Examination of Witnesses (Questions 540-559)
RT HON MR NICK RAYNSFORD AND MR ANDREW WHETNALL
TUESDAY 14 MAY 2002
540. We took evidence from Northampton Borough Council, for example, that said that the framework in relation to key decisions manages both to be prescriptive and inconsistently imprecise. There is clearly some uncertainty out there about what you are getting at.
(Mr Raynsford) I think they are probably referring to our initial proposals as unduly prescriptive and, perhaps, our latest as insufficiently precise.
541. Why not throw the whole lot away?
(Mr Raynsford) We have. We have tried to give a very large measure of discretion to local government and that is the proposal. That is, I am afraid, seen by some as insufficiently precise.
542. Do you think there is anything one can do to encourage councils not to take key decisions behind closed doors and then rubber-stamp them in public?
(Mr Raynsford) We have done something in that respect by requiring five days' prior notice, so that there is an opportunity for interested parties to identify problems and ensure that those are highlighted before the decision is taken. That is an extension from the previous pattern of three days. That was a direct response to that particular need.
543. That only goes up to a point. I remember a memorable council meeting when a difficult decision had to be taken and lots of people came in and made presentations to the council meeting. At the end of it the Chairman said "Well, what we have already decided to do is . . ." There is a real danger of that in local government, and more so under the new arrangements where decisions are focused on the executive.
(Mr Raynsford) I would argue exactly the opposite. That was very much the problem with the old system where decisions were taken in party groups and the formal meetings of the council actually rubber-stamped decisions. What we want to seeand are encouraging under the new systemis a framework where there is clear accountability on the part of the executive, who are known to be responsible for that decision.
544. What is an executive if not a party group? Most of them have informal meetings as well as the public ones.
(Mr Raynsford) Indeed, but the executive, nevertheless, is the body that carries the can and is responsible. The public will know that if they are dissatisfied that is where they should go, and they do not come along to a committee meeting expecting to have a Socratic dialogue about the merits of a particular policy and for truth and rationality to prevail at the end of the day. Sadly, that was not, I am afraid, the experience of most of us engaged in local government in relation to what happened.
545. In the evidence that we have received from the Audit Commission the Commission seems to note that the public are even less aware now of who makes the decisions than they were under the old system. Would you support that?
(Mr Raynsford) I do not think that is the case. I think the new system is taking time, obviously, to bed in and there is uncertainty about it because it is new. As I said in response to the Chairman's question, there was still a lack of clarity about the old structures even though they had been in existence for upwards of a 100 years. So there is a task about extending information but there is an inherent clarity about a division between an executive and the rest of the council which should ensure in the medium to long-term that there is greater understanding about who is responsible for decision-making. That is what we want to see.
546. How do you feel we are actually going to galvanise the public into having any interest in the new workings of local government? I think the figure for the response to the consultation exercise in Liverpool was about 1 per cent.
(Mr Raynsford) This is one of the most difficult challenges, and it is not just about local government. It is about galvanising interest in government as such and ensuring that people realise the importance of the democratic institutions that act on their behalf. I can only say that yesterday, on the second half of my visit (I went to Bracknell Forest in the morning) I went to Wiltshire, and one of the visits I did which I attach particular importance to was a school where we had a meeting with the school council, where the leader of the county council and myself answered a lot of questions in a, hopefully, informal and open way with not just sixth-formers but pupils from all ages in that secondary school. This is about trying to find ways of engaging young people in the democratic process. There are all sorts of other things that we can do; we can try and make the process of voting easier, and you will know about the pilots we have conducted there. We can also try to use modern technology to make it easier for people to access the council, so that they can report a problem 24-hours a day, 7-days a week, rather than depending on only contacting the council when the office is open. So there are measures like that which can give access and can improve communication between democratic institutions and the public. These are difficult, deep issues, and we have got to work relentlessly to try and find ways of making the structures more relevant, making the actual work that organisations do more relevant and making it easier for people to have their say and to influence the way in which councils and government generally operate.
547. In the light of the elections a couple of weeks ago, where all the evidence seems to show that the turnout probably improved 100 per cent in those authorities that had all-postal ballots, are you now minded to look favourably on all-postal ballots for most decisions that need to be taken by local authorities?
(Mr Raynsford) I think there is ground for modest optimism about the local government elections of 10 days ago. Firstly, there was a general increase in the turnout, not just in those areas where pilots took place. Turnout was not good by any means, but at 34 per cent it was better than it was in the equivalent four years ago. I do believe that from the pilots there is significant evidence that the postal voting option has been particularly successful, and, also, there is real interest in some of the electronic options. We are going to obviously await the full evaluation from the Electoral Commission before taking decisions, but I believe that this is something that we need to pursue positively to encourage people to participate.
548. What actual evidence do you have that the public now know more than they did before about who is responsible for council decisions? You keep asserting that they do, but the evidence we have got from the Audit Commission says they do not. Where is your evidence?
(Mr Raynsford) As I have said on many occasions, we have not got formal evidence because the evaluation process is only just being set up now. It will be some time before we have proper, detailed research to give us a sound basis for future decision-making. What I can say is that from my own discussions with not just councillors and council officers but, also, with the public in various parts of the country, I believe there is some grounds for belief that the new arrangements are clearer. I was in Warrington last week talking to a number of people at the time of signing the local Public Service Agreement with Warrington Council, which was a very happy occasion and a very positive one. Talking to the leader of the local chamber of commerce, he expressed the view that there was a clear understanding of the way the council was taking its decisions. Now, there are other people I talk to who also indicate that they prefer to operate in a framework where there is a small executive who they can get to, perhaps, more easily than the opaque structures that previously operated. I do not want to attach too much to anecdotal comments because this is early days, but all I would say is that the remorselessly negative perception that some people have put on the new structures does not seem to me to be justified.
549. Postal voting, before we move on. Are you confident that fraud can be kept to a minimum with postal voting? My impression is that in the traditional way of people having to go to a polling station there was very limited fraud within England, certainly. I would have thought there was a huge amount of scope for fraud with postal voting.
(Mr Raynsford) One of the reasons for conducting pilots has been specifically to test whether or not they could operate successfully and whether or not they were open to more opportunities for fraud or malpractice than traditional votes cast at a polling station. Clearly, we are going to wait for the full evaluation of the pilots before I give a firm comment but our initial indications are that all the pilots worked successfully; there were no technical problems and we do not have reports of any significant fraud on a scale that would give cause for concern. I think we all know there is some scope for fraud in any electoral system; you cannot stop a person going to a polling station and impersonating someone else. You can identify, in some cases, where that happens but even a traditional polling station is open to fraud.
550. Most of the political parties had to find their way round postal voting on a large scale virtually for the first time. What would be the tendency for them to produce imaginative campaigning styles over a period of two or three postal elections, some of which will be very good and some of which will be basically flawed (?)?
(Mr Raynsford) I think, frankly, there were variations between the results in the various areas that did call postal ballots this time; some had literally a doubling of the turnout, others a more modest increase and in a couple of cases there was no increase at all. We need to learn the lessons. There were different approaches adopted to the promotion of postal voting and to the explanation given to the public, and those are issues that we do need to understand fully. However, I do not accept that there is any prima facie evidence to suggest that there is greater grounds for fraud, provided proper safeguards are in place for well-run postal ballots.
551. Briefly, on this issue of clarity and openness. Do you think that people who go along to a cabinet meeting in a local authority and, perhaps, put their point of view before the cabinet formally makes a decision really understand that the cabinet has made it in private previously?
(Mr Raynsford) I think the public's wish, above all, is to have an indication as to who is in charge and who is responsible. I think we are all conscious that very often government decisions are attributed to the Prime Minister alone; people often write to the Prime Minister saying "Will you please change this policy?"
552. Oh, so they are not?
(Mr Raynsford) It is that wish for seeing who is in charge and for having a sense of clarity that is very important, and that is what we are trying to help.
553. When you were strongly advocating the idea of elected mayors, did you really envisage the election of a monkey?
(Mr Raynsford) What I would say is there has probably been more publicity about the mayoral elections for good or other reasons than there would have had these been traditional council electionsthe only exception to that, of course, being the election of the BNP in Burnley, which obviously raises other very serious issues, and that was a major cause of publicity. I think the outcome in one sense is rather heartening, because you had a number of authorities who sought to adopt a different type of constitution for a variety of different reasons. The outcomes have varied. So we actually will be able to see in the next few years how an independent mayor works with a majority party group; how an independent mayor works with a council with no overall control; how a mayor from one party works with a council where the majority is from another party and how mayors from one particular party work with majority councils from their own party. These are all the outcomes of those elections, and I think it will be important to see how they operate and we will certainly be watching them. The key test will be how the mayors function. They all know that they will be judged very clearly on their success or failure and the likelihood of their re-election will depend on them being able to demonstrate to the public that they have delivered. That isgoing back to my arguments about claritya way in which there is no doubt whatsoever as to who is the person who carries the can.
554. Have you not got some concerns that, perhaps, there is not enormous enthusiasm in various areas for elected mayors? If people say "Actually, we are fed up with the established political party system round here, so we will give it a shock and when it comes to the voting we will vote for a monkey rather than the established political parties", it is not necessarily an understanding of or an enthusiasm for a new system it is just a rejection of something established.
(Mr Raynsford) I think it is the case that in certain areas people do say "We are fed up with the political parties, we want a change". We know that in Elmbridge a residents group secured a majority, we know that in the Wyre Forest a campaigning group concerned with the local hospital have secured a strong place on the council, and we know that independent candidates were successful in mayoral elections in Hartlepool and Middlesbrough. There will be different factors behind those elections, but I think it is right in the democratic process that there should be options for people to say "We want a change. We would rather do things differently and we do not wish to simply repeat the patterns that previously existed".
555. You clearly have been contemplating, maybe, insisting that some authorities do have a referendum on an elected mayor. We understand you will be waiting for a report from the Electoral Commission before going ahead. Can you explain what the situation is there?
(Mr Raynsford) The Electoral Commission produced a report a couple of months ago which indicated concern on two counts: the first was the precise wording of the referendum question, and the second was the ban on local authorities making any statement about the referendum during the 28 days leading up to the referendum. While the reason for the latter was very clearto avoid a local authority unduly influencing or seeking to unduly influence the outcomethe concern the Electoral Commission has brought up is that this has prevented information which would be helpful to the public who may be unclear about any aspects of the referendum being issued. They have asked us to look at that again and they have raised questions about the actual wording of the question. We are discussing these matters with the Electoral Commission and we felt it was wrong to direct any further referendums pending resolution of these issues. The only cases in which we have considered directing referendums have been where the consultations demonstrated a considerable level of interest with either an apparent majority in favour of a mayoral option which the council did not adopt, or where opinion was very evenly split and where under the guidelines that we issued it would be appropriate for a referendum to be held.
556. Is it right in this area of new democracy that it should be up to yourself or the Secretary of State to determine what the question will be? In Brighton's case, for example, they were able to put forward an alternative to an elected mayor being a revised committee system, which was approved by the local people. Why is that option not going to be open to all local authorities?
(Mr Raynsford) That particular outcome was a product of circumstances in Brighton but I do not think it is something that is likely to apply in many other cases.
557. Why should other people not be able to choose that way? Surely it is wrong for you to judge that that was inappropriate. I find it odd that you have allowed that and then said "And nowhere else is going to get through the door that way".
(Mr Raynsford) If you look at this as getting through the door, it implies a view that the outcome of anything else is undesirable and that one should go back to the previous arrangements.
558. Whether or not Brighton and Hove is a reasonable arrangement, you appear to have sort of shrugged your shoulders and said "Well, we will have to let them get away with it".
(Mr Raynsford) That is the outcome of the referendum that was held in Brighton and Hove, but, as you know very well, Parliament decided that in general the alternative arrangements option would not be appropriate for authorities larger than 85,000, and Brighton and Hove is an exception to that, and the only exception to that. We have no plan to vary the decision that was taken by Parliament in approving the Local Government Act 2000.
559. Mr Rouse from your department said to us that alternative arrangements votes would be available to other authorities that held referendums.
(Mr Raynsford) Alternative arrangements are technically available under the referendum procedures, but as I have said there are very few authorities likely to come forward with a suggestion for that because, in practice, most authorities have now got proposed arrangements in place and if they are intending to hold a referendum, usually because there will have been a petition, their existing arrangements will almost certainly be the fallback.