Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360-379)
MR JOHN O'BRIEN, MR PAUL WHEELER AND MS JUDI BILLING
TUESDAY 7 MAY 2002
360. So while they are still here, they think it is a good idea.
(Mr Wheeler) While they are still here, yes. And British Telecom as well. They have actually negotiated codes which allow people to take up public service. In the case of British Telecom I think it was between 12 and 36 days a year.
361. What you are talking about really is businesses which had a tradition of doing it and have continued to do it, you are not really talking about new organisations that have developed this?
(Mr Wheeler) It is difficult to say. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank probably did not have a tradition before but as a consequence of being nominated were keen to take it further.
362. You referred to the importance of councillors and the need to recognise that, do you think the Government values councillors?
(Mr Wheeler) Yes, is the answer. In terms of how councillors can be supported, it is a range of people, it is not necessarily just the Government. The real issue is does the general society value councillors in terms of voting for them and then supporting them in the work they do. We have something called the National Charter for Member Development, and that has been endorsed by the TUC, the CBI and also the Federation of Small Businesses, because one of the real issues is big businesses might be able to do it, can small businesses do it too. Also the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission, a range of people, and the first statement is, "Being a councillor is a good thing to do." That was endorsed by the Prime Minister.
363. It has been suggested that the new arrangements in local government will lead to a reduction in the number of councillors. Would that be conducive in valuing the role of councillors?
(Mr O'Brien) I am not sure whether the point about the new arrangements bringing about a reduction in councillors necessarily follows. No doubt you will take evidence from others, but in terms of the number of representatives we have I do not think that we have many more compared to others, in fact the contrary may well be the case. If we are serious about the representative role and working out there in communities and working in a meaningful way with communities, I do not think that necessarily means you need fewer councillors. I guess there may be an issue about how the new arrangements play out over time and the nature of the relationship between those who do play that executive role and the nature of those who are representing communities and bringing that to the table, but I do not think that equals less necessarily. Certainly none of our work suggests that.
364. Can I take you on to overview and scrutiny. Is it working well anywhere?
(Ms Billing) We have been asked to do more work, helping members develop their skills on overview and scrutiny in other areas
365. I did not ask you that, I asked you is it working well anywhere?
(Ms Billing) We have come up with examples of good practice.
366. Such as?
(Ms Billing) Such as Buckinghamshire County Council. That is one which comes to mind.
367. Can you give me an example of where they are doing it well?
(Ms Billing) Some very early work involved them learning to scrutinise and question what was happening but also working in partnership. I saw an excellent example of a scrutiny investigation into winter arrangements, before health scrutiny got involved legislatively, when the county council looked at how it would work together with health and social services across partnerships to improve the winter arrangements for people in that area.
368. What happened there? The council had refused to do it, the scrutiny panel looked at it and what was the outcome?
(Ms Billing) No. It was not a call in. I think there is as much good work going on in overview and scrutiny across the country in looking seriously at in-depth review as in call ins. This was not a case where the county council had refused to do anything, this was generated by the overview and scrutiny committee on a piece of work which they thought it was important to undertake. So they undertook a review of winter arrangements and made recommendations for improvement.
369. Where did they get their advice from?
(Ms Billing) From the health chief executive, from social services, from their clients, from the people who have to either suffer or enjoy the winter arrangements
370. So they got some good evidence in from the local society?
(Ms Billing) Yes.
371. In how many other areas is it possible to get good evidence in from local groups?
(Mr Wheeler) Part of the problem is that we do not like to single out particular authorities, we work with all of them, but a really good example is Maidstone, which is a small district authority in Kent, relatively limited in resources, yet they managed through scrutiny on the dumping of cars, which is a huge issue in most areas, to effect a change in policy. They had to do that in terms of their relationship and the relationship with the county council and the police, and they managed to bring those bodies together and effect a change in policy. I think they benefited from the fact their head of scrutiny was a former Select Committee clerk, and I think there are some real issues about the level of advice
372. You are not answering the question I asked. How far can you get people outside in local communities to put forward good evidence on which the scrutiny panel can work?
(Mr Wheeler) That was a good example because lots of people did give evidence to them. It was an issue which inspired a lot of concern locally and they were able to tap into it and effect change.
373. So you think on most local government issues there are local people who can put in evidence?
(Mr O'Brien) If you are looking at an inquiry which impacts on local people and you are looking at scrutinising health, environmental issues, I think there is
374. I understand that, but I feel with House of Commons Select Committees the evidence we get in is very variable. On some topics you get a mass of evidence and it is very good; in some areas you get a lot of evidence and it is not particularly good, and in other areas you just get a dearth of evidence sent in. The whole scrutiny idea, if it trickles down from the House of Commons, seems to have failed to take into account that in some of the most important areas it will be very difficult to get good evidence. What about an example of good scrutiny as far as the budgets are concerned of local authorities?
(Mr O'Brien) It is hard to pick out individual authorities
375. No, just pick out one example of good scrutiny of the budget done by a scrutiny committee.
(Mr O'Brien) I suspect there are some authorities who have taken this quite a long way back in the process, so it is not just a scrutiny which begins in November as part of the formal budget setting process through committee, but involves scrutiny members looking at what the potential long-term options are nine months out
376. The example?
(Mr O'Brien) That is a particular authority where
377. Which is?
(Mr O'Brien) Dorset County Council.
378. So you think they have done some good work on the scrutiny of the budget?
(Mr O'Brien) Yes.
379. Do you think that the Local Government Act has actually improved local government? If your answer to that is yes, would that be reflected in a high turn-out at the elections to reflect the fact that local people were in fact engaging more with their local members?
(Mr O'Brien) That is a very big question in that there are so many factors which go into it. To be blunt, I think it is too early to make that sort of judgment about the issues you are considering. As we have reflected in our evidence, it does provide some opportunities unquestionably for councillors to make a wider and different contribution from that which they may have done previously, but, having said that, there is a degree to which good councillors have always been good councillors and I suspect will do some of the things in the community in terms of making decisions or scrutinising that they would have done in any case. So I am not certain whether one can point specifically to the Act and say it has made as yet an overwhelming difference.