Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420-439)
MR DAVID CLARK AND MS MAIRI MCLEAN
TUESDAY 14 MAY 2002
420. Where is the area of problem?
(Mr Clark) I think there is confusion about what it is intended to do and confusion about where people fit into a system. That is what we have just been talking about. I do take the point that was made earlier on that councillors have always had inner cabinets of some sort and to actually make that publicly known is a good thing. I also take the point that having scrutiny members and members in the community should encourage younger people and women to join in a system, even if they cannot commit full time, taking the point that Oona King was making. I think we need to check a little about some of the intentions because I do not think we understood it all when we started on this. There have been some rather eccentric results as an impact of this to which some people are, quite properly, giving some consideration.
421. We were told when the White Paper was put forward that this was about efficiency, transparency, accountability and high standards of conduct. Is that what it was really about?
(Ms McLean) I would say, yes, it has been a success in the sense that we needed that kind of change and we needed it rapidly. We needed people to have the opportunity for a re-think. So in terms of those adjectives you have just used, it is making people have to be answerable as to whether those things are happening or not. I think that very questioning and constant questioning has been very helpful.
422. Is it possible to have speedy decisions and engage backbenchers at the same time?
(Mr Clark) Yes, but it rather depends on the virtue one places upon speed. Decisions, for example, to close old people's homes are sometimes better taken slowly and being involved. I think many people have had experience of those sorts of decisions. I, for one, have found that slowing some decisions down stops stupidity taking place. I think there is always a balance to be struck between democratic involvement and people's involvement, let alone that of backbenchers, in decision making processes and the speed with which bureaucrats like myself could just push things through if nobody was checking up.
(Ms McLean) It is also dependent on quite a radical change in the way business is. It is not about decisions being made suddenly as they appear across the table; it is about much more time and energy being put into points that are being made about training and discussion, so that the overall direction of the council is better understood through area forums, through knowing what is wanted through public consultation. With that background, knowledgeable decisions can be taken against a policy principle of which people are aware.
423. Do you think that that is the understanding of either members of the public or backbenchers?
(Ms McLean) Not yet. I think this is a process that will take a long time and that some of the comments made earlier about backbenchers are very strongly felt throughout the country In my experience, particularly in my area, even over just a two-year period that we have been operating the new system, those feelings have been changing and there has been a greater understanding and willingness to be involved differently, not in ways we have been used to previously.
424. Has the role of the backbenchers changed in that two-year period?
(Ms McLean) They would say not as yet, but I believe there is a view that it is changing. For instance, our backbenchers were central as part of the working group that set our constitution. It was actually a backbencher-driven working group rather than a front bench group.
(Mr Clark) The ambition is a worthwhile one, is it not, that it is to make the councillor the person in the system, not the systems person in the people. I think you could always spot when it was going wrong when councillors would talk about "my committee". It is not their committee but that of their population. They are there to monitor the council. The council's activity is for the population. Having that change in role to say that some people are the community in the system, not the system in the community, is beneficial.
425. Is that happening?
(Mr Clark) I think there is evidence to show that it is in some places but the jury must be out since a new generation of councillors has come in during the last couple of weeks for whom this will be the status quo. For me, seeing how they respond will be a pretty good test.
426. Does the guidance that has been issued with a large amount of regulation actually impede councillors in finding ways of working that suit their locality?
(Mr Clark) I think regrettably the answer must be "yes". The level of regulation that appears to come up with ideas of what is a key decision frankly is not required in my opinion and confuses people no end, not least because it can change hourly, but also because, if the intention is to let local democracy flower a little bit, then the idea that people are not intelligent enough to work out what is a key decision or not is perhaps just a tad on the arrogant side.
427. Would you then throw all those regulations and guidance away?
(Mr Clark) No, because if one did that, there would be an issue about babies and bathwater. I suppose my issue there is: how deep does that bath really need to be?
428. Can you not trust councillors?
(Mr Clark) Yes, indeed, that was my point, that they do not need all of them, but they need some. The point was made that guidance can be issued because chief executives, never mind councillors, need guidance about how things should be done. Whether you need dots and commas all the time and an entire filing cabinet made up just of regulation is really not a matter for me but it seems a bit odd.
429. Following on from that, the most recent White Paper talks about giving greater freedom to local authorities to encourage innovation. Do you expect to see out of that any significant changes to the way that local government is run?
(Mr Clark) No. That is the simple answer. It is true that the ambition in that is very strong but I think the expectation is that there will be major changes, whilst the level of initiative and regulation that is issued from outwith the DTLR and other departments of state is so high that I would expect to see innovations still a tad on the stifled side.
430. So you do not expect to see any change in the level of prescription that exists at present?
(Mr Clark) From where?
431. From the centre?
(Mr Clark) I would hope to see that in my lifetime but at the moment I am travelling hopefully rather than with expectation.
432. Could you then tell us what you would like to see in terms of changes to the existing legislation and regulations and guidance to bring about improvements?
(Mr Clark) We could go on for hours about this and you would not thank me. In brief, it is to kill the myth that there is such a thing as local government. To put forward the proposition that it is the same in Waveney as it is in Birmingham and in Kent and the same levels of regulation are involved and required is simply odd, where one council can have a turnover of £300,000 and another have a turnover of £4 billion. It is a bit like saying having a rule in retail saying that the corner shop is the same as Marks and Spencer and Gap. It is not and Parliament would not treat it in such a way. To do a risk assessment, if you will, about what is actually required in terms of service delivery and to allow greater innovation would be a strength. Homogeneity does not lead to innovation. We have seen that in our high streets, and I regret that we are seeing it in our town halls.
433. So are you saying that we should actually tailor lots of the regulation and prescriptions and let local government get on with it?
(Mr Clark) I am certainly saying that there are proper matters that should be dealt with. Education might be one, in the view of certain people, where national prescription and national standards are very valuable. I am not so sure that is absolutely the case on the number of yards one must be from a public library in the library plan.
434. Finally, in terms of the guidance still coming outand you say it is important that there should be guidance and account should be taken of decision makingare you being properly consulted when this new guidance is being produced?
(Mr Clark) For my part, I am certainly not short on consultation.
435. In your opinion, is there any notice of them?
(Mr Clark) I am sure there is. One has yet to see the impact but there is no question in my mind that the local government family, and SOLACE is within that, is very well consulted about most of these things, if somewhat confused about who is consulting about what, just from time to time.
436. Do you think that ministers have any idea about the complexity of the regulations or is what they have done to create a field day for civil servants and other officials?
(Ms McLean) I feel that we do have some very good opportunities to work with ministers, so, yes, I do think there is quite a wide understanding on the part of ministers. I think there is more difficulty when we come into the problems of how things go through regions and that we certainly find that often there is a contradiction between what we are hearing from ministers and what we are prepared to do locally and what then becomes possible or not possible because of regulation in the middle, as it were. An example of that would be waste and a determination to go forward and finding what ministers were encouraging us to do was in fact not possible when it came to some of the regulation in the middle.
437. Who was responsible for that? Who made the decision?
(Ms McLean) Ultimately, government.
438. Directly through a government office?
(Ms McLean) Directly through their regulation and interpretation through government office.
439. The Committee has been told in evidence that many local authorities appear to be struggling in order to put into place the new arrangements as required under the 2000 Act. I speak now of the new constitutional arrangements, the new decision-making structures, and scrutiny. If this is the case, is it the right time to start assessing their corporate capability?
(Ms McLean) In many ways I would say it is too early but I think it is part of the impetus. So, while I think we have struggled to do this alongside everything else, the view that it has given us is one of taking a fresh look at ourselves and wanting to be local, as David has just been saying, but also to be in line. Where we feel that the CPA needs to notice us is not to measure us and judge us on what we are not doing but to acknowledge the distance we have already come.