Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by London Borough of Merton Main Opposition Group (LGA 36)


  1.  For any institution to remain relevant and effective it must be prepared to change and adapt, but it is equally important that through change we acknowledge the strengths of our institutions and the principles and values that underpin their effectiveness. This is true of local government as much as any other institution and it is important to carefully reflect on the changes taking place. The committee system, designed over a century ago may well have warranted reform, and the experience of the introduction of new structures and new roles for local government has demonstrated some improvements to the way in which Councils operate. It has also confirmed some of the strengths of the traditional style of local government, which may have been sacrificed to the Modernisation agenda.

  2.  New structures and role for local government have been imposed upon local Councils and local people, as no option for the retention of any semblance of the traditional arrangements was permitted. The effectiveness of local government should be judged against its propensity for democracy, openness and efficiency, and this is an outcome of how government is run as much as how it is structured.

  3.  This report sets out a brief view of how the Modernisation process provided for under the Local Government Act 2000 is working, from the perspective of the principal Opposition group, based upon experience at the London Borough of Merton. It will focus in particular upon the impact of the new constitutional structures adopted and provides a view on some of the implications of this to Local Government.


  4.  Part One of the Act requires local councils to promote Community Wellbeing, that is, to promote and improve the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of their area. Councils are now required to produce comprehensive "community strategies" to set out how this is to be achieved, in partnership with other relevant local organisations. The danger can be that such plans will not be linked and integrated properly into existing policies, plans and targets, eg within the Best Value process and within the existing political process, and will provide another round of confusing bureaucracy. It is important that such plans are clearly linked and integrated with other Council initiatives, that Community Leadership is focused, coherent, efficient and effective. Community Wellbeing implies a more proactive role for the Council, but there is little understanding as to exactly what powers are enabled by this legislation and how Community Wellbeing will be delivered in practice.

  5.  Part Three of the Act provides for a new ethical framework relating to the conduct of Councillors and officers. Improved protocols on officer-Member working relationships may well be a helpful way to improve how Councillors and staff work together, helping to deter unprofessional conduct and improve the organisational culture within local government.

  6.  Part Two of the Act relates to the new constitutional arrangements and the introduction of one of the prescribed models of executive decision making structures. Merton adopted the Leader and Cabinet constitutional model. The new arrangements have made both positive and negative impacts upon the policy decision making process and have inevitably impacted upon the role of Councillors and the way in which citizens are able to democratically engage with the policy process.


  7.  The London Borough of Merton introduced a pilot of the new constitutional arrangements required as from May 2000. This enabled officers and Members to trial and evaluate the new system prior to its formal introduction on 17 October 2001.

  8.  The new constitution provides for a Leader, elected by the Council, a Cabinet, which is the executive of the Council, an Overview and Scrutiny Commission, which scrutinises decisions, and the Full Council meeting. A Scheme of Delegation defines which bodies take different kinds of decisions. Executive decisions are made by portfolio holders, by the Cabinet or by officers and Key Decisions may be called in by the Overview and Scrutiny Commission. The Overview and Scrutiny Commission also delegates to four Scrutiny Panels based around policy groupings.

Political Management and Administration

  9.  The requirements of Councillors as portfolio holders and shadow front bench spokesmen, has led to high demands upon them, as they take responsibility for a wide range of policy issues. This is a high expectation in terms of time investment, aptitude and ability.

  10.  The new portfolio system aims to provide greater scope for improved and more coherent political management, where a portfolio holder can take direct responsibility for an area of policy, clearly defining goals and targets. For this to work effectively, greater scope for the delimitation between political management and policy administration needs to be realised. Whereas the committee system tended to involve Members in more micro-policy issues, the new executive arrangements perhaps favours a clearer distinction between policy making and implementation. The political executive needs to build its capacity for setting policy goals and targets and measuring output and the administration needs to focus on policy implementation, management, providing clear technical advice and achieving targets.

  11.  The portfolio system aims to enable better political accountability, but it can only do this if clear, direct lines of accountability are realised within the organisation itself. This means that portfolios need to be well defined and functional, both to the organisation and to policy imperatives. The policy implementation administrative apparatus, the organisation of local government, needs to find a functional fit with political portfolios to provide efficient lines of authority and accountability.

  12.  Under the committee system, Councillors could build up a great deal of expertise on specific policy areas, through long periods of service. The new arrangements have led to the loss of the scope for Councillor "specialists". It may prove harder for non-Executive Councillors to build up such a degree of expertise as they are not exposed to the pre-decision making discussion or advice from officers that may be gleaned on policy making committees.

Transparency and Openness

  13.  One of the perceived weaknesses of the old committee system is that it lacked clarity about where decisions were being taken and by whom. There was then, an expectation that the new arrangements would provide greater openness and transparency. Paradoxically, a particular concern about the new arrangements has in fact been the very issue of the availability of information and the transparency of the decision making. Key Decisions are required to be made in public, but there is some concern about the definition of a "Key Decision" and non-"key" decisions that are being taken outside of the public arena behind closed doors. There is a perception that some important decisions are not defined as Key and therefore are not channelled through the Scrutiny process and not required to be made in public.

  14.  Another obstacle to openness derives inevitably from the fact that the minority parties are now excluded from participating in the Executive. Often it is more difficult for the Opposition to take an in depth view as it is excluded from the political executive. Although the Cabinet meets in public to make Key Decisions, Councillors from minority groups are no longer able to probe questions and reveal the background to decisions when they are being considered. All of the information and advice available to the portfolio holder may not be made available to the Scrutiny Commission.

  15.  The new Forward Plan of up and coming Key Decisions is a helpful tool to plan the policy and Scrutiny process and its publication enables Councillors, the public and Scrutiny greater awareness of where and when a decision is being made. This is a welcome improvement and should help to improve transparency. Accuracy of the timetable and the items for consideration are of course key to its success, as otherwise information proves rather to be misinformation, and this still requires improvement. The introduction of reference numbers has helped to clarify items as the name reference was sometimes subject to change during the various stages of consideration.

Overview and Scrutiny

  16.  The Scrutiny process has been developing since its pilot introduction and Members are becoming more able to discern priority issues, avoid overload and inappropriate delays in the decision making process. The Overview and Scrutiny Commission are able to call in Key Decisions and make recommendations; this provides a constructive check on decision making, and its strength derives from the fact that it can bring experienced, non-executive Members into the process from an objective or constructively critical perspective.

  17.  The efficient use of Scrutiny call in has been shown to be important both to the ability of Scrutiny to consider issues effectively and to provide an efficient policy making process. A result of the experience of the pilot of the new Executive and Scrutiny arrangements has been the introduction of pre-decision Scrutiny by the Commission, and it has been shown that Scrutiny is able to provide a constructive check on Key Decisions both before and after consideration by the Executive.

  18.  The Overview and Scrutiny Commission has also discovered some limitations on its powers with respect to call in of Key Decisions. Scrutiny Members discovered that the Chief Executive was effectively empowered by the Constitution to overrule call in in exceptional circumstances, where he deems to call in to be an invalid request.

  19.  The Scrutiny process has been proven to be an important way to involve non-executive Councillors in the consideration of executive decisions. As the Council has become disenfranchised by the new arrangements, Scrutiny is the most important and effective mechanism for holding the Executive in check. As such it is an important vehicle for the Opposition to hold the Executive to account and to scrutinise policy.

  20.  Scrutiny works best when it demonstrates a more objective, critical, advisory role, when it can build up a consensus-driven informed approach. To do this effectively, to feed into the policy process, pulling out potential problems, it needs a high degree of technical competence and credibility, and this is to some extent at odds with the perception of political motivations. Scrutiny is then in practice part technical-advisory, and part political, and there is an apparent conflict between these roles.

Political Accountability

  21.  One of the key expectations of the Modernisation process is that it might provide a clearer definition of political accountability and a more efficient decision making process. This has to an extent been realised, as the new Cabinet system makes portfolio holders visibly accountable for political decisions. This enables Scrutiny to arrive from an outside and objective source and provides a healthy division of powers and checks and balances within the process. This translates further to a clearer sense of political accountability to the public, as it better defines responsibility for the outcomes of political choices made.

  22.  The fact that portfolio holders are now no longer subject to the probing of minority group members on the Executive, can however lead to the danger of an autocratic style of decision making, which of course could lead to ill-considered decisions. This is especially the case if there are limitations on what can go into Scrutiny, eg either in terms of the definition of Key Decisions or in the case of a call in of a Key Decision being over ruled by the Chief Executive.

  23.  Political scrutiny, which has its place more within the arena of the Full Council, is also an important democratic function for non-executive Councillors and the Opposition, as the Executive must be held to account politically. It is important to provide proper checks and balances and to probe and expose differences of policy and political management. Members need to have a credible and public forum to ask pertinent questions on behalf of their electors. The new arrangements have effectively emasculated the role of the Council.

  24.  The Opposition in Council provides an "outside" critical scrutiny to political decisions and is an "administration in waiting". The disenfranchisement of the Council and the exclusion of minority group Members from the Executive have weakened the scope for political scrutiny, and to that extent actually undermined political accountability.

  25.  There is a need to reconsider the role of the Full Council, and its perceived and actual importance to Members and to citizens. It is the sole body at which democratically elected Members are able to represent local people, it is the only Council body that is directly elected by the people.

Democratic Engagement

  26.  There is a widespread perception among many "back bench" Councillors that their ability to influence the policy making process has been marginalised. The scope for direct participation on committee has been curtailed and the role, importance and policy making powers of the full Council have been emaciated. As a result, many Councillors are unhappy about being excluded from decisions now being taken by a handful of Councillors on the Executive.

  27.  The Full Council meeting has lost some of its perceived status as the final arbiter of policy and debate. The political link of democratic accountability to local citizens through elected Councillors has been subverted, channelled towards greater centralisation and measurement of public opinion through a plethora of surveys that bypass the democratic representative system. Meanwhile the full Council struggles to find a role for itself.

  28.  The new Area Forums have been set up to provide feedback from the community and to provide an opportunity for the Council and Councillors to engage directly with local citizens. If this is to be effective it is important that the Forums are well attended and that they tend to reflect the broad interests within the community. Their role and purpose needs greater definition and an appropriate mechanism for influencing the policy debate needs to be developed and integrated with existing political structures.

  29.  Far from improving local democracy, the new arrangements do not seem to be raising the interest of the public in local government. If the public are to be fully engaged in the policy making process at a local level, local government institutions need to be seen as accessible and democratic. Given that the decision making process is now more centralised, public participation needs to be improved and opened up. The public is not made to feel welcome at Cabinet meetings, indeed are not encouraged to participate at meetings at all. The Public Gallery, rarely full, is now nearly always empty. Local Government has become more remote as the ability of members of the public to influence decisions through their elected Councillors has been diminished.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 12 September 2002