Examination of Witnesses (Questions 520-539)
RT HON MR NICK RAYNSFORD AND MR ANDREW WHETNALL
TUESDAY 14 MAY 2002
520. The Environment Agency seems to have failed to find someone who can give them good advice and DEFRA does not seem to be doing very well on composting.
(Mr Raynsford) I cannot comment, I am afraid, on that because that is no longer part of our department. I would have thought it was possible for an authority that wanted to identify expertise, possibly from an academic body, possibly from an organisation without a commercial interest, to find someone who could advise them.
521. You say, Minister, that the department has recognised the importance of scrutiny in regional chambers and they have made available £500,000 this year to each chamber and £1 million to chambers collectively. How does this compare with what local authorities are spending?
(Mr Raynsford) As you will understand, the chambers were newly created bodies that had no basic structures or resources other than those resources made available to them by local government. In the case of local authorities, we see this as part of the normal role of the good governance of a local authority. As I said in response to your earlier question, we would expect to see real savings coming from effective scrutiny by identifying more cost-effective ways of being able to deliver services.
522. The Local Government Act 2000 completely changed the face of local government, I fully accept that. In all my years of being involved in local authorities there was no such thing as scrutiny. So in one sense we are on the same wavelength as regional chambers, and yet specific funds have been directed towards chambers but not local authorities. That is the point I am making, Minister. We have also heard that overview and scrutiny committee members are perhaps not aware of all the powers that they have, and there is concern that perhaps they are not utilising them fully. How can this situation be addressed? What action will your department be taking in the future?
(Mr Raynsford) I think there is very considerable scope for the spreading of good practice and good guidance on the effective working of overview and scrutiny committees.
523. Could you give us an example of good practice?
(Mr Raynsford) I cannot, off the top of my head, because it would be a theoretical one rather than a practical one.
524. So no one has actually given you an example and said "Across the country, scrutiny is going very well in this local authority"?
(Mr Raynsford) No, but I have spoken to councillors who have identified ways in which they feel they have influenced
525. That is different. I was asking you for an example of where it was going well, not where people thought they were doing well.
(Mr Raynsford) I have to say I think that there is a body of opinion around local government that believes that in a number of respects the new arrangements are working well. As I said in response to the earlier question, it is too soon to give a definitive answer and we are carrying out an evaluation.
Chairman: I just wanted one example.
526. We have been told that the new arrangements work best in the authorities where there is a slight blurring of the distinction between the executive and the scrutiny arrangements. Does that give you pause for thought and reflection?
(Mr Raynsford) That is certainly not an opinion that has been put to me. I think our view is that the arrangements probably work best where there is clarity in the respective roles and where councillors who are involved in the overview and scrutiny process have a clear agenda and understand exactly how they are seeking to pursue their objectives.
527. It just crosses my mind that the whole thrust of the legislation centralises decision-making. Chief executives and council leaders are quite comfortable with it, backbenchers rather less so, and that is because they initially thought they were getting elected in order to make decisions. The Government, in a sense, has despaired of competent decision-making being done by committees. You do not really think it is a good way forward for council decisions, do you?
(Mr Raynsford) We believe that the system would benefit, and has benefited, from reform to clarify the respective roles of the executive and those councillors who are not involved in the executive but have two roles to perform, firstly scrutinising the executive and, secondly, representing their local communities. That is a framework that works perfectly well in relation to a number of other legislative bodies and representative bodies, and there is absolutely no reason at all why it should not work well in relation to local government.
528. My belief was that, in fact, it was competent decision-making; councils make very, very strategic decisions of considerable complexity these days that cannot be left to the old committee system. That appears to be the view. However, there appear to be a lot of local, quite minor decision that local members could make, either by committee or in some other way. That is the nub of the issue, because members cannot see why they should be excluded from that. Would not an improvement in the current working of the Act be to allow some executive powergreater degrees of executive powerto go to local area committees, where they could make decisions that they were competent, in your view, to make?
(Mr Raynsford) Yes, indeed, and some authorities are already going a significant way in that direction. We have no objection at all. In fact, we rather encourage that because that is a way to clarify the role of members who are not on the executive as effective local representatives, with a forum in terms of an area committee, or in some cases a topic-based committee, which enables them to focus on either the area or the topic on which they have got particular expertise.
529. So the ordinary councillor could play two roles: one, a scrutiny role on major strategic matters and, two, an executive role in his own neck of the woods, as it were?
(Mr Raynsford) In relation to decision-making that is felt to be appropriate to be devolved to that local area committee, yes.
530. Another belief is that the system works best in a political culture that is not so adversarial, more consensual. Is the thrust of the legislation or the intention of the legislation that a less adversarial culture should prevail in local government?
(Mr Raynsford) I think it is very much the understanding of most of us in this place that the culture that exists within Select Committees is, in many respects, a different culture to the one that applies on the floor of the House, where a more adversarial culture tends to be the product of history and the physical lay-out of the chamber. That is something which is possible here with adversarial debates and, also, probably more consensual progress towards decision-making.
531. It would be less possible in local government. Mr Grayling made the point before that that used to happen, in a sense, in full council meetings and now no longer exists in any real form.
(Mr Raynsford) I think the big policy divisions that divide political parties will continue to be voiced very forcibly indeed in local government, but I think there is no harm if there is also a forum in which a more consensual approach to decision-making can play its role.
532. Finally, has your department collected evidence that indicates the overview and scrutiny arrangements anywhere in the country have really revised or changed the policy that a council is pursuing? Have we any evidence that scrutiny is working in the most effective sense?
(Mr Raynsford) As I have said already, it is early days yet and we have not carried out any proper, formal evaluation, so it would be wrong for me to pluck individual examples out of thin air. What I would say is that
533. It might be better to pluck them out of reality!
(Mr Raynsford) What I would say is that my experience, from my discussions with councillors, and I do visit a lotI visited two different councils only yesterday, one county council and one unitary authorityis that most people I have met are getting on with the job of making the new arrangements work, and while they may have reservations about some aspects they do feel that this is making it easier to get decisions that are accountable decisions and people know who is taking the decision and making that clear to the public. So there are real benefits in the new structures and I think those will be seen increasingly as they bed in.
534. Just a quick one on that. When you visit councils, presumably you are talking mostly to executive membersthe people most actively involved in the councilrather than the local backbenchers who may not be?
(Mr Raynsford) To give two illustrations, yesterday I was in Bracknell Forest for the first visit, where I met the leader of the council (and the minority party leader who is not a member of the executive) as well as council officers and staff. Meeting individual members of staff, I think, is particularly important because you get from them a sense of how the authority is working in practical terms and not how it is perceived at the very top.
535. How often do you sit down with backbenchers who live with the new structure and might serve on their area committees and so forth?
(Mr Raynsford) Quite a lot. I do meet an awful lot of councillors.
536. We took evidence from Liverpool that in relation to area committees there was a concern that because you allocate budgets to each area committee you may distort priorities within a council area. The evidence we have said "Look, you might actually want in Liverpool to concentrate traffic calming measures in one or two wards where there are particular issues, but by definition of your allocating the budget across a variety of area committees you are not creating the strategic focus for spending that you would otherwise have." Do you think that is a realistic concern?
(Mr Raynsford) I think that is a genuine tension, and I think councils do have to reach a view as to whether the strategic needs of the authority, as a whole, override the benefits of allowing discretion to area committees to take decisions over significant sums of money. There will be different decisions from subject to subject. In general, if there is devolution, for example, to area committees to take decisions on relatively minor improvements to the public realm and the maintenance of grounds and things like that, that is unlikely to have an adverse strategic impact whereas a decision over roads maintenance could well have a strategic impact. So I think it is a matter for individual councils to decide in the light of their own experience. I would not pretend there was not a tension there. Having said that, I do think that there is merit in pursuing these options for devolving because it does enable local councillors to relate closely to local communities over some decisions that will impact very immediately on those communities and probably get a better decision than if it was taken centrally by the council as a whole.
537. There is a major issue of equity there, is there not? Quite a lot of local authorities get substantial allocations from Government on the basis of the needs of their local area, but if they then choose to allocate the money within that to area budgets on a per capita basis, actually they are robbing some of the most disadvantaged communities of the resources that the Government has intended them to get and sending it to the more leafy suburbs.
(Mr Raynsford) This is, of course, a replication of exactly the argument that we have every time the Standard Spending Assessment comes up to be reviewed, and of course the new grant distribution formula in that
538. It would be so much simpler.
(Mr Raynsford) It is simpler, but different areas will have a different perspective on this.
539. How much flexibility does the new White Paper give councils to create their own definition of a key decision?
(Mr Raynsford) A large measure. Initially, as you probably know, we did intend to prescribe this but in response to consultation and the clear views of local government that they believe this should be left to local authorities to determine, we decided to do that. That is, again, part of our approach to reduce the amount of central government prescription.