Examination of witnesses (Questions 260
TUESDAY 20 MARCH 2001
CLLR A PHILIP
HENDRY CBE, MR
SHORTLAND and MR
260. That represents a change from what happened
(Mr Jones) No, it is not really a change. If our evidence
gave that impression I must apologise. The key issue for us has
been to tease out which items on the area committee agendas are
scrutiny, which items are executive and, to be frank, there is
a vast majority that are in betweenquasi-judicial things,
planning applications and discussions about licensing and those
sorts of issues.
261. Perhaps we can move on to Bedfordshire.
I think you have said in your evidence that the council does not
believe that area committees could discharge all three rolesie,
consultation, scrutiny and the executive function. Not least it
would breach the spirit of the legislation. Can you say to us
how you see area arrangements?
(Cllr Hendry) What we have had in Bedfordshire, and
have had for some six or eight years at leastBedfordshire
as a county, as you will realise, is largely rural, with Bedford,
Dunstable and Leighton Buzzard being the main three townsis
a different concept for the urban and a different concept for
the rural. The fora have worked very successfully in the rural
situation. My own one, for example, has lasted for eight years
now and has been very successful, because it takes together 13
parish councils into one fora. This has been very, very successful.
In mid-Beds, for example, they have decided that they will have
them right across mid-Beds, and they are promoting them very actively
at the present time. That is the concept as far as the rural situation
is concerned. As far as the urban situation is concerned we have
had pilot area committees, but I think they have been of limited
success, personally, very limited success, largely, I think, because
people are not prepared to delegate enough responsibility to them.
That is the thing that I think impedes them.
262. How important is it in order to make these
things work that you have a high level of officer support in the
(Cllr Hendry) It depends how you see the areas committees.
As far as the fora is concerned my concept isit is personalthat
you have 13 parish councils who individually have a very small
voice, indeed, but collectively as 13 parish councils together
they have a very strong voice. They also have many common problems
or aspirations, or whatever it happens to be. Again, if you get
13 coming forward and saying this collectively is our aspiration
and this is the problem then, of course, it is far more likely
to be dealt with than if they did it on an individual basis. They
are a perfect consultation media. We are very much, surprise,
surprise, into consultation and they are a perfect form of consultation.
You also have to give them individual responsibility and we have
tried to take more and more responsibility for basic things, like,
for example, allocating a sum of money to the individual parishes
as far as highways are concerned and saying, "That is a sum
of money we give to you, now you determine how it will be spent
in your parish". They come forward with their own individual
ideas, and so on, for spending that money. We have doubled that
in this year's budget. We are trying to put more and more direct
responsibility back to them, but on a limited basis. The other
role, I think, is the ability to educate. In each agenda we do
have, it is disguised to a certain extent, a degree of education.
The last one that I had last week we had our Director of Social
Services there and she was discussing with them some of the problems
of social services and what can help, and so on and so forth,
as it affects them, because they are right on the Cambridgeshire
border, and their medical services are coming from Cambridgeshire
and not from Bedfordshire, and that creates real problems. She
was able to discuss all that with them first hand, and they go
back to their parishes and dissipate all that knowledge.
263. In order to make area committees work successfully
how much do you have to deliberately delegate or allocate officer
time and officer support to make the area system work?
(Ms Shortland) In our case what we did in 1991, when
we first devolved, if you like, to areas we did not have that
much officer support, we devolved budgets to area committees and
those committees were dealing with planning applications and housing,
but the officers were not based there and it was not very satisfactory.
Most of the decisions had to come back to the central committees
as they were then. When in 1995 we decentralised completely we
put many of the staff out in the areas. If we were starting that
again today from scratch we might do things slightly differently.
We have come slightly away from that in the sense that the officers
are placed out in the areas but the management of those people
does not necessarily have to be in the area, the management could
be with one person that covers the whole council based in an area.
They would not have to be based in Yeovil, it could be based in
the area and the management could be there covering the whole
service. The fact that the officers are working on the patch in
the area I think is very beneficial, especially to your parish
councils and your partners that you are working with, social services,
264. How do those arrangements dovetail the
work of the Cabinet and the overview and scrutiny committee?
(Ms Shortland) The cabinet obviously takes decisions
to delegate certain levels of decision through the delegation
procedures to area committees. In terms of our budget, for example,
one third of the revenue budget is delegated to area committees.
Probably about three quarters
of the capital budget is delegated to area committees but within
parameters that are set by the council and by the cabinet. There
is a framework of no harm, et cetera. A lot of the things that
are in the guidance we already have in place.
265. Could I ask whether this arrangement has
had an impact on your staffing levels?
(Ms Shortland) The new modernisation arrangements?
266. In the area structure, have you had to
gear up and do you have more staff per head of population than
(Ms Shortland) I they we have more chief officers
than other places, because we have corporate directors that are
responsible for each area, so, therefore, we have within our district
council five corporate directors, which other councils might not
have. However, we have stripped out the layer beneath that, we
go straight from corporate director to unit manager. In terms
of the overall staffing budget there is not that much difference
between us and other district councils. What we are trying to
look at now is whether we need to have the managers in those positions,
because what we are looking at is having one of those being a
manager that covers the whole service and, therefore, you could
have team leaders in the other places rather than having to have
a manager in a every area.
(Mr Bell) I think our instincts have been to have
a light touch approach to officer support for area committees,
because the danger is you over-dominate them with professionals.
We have been trying to use clerks to help the area committees
focus on their agenda, and not trying to drive that agenda. Picking
up the point about scrutiny, for example one of our scrutiny examinations
was on winter maintenance of the roads, that was an important
opportunity for the fora to contribute. We would not necessarily
invite them to contribute to all of the select committee reports,
just the ones that they have identified as important.
267. In Bedfordshire you have separate officers
to deal with scrutiny, could you tell us how important that is
and how much it costs you to do that?
(Cllr Hendry) It is very important as far as we are
concerned. We started in January 1999, as you know, and we started
with four select committees. Those four select committees clearly
had a scrutiny role as well as a policy determination role. As
David Bell said, if a select committee is looking at winter maintenance
first of all they have to look at how we are doing it at the presented
time, so there is a scrutiny role there. Having done that in January
1999 we then decided in April 2000 we would bring in a scrutiny
committee which would be an opposition committee. We have a Conservative
administration in Bedfordshire with a huge majority of one seat.
We have an all-party executive. I deliberately put in place an
opposition scrutiny committee because we wanted a committee of
the opposition to be scrutinising all of the activities of the
executive and of other select committees if they felt so minded.
Therefore, it was for an acceptance of that concept that it was
necessary to put in place officer support for it. It is still
finding its feet, nine or ten months down the road it is still
finding its feet. The reason why we did it, some say I shot myself
in the foot by doing it, was to give us a year's experience before
it became a requirement, that is with the concept of ironing out
some of the problems. I think we have ironed out this parity of
esteem concept, it is a very difficult one to live with and it
is difficult to quantify costs.
(Mr Bell) The actual specific support for select committees
is £320,000, which represents one tenth of one per cent of
the council's revenue budget. Obviously there is officer time
devoted over and above that select committee support. It is headed
up by an assistant chief executive. I think it is important that
you give it that kind of status, although we have been quite strong
in the principle that we all work for one council and we are all
serving the council's interests and at times that causes some
tension. You can overstate it. I think it is important that select
committees have that support and I think you can overstate the
tension if you are not careful. We have found it worked reasonably
well, with one or two hiccups along the way.
268. How removed from other activities are the
officers who are serving on those committees?
(Mr Bell) They are part of the officer corp and under
my leadership. The assistant chief executive plays an important
part in the wider corporate life of the council. I believe that
is very important. If you divorce the scrutiny function altogether
you are in great danger in all of this of putting something within
the system that is going to destabilise. Having said that, that
has not prevented that officer and his colleagues being quite
robust in helping members have a sharp perspective. That is the
right way to do it, keeping your officer corp together to make
sure there is a dedicated resource to support the scrutiny and
269. How would an officer viewing his or her
future career view their role in the scrutiny committee? Would
they be jeopardised if they criticised?
(Cllr Hendry) No, I do not think so at all. I am sure
that our assistant Chief Executive has aspirations to greater
things and I am sure he will be successful. I do not think it
would be jeopardising his chances at all. At the end of the day
we work for one council, you cannot put everything into compartments.
I am looking at chief officers, chief officers come before scrutiny
and give evidence, and those are the chief officers that have
worked with the portfolio holders to bring forward a policy. If
you try and get it into compartments it just would not work, in
our view. Ultimately there has to be honesty on everyone's part
and I do not think it spoils their career in any way. In some
ways it enhances their career, they are far cleverer than you
thought they were before.
270. That requires a degree of confidence, both
on the part of the chief officer concerned and on the elected
members concerned. I would agree that that ought to be the situation.
(Cllr Hendry) Absolutely.
271. The reality is, human beings being what
they are, if you have an effective scrutiny officer who appears
too often to be coming out with faults or, shall we say, gaps
in the policies that are being provided is it possible that this
might have a slight effect upon their chances of preferment?
(Cllr Hendry) I honestly do not believe so. We have
a very good assistant Chief Executive and he does ask some very
difficult and very searching questions. He is obviously cleverer
than we gave him credit for.
272. What you mean is you appointed him because
you did not think he was good.
(Cllr Hendry) We gave him that job for just that reason
and he proved us wrong.
273. Is it dependent on the fact that he is
senior? Are you really saying that the thing that has made the
difference is that he is already an established officer, number
two at the top of the tree, knows where he is going, presumably
planning only to be with you for a limited amount of time and,
therefore, can establish his reputation as an independent, if
not an independent a perceptive support for the scrutiny committees?
(Cllr Hendry) It has to be, in my view, at that level.
It is no good passing it down the line, I am not being disparaging
in any way, and having a junior manager doing that job, it would
not work. He has to be questioning the chief officers and unless
he has an equal status with the chief officers they would tell
him to get lost.
274. Would you say that is one of the things
you learned from the period of trial?
(Cllr Hendry) Yes, absolutely. Fortunately we got
it right the first time round.
275. Has South Somerset any views on this?
(Ms Shortland) I find it quite difficult and quite
challenging to hear of other councils where they have this confrontational
process. I have never experienced it, and I have been a councillor
for 12 years, we have a different culture and a different way
276. You always agree on everything, this must
be a very unique local authority!
(Ms Shortland) There is a very great difference between
disagreeing with something and finding a way around your disagreement
and confrontational behaviour. We have developed a way that the
scrutiny role works. We have a senior officer, it is our monitoring
officer, the solicitor to the council, who works with the scrutiny
committee, and we also have policy development committees, which
are strategy groups as well. Most of the changes that are being
made are driven by the strategy groups and more junior officers
working with the strategy groups. What they are finding is ways
of improving and developing policy which bring about changes as
opposed to the confrontational scrutiny/executive split.
277. Why do you assume that scrutiny has to
(Ms Shortland) I am not assuming it has to be, what
I saying is that from my experience of the way other councils
are working it sounds as though you are expecting to have confrontation,
and that is why you have to have senior people managing that from
the way you have just described officers.
278. Surely if you ask a confident person who
knows about their job a question that is a difficult question
that should notthis is lesson that has not yet been learn
learned by everyoneindicate that you are doing something
confrontational, what it means is that you are asking a question
that you want answered.
(Ms Shortland) That is quite right. That implies that
the officer who is supporting that job should in no way have their
position or future career in jeopardy.
Mrs Dunwoody: You do not have human beings in
279. Could I turn to the new Health and Social
Care Bill, which does include a provision for local authorities
to scrutinise the health authorities. Do you feel that the powers
proposed under that Bill are sufficient to enable local authorities
to scrutinise the Health Service properly?
(Mr Bell) When we started off we wanted to make this
as simple as possible because we did not want NHS scrutiny to
sit in permanent session and there was a danger of that if every
council exercised a scrutiny right and every NHS chief executive
was hauled in front of the scrutiny committee. We are going to
adopt a single scrutiny committee across Bedfordshire, which the
County Council will take the lead upon, and the three district
councils will have representation. We are also hoping to include
Luton Borough Council, which is a unitary authority as well, because
the NHS boundaries really are Bedfordshire and Luton. We are also
keen to avoid the rerunning of the performance management debates
that take place within the NHS. We are going to try to focus on
the strategic county-wide issues, for example, the shape of hospital
provision across the county or the way the new primary care trusts
are developing. I think that is the way to do it to avoid having
too many meetings, but rather be sharp, strategic focused and
2 Witness correction: One quarter. Back
Note by witness: This was a jocular exchange and no slight was
intended to the Council officer referred to. Back