-estimate the informal pressures
of conformity at the scrutiny panel. It is very powerful. I would
like to leave it at that and I would also like very briefly to
talk about a declining representation role since the new system
197. I wonder if we can perhaps, when you have
finished, start the question and answer process. I know your colleagues
have particular experiences they want to contribute. Perhaps they
may be able to contribute those in answer to the questions as
they go along. I do not want to stop anybody speaking but it might
assist the process.
(Cllr Bird) This is slightly anecdotal,
but there have been some examples of a "before and after"
situation in relation to this. I was on Direct Services Committee,
Housing, Education, for a few years and the situation now is that
we get little or no information about what the current issues
are. I am a school governor of a primary school and have been
for many years. I had a school governors' meeting last night and
almost every item that was coming up had a local authority dimension
and I could not have any input to it because I did not know. I
did not know about the details of the numeracy strategy and how
it related to local schools, the green paper on teachers' salaries,
going right the way through a whole range of issues where you
have this information gap on current live issues and applications
in direct services, housing and all the rest of it.
198. I apologise for interrupting but one of
the themes has been that you have not had the knowledge as a result
of this new system. Does it mean that you as a councillor not
on these particular bodies are excluded from going to the meetings
that you wish to go to?
(Cllr Bird) A year ago there was an Education
Committee where I would go to call-over, yes, and I would know
about current issues and be able to feed things back to governing
bodies I represent and the school where I am an adviser. That
no longer happens. There is no Education Committee and it is that
lack of live information about real issues, which is an important
199. But are you actually excluded as a councillor
from going to any meeting of a particular group of the council
discussing council business?
(Cllr Bird) There is no forum for me
to discuss education issues on the council now. There is one executive
member who is responsible for education instead of an Education