Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. Has that not led to more bureaucracy?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I think we have yet to see; but what we can be absolutely certain of is that the new constitutional arrangements are process intensive.

  21. Is it not scraping away the myths about local government and focusing attention on the areas that they are supposed to be delivering on?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I think we can say that what the revised arrangements have done in Birmingham is to very sharply focus on quality of services: but where scrutiny has been at its best, and it has been of variable quality but where it has been at its best, it has been a strong champion of the interests of the consumer. The Cabinet process, which I am a very strong advocate of, helps a council to be much more corporate in its processes and to deal with the connectivity between services, and indeed the broader life of the community. Those are the positives.
  (Mr Dobson) Just to add to that, one of the changes that we are about to make is to transfer responsibility for all our best value reviews to the scrutiny bodies. At the moment they are the responsibility of the executive side but that is a specific task which is going to be given to the scrutiny side. If nothing else, that will help to focus the attention of the various scrutiny bodies on the quality of service delivery.

  22. In any event, there is such a structure in being just now to scrutinise best value and to look at what its predecessor was, CCT, within the authority itself, is there not? What is the purpose of this, other than to set up a new bureaucracy?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) Of best value?

  23. Yes.
  (Sir Michael Lyons) There is a very distinctive principle in best value. Certainly it has some complex procedures involved, and those could do with streamlining; but the critical principle of best value was to return to the council responsibility for the quality of the services that it delivers. You might say, "Isn't that what the best councils were doing?", but far too many councils had become defensive about what they were providing; far too many members had become spokes-people for the council rather than questioners of the council. Best value in its principle is entirely welcome and positive. In its process there are some changes one would like to see brought about.

Mrs Ellman

  24. Would the officers who are overseeing scrutiny be concerned about blighting their own career opportunities by effectively challenging those who are taking decisions?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) They might but, equally, there are two risks: there is the risk you find people timid because they are fearful of blighting their career opportunities; but, equally, you find those people who are zealous for the wrong reasons. They are zealous because they become the handmaidens of political interests—and I do not mean between political parties. Very often the worst problems are within political parties. It is getting the balance right. You are right, there is that fear of people being anxious but, equally, there is fear of people coming forward and volunteering to be very energetic scrutineers because they take a different view from the current executive members.


  25. Do you think there is a problem with the relationship between members and officers and the new regime?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I think there are tensions but let me be clear—there are tensions as things exist and these will be well known to you. The most significant tensions are going to be around this shift of role, particularly for senior officers and executive members. The new government arrangements provide for individual members to make decisions. It also shifts responsibility on to them for the probity and transparency of those decisions, which historically has been the responsibility of the officers. I think that is where you get into the most complicated parts of current relationships between officers and members. That is where you reveal issues where members perhaps do not want issues to be in the public domain; where they sometimes do not want decisions or background decisions even to be shared with their colleagues on the council; where there are concerns to hold things off agendas. That is not new in local government. That is one area where tension exists in local government, between the chief officer body and elected members. That is where very occasionally chief officers have had to rely on their statutory powers—the powers of the Director of Finance, the powers of the Monitoring Officer, and the responsibility attached to the head of paid service. I think that is where the tensions are going to be in the future. I have to say, on the other side of the scales, the greater clarity about who is responsible for the decision could outweigh the problems.

  26. Do you think that every member of the council is going to have equal rights to information and access to officers?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) The practical answer is, no, they cannot possibly have. Indeed, one of the great strengths of the arrangement is the long overdue distinction between "executive" and "assembly". Whether or not that is being properly played out through the guidance is a matter I would like to leave to one side. The principle of a separation is welcome, and that clearly means that the officer body is a focus for the delivery of services on the executive. Equally, so that members can discharge their own individual responsibilities, they have to have good access to information and rather better support than we have historically given them.

  27. Do you think members are going to have sufficient powers to make a nuisance of themselves? If you want to stand up for your ward on occasions, in the past as a council you could make quite a nuisance of yourself to the point at which both officers and other councillors take some notice of you. Is that going to be feasible?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) My experience is that people who choose to stand for election have all the personal qualities necessary to make a nuisance of themselves.

Mrs Dunwoody

  28. That is a neat little sidestepping that will not do, Sir Michael. You have been asked something much simpler. The present system means that there is a direct measure between the ward, the councillor and the fuss that they make with the officers concerned. Scrutiny is, by definition, something totally different. It requires different skills and it requires access to independent information. How is the individual councillor going to get that?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) The rights of the individual councillor to information are not fundamentally changed.

  29. But you yourself have said they will not have access to the detail which the executive would have?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) What I actually said was they would not have equal access. I am not trying to dice with you because I do take your point. Let me first concede a point to you immediately: elected members very often drew much of their information from committee processes—not perfect, but quite good at providing information. That will not exist in the future and that is an automatic process; going to committee and absorbing information on a service will be more problematic for most members, I agree with you. In terms of the individual member's rights to access to information I will ask Stewart Dobson to say a little more about that. I do not think that is significantly changed. I am very eager not to dilute the importance of scrutiny. Again, if I take the best quality scrutiny in Birmingham, I would say that that delivers members a way of digging deeper into a service than they could ever have done historically.

  30. But how, if they do not have access to the same quality of information? The reality of the scrutiny is that, unless you have someone who has detailed knowledge at the same level as the person who is supplying the committee—I had a father who simply said to me, "If somebody gives you a brief look at who has written it because that is lesson number one". If I do not have somebody I can access who has the same level of expertise and the same access of information, how am I going to know that I am capable of scrutinising what that person is doing? I will not under your system; because under your system, even with the best access, the officer I am dealing with will ultimately be dependent upon the person I am scrutinising?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I am very keen to bring Stewart in because he has much more firsthand experience and I think you will find that useful. I do not want my earlier answer to be misunderstood. When I said that members will not get the same quality of information I still believe that to be true, but what I am clear about is that the scrutiny function is a very sharp instrument for getting any information that members need.

  31. With respect, you are not answering my question. I am not disagreeing with you. You are saying, we have a different method; if that different method is used properly it will produce better results than we have at the moment?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) Yes.

  32. Fine. I am not asking you that. I am asking you how the average elected councillor, who is not a trained interrogator, who is not used to getting access to information—they have always relied on going to the officer and saying, "Mr So and So, tell me what is happening in my ward". Because the pressures were not on that officer because it was a different system, that officer would in general give you whatever they decided you were capable of absorbing—which was not always very much; but that will be completely different.
  (Sir Michael Lyons) Let me then concede your point. For the average member, with exactly the background you have described, they will no longer get the flow of information they got through committees, and we have to make alternative arrangements or they will be less well informed. I will concede that.

Sir Paul Beresford

  33. Can we follow on that and go back to part of what the Chairman was saying. If there is a vital issue that a member who is not on the executive wants to push through or he has got some problem so that by the time it comes to the scrutiny committee the decision is effectively made, he will not therefore know the questions to ask and there is the prospect of patronage. Perhaps you could explain to us how a fairly major issue in the council is decided; where it comes from and how it works right the way down through the system?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) Under the current arrangements or under the new arrangements?

  34. Under the new arrangements. With the new arrangements, presumably somebody on the executive thinks of a policy change and talks and discusses it with you and then it goes—
  (Sir Michael Lyons) Would you mind if I asked Mr Dobson because he is very skilled in taking us through the new arrangements which actually are quite a minefield.
  (Mr Dobson) In relation to matters which will finish up as part of the policy framework, in other words the budget and particular key plans of the authority, what has already been agreed and will be built into our arrangements is a role for the relevant scrutiny committee in not only examining whatever the executive have drafted before it goes to the full council for approval, but also in most cases actually contributing to the process of the development of the plan or policy, whatever it may be. If you like, there is an emphasis in the new constitution we are currently drafting on the early involvement and participation of a scrutiny committee in the development of policy as well as in policy review. Even though the plan or policy may be initiated by, and be the responsibility of, the executive, the idea is to involve the scrutiny committee.

  35. Let us be realistic. The realistic thing is that someone on the executive, someone on whichever party and it may not be Birmingham—the decision will be made or the idea will be brought forward and then presumably it goes to the political group after perhaps it has been to the executive committee, and then it goes down for a bit of flag waving with the scrutiny committee which is manned to the same proportion as the others, and then it comes back again. Coming back to the points that Mrs Dunwoody and the Chairman were raising, the opportunity for an individual there is very short changed, for a number of reasons: firstly, as Mrs Dunwoody was saying, that you need to know a lot to know what questions to ask before you can probe to get the answers; and, secondly, that although whipping has gone, with the change in the structure and a change in the financial system, there is a patronage. It will be whipped all the way through, whatever the political complexion of the party. The difficulty is, with this system there is the opportunity to cover up much more than there was under the committee system?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) Patronage is an issue in government at all levels, and I do not think you can demonstrate that this new system is more prone to patronage than the old system.


  36. The cynic will say in that allocation in Birmingham patronage had been spread out pretty widely to get everybody on board. Is that grossly unfair?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) As you look at that system and you ask yourself why Birmingham needs 12 scrutiny committees, you might reach the conclusion it owed more to the period of transition than its future needs.

  Mrs Dunwoody: That is a nice way of saying, yes, Sir Michael!

Sir Paul Beresford

  37. How many committees did Birmingham have before?
  (Mr Dobson) Around about 15.

  Sir Paul Beresford: You are going to end up with 28.


  38. You mentioned probity—do you see chief officers, or whatever they are now called, having a role in disciplining members if they think they have misbehaved?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) No, I do not. I do not think that would be tenable. I think there is a big issue about organisational discipline of our councils, about a common understanding of how business is done, and the steps one takes to safeguard probity and ensure transparency. The new arrangements challenge the way we do business at the moment and, therefore, one has to be quite meticulous in putting in place new arrangements to ensure that discipline is maintained for these changed organisations.

  Chairman: Who then does that?

Mrs Dunwoody

  39. It is no use telling us what we know you have got to do because we accept that. Who does that? The opportunities for corruption in local government, you will forgive me saying so, are very great; they are much greater than they are for the average backbencher in Parliament—although some of the my colleagues seem to do all right. If you want to make a fortune the place to be is in local government and connected with planning. How are you going to deal with exactly that problem?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) The only sensible answer is to say, firstly, all of the evidence suggests that levels of probity and conduct in local government are good and we want to maintain that.

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