Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 59-79)




  59. Can I welcome you to the second session this morning of our Inquiry into How the Local Government Act 2000 is Working. Can I ask you to identify yourselves; would you like to start at that end?

  (Mr Claxton) Yes. I am David Claxton, Head of Member Services at Cumbria County Council.
  (Cllr Richardson) I am Jack Richardson. I am the portfolio holder for Safety Services, and also the Chief Whip for the Conservative Party.
  (Cllr Kemp) I am Councillor Richard Kemp. I am the Executive Member for Housing, Neighbourhoods and Community Safety, and I also chair the Governance Review Group, which introduced and monitors our constitution.
  (Mr Creer) I am Graeme Creer. I am the City Solicitor.

  60. Does anyone want to make an opening comment, or are you happy for us to go straight to questions?
  (Cllr Richardson) Straight in, yes.

Chris Grayling

  61. Gentlemen, can I start by asking Cumbria about the issue of decision-making. In your memorandum, you have suggested that decision-making tends to be collective. Can you talk a little bit more about how the decision-making process works, the balance between the Cabinet, the individual officers, the individual portfolio holders; and, in particular, I would be interested to tease out of you a little bit about how the relationship works between senior officers and portfolio holders, now that the portfolio holders have a much more clearly defined executive role than was the case previously?
  (Cllr Richardson) As you say, the decision-making by cabinet is collective, actually, but it is on the recommendation of officers, in consultation with the portfolio holders. I can only speak for myself, as a portfolio holder, in terms of my relationship with the Chief Fire Officer and Emergency Planning Officer, which is very close; we meet on a regular basis and any recommendation which he is proposing to put to the cabinet is discussed fully, before we get to that particular point.

  62. Can I ask if there are any lessons on that front from Liverpool as well?
  (Cllr Kemp) I think it is a bit more complicated, because, at the end of the day, where you have one party in control, you are a controlling party, whether you are in the cabinet or whether you are in the so-called scrutiny role. So, in our situation, as we approach a major strategy, for example, in the housing strategy, we put a strategy paper to our political group, so that when I move a recommendation I am already aware of the overall thoughts that my party will have, and frame recommendations in the light of that; they take my advice, I listen to their opinions. So that there is an iterative process which overarches the cabinet/scrutiny strict division.

  63. How many hours a week do you both estimate that your portfolio holders have to spend on Council business? Is there any way of reducing the workload it involves, and is it possible for a professional person, or somebody who is a full-time teacher, or doctor, or whatever, to be a portfolio holder and do the job properly?
  (Cllr Kemp) Certainly not in a place like Liverpool, if you have one of the service portfolios; there are two types of portfolio, there are the education/housing type portfolios, which are delivery. I have actually had to do a memo., for a month, about my working hours, because we are going to an independent remunerations committee. On average, I work a 70-hour week, as a politician, of which half that time is as a cabinet member, the other half are various other things I do within local government, partly because being a cabinet member does not pay my mortgage, so you have to do a number of things, although those all interlink, like chairing four Ps, because it is a full-time job. Coming here today, I knew about this on Thursday, and if I had a full-time job for someone else I could not have come here; so we do spend a lot of time coming down to London, if you are a council like Liverpool.
  (Cllr Richardson) Our experience is very similar. The amount of time depends, obviously, on the portfolio, mine is fairly light, actually, and I would say that, as far as the cabinet is concerned, I might be involved on, say, three days a week; in addition to that, of course, you have got the normal political activity. But in terms of people who are dealing with, say, economy and environment, it is a five-day week job, and well into the evening as well. As far as, can people, in fact, carry out a normal working life, the answer is, out of a cabinet of ten, we have four people who are self-employed, the rest of us are all retired or semi-retired. So I would imagine that, with the workload we have, anyone who has a job would find it impossible.

  64. So would it be fair to say, from both your perspectives, that the move to portfolio holders has effectively excluded the employed population from active participation in local government?
  (Cllr Richardson) I would imagine so; especially in a county like Cumbria. We are a large geographical county, and I have a three-hour round trip to get to the headquarters in Carlisle, actually; so if somebody was working and they had that sort of journey time, plus the activity on the cabinet work itself, it would be totally impossible.

Sir Paul Beresford

  65. How much have the executive members taken over the officers' role?
  (Cllr Kemp) In our case, not at all; what we have done is differentiate very carefully the role between officers and members, and, in the past, in our council, it was very blurred, with members taking decisions and officers waiting for them. We have said that our role is to have a vision, because that is what we have been elected to do by the people, it is to work with officers to develop a strategy to deliver that vision and then to monitor the delivery; but then a considerable part of our job is to go out and help sell that strategy to partners and the community and act in a two-way process. It is our officers' job to do, and we do not interfere with that process, and we have actually restructured, to make sure that there is not an overlap.
  (Cllr Richardson) It is very similar; it is the officers' role to do, actually, but there is a scheme of delegation. Our constitution was actually adopted in April 2001, which was two months before the local elections last year, and there has been a change of administration since then; now it was put in very, very quickly, and the scheme of delegation, as we see it, at the present time, gave just a bit too much authority to officers to get out and do, without sometimes having to come back to discuss it with the politicians.

Chris Grayling

  66. Just very quickly, can I ask Cllr Kemp if he could answer the same question, do you think the Act has excluded full-time employees from involvement in local government?
  (Cllr Kemp) I would take it further than that. I think, the way local government is structured, that it is very difficult for an employed person to be a member of any big council, because all our backbench councillors, whatever term you use, front-line councillors, it is a minimum commitment of something like a day and a half a week, often at awkward times, and most employers do not like that. We have gone from the time when employers were proud to have a councillor working for them, to working for multinationals; we even have difficulties with the neighbouring authority letting a member have time off work, because of the pressures. So I think it is more complicated than that.

Mrs Ellman

  67. Cllr Kemp, your colleague, Cllr Paul Clein, has submitted written evidence to us, in his former capacity as Executive Member for Education and Lifelong Learning, and in that written evidence he describes the current situation as loathsome and dishonest and marginalising elected members. Now, in the last few days, Cllr Clein has resigned his position, in an argument about who in Liverpool City Council has authority to implement a 1 million cut in the Youth Service. Now would you say that incident confirms Cllr Clein's opinion about the inadequacies of the structure of the local authority, or is it something else?
  (Cllr Kemp) As often happens, I agree with lots of Cllr Clein's sentiments, but not necessarily the way that Cllr Clein expresses it. I must make it clear that we implemented a cabinet system early, because of the various situations in Liverpool, which I am sure many people are familiar with, which I will not go into; it is not the system that we would have chosen. I think it is a system which marginalises many members of the Council, and it is a system which very few people clearly understand; and even for those of us intimately involved it is a new system. I have been doing it one way for 20 years, and it is a culture shock for me, and I helped introduce the constitution; so we are all in a learning curve, as one moves into something different. The particular circumstances that you raise there are ones that I would be happy to go into in greater detail, but I do not think there are any general lessons to be learned from it.

  68. I would like to ask both of you about the role of the backbencher. We are receiving a lot of evidence that suggests that backbenchers do feel disenfranchised, not part of the decision-making process, and, could I perhaps ask Cumbria first, do you have any suggestions of how backbenchers could be more constructively engaged and get more satisfaction from this role?
  (Cllr Richardson) I think the only people who are totally satisfied with the cabinet system are certain members of the cabinet itself, actually. I do not think most members of the Council as a whole would accept that the new system is working satisfactorily. They do feel disenfranchised, there is no question about this. Clearly, they have a role in scrutiny, but they do not see that as a role in decision-making; many of them see it, for want of a better expression, as nit-picking, in effect. We have tried in Cumbria to give a role to backbenchers. We have a system of local committees; to be fair, they were not introduced with the new constitution, they have been in operation for some years, but the local committees have delegated powers to carry out certain functions. We also have neighbourhood forums, and this is a way of local members taking decisions at local level on their own areas.

  69. But it does not involve them in major decision-making, does it?
  (Cllr Richardson) It does not involve them in major decisions; there are still a number of decisions, obviously, which have to be debated by full Council, and that is the only opportunity they have, but most decisions they have no actual involvement in at all, except, of course, obviously, through the political process, where they discuss it in their various groups.

  70. And, Cllr Kemp, do you have any concerns about the role of the backbencher and suggestions of how things might change?
  (Cllr Kemp) Absolutely. We are trying to work with all members, because all politicians, be they MPs or councillors, actually have a number of different roles; part of it is as social worker, part of it is as politician, part of it is as political organiser. What we are trying to do in Liverpool is to have members working at three levels. Firstly, there is strategic, and, in there, you are either cabinet or scrutiny, but that is one part of a councillor's work. We are also trying to introduce local area committees and we will be increasing the amount of powers they get from the annual meeting of the Council. But, just as important, in the context of a city with many deprived communities, we are trying to introduce neighbourhood working, such as in your own constituency, where we are introducing a housing regeneration company, to reconfigure services. Now members need training and support into new roles, just as any of us need training and support into new jobs; and, again, that is going to take time to settle down. But I do have a concern, in a council like Liverpool, where you are seen to have ten people who make all the decisions and 89 who do not. I do not think that is fair, and I do not think that is what people came into politics to do.
  (Mr Creer) Our written submission made the point that the split between the executive functions and the Council functions ought to allow for the possibility of call-up to full Council, and that would involve all members in decision-making, on those occasions when it occurred.

Mr Betts

  71. Just to take you up on those last points. First of all, Cllr Kemp, you mentioned that you had had changes in Liverpool before the introduction of the 2000 Act; clearly, you think those arrangements work better. Could you explain why that is your belief? And could I just say, why cannot things be called to full Council, because my understanding is that some councils do have a procedure to call into full council?
  (Cllr Kemp) You can call up some things to full Council, although those relate largely to the major strategic decisions; and, as we all know, some of the things that people really want to debate, which can be tinder-box events, are not one of those, and those, under the legislation, can only be called up to a select committee. But one of the reasons why we think that our system used to work better is that you could call up anything to Council, so if there was something contentious every councillor could debate it; and, in fact, I believe that the Government was scared that that would be abused. Certainly, in Liverpool's case, very few items like that were called up, but people were always glad to have the option to do that. And my own feeling is, and we put this in our evidence, that the whole of the Act is too restrictive. And I picked up a question asked before, perhaps I could answer that; that, really, we believe that there should have been more room for local experimentation, because Liverpool is different from Manchester or Sheffield, and there ought to be greater differences then in the way we run things, providing what we do is coherent and works.

  72. Let me put a couple of questions then about the Cabinet and how it operates. Roughly, in an average week, for how long does your cabinet meet, is it all in public session, and, if not, are bits of what happens in public actually pre-decided by private meetings with officers, before you actually get to cabinet?
  (Cllr Kemp) The cabinet, first of all, meets four weeks out of five in public session, as a decision-making body, and the fifth meeting is a private political meeting, only with no officers present, which is always the meeting before Council, where we look at the Council agenda and what is on it. But, of course, in practice, a lot of discussion takes place before recommendations go to the cabinet. For example, there are several things which are signed off by three cabinet members; anything to do with our unitary development plan is led by our environment environmental spokesperson and supported by regeneration and myself, because of the input that we need to make into that. And we also go away on a regular basis to discuss big-picture items, as it is important that we formulate an opinion on that.

  73. But, on the Cabinet issues, in general?
  (Cllr Kemp) There are pre-meetings between the relevant officer and the cabinet member and they discuss draft reports, and maybe we even meet to discuss what your reaction in Cabinet might be beforehand. We certainly discuss draft reports before they are produced.

  74. In private?
  (Cllr Kemp) In private, yes.

  75. Is not this a bit strange for a Liberal Democrat, and before that the Liberal, Party, which campaigned for completely open government, for no one-party committees, and indeed even took legal action against some councils on the basis of that?
  (Cllr Kemp) Not strange at all, no, because the things are not consistent. It is important that when a report goes out, in our system, the members are entirely comfortable with it, because, actually, it goes out in our name; so, in fact, although the reports are largely drafted by officers, we are the ones that stand up and we are the ones that have to sign them off, and it would be ludicrous for reports to go out which we were not comfortable with and happy to present. Our job is to make sure those reports conform to the policy guidelines that we have laid down and conform to the strategies that we have put to the people of Liverpool; they then move, quite rightly, into open debate.

  76. Who is actually responsible for those reports; whose name is on the bottom of them?
  (Cllr Kemp) The member is responsible; but, in many cases, we produce draft studies, so, for example, at the moment, we have got three major strategies which we have deliberately only approved in draft form, for a major consultation process, before we finally call them in for decision. So it gets more complicated than that. So we approve the draft and then we will approve the final agenda after quite a lengthy process.

Sir Paul Beresford

  77. Do the public pour into your cabinet meetings, or is that a waste of time, to be seen doing 15 items in 15 minutes?
  (Cllr Kemp) We usually have four or five items which we discuss in about two hours, which is the normal length of a Council meeting; and, no, they do not pour into our cabinet meetings. Where they do go in is into our local area committees. I do not know what the tally is for this year, but in our last municipal year more than 6,500 people attended local area committees, which was more than ever attended any of the committees in the Council, because we are talking about things in their area, with their members, which are relevant to them; and that is where there is the greatest engagement.


  78. So, the cabinet meetings in public, how many people come into those?
  (Cllr Kemp) Three or four.

  79. The same ones, week after week, to save their heating bills?
  (Cllr Kemp) No; it depends what is on the agenda.


previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 11 July 2002