Examination of Witnesses (Questions 387-399)
COUNCILLOR PETER MOLE AND COUNCILLOR LINDA GREEN
TUESDAY 14 MAY 2002
Chairman: Before we start this session on how the Local Government Act 2000 is working, does anyone have any declarations of interest that they need to record?
Mr Cummings: Yes, I act as a parliamentary adviser to the National Association of Councillors. I am also the Chairman of the All Parliamentary Group for Local Government Councillors.
Mrs Ellman: I am a Vice President of the Local Government Association.
Ms King: So am I.
Mr Betts: So am I.
387. May I welcome you this morning to the first session of today's inquiry into the Local Government Act 2000 and could you identify yourselves for the record, please?
(Councillor Mole) I am Councillor Peter Mole, General Secretary of the National Association, and also a councillor on Gateshead Council.
(Councillor Green) I am Linda Green, also a member of the National Association of Councillors and a member of Gateshead Council.
388. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy for us to go straight to questions?
(Councillor Mole) Most of my answers will be from debates rather than decisions from the National Association of Councillors and probably the foundation of what I say will be from my experience in Gateshead Council and the new structure and what they have been doing within that. Basically I am speaking on behalf of the National Association of Councillors.
389. I do understand the importance of training and seminars which are being offered to councillors to prepare them to adapt to their new roles in their new structures. I am aware of the immense amount of work which was carried out by the National Association in respect of this function. More recently, you have also adopted the role of acting as a trade union for local government councillors. Understanding the background and the nature of the organisation, do you truly believe that councillors in general are providing sufficient support for councillors to help them carry out their new roles?
(Councillor Mole) I believe that it varies. Like everything else, there is good support and bad support. I think generally, across the whole area of local government, there are not sufficient finances available for training, internally and externally. The main thrust of the National Association is that we do external training because there is a mixture of political parties and of tenure, with councillors coming from different groups, like parish councils, county councils, district councils and unitary authorities. The problem is that it is perceived in some councils that it is a waste of money to send councillors for training. I do try and explain the error of that way, as you well know, John. The actual training itself in some councils is very good but it is mediocre across the board. I believe this is one thing that the Local Government Act will address.
390. If we are to have more resources in order to fund an overview and scrutiny within local authorities, where do you believe such resources should come from?
(Councillor Mole) The view of the National Association of Councillors of course is that there should not be separate funding for cabinet, overview and scrutiny. I think that the whole thing fits into one package. If you are not careful, you will be building walls if you have separate budgets and separate officers in a local authority, and that I do not believe should exist. We have given a protocol for officers to make sure that when they do give evidence to scrutiny or when they are in cabinet it is just the subject that is being dealt with, but the actual funding for this kind of system obviously needs to come from central government. There are no extra pockets that you can pluck out for new budgets. As you all know, budgets all over the place are limited. The money should come from central government. I am not sure that we should be applying for scrutiny and overview and cabinet to have different pockets; it should be one particular budget for the running of a council.
391. How do you believe that backbenchers can receive better information and access to information from officers?
(Councillor Mole) It depends upon which structure is implemented. There has always been this view that, once you become a member of the cabinet in Gateshead, the people who are non-cabinet members, as I prefer to call them, have to be the focus of what I do in cabinet. We have advisory groups in Gateshead and we have advocated across the country that advisory groups are giving the information to cabinet rather than the other way round, that we have a subject that advisory groups come up with. If you do not give those members the information, you will soon find out that you are heading the wrong way. I think that across the country we are learning to involve the non-cabinet members with information from officers. It is a difficult subject. I do know your past record, Mr Cummins as the Leader of the Easington Council. I do not think the situation has changed dramatically from 20 years ago. There was always a group of people who ran the council, whether it was a cabinet or leaders and groups of people.
392. Would you not agree that at the present time back benchers are really marginalised and that the really important decisions are made by the inner cabinet? Quite frankly, they are no longer involved in decision making. It appears as if the new structure has devised ways and means to keep the natives quiet by offering them trinkets like getting involved in the communities more but that is delaying decision making to us. How do we get over that? How do we truly embrace and involve the backbenchers under the new structure?
(Councillor Mole) There are two ways to do that and I think that one of my submissions on how we restore the balance in local government is in one of those ways. Historically there has been this group in one and another group in that. I know I could turn it into an Easington joke but it did and it does happen. We need to make sure that we get young people who truly represent the area they come from and women and ethnic groups on to councils because they will then pursue that issue. We have moved from one structure to another. If you want it to work overnightand you and I both know those things never happenthen we need to educate councillors to do that.
393. How do we get them involved in decision making rather than just rubber stamping?
(Councillor Mole) My point earlier was that the advisory side of that is that we must make sure that it is driven from those people, rather than driven from the top. It is not top-down. We must make sure that decisions are made from the bottom coming up. The reports from the advisory groups come in to cabinet in Gateshead and in other places. It is going to be a long process. We know that some people just do not want to be involved in that side of local government. They want to be community champions, to use the phrase that we use now, and some people want to do other things. This is about how we undertake the change. A stronger balance in local government is probably the key to the answer but it is going to be a long process.
394. Can I ask Councillor Green, and I note you are a treasurer, whether or not you think it is realistic under the new ways of working for a cabinet member actually to hold down a full-time job as well as being a cabinet member?
(Councillor Green) It very difficult and when you are on the cabinet and working from maybe 8 o'clock in the morning until 9 o'clock at night and at weekends, I do not think you could work full time. It would be very difficult.
395. Does that inevitably mean that cabinet ministers are either unemployed, under-employed or retired?
(Councillor Green) No, some of them are employed and they have the portfolio to suit the job that they are doing at the moment. There is a lot of pressure on people, especially when they are employed.
396. Can I ask you about whether or not in your experience you have collated any evidence that shows that non-cabinet members are actually spending more time tending their constituents and their constituencies?
(Councillor Mole) I can answer that. There has always been that kind of councillor. I do not think it has radically changed from non-cabinet to committee chairs, or whatever. There has always been that grouping. We have made the mistake in the past of having boundaries that are made by the parliamentary Boundary Commission rather than areas and neighbourhoods deciding. You have not got just three councillors but nine or 12 working in the neighbourhood to get people into that system. I actually think it is working better than it did but there is a long way to go in the communities.
397. Why do you think members are still having to attend so many meetings in town halls and county halls? Why has there been no overall increase in the number of meetings that backbench members are expected to attend?
(Councillor Green) I think there is an increase because of local partnerships working and local backbenchers do work in partnership groups and in the councils. We do have a lot of people outside.
398. The experience of your members is that there has been an increase?
(Councillor Green) Yes.
399. Finally, can I ask you whether or not you are aware of any evidence that since the new workings were introduced there have been a higher numbers of members leaving local government as councillors?
(Councillor Mole) I was hoping you would ask me that question because a week ago we lost four members that had 130 years of service between them. People are leaving now.