Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 697 - 699)




  697. Good morning. On behalf of the Committee, could I welcome our next witnesses, Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham, who is Chairman of the Local Government Association, Councillor Gordon Keymer, who is Deputy Chairman and the Leader of the LGA Conservative Group, and then from the Welsh Local Government Association, Councillor Sir Harry Jones, who is the Leader of the Welsh Local Government Association. It is very good to have you along to assist us. Thank you very much for your two memoranda as well which are very helpful. Would you like to say a few words?

  (Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) No, Chairman. We are happy to go straight into questions.

  698. Could I ask you just what I was asking Wendy Thomson at the end there because it is something we have some interest in, this business about public service ethos. From the local government end, do you think this is a useful term to use? Can we operationalise it or is it just a phrase we toss around?
  (Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) I think it is still a valid term to use, although arguably, as with most things, perhaps it has changed over time. There is a sense in which there are some principles which attach to elements of the public service which may not be found as readily in other areas of provision. I think in particular the focus on equity, the disinterestedness of public servants, their accountability and the commitment which at its best means that people who probably could have an easier and better rewarded life financially elsewhere remain committed to public service. Having said that, the reverse side of the coin might suggest that there could be some shortcomings. There could be an institutional, perhaps rather paternalistic, attitude, a safety first attitude, and that is something which I think is subject now to change, as councils become more focused on involving the public who use their services, seeing what they want rather than laying down the line from the town or county hall and being more open to choice as an instrument of improving public service. Yes, there is still value in the concept but it is a concept which is changing, changing in the interests of perhaps greater diversity and greater influence of the people who use the services.

  699. Thank you.
  (Cllr Sir Harry Jones) I just wonder if I can come in and put the view as far as Wales is concerned because I feel there is to some extent a difference. Basically I think that is based upon the fact that the advent of the Assembly has brought about a change in that it is intrinsically now linked to the Assembly in terms of its drive and direction. I think, more importantly, the point I would want to make is that the Welsh public sector in actual fact is the major employer and spender in the nation. What you have is a situation where in Wales only six per cent of companies across Wales have a turnover in excess of five million. The big difference we have here is that even the smallest local authority in Wales has a turnover of some £74.9 million. The impact that has in terms of Wales is that it is about 59 per cent of the GDP and that is parallelled, I suppose, by the North East where they have 54 and 51 by comparison. The big difference in the South East is that figure tumbles down to something like 32-35 in the lower dependency areas. There is this dependency in terms of employment and in terms of the impact that it has on provision in Wales which I think gives it that variable ethos that it does not have in other parts of the UK. I think, equally, it is probably an exaggeration to say necessarily that public services in Wales are loved but certainly they are liked and there is a great relationship, I think, which exists there. I think the classical example of how that can be demonstrated is where consideration is being given to stock transfer and how the perception of moving out from the public domain into the private, even albeit to arms' length companies, is something that it is incredibly difficult to persuade the community even if you believe yourself, philosophically, it is the right direction to be taking. It takes a great deal of persuasion because there is this sense, I think, of oneness to some degree in the public service ethos in Wales which, I repeat, is not necessarily true across the whole of the UK.

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