Examination of witnesses (Questions 94
TUESDAY 13 MARCH 2001
KERRY and MS
94. Good morning. Can I welcome you to the Committee.
This is the second of our sessions on local authority governance.
Could I ask you to identify yourselves for the record.
(Ms Jeffrey) I am Sue Jeffrey, the Regional Assembly
for Yorkshire and Humberside.
(Ms Kerry) Sue is the Head of Policy at the Regional
Assembly. My name is Liz Kerry, Director of the Regional Assembly.
(Mr Pritchard) Sid Pritchard, Managing Director of
Wychavon District Council.
(Cllr Meikle) Councillor Meikle, Leader of Wychavon
95. Would you like to say anything by way of
introduction, or are you happy to go straight to questions?
(Cllr Meikle) Go first to questions.
Sir Paul Beresford
96. As I understand it, Councillor Meikle, you
believe that the cabinet-style decision-making is inappropriate
for district councils and rural councils in particular?
(Cllr Meikle) Yes, I do.
97. Can you tell us why, and what you think
you would prefer as the options, or what options you would like
to head and choose from?
(Cllr Meikle) My principal reason for not liking it
is that it creates division within a council, in the first instance.
It creates, in my view, a two-tier system of councillor. It is
extraordinarily divisive and disruptive to creating harmony within
the community. If I may just comment: two years ago, when we had
the election, we had 22 new members out of a council of 49, and
I felt that it was a denial of democracy to say to those 22 new
members, "You have no part to play in the decision-making
process". As our written evidence shows, what we did, we
believe we have complied with all the requirements the Government
have asked us to do, save in actually creating a formal cabinet.
What we have done is created a leaders' panel of six, which is
an advisory group; in all other ways it meets fortnightly with
our officers. It is an extraordinarily good forum for involving
officers, because we have second and third tier officers coming
in and making a representation. We have had external people, the
Countryside Commission, the Local Government Association, the
Deputy Chief Constable, and it has worked really very well. We
cut our committee structure down from 19 committees and sub-committees
to four. We felt that it was reasonable to give every elected
member at least the chance of making a decision in one committee.
98. What would you have preferred? What would
your preferred option have been?
(Cllr Meikle) Our preferred option was just this.
We submitted it to Hilary Armstrong but regrettably she rejected
it. We wanted to retain the informal leaders' panel without executive
powers and a very much streamlined committee of four, plus the
99. You had how many before the change?
(Cllr Meikle) We had 19 before the change.
100. Now you have?
(Cllr Meikle) We have four service committees and
the planning committee, making it five.
101. What is the cost of those?
(Mr Pritchard) I do not know.
102. Is there a significant cost difference?
(Mr Pritchard) I suspect it is very much the same.
The main cost obviously is far less papers are produced as a result
of the reduction we have there. There have been some minor reductions
in the staffing arrangements for the committee section that operated.
In terms of significance, I do not think there is a significant
reduction in cost.
103. Is there a significant improvement in decision-making?
(Cllr Meikle) There is a vastly significant improvement.
(Cllr Meikle) Speed and consistency to a certain extent,
because the leaders' panel consists of the five chairmen of the
committees. We analyse the agendas of those committees, and we
consider them before the committees take place. We actually have
an inquest on how well the committee went.
105. To a degree, the Minister would say you
have proved your point?
(Cllr Meikle) Yes, except there is one major difference:
she will not give you the latitude of asking your own constituents
what they prefer.
106. If you had not been forced by legislation
to change, would you have changed?
(Cllr Meikle) I believe so, because there was a general
recognition that the proliferation of committees and working parties
had got out of hand.
107. Could you just tell us how your party group
operates in relation to these new structures?
(Cllr Meikle) We are a very strong party within the
whole council since the election. We were in opposition prior
to the last election. We have a group meeting, and on major issues
of policy, which I am not 100 per cent. sure I would get through
the committee or the council, I discuss it with the whole group
first of all. I might say, as far as our leaders' panel is concerned,
as it has developed we now circulate to the whole of the council
topics that have been discussed within the leaders' panel. We
now circulate within the press topics that have been discussed
within the panel. We actually say that we invite public comment
or contribution to those topics at the formulative stage. In fact,
by doing that we have probably flagged up something well in advance
of it coming to fruition.
108. Can I just be clear, the leaders' panel,
is that six members, and they are all from the same party?
(Cllr Meikle) Yes, they are.
109. You have said that the Minister had said
that this was not an acceptable arrangement. Given that a party
group can operate entirely as it wishes to in parallel to the
formal structure, what is to stop you under the new arrangements
to operate that system informally?
(Cllr Meikle) Indeed, there is absolutely nothing
and, reading the written evidence, every other council is going
to do the same thing. It appears to us, all the other councils
are now creating a new system of committee, sub-committee, review
panel etc. To be absolutely honest, reading the written evidence
many of them are going to have a much more cumbersome structure
than we enjoy at the moment. Again, if you were asking me why
there is an element of complaint in my voice, it is that we do
not believe there was any particular merit in identifying a district
council at 85,000 as an authority that might be allowed some option.
We believe that it should be based more on fluidity. We are an
authority of 112,000 and again, coterminous with what is happening,
there seems to be this desire to create new structures, such as
forums, to involve the public in them. We actually have 72 or
74 parish councils within our authority. I am not sure Parliament
realises how a council in a district operates these days. We are
expected, if you are a councillor of any use at all, to attend
these parish councils. I have four within my ward. The line of
communication and partnership is very extensive indeed. If you
were to put a forum in on top of this you are, in fact, bypassing
the democratically elected parish council, which I personally
think is unfortunate.
110. What impact do you think the new arrangements
will have on the relationship between members and officers? There
has been some evidence of officers saying, "A smaller number
of councillors devoting more timewe have got less influence
and they have got more".
(Cllr Meikle) I am happy to let Sid Pritchard speak
(Mr Pritchard) Certainly there is a changing relationship,
because clearly chairmen of committees have long influenced what
has happened within any organisation because they are clearly
drivers. We do find it a little surprising that people say they
do not know who to identify with and who is responsible. In my
experience, and this is my fortieth year in local government,
it has been very clear that chairmen of committees and their vice
chairmen are people of influence whom the public can address and
get to, to get information. Officers have long established their
relationships. From my point of view, it is important to remember
that I, as an officer, serve the whole council. Whilst retaining
the relationship that there is with the leading members, the leaders'
panel, the chairmen and so on, I do make it very clear (and I
am sure the Leader will confirm) that I serve the whole council.
I attend variously all the different types of groups and provide
them with information as the council as a whole. Quite often during
our discussions I do say to leaders, "I have to advise the
council on the whole range of these issues, and not simply the
points that you as a political party may wish to go down".
That is why, when we are presenting reports and so on to committees
and via the leaders' panel, the officer's report and the officer's
comments are there, and the views of the leaders' panel are expressed
separately. They are getting a clear view as of the officer's
professional view, professional advice about particular issues
and they go forward and the leaders' panel express their views
and recommendations before decisions are then taken.
111. Do you think the new arrangements would
adversely affect that relationship you have just described?
(Mr Pritchard) My concern is that you will end up
with too cosy a relationship. That there will be more pressure
on individual officers from portfolio holders because they have
the right to make decisions, and will have the ability to put
more pressure on officers; because they are the ones who are actually
making the direct decision at that time.
112. Alternatively, could it not lead to a situation
where you have, in effect, almost a two-tier officer system, where
the officers advising particular committees (particularly if you
have a scrutiny set-up) would feel duty-bound to point out problems
with the arguments being put forward by other officers? It would
hardly lead to a harmonious relationship inside the offices?
(Mr Pritchard) That is right. It would make corporate
working amongst the officer cadre very difficult. Everybody would
be looking over their shoulders all the time.
113. That is a possibility, is it?
(Mr Pritchard) It is clearly a possibility. It happens
to a minor extent now when you look at auditors. Auditors are
seen as people who are questioning the decisions that have been
taken, and it is only an adjunct from that I would suggest. As
you go on providing different views about what decisions and what
recommendations will be made, it is only likely, as Councillor
Meikle said, to be divisive amongst the officers in the same way
it is divisive amongst members.
114. Can I concentrate on the effect on councillors.
You mentioned you have 22 new councillors who, in a sense, are
going to be disenfranchised, no longer part of the decision-making
process. How easy is it to get people to stand for council in
your area, and what effect do you think these reforms are going
to have on that?
(Cllr Meikle) It is quite difficult to get people
to stand at all. I actually think the way we are being encouraged
to will have an absolutely disastrous effect; because I do not
believe that people will want to stand merely to be on a review
or scrutiny panel. One of the reasons why we won control of the
council was because we had worked extremely hard to get people
to stand for the council, and we had a very good new intake. Because
I wished to recognise this new intake, when I found myself being
allowed to nominate the chairmen and vice chairmen of the committees,
I put a brand new member as vice chairman of every committee;
so in fact it was not merely us carrying on through the old way.
There was a very determined effort on our part to create a new
situation, and I do believe we have.
115. That will now be lost?
(Cllr Meikle) I hope it will not be lost, because
I do not intend that those of us who have been there for so many
years should remain the principal office holders. It clearly would
be lost if you went to portfolio holders. I have to say, human
nature being what it is, I hope you have reviewed the salary structure
which is now being introduced, and the weighting that is being
given to portfolio holders as opposed to the ordinary members
of the council. This, of course, in my view is going to be a divisive
issue and is probably going to be an incentive to the people who
are not necessarily the most able to retain office.
Chairman: It gives you a lot of patronage?
116. Or does it. How do you select your portfolio
(Cllr Meikle) You may well ask! The pattern that seems
to have evolved (it was not the one I was used to) is done by
the Leader of the Council.
117. You owe your position to carrying the confidence
of the ruling group, and you then have the patronage, to a point,
of the portfolio holders?
(Cllr Meikle) This, as I see it, is the norm. It was
not the one which I was used to at all in the years I have been
in local government until this last election.
Sir Paul Beresford
118. Going back a step, one of the things that
concerned Members when the Bill was going through House was the
possibility of corruption. I know that is rare in local government,
but it does happen. You have mentioned you felt the relationship
between members and officers under the new system would become
(Mr Pritchard) There is the potential to do that,
119. Do you feel it has increased? I am not
saying for your local authority, but if the temptation was there
would a cosy relationship make it more suitable for that environment?
(Mr Pritchard) I suspect it would, yes.
1 Note by witness: Nominations are made by the Leader
of the Council and considered by the full Council. Back