Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260-279)
DR RACHEL ASHWORTH AND MR STEWART DOBSON
TUESDAY 7 MAY 2002
260. Do either of you want to say anything by way of introduction, or are you happy to go straight to questions?
(Mr Dobson) We are happy to go straight to questions.
261. Mr Dobson, you drafted Birmingham City Council's constitution. When you read the legislation, did you find it too constrained, too overly prescriptive, and did it inhibit you from doing some of the things you would have liked to have done?
(Mr Dobson) Parts of the legislation, in my opinion, went too far in terms of prescription. The main example, in my judgment, would be the provisions which tend to be labelled "access to information provisions", those provisions which were designed to ensure that the most important decisions were both publicised in advance and taken in public. It is a difficult area to legislate on, and we finished up with a very complicated set of provisions. Whilst it is a relatively straightforward matter to draft a constitution that incorporates those provisions, to operate them in practice is extremely bureaucratic and cumbersome. My own view is that that is an area where fairly clear guidance would have sufficed.
262. You want more guidance?
(Mr Dobson) To replace those particular sets of regulationsthat is the point. I prefer guidance rather than regulation in that particular area.
263. Dr Ashworth, one of the key things in the Local Government Act is scrutiny. It can be long-winded so it can be effective. What features does effective scrutiny have?
(Dr Ashworth) Local scrutiny is quite a recent development, so for my research I looked at most of the evidence that we had gathered to date on scrutiny, which focused on parliamentary scrutiny. It is obviously going to be slightly different, but there are factors you can identify that can be influences on effectiveness. At the moment we cannot say definitively what constitutes effective scrutiny. These are things like the range of powers that scrutiny committees have and the extent to which
264. Powers of access of information?
(Dr Ashworth) Yes. At the moment, the evidence suggests that scrutiny committees do have wide-ranging powers, but they are not using them for various reasons. Also, technical support and resources that the committees have are very important, and the extent to which they are able to scrutinise financial arrangements, in particular budgetary allocations; minimising the effect of party politics or, more specifically, one-party dominance in local authorities; and that will affect the relationship with the executivewhether they are able to get access to information, and the executive responses to their investigations and reports.
265. One of the councillors we interviewed was saying that they might like to have more officer support.
(Dr Ashworth) They are very appreciative of the officer support they have at present, but they feel that the officers, though very dedicated, are of junior rank and so not of sufficient status within the authority. There is not what they refer to frequently as "parity of esteem" between scrutiny and the executive. Also, resources are a problem, even to the extent that members of committees cannot be trained adequately sometimes because the resources are not there.
266. Do you think they have a proper understanding of the scrutiny process?
(Dr Ashworth) No. In some authorities the members are not even clear about how many scrutiny committees they have, never mind what their exact role is that they are trying to perform. Each authority has taken an entirely different approach, so it is difficult for them to learn lessons from each other.
267. Mr Dobson, are the scrutiny arrangements in Birmingham well understood and well liked? This is a different question really. Is the new political management system well understood and well liked?
(Mr Dobson) I like to think it is fairly well understood. In terms of being well liked, there is no doubt that a significant number of members who are outside the cabinet and who also are not chairs of the overview and scrutiny committees, feel disconnected from the mainstream of council business. There is a dissatisfaction there, which I think is quite serious. The way Birmingham is trying to move, in part on account of that, is in the direction of devolution. At the moment, we are in the middle of developing proposals to devolve quite a wide range of council functions to a more local level, which at least holds out the prospect of all councillors being quite closely involved with the delivery of services within their particular patch. At the moment, certainly, if you were to do a straw poll of the council, you would come across a high level of dissatisfaction with the present arrangements.
268. Satisfaction might improve with devolution.
(Mr Dobson) Yes.
269. Is the current level of satisfaction very much influenced not so much by the arrangements themselves but as to where you stand within those new arrangements? Is there a significant variation?
(Dr Ashworth) I would agree with that.
(Mr Dobson) Yes, the biggest single factor is where you stand within the arrangements.
270. Are executive members fairly comfortable and happy with supportive roles, and non-executive members as well?
(Mr Dobson) Well, yes, but it is more subtle than that. We have a fair number of members who have taken to overview and scrutiny with some gusto, and they do get a high level of satisfaction from that work, but that still leaves a large number of councillors who are neither within the cabinet, nor the leading players on the overview and scrutiny side.
(Dr Ashworth) I would agree with that. Also, it does not matter whether members are members of the ruling party or not. In authorities that are dominated by one party, members of that same party still feel slightly detached at the moment.
271. If you are going to devolve power to area committees, do they get a certain budget?
(Mr Dobson) Yes. We are in the middle of developing the proposals at the moment, but the intention certainly is to devolve certain budgets. We are talking mainly about the collection of services that we refer to as "street services", together with leisure facilities, and together also possibly now with housing management. Obviously, there will be certain parameters and rules laid down by the council as a whole, but within those there will be real authority over budgets.
272. Will those budgets be done on a per capita basis, or upon some score of deprivation?
(Mr Dobson) It will be a mixture, depending upon the service.
273. So you are going to introduce a Barnet Formula for Birmingham.
(Mr Dobson) Yes, something like that. We are in the middle of that at the moment, because it is interesting to see how resources are currently deployed.
274. Will those area committees be controlled along the lines of the majority on the council, or will they just be the local representatives so that some of them may have different political control to the council?
(Mr Dobson) They will be controlled by whoever happens to have the majority of councillors within that part of the city. The current idea is to devolve to the 11 parliamentary constituencies within Birmingham. I think I am right in saying that at least three of those would be controlled by a party that is not currently in control of the council as a whole.
275. In relation to decision-making, are there any examples in Birmingham where scrutiny has made a real difference to a major decision and has improved the quality?
(Mr Dobson) I included in my memorandum some details about call-in. There has been at least one exampleand we have only operated call-in since December of last yearwhere undoubtedly scrutiny's intervention did improve the quality of decision-making. The reason they called in this particular decision was that they felt that the cabinet member who had made this decision had made it on the basis of inadequate information.
276. What was the decision?
(Mr Dobson) It was to do with the sale of a piece of land, and the scrutiny view was that the implications of this sale had not been properly thought-through and were not spelt out in the paper. The cabinet agreed with that and sent it back for a fuller paper to be prepared. At the end of the day, the same decision was taken, but it was a better-considered decision.
277. We have alluded this morning to the possibility of a call-in process prior to a decision being taken so that the scrutiny commission can be involved in at least debating the rights and wrongs of the issue before a final decision is taken. Do you think that would be a positive or a negative for the process?
(Mr Dobson) I am not sure how that would be framed, but one thing that I have clearly observed is that since we introduced call-in, it has had the effect of making the cabinet and cabinet members more concerned to ensure that their decisions, and in particular the paperwork supporting their decisions, covers all the angles. They are very much aware of the possibility of any decision they take being called in, and they would rather avoid that happening. Indeed, I know of a number of occasions where cabinet members have sat down with those members who have the power of call-in, before they have taken a decision, to talk them through it; and hopefully, from the cabinet members' point of view, smooth the way and ensure that it is not called in. In practice, the type of arrangement you have in mind is already happening in some instances.
278. Do either of you have a sense in the work you have been doing of public frustration that a ward councillor who is a backbencher today has much less participation in the process than happened previously?
(Dr Ashworth) I have a feeling of that but only because it has been expressed to me by members who feel very frustrated because they cannot follow the usual routes when they have a constituency problem. The stakeholder group we are consulting at the moment on my project are co-opted members of scrutiny committees, so they have quite a useful view because they were part of the formal committee system and now there has been a change.
279. You do not have a sense of a groundswell of opinion that their councillor is a waste of space because he cannot do anything?
(Dr Ashworth) Not particularly, only the view that would be expressed by members. I am not sure what the public's perception is, but the consultation exercise has had a very low response rate generally.