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

Examination of witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)




  120. You have explained to us that it may have an impact on your ability to recruit councillors. Do you see that having a knock-on effect in terms of party activists within the party political system?
  (Cllr Meikle) I would have thought the two would go together, yes.

Mrs Ellman

  121. In your evidence you say that where the new arrangements have been in place for some time there appears to be a stronger confidence about new structures. Where do you get your information from and how do you judge what is better?
  (Ms Jeffrey) Where do we get our information from?

  122. Yes. There is a section in here where you say where arrangements have been in place for some time things seem to be better. Who is giving you that information and what criteria are you using to assess what is better?
  (Ms Jeffrey) In terms of where we got the information for the written evidence we supplied to you, we actually asked our local authorities to provide us with their view of how they saw things going at the moment. In addition to that, we do have something called a "regional modernisation strategy" that brings us into contact with all the authorities in the region on a regular basis. We do have a fairly clear view about how things are progressing within each of those authorities. I think in terms of how, in fact, we can say that the structures are working well (which I think was your question), I think authorities are saying that where they have had those structures in place for some time they have had a chance to bed down. Because they have had a chance to bed down so they are able to work more effectively within those structures. It is like any new thing, it takes a while for that to settle in. What we are finding is, those authorities where they have had that bit of extra time, they are finding those structures are working better.

  123. Who are you asking in the authorities?
  (Ms Jeffrey) We are dependent on the authorities telling us what their view is. That view can sometimes come from the local members; it can also come from the officers; so it comes from two sources.

  124. Which members? Are you getting information from the members who are in key executive positions, or is it members who are not in cabinets?
  (Ms Jeffrey) We have a number of networks. One of our networks involves scrutiny members which, by definition, tend to be backbench members. So in that sense we are getting some information from those people on the backbenches. I have to say, the majority of our information obviously comes from those people who are involved in the executive.

  125. What questions are you asking them?
  (Ms Jeffrey) I think for the purposes of this particular evidence, we asked the questions you asked us. That was: how well was the system working at the moment? I think the other evidence we get is about how we see people working and implementing the systems in the region, and the feedback we are getting from them at the various conferences and seminars we hold. Generally that tends to be a more positive rather than a negative view.

  126. What have the backbench members told you?
  (Ms Jeffrey) As I say, the contact with the backbench members tends to be primarily with those who have been involved in scrutiny. Our feeling in relation to the scrutiny process is that that is developing very well in the region; and that backbench members as they are finding themselves within that role are beginning to see that there are opportunities for them still to contribute effectively within the new political arrangements that they have within their authorities.

  127. You say there are opportunities still for them to contribute. Are you suggesting that there are fewer opportunities for them to contribute than there were before?
  (Ms Jeffrey) I think initially when the structures were established there was a feeling from the backbench local authority members that perhaps they were not going to be involved as well as they could be. As I say, it was about the time it took the system to develop; and those authorities that have had the system in place for longer are the ones that are finding there is a role being developed for their backbench members in relation to the scrutiny function.

  128. Have you got any examples of effective scrutiny that might not have happened under the old system?
  (Ms Jeffrey) Yes, we have a number of examples of effective scrutiny. In our written evidence at paragraph 19 there are some references to Barnsley, who I think are going to be giving evidence after us and they will be able to talk for themselves better than I can. For example, they have developed very effective scrutiny mechanisms in relation to a number of areas. They refer to "... in-depth investigations carried out by their scrutiny commissions on issues such as road safety, the countryside, the future of the Magistrates' Courts, the policy aspects to licensing, caring for carers, the use of IT by elected members, they way in which the Council has responded to the Crime and Disorder Act and Domestic Violence". I think you can see that is a fairly comprehensive list of activities their scrutiny committees have been involved in.

  129. Do you not feel those are areas where the same members might have been able to make some contribution under the old system before decisions were taken rather than after?
  (Ms Jeffrey) I think it is a different system. With what we have in place now, the scrutiny function is different from what was there previously. I think the role is being developed.

Mrs Dunwoody

  130. For better or for worse? We know it is different. By definition it is different. Is it better, or is it worse?
  (Ms Jeffrey) As an Assembly we are not directly involved in it ourselves.

  131. No, but you have just told us you have got a lot of information, and information must tell you about the weaknesses and the improvements. Is it better, or is it worse?
  (Ms Jeffrey) I think on the strength of the evidence we have received from our local authorities they are finding that as the system develops the scrutiny mechanism is working well for them.

  132. Did you get a balance between those who have direct portfolio responsibility and those who are members of backbenches?
  (Ms Kerry) I do not think we can say that from the information we have.

Sir Paul Beresford

  133. If I was cynical (and I am never cynical) I would wonder whether the scrutiny committees you are talking about are developing the projects they are undertaking. Is it Parkinson's Law that they have to have something to do so they fill the time? If it is not bad, are they going to finish in two or three years' time, having gone right the way through the council completely and there will be Parkinson's Law and they will turn round and say, "Well, what are we going to do next?"
  (Ms Kerry) I think that is a view, but at the moment it is too early for us to judge, and certainly from a regional perspective where we are not involved on a day-to-day basis with the running of the council.

  134. It would make sense, if you are running a council and you have got political control and whipping has been taken away because you have got some new orders, you have got patronage?
  (Ms Kerry) I do not think there is evidence of that. I do not think there is any evidence that that is the case.

Mr Blunt

  135. What you have said in your evidence is that, "Ultimately, local government is about allowing for diversity and ensuring that Central Government does not impose `one size fits all'. Proposals must allow for differences whether it is big and small authorities, urban and rural, single party or hung councils, single or two tier authorities and so on". Therefore, would you agree that what is happening over all the regions is a mistake if you are getting a "one size fits all"?
  (Ms Kerry) I am not sure we are getting one size fits all. We are getting consistency in approach, in that the majority of our authorities have opted for a leader and cabinet system.

Sir Paul Beresford

  136. Why have they?
  (Ms Jeffrey) Because that was the choice of their local authorities when they went out to public consultation.

  137. Did they tell you what was wrong with the other choices when they went out to public consultation?
  (Ms Jeffrey) I am not aware of the detail of each of the individual local authority's consultation. As I understand it, they consulted on the options, and not on what had gone before.

Mrs Ellman

  138. Would you say that most of your impression has been gained from those who are running the reorganised authorities, rather than the people who are backbenchers?
  (Ms Jeffrey) I think inevitably we tend to talk to the lead members within the authorities, yes.

Mr Brake

  139. I would like to paraphrase what Crispin Blunt has said. You have said that the "scrutiny mechanism is working well for the councils", yet you have also stated that you think the new arrangements should respect local diversity. In what way does it not respect local diversity?
  (Ms Jeffrey) I think there are two points there. In terms of the scrutiny mechanisms working well, our evidence for that comes from two networks that we have. We have a scrutiny officer network, and a scrutiny member network; both of which are extremely well supported. Both members of which are finding their roles developing as time goes on and are really feeling there is something they can get out of this process. However, it would be wrong to say that scrutiny operates in the same way in every single authority. In different authorities those scrutiny arrangements will be appropriate to their local authority arrangements. That is where the diversity, if you like, comes in. There is not a contradiction between operating the Act as the guidance lays it out and actually interpreting that on the ground in the way that suits the community and the local authority best.

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