TUESDAY 14 MAY 2002
Andrew Bennett, in the Chair
Examination of Witnesses
RT HON MR NICK RAYNSFORD, a Member of the House, Minister for Local Government and the Regions, and MR ANDREW WHETNALL, Director for Local Government, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, examined.
(Mr Raynsford) Thank you very much. I am Nick Raynsford, Minister for Local Government and the Regions, and I am joined by Andrew Whetnall, who is familiar to you as the director of the local government section with our Department.
(Mr Raynsford) I am happy to go straight into questions.
(Mr Raynsford) Because the Local Government Act 2000 covered a range of different subjects, it would be difficult to conclude that it was a mistake in broad terms. My own view is that it is far too soon to make an overall assessment of the benefits but there are clear advantages and benefits and we need to look closely over the years ahead to see how those develop and whether we can build on them and improve the advances which have been made.
(Mr Raynsford) There is a specific research programme which has been set in train, quite an expensive research programme, and I believe Andrew Whetnall has already written to you with details of that. That is a formal assessment but, of course, I meet councillors and local government officials on a daily basis and have informal conversations about lots of things, including the way in which aspects of the Local Government Act 2000 are operating.
(Mr Raynsford) I am conscious that some back bench councillors do feel concern, and obviously that is a concern. Having said that, I think it is important to see the way in which the Local Government Act 2000 does create a new opportunity for people who might in the past have been seen as back benchers to become, if I can use the words of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, more frontline councillors engaging more actively with their communities, acting as voices for local communities, rather than simply attending meetings in the town hall. It is that new role that is probably not yet by any means fully operational but which holds out I think real potential for engaging councillors with their communities.
(Mr Raynsford) I have to say that my overriding priority is the effectiveness of local government in serving the communities, and it is the views and perceptions of local communities which must be paramount. There is some evidence, and it is at this stage only anecdotal, that the new structures have helped to make the workings of local government clearer and more accessible to the public, because they are less opaque than the previous structures. That is obviously to be welcomed. But I am conscious, as I have said already, there are anxieties felt by some back bench councillors who have not yet found a satisfactory way of using their new role, both in relation to the overview and scrutiny, and also as engaging as frontline councillors with their local communities.
(Mr Raynsford) As I said in my response to your earlier question, it is too soon for the formal evaluation, which has only just been set up, but I do on a daily basis talk to councillors and council officers and members of the public, and I have to say the evidence I am getting from those conversations is mixed. There are some people who see the new arrangements working very well, there are some who welcome the opportunity to be more actively engaged in the community and spending less time attending meetings, there are others who feel they have been excluded from the decision-making process. That is something I am very conscious of as I indicated earlier, and I think it is too soon to reach a formal judgment but I certainly would not say that the new arrangements were not working.
(Mr Raynsford) Two comments I would make on that. One is that was often the case and in my experience as a local councillor, which is a rather long time ago now ---
(Mr Raynsford) I well recall local communities saying, "It is all very well having you present but we ought to get the leader of the council along to the meeting if we really want to get a result." That kind of response I think has always been part of the local government framework. What I am hearing is that some local communities do feel their local councillor is now more engaged with them and is able to articulate views more clearly as a frontline councillor rather than as a member of the executive.
(Mr Raynsford) Yes, I have said that.
(Mr Raynsford) I do not see any reason to revise the framework that was set up and is currently in existence. I think it is broadly right, but we certainly do not wish to close off the option of reviewing how arrangements are working and whether some changes, some adjustments, might be appropriate in the light of the evaluation I have described.
(Mr Raynsford) In relation to planning matters, are you suggesting?
(Mr Raynsford) I think that is one of the interesting ideas that has emerged, and it is certainly one we would want to look at in the light of the evaluation, but I certainly do not see a need at this stage to pre-empt that evaluation by giving a view one way or the other on that proposal.
Ms King: What do you think we can actually do to ensure the executive does not simply ignore the recommendations of the scrutiny panel? Select Committees doing scrutiny here in the House of Commons sometimes feel their recommendations are ignored, for example.
(Mr Raynsford) This is one of the great tensions of politics at all levels. My view of this is ultimately one has to put one's trust in the electorate. I take some comfort from the fact that preliminary assessment of the most recent local elections suggests there was probably more local influence on outcomes than in any series of local elections for some time. That implies that local issues carry more weight perhaps than traditional national party loyalties. If that is the case, that is rather encouraging because it would imply a council which ignored the views of its scrutiny committee and was seen by the electorate as doing so would be at greater risk of losing out in a subsequent election.
(Mr Raynsford) I think like all reforms it takes time for the information to get around and for people to become aware of how things are operating. I certainly would not pretend there is widespread public knowledge of the structures currently in place. Having said that, I recall a degree of confusion about how local authorities operated previously when the structures had been in place for upwards of a hundred years. So it is not easy always to ensure the public are fully aware of exactly how bodies like local councils or indeed Parliament operate.
(Mr Raynsford) I am not going to answer that because I do not wish to try and put myself in a position of assuming how the late Nicholas Ridley would respond. I think most people who look fair-mindedly at local government would say the current arrangements are preferable to the previous arrangements in that they make clearer the distinction between executive responsibility and scrutiny. They make it clearer who takes the decision and therefore who carries the responsibility and make it easier for the public to understand ultimately who is in charge.
(Mr Raynsford) I think exactly the same used to happen under the old arrangements but people did not know that was actually the case. It was quite often easy for the public to be utterly mystified about the decision-making process and whether or not their councillor had any role in it at all.
(Mr Raynsford) They will know that their councillor is either a member of the executive, in which case has a direct responsibility or, if not, as a back bench member has the opportunity to raise the issue through full council where that is appropriate or seek to have the issue examined through scrutiny.
(Mr Raynsford) I have to say that I have a recollection myself as a former member of the council of council meetings going on late into the night and into the early morning and them being total charades, because the decisions had all been taken in party groups beforehand and all that was happening was that the issues were being rehearsed in public. So I really do not buy the argument that having lengthy, protracted council meetings going on into the early hours of the morning is an enhancement of the democratic process. I believe what is crucial is that there should be clarity about who is taking the decision, who is accountable and therefore who the public can blame if they are not happy with that decision. I believe the new structures do achieve greater clarity in that respect.
(Mr Raynsford) It is up to individual councils obviously to consider how they best bring forward budgets in a way which ensures effective scrutiny, whether that involves prior consideration by a scrutiny committee or not, but obviously there are timetable issues there which may make it difficult in some cases. But the budget is one of the critical elements in the annual calendar and clearly there must be an opportunity for full debate on the budget and for identification of any elements in that budget which individual councillors feel are questionable or unsatisfactory.
(Mr Raynsford) I think the new arrangements make it easier for councillors who are determined to scrutinise effectively to look not just at the headline figures but drill down at how those budgets are made up and what the components are and, in particular, to begin to focus questions on how they relate to outcomes, because that ultimately is what good councillors will be seeking to do, to see what is achieved for any given item of expenditure, what is the opportunity cost of not changing allocations of finance and whether there are clear, demonstrable benefits from using money in particular ways. I certainly see the whole scrutiny function as being a far more effective way of achieving that than previous arrangements. One of the reasons we are seeking to give powers, as we are, to enable councillors to take on outside members with expertise on to scrutiny committees with voting powers is to strengthen their ability to do that in just the same way as your Committee benefits from having outside experts who are there to advise you but not to vote with you.
(Mr Raynsford) I do not, and I did mention the timetable. You will be well aware from your considerable council experience that there is a very tight process to be gone through between the publication of the budget through to its adoption and the whole process of government decisions on SSA and grant which obviously does produce a very tight timetable indeed. What we would not want to do is to add to local governments' obligations additional timetable factors which would make it difficult for them to ensure there is proper and effective scrutiny of the budget and a proper decision on that budget. That is why I believe it is right they should have a proper measure of discretion. But, as I have said in response to Oona King's questioning, it is absolutely vital there should be proper and thorough scrutiny and that should not just be about the numbers but the outcomes and results of those spending decisions.
(Mr Raynsford) I will preface my reply, if I may, by saying this is a very large and complex process.
(Mr Raynsford) Which we are trying to manage in the best possible way against a very tight timetable.
(Mr Raynsford) We are committed to there being a consultation on the proposals to allow full opportunity for local government to reflect on options before, in fact, final decisions are taken. That we expect to be this summer, though I cannot give you a precise date yet because a lot of work is still going on to bring together the various component elements which need to be in place.
(Mr Raynsford) There is one other element in that, which is the availability of the data, because most authorities will actually want to relate any proposed changes to the formula for grant distribution to what the likely impact is on their own authority. Without having up-to-date data that is not possible. The fact that some of the data, particularly in terms of school numbers, does not become available until after September is one of the other factors in the timetable. Our aim (and I am sorry about this rather long-winded answer to your question) is to ensure that decisions are taken within exactly the same timetable as normally occurs so that authorities will have a clear indication of the proposed grant distribution by the end of November, early December, in the same way as we did in the latest round.
(Mr Raynsford) As I said in response to an earlier question, we are actually intending to legislate to give powers for local authorities to bring in independent members to scrutiny committees with full voting rights if they so wish. We believe it is up to the local authority to decide what is the right balance and where the expertise is required to strengthen the capability of their overview and scrutiny committees.
(Mr Raynsford) I think each council would need to take that decision for itself. Obviously, one of the purposes of bringing in additional expertise, which may or may not involve significant financial outlay (in most cases it probably will not, I would suggest) ----
(Mr Raynsford) I am not going to comment on the decisions Select Committees take in terms of their advisers.
(Mr Raynsford) No, I am not. I am saying that in some cases that expertise may be available either free of charge or at very reasonable cost.
(Mr Raynsford) No, because it varies enormously from area to area, but there are people who are public-spirited and who have got an understanding of the law in many areas who would be willing to give their expertise if requested to do so, in the public interest. Can I also say that the real benefit from having expertise is in identifying savings that can actually result in more cost-effective operation in the future, so the net cost to the local authority could well be less in the long-term as a result of bringing in outside expertise. Finally, can I just offer one other thought, that where you have a small district and they have similar problems to other adjoining small districts, they may wish to operate on a partnership basis using the same expertise and that might help to reduce the cost, if there is a cost.
(Mr Raynsford) That is the decision which you have quite rightly taken in relation to the Select Committees, but we believe ----
(Mr Raynsford) Equally, we believe it is for local government to decide this rather than for us to prescribe it. So this will be an option available to local government. Some local authorities believe this will help them to attract people who genuinely have a lot of expertise to offer but who would like to be able to feel a full part of the committee rather than simply as an adviser. It is entirely for local government to decide, not for us to be prescriptive about it.
(Mr Raynsford) I have to say I never felt that, and my experience of local government, where there have been committees that have involved tenants for example, in the days when that was possible, is that councillors did not feel downgraded by having tenant representatives with voting rights sitting alongside them, and I do not believe that scrutiny committees with experts, whoever those experts may be, sitting alongside them with voting rights downgrades their role at all. The crucial thing is, it is for them to decide this. We are, as part of our whole approach to local government, trying to reduce central government's control, to extend freedoms and flexibilities to local government and to allow discretion for local authorities to take these decisions rather than us imposing them.
(Mr Raynsford) I cannot imagine that it would be impossible to find someone with a good environmental background and an experience of composting as one response to waste management who does not have a commercial interest in a particular outcome. I am sure if an authority wanted to look for outside expertise it would be possible to find it.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(Mr Raynsford) I cannot, off the top of my head, because it would be a theoretical one rather than a practical one.
(Mr Raynsford) No, but I have spoken to councillors who have identified ways in which they feel they have influenced ----
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(Mr Raynsford) In relation to decision-making that is felt to be appropriate to be devolved to that local area committee, yes.
(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.
(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.
(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 ----
(Mr Raynsford) What I would say is that my experience, from my discussions with councillors, and I do visit a lot - I visited two different councils only yesterday, one county council and one unitary authority - is 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.
(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 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.
(Mr Raynsford) Quite a lot. I do meet an awful lot of councillors.
(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.
(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 ----
(Mr Raynsford) It is simpler, but different areas will have a different perspective on this.
(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.
(Mr Raynsford) I think they are probably referring to our initial proposals as unduly prescriptive and, perhaps, our latest as insufficiently precise.
(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.
(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.
(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 see - and are encouraging under the new system - is a framework where there is clear accountability on the part of the executive, who are known to be responsible for that decision.
(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.
(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 hundred 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 clarity about who is responsible for decision-making. That is what we want to see.
(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.
(Mr Raynsford) I think there is ground for modest optimism about the local government elections of ten 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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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?"
(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.
(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 elections - the 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 is - going back to my arguments about clarity - a way in which there is no doubt whatsoever as to who is the person who carries the can.
(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 groups secured a majority, we know that in the Wye 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".
(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 clear - to avoid a local authority unduly influencing or seeking to unduly influence the outcome - the 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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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 and their existing arrangements will almost certainly be the fallback.
(Mr Raynsford) There is no provision for petitions in favour of alternative arrangements, there is a scope for petitioning in favour of a mayor - that is provided by the legislation. There is no statutory basis for a referendum otherwise, but if a petition comes forward in line with the provisions in the 2000 Act for a mayor, then the local authority is likely to present as its fallback, in the event of a no vote, the current arrangements that are in place which in the vast majority of cases will be a leader and a council, other than in the 59 authorities that have opted for alternative arrangements.
(Mr Raynsford) I accept it is legally possible. I did not say we would not allow it, I said it is legally possible but I think it is very unlikely to occur.
(Mr Raynsford) The legislation provides for councils to define the fallback and alternative arrangements can be prescribed under that legislation, but I think it is unlikely that an authority which is currently operating a leader and cabinet model ----
(Mr Raynsford) It can be done but I think it is unlikely it will happen.
(Mr Raynsford) I am not going to stop it, no.
Mr Betts: That seems to be slightly different to where we started off.
Chairman: We will look at the transcript.
(Mr Raynsford) I agree whole-heartedly with you that this is an important issue. I helped in the launch of an IDeA initiative designed to encourage good practice on the part of employers, making it possible for their staff to serve on local councils, because I believe this is important. There are other issues that need to be addressed as well, particularly among younger people who are often seriously under-represented on local councils, and among ethnic minorities, as well as women. So for all of these groups we need to find ways of engaging potential candidates for elections, encouraging them and ensuring that wherever possible our parties put forward as balanced a slate as possible. I was particularly pleased in the last local elections in London, in my own constituency in Greenwich, that our party put forward a slate of people that was not just racially and gender mixed but had significant numbers of representatives of every age bracket from the 20s to the 70s, which I think is quite unusual. It should not be, that should be the norm, and I think we need to do more to encourage that.
(Mr Raynsford) I have to say that when I was elected - and I admit it was some time ago - to a council the apprenticeship of serving in a very junior capacity on the works committee for the first year did not necessarily feel like a helpful career development programme.
Mr Betts: You have not done too badly!
(Mr Raynsford) It is a long time ago, I forget which committees I was on, but there was very much the feeling that when you were newly elected you served your term in a junior capacity before you aspired to anything more than that. I do not think we should romanticise the old system. I think there are real opportunities for councillors who are newly elected to be very effective in their scrutiny role and to be very effective as local advocates, as frontline councillors. As always in democratic institutions, those who show particular aptitude and skills are more likely to be successful in getting appointed to more senior positions.
(Mr Raynsford) I have, I am afraid, to decline to accept that kind characterisation of my role. I would like to make a contribution but certainly it would not be the major one. What we have to do is, firstly, ensure that the way that councils operate are seen to be efficient, effective and responsive to local communities. Secondly, we have to ensure that people understand the value and the importance of local councils' work and how they impact on their lives. Thirdly, we have to make it easier for people to engage with local government so that they can express their views, they can help to influence decisions and they can feel they are having an effect. Those aspects are all part of the programme that we have put in place and have carried forward in our recent White Paper, where we are trying to ensure that councils improve the standard of service delivery, improve their responsiveness to local communities and take decisions in ways that local people can see and understand how and why those decisions have been taken.
(Mr Raynsford) No, I do not think it does. I think what it does is very clearly crystallises the importance of the council working not in isolation, as some councils in the past used to, thinking that they alone should take the decisions, but emphasising the importance of the council working with its partners in its community, whether these be other public services, whether these be voluntary organisations, whether these be businesses or whether these be community groups. The whole benefit of the Local Strategic Plan is crystallising that relationship in which the council can establish very fully its role as an effective community leader but harness the talents and the commitment of others.
(Mr Raynsford) I think it is certainly possible, and it is one of those factors that has led some councils to be nervous about the idea of ceding power to a Local Strategic Partnership. It is very difficult to agree that you will gain from devolving a degree of power. We in Government are often accused of being reluctant to devolve power to local government. Our agenda in the Local Government White Paper is about precisely doing that - devolving power and allowing local authorities more discretion to take decisions. Equally, I think local government has to be prepared to let go a little bit, to engage communities more and to involve people in local communities in the decision-making. I think if they do that responsibly and they do it thoughtfully and they keep a good dialogue, then the outcome that you have described is very unlikely to happen because no responsible Local Strategic Partnership is going to willingly run counter to the clear strategic view of the local authority on a crucial issue.
(Mr Raynsford) The view of many community organisations and voluntary groups is that in any such conflict the local authority always gets its way. I do think there is an issue about local government having a relationship with the communities they serve that is an inclusive one and does not imply that the decisions must always go the local authority's way.
(Mr Raynsford) That is a very, very important point. There is a risk that one will get a group of almost professional partnership attendants emerging, who will spend more time attending meetings than actually delivering .
(Mr Raynsford) They have a hugely important role to play. I know so many people in different communities who have an enormous contribution to give to the development and successful operation of their communities.
(Mr Raynsford) I was going to go on to say that many of those people, for very good reasons - whether it is the demands of their work or other considerations - simply do not have the time to serve on a local council. It would be quite wrong to exclude them because they have not been elected, if they have a useful contribution to make.
(Mr Raynsford) Again, we have had quite an interesting debate in Government about the development of Local Strategic Partnerships because our initial guidance was thought, in many quarters, to be unduly prescriptive, to be not allowing sufficient discretion for the partnership to develop locally according to criteria developed by the partnership and by the local authority. So our approach recently has been to try and allow more discretion, to be less prescriptive in what we impose. I have to say there is a tension here, if I can just pursue this point for a moment, because a number of voluntary groups and community groups come to us and say "You must prescribe because the local authority will not take us into their confidence, they will not give us a meaningful role unless you insist on us doing it." I am resisting that, because I do not think that that kind of prescriptive approach from Government is likely to encourage genuine partnership working. You can see immediately the tension there when some of the partners who feel they are in a relatively powerless position in relation to the local authority look to Government to safeguard their interests.
(Mr Raynsford) That is very much an issue, I think, for Local Strategic Partnerships themselves to determine, and I would express a view that anyone who had a clear interest should make that absolutely clear and should absent themselves from taking part in decisions in which they might be thought to be unduly influenced by personal or commercial interests. Having said that, there are a lot of people in business who have an enormous amount to contribute and one would not want them to be prevented from playing a role.
(Mr Raynsford) There is a shared responsibility here because the Local Strategic Partnerships are not just part of the local government framework, they are part of the Neighbourhood Renewal framework and in those 88 areas where Neighbourhood Renewal funding is dependent on the establishment of a Local Strategic Partnership the Minister for Housing and Planning is equally responsible. The two of us work extremely closely together to ensure that there is a consistent approach.
(Mr Raynsford) The Standards Board's own code was only published very recently indeed and local authority codes have only had to be in place from, I think, 5 May this year. Cases can only be referred to the Standards Board once these mechanisms are in place. So to the best of my knowledge there will be only a handful of cases that will have been referred to date.
(Mr Raynsford) It is far too soon to say, but I believe it is right that there should be probity in local government and confidence in local government. In answer to an earlier question about how we ensure that the public have a positive image of local government, ensuring that there is a mechanism to deal with any potential wrong-doing is, in my view, absolutely crucial.
(Mr Raynsford) The provisions have been developed very much with the intention of them applying in unitary authorities, in district councils, in county councils and metropolitan authorities.
(Mr Raynsford) The Standards Board is there to keep an overview of all tiers and the individual Standards Committees in individual authorities, obviously, are there to do that job in relation to that authority itself.
(Mr Raynsford) The overall, comprehensive performance assessment that will be carried out by the Audit Commission will be looking at a whole range of factors, including the effectiveness of the arrangements for setting the strategic priorities for the authority and ensuring the authority meets its target.
(Mr Raynsford) This is, again, a very complex subject that I will be happy to discuss with the Committee when, perhaps, there is more time to do so, perhaps at a future date. This is something which the Audit Commission and ourselves have given an enormous amount of attention to, in discussion with local government. Work is well advanced in putting in place the framework for the comprehensive performance assessments which will be completed for county councils, unitary authorities and metropolitan authorities at the end of this year and for district councils by the end of 2003.
Mr Cummings: Perhaps we can talk about it sometime in the future, Chairman
(Mr Raynsford) There are a series of arrangements which we are already putting in place to implement the White Paper proposals. There will be a continuing series of changes, some of which will require legislation, others of which can be carried out by order. As you will know, we publish an implementation plan which sets milestones and identifies the responsible official, and we are proceeding on the basis that there will be progressive implementation of all the White Paper proposals over the next few months and years.
(Mr Raynsford) There are dates on the milestones attached to all the targets within the White Paper - 119, I think I am right in saying.
(Mr Raynsford) Our objective is to implement all of those. We cannot, obviously, do them all immediately, some depend on legislation. You will know that is something we are hoping to be able to bring forward but I cannot give any undertaking at the moment. Others can be done by means of order and there we are already making good progress but have more to do.
(Mr Raynsford) I hesitate to forecast that there will not be any slippage at all because, as you can imagine, in carrying forward a very big programme across a wide range of areas there is inevitably a risk, particularly when certain issues are the subject of Parliamentary debate - as is likely if we do have the opportunity for legislation in the coming session, when other issues are almost certainly likely to be raised. However, it is our objective to carry forward and to implement all the commitments in the White Paper in that orderly way against the timetable spelt out in the implementation plan.
(Mr Raynsford) Thank you.