Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Local Democrat Group at the Local Government Association (LGA 12)

  The LGA Liberal Democrat Group represents around 4,600 Liberal Democrat councillors in England and Wales.


  We are regularly in contact with members of authorities up and down the country who have implemented the new political structures and we have therefore developed a good understanding of how Part II of the Local Government Act 2000 is working in practice. It is still early days as the first new constitutions were only fully implemented in June 2001 and some authorities are yet to move to their new forms of governance. It will no doubt take some time for the new structures to bed down and for the full effect to be known, but early indications are that overview and scrutiny is the part of the new political arrangements that local authorities are finding most difficult.


  We have not undertaken a survey about how Cabinets are working, however we are aware of some issues.

    —  The time required to devote to council business by Executive Members tends to lead to responsibility being taken by those who have the time, rather than those with the best abilities.

    —  Overview committees do not allow members to acquire in-depth knowledge of a particular policy area. Overview committees tend to examine selected parts of policy only. Some authorities are questioning how future Executive members will acquire the detailed knowledge that they will need to take on a Cabinet position.

    —  On some authorities Cabinet meetings are used by Executive members to make self-congratulatory announcements that are not part of the agenda, and to lie about the opposition. Although these statements are made in public, if opposition members are not permitted to speak at Cabinet meetings they are powerless to refute them. The system allows this to happen and leaves opposition councillors in these authorities feeling demoralised, powerless and without any opportunity to put their own side of the story on record. Some Councils allow opposition leaders to speak at Cabinet meetings, although they are of course not able to vote. In these authorities the abuse of the Cabinet position is not possible and any misleading or untruthful statements can be corrected.


  The LGA Liberal Democrat Group carried out research on overview and scrutiny during the summer of 2001 through a survey of Liberal Democrat councillors and political researchers in local government. It was clear from the responses that most local authorities are struggling to make overview and scrutiny effective.


  We asked respondents whether the recommendations of their Overview and Scrutiny Committees influence the decisions of the Executive. Although some authorities reported that their Executives have taken recommendations on board there were many where Scrutiny has no impact.

  Those that feel that their Scrutiny Committees have a real influence tend to be from authorities where a substantial amount of pre-decision scrutiny is taking place. Members are effectively being involved in policy development before the Cabinet members come to their final decision. Making all the information available to Scrutiny members, members of the public and stakeholder organisations well in advance of a decision being taken is a key part of effective pre-decision scrutiny and ensures that they are able to participate, object or submit alternative proposals.

  In many authorities the work of the Overview and Scrutiny Committees has no impact whatsoever. Respondents to our survey made comments such as "The Executive is influenced by Scrutiny only if it agrees with it", "To date the Executive has never been influenced by a scrutiny decision" and "Scrutiny is merely seen as a hoop which the Cabinet has to put up with before it can implement its plans". It is clearly difficult for non-Cabinet members to engage fully and enthusiastically with the new political management arrangements if they feel that they have no impact through Scrutiny.


  The responses to our survey showed that authorities do seem to be following Government recommendations that whipping should not be used on Overview and Scrutiny Committees. Some local authorities have gone further than this and have prohibited it in their constitutions. Although there may not be formal whipping we have evidence that members of groups often vote together and that scrutiny is used for political purposes by administration parties and opposition parties at least some of the time. The Government's intention that Scrutiny members should feel free to exercise proper and "independent" scrutiny is not working in practice for a whole host of different reasons:

    —  Scrutiny is the only part of the new decision making system where non-Executive members can challenge the Executive. Under the Committee system opposition members and others could challenge the administration's policies or performance in public at the point the decisions were being made in Committee. This challenge now takes place in Scrutiny or not at all as any issues that are not part of the policy framework cannot even be discussed at full Council. Given that the majority of councillors are part of a political group they need to be able to engage in political debate at some point in the process. For the majority of members this can only take place in an Overview and Scrutiny Committee but is contrary to the Government's intention to take the politics out of scrutiny.

    —  Scrutiny is being used in some authorities by opposition members as an opportunity to embarrass the administration or to raise issues that they can use for political campaigning purposes.

    —  Call-in is being used by some members to enable an alternative view to the Executive's proposals to be expressed in public, even though they know that they will not win the argument.

    —  It is not just opposition members who are using the scrutiny process for political purposes. Members of the administration party on some councils use their majority on Scrutiny Committees to rubber-stamp Executive decisions and to block any criticism of their colleagues. It was reported from one authority that this has happened to such an extreme that the teacher representatives on the Education Scrutiny Panel now refuse to attend.

    —  The fear of retribution is preventing some non-Executive members of the ruling group from carrying out an effective scrutiny role, even if there is no formal whipping on the Scrutiny Committee.

    —  Conversely, disaffected ruling group members can seize upon Scrutiny as an opportunity to take "revenge" on their Cabinet colleagues.

    —  Local authorities have far less members than the House of Commons, on which the local government Executive/Scrutiny model is based. Personal relationships between local authority members are much closer than in the House of Commons, making it more uncomfortable for members to challenge the Executive. In the House of Commons there are plenty of other opportunities, for example debates during the passage of legislation and opposition day debates, when members can engage in political debate. This enables the politics to be taken out of Select Committees.

    —  Scrutinising policy or the decisions of the Executive is a very different process from participating in a decision-making committee. Members are having to learn new skills and a new approach. Behaving in committee mode is not conducive to effective scrutiny. It is not just members who need to learn new skills if scrutiny is to be effective, but also officers. Submitting the same report to a decision-making Cabinet and to a Scrutiny Committee, which is the practice in many authorities, will not assist members to become more effective scrutineers. The role of the two bodies is different and requires reports to be written from a different angle.

    —  Because Overview and Scrutiny Committees can only advise, they have no "bite" and there is no effective opposition to Executive proposals.


  In our questionnaire we asked about officer support for the Scrutiny function. The overwhelming experience is that officer support is minimal or non-existent. Reports for scrutiny members are generally written by the officers that are responsible for the services, rather than officers that are seen to be "independent". Many respondents felt that lack of officer support is at least partially responsible for the current ineffectiveness of scrutiny. If there is insufficient officer support it is not possible for authorities to carry out comprehensive, detailed investigations such as those carried out by the parliamentary Select Committees.


  The effectiveness of scrutiny is being reduced in some authorities by the procedure agreed in their constitution. Although we would not want an authority's decision-making process to grind to a halt because of excessive use of call-ins, Government guidance is quite clear that councillors must have the opportunity to call-in all but a few very urgent decisions. The constitution has been set up in some councils in such a way that it is difficult to call in decisions, for example by specifying that members of all three political parties need to sign a call-in request. If the ruling group's scrutiny members refuse to co-operate as they do not want their colleagues to be embarrassed this makes call-in impossible. We also know of one authority where severe restrictions have been placed on the number of overview and scrutiny meetings and on the number of items that any member can call in during a year. Opposition members in such authorities are becoming hostile to the new political arrangements.


  The conclusions that we drew from our survey are that the authorities that are succeeding in making scrutiny effective and that have members who are satisfied with the process are often those that blur the Cabinet/Scrutiny split in a way that the Government did not intend. Consensus is reached and options worked through by Party groups before formal proposals are made. This involves all members, keeps them engaged in the process, and ensures that the whole decision-making process does not grind to a halt through call-ins.


  Around two thirds of referenda held so far have resulted in the elected mayor model of governance being turned down by local people. Some of the authorities concerned felt obliged to hold a referendum as the results of the consultation on new governance arrangements showed that although more people favoured a leader and cabinet model, there was a fairly significant amount of interest in the combined mayoral models.

  We are aware from our contacts with many authorities that there is a great deal of confusion about how the results of consultation should have been analysed. We know of a number of cases where councillors were advised by their officers, quoting from the guidelines on consultation that they should hold a referendum. "New Council Constitutions—Consultation Guidelines for English Local Authorities" says, "if there is significant minority support for either or both of the mayoral options then opinion should be tested by holding a binding referendum for one of the mayoral options, with the leader and cabinet as the fall-back option" (p. 47). The guidance, "New Council Constitutions—Guidance Pack", on the other hand only says that local authorities are "encouraged to consider" the guidelines and other good practice guides on consultation.

  We would question the validity of the suggestion in the guidelines that the results of the consultation for the two mayoral options should be combined when considering whether to hold a referendum, when they are in fact very different models of governance. Their common factor is having a mayor. It could be argued that the consultation results of those favouring the leader and cabinet, and mayor and cabinet options should be combined as they both share the common factor of a cabinet.

  As the guidelines were published along with the guidance, with a similar design and almost identical cover, they have taken on an authority in the eyes of councillors and officers that they do not possess in law. This has persuaded councils to hold referenda, at a great cost, when there is no real desire for a mayoral system of government in their area.

  Even in Southwark, where the Secretary of State considered "that from the evidence available to him Southwark has drawn up their proposal without having due regard to the responses of the consultation", the referendum showed very clearly, with a 68 per cent no vote, that there was no demand for a mayor. The enforced referendum cost the authority around £215,000 to hold.

  A report published in The Times on 19 February 2002 suggested that the total cost of the mayoral referenda so far to taxpayers is £2.5 million. In the two thirds of authorities where the outcome was a no vote this is often seen as a waste of money which could have been better spent on improving services.


  Although this has not become an issue yet as the first mayoral elections do not take place until May this year, there is a real potential for conflict between the mayor and full Council, where the majority of councillors are from a different political party from the mayor. Whilst recognising that the mayor has a direct mandate from local people, a political group that has a majority of councillors has no less a mandate, yet the regulations require the mayor's proposals to prevail unless two thirds of councillors vote against them. A situation could arise in which the majority party collectively won more votes than the mayor but is unable to overturn the proposals of the mayor because they do not have two thirds of the council seats. This would be certain to have a very demoralising effect on the majority group. Having gained the support of the electorate they would be rendered powerless and unable to deliver their programme of policies.


  In many Councils the outcome of the new political arrangements is that there has been a reduction in political debate, a reduction in the creation of solutions and in the exchange of ideas by members of all Parties. Many members who are not part of the Executive feel demotivated, excluded and unable to influence decisions. This is leading to members questioning whether they wish to remain as councillors.


Duty to promote economic, social and environmental well-being

The freedoms introduced alongside the new duty for councils to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their area are broadly welcomed by authorities. We do not have much evidence, however, that Councils are finding innovative ways to use the new duty.

    —  A County Council has questioned how much change and improvement the new duty will deliver when so many council services are so tightly controlled by the Government. The Whitehall straitjacket that prescribes how education and social services are run, together with financial constraints, make it difficult to see how local authorities will be able to do much more than tinker at the margins with the new duty.

    —  We have also received comments that Best Value, the myriad of statutory plans and other initiatives are so time consuming that there is no opportunity to explore how the new duty can be used. Authorities also feel uncertain about how the duty can be used.

    —  We know of a couple of authorities that are using the duty to achieve objectives, including its use in contract conditions to achieve social objectives.

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