To be published as HC 432-v

House of COMMONS



Communities and Local Government Committee

Councillors and the community

Monday 29 October 2012

Olly Buston, Steve Hitchins and ROBERT Neill MP

Brandon Lewis MP

Evidence heard in Public Questions 352 - 438



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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Communities and Local Government Committee

on Monday 29 October 2012

Members present:

Mr Clive Betts (Chair)

Bob Blackman

Simon Danczuk

Bill Esterson

David Heyes

James Morris

Mark Pawsey

Heather Wheeler


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Olly Buston, Executive Director, Members and Supporters, Labour Party, Steve Hitchins, Lead, Be a Councillor programme, Liberal Democrats, and Robert Neill MP, Vice Chairman, Local Government, Conservative Party, gave evidence.

Q352 Chair: Good afternoon and welcome all of you to our fifth evidence session in the inquiry into Councillors and the Community. For the sake of our records, could you say who you are and the organisation you represent?

Olly Buston: I am Olly Buston. I am the Executive Director for Members and Supporters at the Labour Party.

Steve Hitchins: Steve Hitchins. I am representing the Liberal Democrats and I run the Be a Councillor events that we do.

Robert Neill: I am Bob Neill MP and I am Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party, responsible for local government.

Q353 Chair: You are most welcome. I think, Olly, you have not been with us before. Steve, I do not know whether you have been to a Select Committee.

Steve Hitchins: No.

Q354 Chair: You have not. Bob, well, what can I say? I did not used to believe in reincarnation, but here you are proving me wrong after all. You are all very welcome.

Robert Neill: Thank you, Clive. Can I just say I very much appreciated the generosity of your words to my successors when they came along on another occasion? It was very kind.

Chair: They were meant, absolutely.

Robert Neill: That is very nice of you.

Q355 Chair: We have heard quite a lot from witnesses during our inquiry that political parties have a significant role in trying to get more people, and a greater variety of people, to stand for council but, in the end, perhaps their real interest is in winning elections, and as long as they win them, they are not that bothered who the councillors are or how well they perform. Is that a fair comment?

Robert Neill: It is a simplification, if I might say, and for pretty obvious reasons. It is in the interests of any political party to have the best available candidates, precisely for the reason that you not only want those candidates who are electable in the first instance and therefore have the campaigning and the community skills to make a good stab of getting elected, but also you do not want to have a situation where you have councillors who do not then do the job and do not get re-elected. Therefore, it is in everybody’s interests to have the best people coming forward. It is equally fair to say that that is usually going to be best achieved at a more local level, rather than by some kind of national template, because it is local knowledge of the particular community and the particular ward-the political intelligence, in the truest sense of the word-that you need to bring that forward. Political parties can help in some of the training and support that we then give, but it is in everybody’s interest to have the best possible pool of talent coming forward, I would have thought.

Steve Hitchins: Yes. Further than that, the better the candidate, the better your chance of winning, because not only do the voters quickly get a feel of how good, interested, active and local that candidate is, but so do the other members of the campaign team supporting that candidate. Their enthusiasm, energy and commitment to winning that election is often greatly influenced by their personal judgment of how good and how committed that candidate is. Further than that, you do need good councillors. I know most of you, if not all, have been elected councillors. There is a school of thought that thinks that the people who run councils are the senior officers, but weak councillors make for poor councils, in my opinion and experience. Unless you have good-quality councillors providing that strategic direction and political leadership, councils can really struggle. We suffer sometimes from not having sufficient talent in the council chamber.

Olly Buston: I would just add that, for the Labour Party, in opposition, the real way we can prove to people in communities that we are worthy of being elected is if we can make a real change in their lives and in their communities. We can do that only through really effective local campaigning and local government, so the quality of our candidates is hugely important. It is also critically important that they fully represent and reflect the communities they serve.

Q356 Chair: In 2007, we had the Councillors Commission, which was generally warmly received-and then presumably filed in bottom drawers somewhere. Can you name one single initiative that your parties have taken as a result of that commission?

Olly Buston: There are a number of important recommendations in the Councillors Commission report: on BME representation; on the training of under-represented groups; on best practice in candidate selection; on exceptions to enforcing the party whip on the grounds of conscience; as well as in other areas. In all those areas, we are making real efforts at improving. We know we have got a long way to go.

Q357 Chair: Has anything changed, as opposed to efforts to try to achieve change?

Olly Buston: On the example of enforcing the party whip, we are loosening that to allow flexibility on the grounds of conscience on some local planning issues. We have taken a lot of initiatives in the training of under-represented group. The Future Candidates Programme we have set up, which started last year, explicitly attempts to bring in a much wider range of candidates from BME communities and to increase the number of women candidates. It is explicitly doing that, and doing it pretty well, but again we have a long way to go and we will not be satisfied until our candidates and our councillors fully represent the communities they serve.

Steve Hitchins: We were in great support of the Councillors Commission. If there was an error, the mistake they made was going for term limits in the recommendations, which unfortunately did not manage to get much support from existing councillors-strange that. That put the whole report on the back burner. But all the stuff we have done about broadening and widening the pool of talent from which we select-looking outside party membership, and looking at ethnic minorities, disabled people and younger people in particular-we have tried very hard to deliver on.

Robert Neill: We have taken a number of initiatives, which I will happily set out in a moment. I have to say that they were not always directly in response to the recommendations of the Councillors Commission. Some of the issues that the Councillors Commission raised were important ones. That issue about broadening the base of councillors and where candidates come from was an important issue, but I have to say I take a slightly different view. I have to say that I feel that the Councillors Commission rather spoilt what were some good proposals with some other proposals that, frankly, my party and I personally regarded as very unacceptable indeed and which now, I suspect, would be regarded as almost incomprehensible by a public that has become-rightly or wrongly-much more sceptical of the way in which, for example, any elected representative at any level is rewarded, in some of the ways the Councillors Commission proposed. In 2007, it might have been well intended, but I think it got in the way and now it is impractical.

However, we have taken some specific steps and, we do so in three ways, Mr Betts: first, through the Conservative Councillors Association, which also admits candidate members. That has a range of online tools and material available, as well as hard copies, including advice to Conservative council group leaders, and also advice to our constituency parties, in effect, as to how they should seek candidates. We have published that and it includes a list of suggestions as to how you can go outside the normal party ranks to search for people. We suggest looking at community activists, school governors, people who are involved in local businesses and local voluntary organisations, and keen people you meet when you are out canvassing, as well as looking at people who are party members or supporters. We have sought to do it that way.

Also, in November last year, we introduced into our standard selection process an "agreement to stand", which all Conservative councillor candidates have to sign up to. That sets out certain basic things that are expected of Conservative councillors, including proper, regular and rigorous attendance at council meetings; dealing promptly, courteously and appropriately with casework and constituents; and themselves acting as, if you like, a positive face for the party in dealing with their community. We have got to some of those areas that the Commission flagged up, but through our own way of doing it.

Q358 Bill Esterson: Bob, Olly and, to a certain extent, Steve made the point about taking on board what the Commission recommended, but I wonder how successful that has been. I am aware that some of those recommendations have been implemented in some flagship councils, but I wonder how widespread that has been and whether the sorts of contracts that you just described, Bob-the Labour Party has a similar approach-are followed, or whether people just pay lip service to these things because they are being told to do them centrally.

Olly Buston: In terms of the Labour Party’s candidates and the councillor contracts, they are a relatively new innovation over the last few months in terms of being party policy, but they very much build on best practice that has been happening across the country for many years and in many places. It is great when you are standing to be a candidate if you are making commitments about the extent to which you are going to engage with the community that you are seeking to serve. Equally, it is a very good thing if councillors can sign contracts that spell out the kinds of things that they are going to do and commit to being a high-quality councillor. In the best examples, these kinds of contracts have been used to help identify training needs for individuals and, in some cases, they are taken into consideration when it comes to re-selection. They are very positive. They do build on best practice elsewhere; they are not an invention that we have had over the last few months. The commitment that they should be the norm and introduced everywhere and that they will drive a cultural change within the parties is a good one.

Steve Hitchins: The Liberal Democrats have a much more devolved command-and-control structure than the other two parties, in my experience-they may disagree-so there is no hard and fast set of rules. However, I know personally that we were getting candidates to sign contracts as long ago as 1998, and since then they have been part of the Be a Councillor programme that I deliver as a firm recommendation. There have been model copies on the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors website where you just cut and paste the name of your council. We have tried to build them as two-way contracts. In other words, not only are there the dos and the don’ts, but there is also what support you can get from the group, because most people who come in to be a councillor from the cold, as it were, as firsttime candidates do not realise that the councillor is not working in isolation on their own. Most people who, as members of the public, engage with a councillor engage with one person on a one-to-one basis. They do not see them in a group situation. They do not see them discussing and working as a team. They do not see them backing each other up-if someone is not well, they will get cover for their surgeries. They do not get that concept, so we put a lot of that into the contract to make sure there is support for that individual within the team of the group of councillors. It has become best practice. It is increasingly being more widely used, not least because if you have a councillor who has signed the contract and-in the very rare circumstances this happens-that person does not perform to the best of their ability, you have a piece of paper that makes deselection easier. That is probably the dark side.

Robert Neill: It builds on practice that I remember going on in, say, the London borough of Wandsworth when they had contracts back in the 1990s. Indeed, I think they were getting their candidates to sign contracts very early on, because they wanted to go on to the council’s approved list. It was sensible to roll that out across the piece. Not long after the Commission’s report, we adopted a standardised form of application and selection procedure for our candidates. This is underpinned, in our case, by the party’s constitution, which requires both the constituency associations that select the candidates and the groups to which, if successful, they will belong on the council to act within the party constitution. The requirement to enter into the agreement to stand, as we are calling it, is underpinned by the constitution, in our case. Of course, the policing of it has to be done at a local level and I think that is inevitable, sensible and proportionate, but we have a local government department within central office, which gives legal and constitutional advice in those rare instances where it is needed. However, as my colleagues have said, the training and backup that you give is very important in practice. As I say, we deliver that through the Conservative Councillors Association, and also the Conservative strand of the Be a Councillor campaign-we produce specific material on that.

Steve Hitchins: Could I just add that the signing of that contract by a candidate, where it is used, is a condition of approval? If they want to be approved and there is one of these contracts in operation, they have to sign it there and then. It is not something you do when you get elected; it is about an approval process.

Q359 Bob Blackman: Can I ask each of you your personal role, in your position, in encouraging people to stand for council positions and encouraging local groups to adopt best practice? Can I start with you, Bob?

Robert Neill: As the Vice Chairman, I have got oversight of that political operation we have in central office. I also sit on the board of the Conservative Councillors Association and, on a personal level, I generally contribute a passage to the Conservative Councillors Association monthly newsletter. We also send out a weekly information bulletin and I can contribute to that. I regularly go to some of the events that we hold around the country. Over the last two months or so, since I was appointed to my current job, I have been to Warwickshire, Windsor and Buckinghamshire, and I am due to go down to Exeter shortly. That is exactly about having a mixture of sitting councillors and existing councillors. I am setting up at the moment some further refinements to our template to monitor candidate selection in the run-up to the county council elections, obviously for political reasons, because I want to make sure we have all the candidates lined up in the target seats, but it also gives us other information about where we are getting the candidates from. I hold weekly telephone conferences with the appropriate Conservative group leaders, which people come in to. If there are particular issues that people wish to raise with me, I meet them in London, make a visit to the area-if I can-or we talk by telephone.

It is trying to lead by example and to encourage whenever you can. We have done some good work recently with Women2Win, which I know is predominantly aimed at getting people into Westminster, but very often you find that there is a spin-off from women who come forward and are interested at that stage, but, either as part of the process of getting to Westminster or as an alternative, want to go into local government work. We have some dedicated people who work with them as well.

Q360 Bob Blackman: That is very helpful. Steve?

Steve Hitchins: I think I have done every one of the Be a Councillor events the Liberal Democrats have-

Q361 Bob Blackman: I am going to ask you about that in a minute, but specifically within your party, do you have a role of encouraging?

Steve Hitchins: Yes. That was why I got the job, because that was my record as a councillor. We have done 120 of these events around the country over the past six years and we come away from each one of them with a list of real names of real people who they are going to contact and take further. The programme is designed to make people look outside the party membership, because we think that is too restrictive.

Q362 Bob Blackman: Has there been an upsurge in the number of people applying to be councillors as a result of your events?

Steve Hitchins: There has been an upsurge in people being approached. I am a firm believer that the existing councillor cadre have to get out there and approach people. They are the best recruiters and talent spotters, but sometimes they get rather bogged down in what they are doing, with limited vision and it is very easy to say, "Let us have a look at the membership list again," and it is the same tired old names.

Q363 Bob Blackman: Can you put a number on it? You say you have run 120 events, so how many extra people have been either approached or encouraged to stand for council as a result?

Steve Hitchins: I do the identification.

Q364 Bob Blackman: I just wondered if you collected any data on how many people have-

Steve Hitchins: I collect all the names and, off the top of my head, I would estimate that we finish those meetings with about 40 names at least.

Q365 Bob Blackman: At each meeting?

Steve Hitchins: At each of those meetings, yes.

Q366 Bob Blackman: So could you then-

Steve Hitchins: On average, for the people who attend-

Q367 Bob Blackman: So would you average that to about 500 people extra as a result?

Steve Hitchins: Comfortably. Probably more than that.

Q368 Bob Blackman: Thank you. Olly, what is your role in this?

Olly Buston: My role is split into three areas. One is around our digital strategy; one is around our member services function; and the other is around partnerships and stakeholders. Our local government officer sits in the partnerships and stakeholders area and he is responsible for coordinating our overall work and support package for councillors. The fact that it sits within a stakeholders and partnerships team is not a bad thing. Our women and equalities officer, for example, is our link into, and works with, the very diverse and vibrant affiliate and "friends of" groups within the Labour Party, whether that be BME Labour, Chinese for Labour or Labour Women’s Network. They are a very important vehicle for us to reach out to encourage people to stand as councillors. Those affiliates are very active in reaching out, in organising training and in encouraging people who have not thought about standing to be a councillor to seek selection.

Q369 Bob Blackman: Can I ask all three of you what scope you see for joint party cooperation in encouraging people from the community to come forward to be councillors-we have heard various different pieces of evidence on this-or should it just be left to the political parties to gain their own candidates?

Steve Hitchins: Can I jump in here? I think, very firmly, that it is up to the politicians. I have worked closely with the Be a Councillor programme and the different democratic services departments in individual councils all over the country and, in my experience, whenever they do anything, they attract some really wellmeaning people who have a real commitment to public service and want to make a difference, but they all say that they want to stand as independents. There is absolutely nothing wrong with independent councillors, but there is absolutely no quality control, and when, at the LGA, we have tried to engage with the independent group, they are not so sure whether they want to engage with this. That is because we have a whipping system in the other parties and, therefore, there is never more than one Liberal Democrat candidate for one seat. There is no limit on how many independents may stand, so they are not always encouraging other independents to stand, because it becomes competitive for the seat. Does that make sense?

Bob Blackman: That does make sense, yes.

Steve Hitchins: It is up to the politicians.

Q370 Bob Blackman: Up to the politicians, fine. Olly, what is your view?

Steve Hitchins: That does not mean we do not work together.

Bob Blackman: No, I am not suggesting that.

Olly Buston: The biggest burden falls on the parties and it is our responsibility to try to attract the best.

Q371 Bob Blackman: By holding joint events?

Olly Buston: The one way in which we are all linked up is through the LGA. The Be a Councillor programme is one that Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories are involved in, so that is a way in which there is a structure in place that is providing really good support for people who might want to be a councillor.

Q372 Bob Blackman: Bob, what is your view?

Robert Neill: I am broadly with Steve on this. At the end of the day, Olly is perfectly correct to say that there are instances at a national level when we will cooperate, and Be a Councillor is one of them, because that is, if you like, a broad, overarching agenda that we can all sign up to. However, I do not think it is realistic to think that we can deliver that agenda through a nationally imposed template of action, which is slightly different from raising the awareness nationally of an issue that we might all sign up to. Let us face it: at the end of the day, the parties are intended to be in competition with each other and that competition is healthy and part of the electoral process.

Bob Blackman: I think we have a clear answer to that.

Steve Hitchins: Further than that, of course, we have to interface with the political leaders of the groups in the individual councils to which you go to give this support. They are not always the most cooperative.

Q373 Bob Blackman: I can understand that. Finally from me: in your experience, are people put off by the fact that allowances to be councillors are too low?

Olly Buston: The main reason why people put themselves forward to be councillors is because they want to change their community-they want to improve the lives of people in their communities and they have a commitment to doing that. I do not think the main motivation for people is money, and I do not think we want to be in a situation where it is. Certainly, given the great squeeze on living standards that people across the country are facing at the moment, I do not think now is a good time to be talking about increasing allowances.

Q374 Bob Blackman: We have taken evidence, particularly from younger councillors, who have said that the problem is that the allowance is too small for them to reduce their working lives, but it can be seen by the public as being too large and that can be offputting. Bob, do you have a view?

Robert Neill: I am influenced, perhaps, by my own history. I was elected as a councillor when I was 21, which either indicates that I was very keen or very sad-or possibly some mixture of the two. It was great fun, but that was long before there were allowances of any kind beyond just that very nominal-almost single-figure in terms of pounds-sum that you got for attendance at the meetings. I practised as a barrister throughout all the 16 years I was a councillor, including when holding what would now be regarded as cabinet positions under the committee system. I wanted to do it and I adjusted my working pattern, but it is also fair to say that the council was pretty good about when it tried to hold its committee meetings. For example, because we were in the London commuter land, we held very few daytime meetings so that people could hold down jobs, and most people I knew were certainly in fulltime work in all parts of the council. The council’s own organisation, I thought, was more important about making it possible for people to take that on.

Steve Hitchins: If I can pick up where Bob left off, I think councils and councillors in particular have a responsibility to make sure that their working day is not impossible alongside a fulltime job, otherwise we lose those important people as elected councillors and also we turn what was never intended to be a fulltime job into one and that is a mistake. We do not want professional councillors.

Having said that, councillors have got a bit to answer for themselves, because in opposition one of their favourite tricks is to say, "We are going to cut the allowances," if they think it is votewinner. I am not convinced it is a vote-winner. You can probably lose votes by inflating councillors’ allowances at the wrong time and in the wrong way but, generally, if the council is well-run, my view is that you attract a better councillor if you pay a reasonable remuneration. Better councillors result in a better council, and the saving from having good councillors is potentially quite large.

Q375 Chair: Can I just follow up on what Olly said? Is the Labour Party seriously saying that it believes that it is not a cause for concern in regard to getting younger or middleaged people on to councils that people in their 30s and 40s with families may end up having to give up a couple of days of work in order to do their council work and end up being significantly worse off at a time when their family pressures are on them?

Olly Buston: That is definitely a challenging and important issue, and I am sure that there are people who do not stand for that reason, but I do not think that the issue of allowances is something the public would be very keen on prioritising. There are lots of other important measures that we can take. We are very concerned that 70%plus of councillors do not have a caring responsibility, so if you have a caring responsibility, you are currently not putting yourself forward to be selected. That weakens the talent pool and it weakens the range of experience. Part of addressing that does not have to be about money; it is also about issues of timetabling and other kinds of support that colleagues on the panel spoke about.

Q376 Mark Pawsey: You are all aware that we are conducting this inquiry partly because councillors are not representative of their communities. I do want to ask some questions about the underrepresentation of certain groups, but can I just ask you about the political dimension? Is it not a frustration for some people thinking about becoming a councillor that, regardless of how good you are, it depends on where your party is standing in the polls? You could be a really good councillor and lose your seat because your party is unpopular in the country and, at the same time, you could be a pretty poor councillor and get elected simply because you have got the right party badge. Have you got any views about how that particular issue affects the quality of people coming forward?

Robert Neill: It is frustrating, but I think we just have to accept, Mr Pawsey, that that is the consequence of a democratic system. Many of us were probably on the receiving end of it when we were councillors ourselves. I did not think it stopped good people coming forward. Of course, you had then to maintain the morale of those folks if they either lost their seat, or lost control of the council during those bad periods. That is the job of the party.

The other point is that we would all like to see a greater spread of diversity in the sort of people who become councillors. That is a range of things. There is more we can do, as I said before, around timetabling, which makes youngsters in work and women with caring responsibilities more able to stand. My own party is doing more work to attract councillors from various ethnic minority communities. There is an element, of course, of the fact that to a degree your councillors will tend to be representative of the areas where your particular party has its electoral strengths. There is a broader issue for my party that Grant Shapps, the Chairman, I and colleagues are working on, about making sure we get support more deeply in ethnic minority communities in the UK as a piece. That is very important work anyway and I hope that will lead to an influence on our councillor numbers, but you have got to do it that way around rather than the other way around.

Q377 Mark Pawsey: Steve, what is your view about a party’s standing at any one time?

Steve Hitchins: You must experience it in your jobs too: the pendulum swings. You have a better chance of attracting people from a larger pool where the party is more popular, because the membership is larger, the activist base is larger and all those things go together. However, we have quite a strong history of winning council seats against the trend and winning control of councils in places where you would not expect that to happen. There was a time when seven out of eight major cities had Liberal Democrat-chaired administrations, which is not the norm. These things happen.

Q378 Mark Pawsey: Do you have any evidence that people are put off by the cyclical nature of political representation?

Steve Hitchins: No, I do not think so. We tend to have tides in these matters. If there is a council where things are beginning to happen-where we are beginning to gain seats and the other two parties have taken their eye off the ball, or are not performing very well, or the council is in trouble-you find that a group of people become very active and energised, and start attracting likeminded people, so the momentum builds. You see that in places where, over three or four elections, all of a sudden the Liberal Democrats start doing well. That is a bigger influence and a bigger factor. The energy of those individuals who are doing the campaigning attracts likeminded and equally committed people, and it is always the interface at a personal level that makes the difference.

Olly Buston: There are much bigger barriers, such as time-we mentioned child care issues-and the most important one, perhaps, is that the idea of being a councillor and putting yourself forward to be a councillor is completely alien to a wide variety of people who would, in effect, be excellent councillors.

Q379 Mark Pawsey: If people are not putting themselves forward, what is the Labour Party doing to go out and find these people?

Olly Buston: There is an awful lot more we could do, but we have a Future Candidates Programme that is specifically designed to reach out to the widest possible group of people, and we are doing that through newspaper adverts. It is in its second year and we are using, as the face of the programme, graduates from the previous year who have not come through the traditional route of becoming a councillor. One hundred per cent. of the people on that scheme are not on those traditional paths to becoming a councillor. We are also using that scheme to reach out to women-more than 50% of people on the programme are women-and to BME communities as well. There is an awful lot more we could do and we want to build on that platform, but, along with the Be a Councillor programme, which we are all engaged in in our own ways, that is a very important initiative for us.

Q380 Mark Pawsey: Bob, you told us some of the things the Conservative Party is doing to try to attract people from other groups or groups that are less well represented. How transparent is the selection process? Is there a tendency for a selection panel to go for a safe person, who might be somebody who fits the stereotype, rather than take a risk on somebody perhaps from a slightly different background?

Robert Neill: It is always very difficult to quantify how that works in practice. The rules are very clear in that there are certain safeguards: anyone who is themselves interested in standing cannot take part in the selectorate; and the application forms are designed in a way not to create information that might trip people up so that there is an entirely level playing field. I think all the parties have the same standard approach in that regard. It is a question of encouraging. I think it was perhaps more the case in the past that parties were unwilling to be bold. I do not think that that is the case now, but in those areas in particular, Mark, I do suggest it is very important that the parties at that level enforce that. That is why we have that standardised selection procedure and we have party professionals in the field who can make sure that that is properly policed.

Q381 Mark Pawsey: Do you have any thoughts on open primaries for councillors?

Robert Neill: As you know, our party has used open primaries for parliamentary candidates and that has sometimes produced some very good results. Some of the products are here in this House. I certainly have no objection to the principle of open primaries. We would have to look at the practicality. I do not rule out the idea. Some local associations and local council groups are doing much more to involve people. Our group in Northumberland County Council, a unitary, have been doing an open manifesto session to get members of the public to come and say, "What do you think we should be putting in our manifesto?" The same principle can apply, within certain constraints. The party constitution does have to make sure there are proper safeguards to ensure that the whole process is conducted transparently and properly.

Q382 Mark Pawsey: In the other two parties, are your processes sufficiently transparent, or are there steps you are taking to make the process more transparent?

Steve Hitchins: In the Be a Councillor programme, I make the point on every possible occasion that a natural trait for any human being going into a room of complete strangers is to first approach someone who looks remarkably like them, so selection panels have a natural trait of picking people who look like them. Three white, middleaged lawyers tend to select white, middleaged lawyers. You have to train people. It does not take more than 10 minutes, but just because someone is young does not mean they are a bit dodgy, or might not be able to do the job, might not show the commitment, or might not last the full four years. You have to train people to widen their horizons. That is important, and that is now part of the process wherever we have a selection panel.

The other thing that is important is that we draw a wider net when we are first going out to approach people. It is very much about an individual, onetoone basis of doing that. A very good example came from a group of councillors at a London council where there is a significant AfroCaribbean community and they were all, to use their phrase, very "pale, male and stale". They decided that it was important to go out and find someone from that community. They took the step of saying, "We are councillors. Our council gives a grant to a couple of AfroCaribbean associations. Let’s write to them, invite ourselves, meet some people and see if they would be interested in being involved." Of course, for the first six months, they were treated with a fair amount of suspicion, but eventually they got to know people there and they did recruit people who have been candidates and who have become elected. It is about them taking steps and then building it on a onetoone basis.

Olly Buston: I would just add that we are going through a process of party reform, called "Refounding Labour", which is based on a consultation that tens of thousands of Labour members contributed to. One of the innovations there is setting up local campaign forums that are in charge of recruitment, selection and local election campaigns. They are specifically mandated with coming up with a recruitment strategy that pulls in the widest possible range of candidates. Through the selection panel process, there is an emphasis on quality and diversity. However, to be blunt, positive action is probably, in certain areas, what really works, and certainly when it comes to women’s representation we are enforcing that.

Q383 Mark Pawsey: Does that mean shortlists?

Olly Buston: Yes, and women candidates.

Q384 David Heyes: I would like to press you a bit further on that point. I do not think there is any question that the positive action programme has brought about significant improvement in the ratio of women candidates, in particular, but it has not been without critics. We have had evidence, for instance, that drafting in high flyers through positive action does nothing to address issues at the grass roots, and that positive action is antidemocratic or undermining for candidates. What do you say to people who say that?

Olly Buston: I would say it is much less undemocratic than having a dismally low number of women councillors, MPs and so on. It has worked at the national level-we have more women MPs than all the other parties put together-and we believe that it will work at the local level. We have a long way to go in terms of the proportion of women councillors and candidates. It is still pretty low at the Labour Party and we have a lot of work to do. In every policy, there are going to be challenges and downsides, but we are utterly committed to this and we believe the democratic upside massively outweighs those downsides. In terms of getting the broadest and highest quality possible pool of candidates, it is crazy not to make sure that women are coming forward.

Q385 David Heyes: You have talked about the Future Candidates Programme and particularly that one of the intentions is to improve the number of BME candidates coming forward, but you have not gone so far as to apply the positive action programme to the BME candidates. Is that right? If so, why not?

Olly Buston: That is correct at this moment in time. About 50%-or slightly more-of every community all across the country are women, and it is an easier policy to apply, if we are being blunt. There is a much more complicated mix of ethnicity across the country, which is very different locally. It is very hard to apply a topdown measure on that issue, although there are probably ways of doing it. What I would say is that our emphasis in terms of encouraging and growing the number of BME councillors and candidates is very much through this outreach and training. Some 19% of the people who have been through the Future Candidates Programme are from a BME background and we have some fantastic candidates coming forward. We have a candidate called Marvin Rees who is standing for election to be the mayor of Bristol. If he is successful, he will be the first elected black mayor in western Europe, which is a shocking statistic, but it will be a good step. He will have the third biggest mandate of any politician in the UK and that will be a positive step. However, there is a long, long way to go. There is a lot more effort to do, and we need never to be satisfied until our candidates and councillors fully represent the diversity of the communities they represent.

Q386 David Heyes: Bob and Steve, positive action has demonstrably worked for Labour, if only in terms of getting the number of candidates increased, but both your parties are opposed to it in principle. Why is that? It works.

Steve Hitchins: We have taken decisions through the party conference, which is our decisionmaking forum for these matters, and on at least three occasions positive action has been rejected. In the leader’s words, our party’s record on this is "lamentable". When he gave evidence to the Speaker’s Conference in 2010, he made it very clear that something had to change. He then got another job, which has delayed this a bit, but we have to do something-it is very weak. Personally, I am in favour of positive action. There is a great deal to be said for it, because it provides role models. We have increased the amount of training, increased the incentives and we have set up special funds. We do a great deal about this. It is a terrible problem at the parliamentary level, and while it is less of a problem at the local level, it is still not good enough. The party knows that everywhere; we just have a very strong view among party members about whether or not we should take positive action.

Robert Neill: We do not support positive action in that sense as a matter of principle and I agree with that, because it is our belief that you want the best people coming forward, regardless of gender or ethnicity. I do think that is a very important principle and we should not restrict the choice of the selectorate in that way. However, I do think that there is a strong role for positive action in what I regard as a positive rather than a slightly manipulative way-I do not mean manipulative in a malign way, but in the sense that it changes the open nature of the selection system. There is a very positive role for encouraging more people in the pool of potential candidates and my party as much-and in some cases more-than others has to do more around that. That is something that we have been doing. We did see, for example, in the last general election both a significant change in the number of women MPs and a worthwhile and important increase in the number of ethnic minority MPs, starting from a very low base in my party’s case. I honestly believe that is, longterm, the better result, because people will be able to say, "I came through absolutely on ability. Nobody can ever challenge that." In that way, you are creating the point about role models, which is hugely important. We certainly need to do more to encourage and support role models who will ensure that we have a good spread of people from right across the community. I think we all agree with the objective; it is just the means that we disagree on.

Steve Hitchins: Could I just add that we do have quotas on shortlists, so although that is not positive action in candidates, it is on shortlists.

Q387 David Heyes: Is there more of a role for quotas in helping to move things forward?

Steve Hitchins: I would rather be judged by the outcome than the method and, at the moment, we are just not in the right place.

Robert Neill: I am in some sympathy with that. We do have quotas in relation to parliamentary shortlists. At a local level in particular, the first thing is getting a good pool of people coming forward. The most important thing is to get the outcomes I am sure every one of us wants to see.

Olly Buston: It might be a bit of a cheap point, but the makeup of this room reflects the face that decades of softer efforts to increase the representation of women-I include myself in this-and diversity have not been successful, so we have to look at much stronger measures.

Q388 Bill Esterson: Do you prefer your candidates to have been in the party for a long time before they are selected, or before they are allowed to seek selection?

Olly Buston: In our Future Candidates Programme we are explicitly seeking people who do not follow those traditional routes into being councillors. Part of that is by encouraging people who are not party members but who are brilliant community activists and organisers who are getting things done locally to be candidates. Slightly under 10% of the people who came through that scheme in the first year were not party members when they walked through the door. That is not the overwhelming majority, but where there are really strong people like that, we should be encouraging them in.

Steve Hitchins: The singleword answer is no. I am certainly encouraging our local parties to look for candidates outside the existing membership list more and more and more, and almost as a preference. That is partly because that is a reflection that the membership of the political parties is much, much smaller than it was 10 years ago and probably at the moment is shrinking. I also think that we desperately need to bring in new blood. People join political parties for a number of reasons; I think there are very few who join political parties just to become a councillor. You can recruit people to become a councillor who then join, but I would think that the tests you impose on people to find out whether they are going to be a good Liberal Democrat candidate and then councillor have to be far more rigorous if they do not exist already in the party. You do have to take some care and pay some attention to that, but that does not mean that mistakes are not still made.

Robert Neill: It certainly does not matter how long people have been members of the party as far as we are concerned. It is the quality that is the most important thing. That is why we invest a degree of time in training the selectorate and making sure that there is that training advice and online material I referred to earlier, Mr Betts, that people can come to when they are forming part of a selection committee. Our guidance to finding and selecting candidates, like, by the sound of it, that of the other parties, positively encourages you to look outside simply the party membership base for potential good candidates.

Q389 Bill Esterson: Moving on to that, tell me a bit about the voluntary community and faith groups that you have attracted candidates from. Olly, you mentioned community groups.

Olly Buston: The face of our Future Candidates Programme at the moment is someone called Jess Phillips, who was not a member of the Labour Party-she was a community activist-and is a councillor. She is the face of our attempt to recruit people into the Future Candidates Programme because we are trying to demonstrate that a much wider variety of people can be councillors. One point I should add for clarity is that when people come on to the scheme, they do join the party-they are taking that step. When people stand as Labour candidates, the rule is that they should have been a member of the party for a year, although there is scope to vary that locally in situations where there is a shortage of people coming forward.

Steve Hitchins: I think it is very important. They are important for two reasons. First of all, they are activists already if they are in other organisations. Secondly, when you go there, it is very easy to get signposted to the people who are more likely to want to become candidates. If you just talk to someone at one of these community groups, they will say, "Oh, no, no, I couldn’t possibly do that, but soandso is very keen," and they signpost you and you do a filtering process and get to meet the people who are potential candidates much quicker and there is real engagement. There is the barrier that I was talking about earlier about making sure they are the right people for your party. There is no point trying to recruit someone whose values are diametrically opposed to the party’s views; that way, all sorts of problems arise. However, it is essential that there is more councillor and local party engagement with community groups and all sorts of things like that. School governors, residents’ associations-all these groups-include people who are already activists and already engaged in public service, which is at the heart of being a councillor.

Robert Neill: On a personal level, as a Member of Parliament and also as Vice Chairman, I think it is important that we encourage direct involvement by our Members of Parliament, our councillors and our group leaders with that range of groups. I have seen, both in my own area and across the party, for example, that it is not just a question of talking to what you might regard as the old, established faith groups, because we have recruited quite a lot of ethnic minority candidates from some of the new evangelical churches. Very often, there are people engaged in those churches who will have a very strong view about some of the community issues. We have sought to do the same in some parts where we have good relations, for example, with a local mosque or Hindu temple. Part of that is the responsibility of the local party themselves to be out there talking to folk in those communities so that there is not a barrier. We know that we do not want there to be a barrier and sometimes there are perceptions that we have to break down. That sort of political leadership, in the real sense, is going out there, offering the hand of friendship and saying, "Let us all work together. This is all of our community." Then, as I think Steve said, you pretty swiftly discern, because none of those communities are monolithic, that some will be of your political persuasion and some will not be. You encourage those from your political persuasion: "We could do with somebody like yourself coming on board."

Q390 Bill Esterson: Moving on to group discipline, Steve, you made the point that they have to have the same political views, ultimately.

Steve Hitchins: I said values. I think that is important

Q391 Bill Esterson: What comes first, though: loyalty to the group and group discipline, or their loyalty to their electorate?

Steve Hitchins: I could throw that question back at you, because you must face that issue. Hopefully, it is rarely that level of choice. The point I make to candidates and recruiting teams who are coming for recruitment training is that 80% of what is done at a local government level is determined more by this place than by the councillors themselves. A lot of the administration is about enacting what the Government of the day have decided, so there is much more about style and tone in local government than there is about party politics-the way they do things, rather than what they do. All the councils have to follow a Government line if there is an Act of Parliament and they do-some do it with more enthusiasm than others. That issue should not arise quite so much. Also, the contract we talk about does make clear that if a matter is a ward issue or a matter of conscience, they have to make that clear to the group and they are not bound by following that line. But generally, the best councils discuss these matters in group and reach a position of consensus where everyone feels included. If you keep forcing it down by saying, "Let’s have a vote. Let’s decide here and now how we are going to vote on this," and not have the discussion or debate, you will find very quickly that you get a split and divided group. A group that stays together will always encourage people in. I do not think it is as big an issue as you say, but in fact they have to, of course, follow both of those. But it is rare that it happens and I would not put that high up on my list of things that you would discuss in a great deal of detail with a potential candidate. You are trying to give them an opportunity to change the lives of the people they serve as a councillor almost every single day in quite small but sometimes significant ways, and it is that sense of helping people that is the biggest incentive to becoming a councillor, in my experience.

Robert Neill: I spent eight years as the chief whip of the council group where I was a member and I found that the best way was not to overdo the whipping, by and large; you reserved using the potential sanctions that you had for those occasions when it really mattered. As we all know, much of it is about making sure that there is communication and encouragement rather than waving a big stick. That really ought to be necessary only when there are real issues of principle and of key party policy that everybody would have signed up to. I am sure in all groups of all three parties here the decisions are taken on a majority vote-that is certainly the way Conservative group rules operate-so I do not think there is the same impediment in reality to the perception. A bit of common sense is my advice as to how you deal with it.

Olly Buston: I tend to agree with my colleagues on the panel. People get involved because they want to change their communities and improve the lives of people in those communities. In many ways, the priority of the Labour Party at the moment in opposition nationally is to help to facilitate that kind of work on the ground in local communities, and to demonstrate that, even in opposition nationally, we are able to make a change and improve people’s lives locally. People stand and vote on a party platform; people expect that, really. As Steve was saying, there is scope for flexibility on ward issues, issues of conscience and so on. As my colleagues are saying, I do not think it is the biggest issue that we face.

Q392 Bill Esterson: Moving on briefly to training, one council leader told us that training stops the day you are elected. Is that true? What sort of training goes on in your parties?

Steve Hitchins: What is true is that the demands on a councillor’s time increase enormously once they are elected, so the amount of time that they can and will allocate to training is much tighter and more limited. Most councils do quite a lot of extensive training immediately when people are elected through the induction programme. There is some mandatory training for licensing and planning, which all councillors have to do even if they are not on the committees, which is very important. Also, the councillors themselves continue to have away days and other sessions. We do a lot of training through the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors. We do a lot of training at conferences-regional as well as federal-and we also send people out to train councillors around the country. Some of that is political, some of it is about recruiting and some of it is about campaigning. But, generally, we have a lot of other ways-we now do a lot of online training-and there are a lot more opportunities for councillors. I could not possibly comment about that statement, but it might be provocative to say that, and it does reflect the amount of pressure on a councillor’s time that they probably feel that they do not do as much as they ought to.

Olly Buston: There is a lot of training out there and a lot of training going on, done by a lot of different people in a lot of different places, whether it is the parties, the councils themselves or the LGA. There is a lot of it out there. There are training programmes for every stage of being a councillor, from "Do you want to stand? Do you want to be selected?" all the way up to the sort of thing the LGA is doing with its Next Generation training, which is about training for leadership positions. It is out there. From the Labour Party’s point of view, we could do an awful lot more, particularly in terms of identifying people’s particular needs and coordinating how people access all that diversity of training and signposting and flagging appropriate things for people. Maybe it is a bit confusing and people are not doing the specific things that would be most helpful to them. One thing that we are doing to try to address that particular challenge is piloting a councillor diploma in the north-west region, which is about just that: a more tailored, coordinated approach that builds from the individual outwards. Hopefully, we can do some good work there and roll that out across the country.

Robert Neill: We give quite a lot of training, both through some of the work on the back of Be a Councillor but also through the Conservative Councillors Association, because that is where you have elected members. We do training on a raft of things, from specific policy issues through to various community campaigning and communication techniques, public speaking and open policy seminars, where you can come and meet a Minister or Front-Bencher, or one of the party officials to discuss things. By the sound of it, the techniques are very similar across all three parties. It is important. It comes back to the point I was making at the very beginning: it is in the party’s interest to make sure it has councillors who perform, because they are going to be more likely to be reelected at the end of the day and they will also have done a better job for their communities in the process.

Q393 Heather Wheeler: I will use a phrase that I am sure will send dread into all of you. Is it fair to describe some councillors as "bed blockers"? What do you do about councillors sitting in safe seats who just do the bare minimum?

Robert Neill: Let me put it from our point of view. Within our process, there are two things. First, there is the agreement that has now been in place since November last year. Not keeping to the agreement is, as I gather from other parties, something that can be taken into account by the selection committee.

The second point is we have a system whereby although sitting councillors are entitled to be automatically considered for reelection by their own ward or county council division, they do not have an automatic right of unchallenged readoption. It is always open to the branch committee or executive to say, "Yes, we would like to consider other candidates as well as our sitting councillors." They are kept up to the mark from that point of view. It is part of the job of the leader and the chief whip sometimes to make sure that you have words with those who are underperforming. We all know that there are informal systems within local parties where that message, if it is persistent, gets out. When we draw up the panel of approved candidates for any council area, as well as having the party chairman and relevant associations there, we also have the group leader and another representative of the Conservative group. We make sure there is a proper input that can, when appropriate, feed that back. In reality, that sort of message can get through.

There are other reasons for bed blocking that are more of an issue. Dare I say it, one of those may be a perverse consequence of the way the allowance system works. Maybe we need to have a look at the way that operates. Sometimes, if somebody has retired, the allowance is a very useful sum. It was intended for the best of reasons-to make sure that people are not out of pocket-but then it becomes something different. Are there ways in which we can address that? I do not think you can do it in monetary terms. I have found, for example, that you can make more use of the positions of honorary aldermen to give some sense of recognition-those types of things do make people feel that they are not just departing into nothing. Are there other things you can encourage them to do, albeit on an unremunerated basis, within the community? It is inevitable that there are a number of reasons that give rise to bed blocking; I do not think it is simply a question of underperformance sometimes.

Steve Hitchins: There is certainly an element of that-it happens. However, it is a mistake to think that just because a councillor does their job differently after 16 years from how they did it when they were first elected, they suddenly become different or not worth the job, so I would guard against that. I would not go down the road of term limits; I think that would be a mistake.

Having said that, in 2009, we adopted an identical approval and selection process whether you are a sitting councillor or not-they are broadbrush rules. Every sitting councillor has to be reapproved and has to go through the selection process whether they have been a councillor for six months or 16 years; there is no difference. Inevitably, of course, a sitting councillor is probably, if unintentionally, given a slightly easier ride than a new boy or girl, but we have tried to prevent that.

The contracts are increasingly being used as a tool in reselection: "You signed this contract four years ago. You said when you signed this that you would be doing A, B, C, D and E. If we look at your record"-and the practice we try to adopt is that a report from the group leader and the chief whip goes to the selection panel for every councillor who comes back for reselection or reapproval-"your group leader has said you have not D or E on this list. What do you say about that?" You give them a chance to talk about that. We hope that that is encouraging a little more engagement by the councillor over their period of office.

Q394 Heather Wheeler: Steve, forgive me, but we are terribly short of time. Olly, do you want to come in?

Olly Buston: I have three quick points. One is that age and ability are not always connected. The second point is that local councillors are not automatically reselected; they need to go through a process. The third point links to the councillor contracts that we are rolling out, which we hope will drive a culture change throughout the party and allow a carrot and stick approach. We will be able to identify training needs and areas where we can provide support to, we hope, improve performance, but ultimately, as Steve was saying, they are a tool that can be used in reselection processes if people are not doing the job properly.

Chair: Thank you all very much for coming this afternoon, spending so much time with us, and answering such a range of questions.

Examination of Witness

Witness: Brandon Lewis MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, gave evidence.

Q395 Chair: Minister, thank you very much for coming this afternoon to our inquiry into Councillors and the Community. You are most welcome to your first appearance before the Select Committee-I am sure it will not be the last. We will probably be talking to you about fire issues in the not too distant future, so something completely different.

Just to begin with, one of the issues that has come up in the inquiry from councillors who have given evidence is the fact that they come into local government to make a difference. Clearly, how local government operates and is likely to operate in the future is a very important matter for them. Could you say what your vision is for local government and the role councillors can play in it? How do you see it changing over the next 10 years, if that is not too big an ask for the first question you are going to have to deal with?

Brandon Lewis: My historical thoughts, my current thoughts and the next 10-year programme-okay. Thank you. It is a pleasure to be here this afternoon, particularly under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, I have to say that, because, from memory, you chaired my first ever Westminster Hall debate as well, so it seems very fitting that my first Select Committee is under your chairmanship.

I come to this from the point that, having been a councillor and having been through the situation where I have known colleagues who are frustrated because they cannot do things, or sometimes feel that they have limited power, what we should be doing is making sure that councils and councillors have a real purpose and opportunities to do things, and for them to feel that they are part of their community and, more importantly, for their community to feel that councillors are representing not the council but the community. That is why localism and moving power down to councillors is so important. But it is not just about power; it is also about getting the message through that councillors can have a real purpose. We have councillors who are committee-based and councillors who are cabinetbased. Whichever it is-whether you are a back-bencher or an executive member of an authority-there is an opportunity to do something good for your community. Whether that is something very, very small-and in my experience the pot hole at the end of the street can be the most important thing you can do-or something very big in changing the whole feel of a town or a community, there is an equally important part to play. That is about us incentivising and motivating people locally to get involved, and to see that they can make a difference and be part of that. With the new powers, which I am sure we will come on to, those opportunities are there. That is where we are currently.

It is potentially quite dangerous to start getting too far down the line but, if anything, over the next 10 years I would like to see more and more people from more and more backgrounds getting involved and wanting to be part of that, because they want not just to represent their community, but to believe they can be part of it and make a difference for its betterment.

Q396 Chair: In terms of your personal experience, what motivated you to become a councillor? Many of us on the Committee were councillors as well. Were there things that you felt you were not able to do, or barriers in the way that might put other people off from becoming a councillor, that you can now learn from and, hopefully, use to influence events in your new role?

Brandon Lewis: I became a councillor in 1998, so things have moved on a little bit from then. When I first became a councillor we were in opposition. I was on a council where there were about eight in my group and more than 20 in the leading group, so in that sense we were not in control of the executive side of the council. There was a frustration there, because there was a view that you had a limited ability as a back-bencher in a small opposition party. However, it did not stop you being able just to represent the views of your small ward, get on the council and make your voice loud and clear. One of the things I have learned is, whether as an individual or as an authority, if you are loud enough and smart enough, you can punch way above your weight in terms of getting things done. That is just about understanding what opportunities are there and taking advantage of them.

What I have seen from when I was a councillor, and from when I talk to councillors now, is that there is a job to do for all of us to help councillors and people who are interested in being councillors understand that they can do things, particularly now we have opportunities with communities’ right to challenge and right to bid. Even if you are a back-bencher in a small district authority, even in opposition, you can go and be an absolute champion for your community and your ward, and for the people in that area to get involved and work that way. You can make a real difference. There is probably still a job for us to do in making people more aware of what those opportunities are and how they can make a difference.

Q397 David Heyes: You have just listed some of the good reasons why it is a worthwhile thing to undertake, and you said that we need to do more. We have heard some persuasive evidence that one of the barriers to people becoming councillors is just a sheer lack of understanding of what local government is, what councils are and how to become a councillor. What role should central Government be playing in promoting local democracy? What do you do to promote local democracy?

Brandon Lewis: That becomes complicated in the sense that there are various layers. I know that political parties will be trying to recruit people locally and, in doing that, they will be talking to them about why they want to be councillors and going out and looking to talk people into being councillors. I know that when I was a council leader, if we met people in the community who were doing good things and we thought would enjoy it, we would talk to them about wanting to be involved.

In terms of government, there is a whole range of things. First, from central Government’s point of view, there is a fine line between going in heavy-handed to try to tell local government how to do these things and promoting local government. I think the Localism Act, the general power of competence and some of the things I have just outlined that are giving these powers locally play a large part in why it becomes more important and more useful to be involved locally. We all, as politicians, then have a job at whatever level, whether it is at council level or parliamentary level, to promote why local councils matter, how they can make a difference locally, and that it is a rewarding and important job to do for your community, and therefore get more people motivated to do it in the first place.

Q398 David Heyes: Having said that, why did the Government repeal the duty to promote democracy? Surely that is a key activity of councils.

Brandon Lewis: It was not in the first place. For me, that comes back to the line between the Government directing local government about what to do. If we are going to have localism, let local authorities develop what they think is right for their area and then promote it. Good local authorities and good councils would want to do that.

Q399 James Morris: There is a slight complication that localism, as defined by the Government, does not necessarily mean local government. As you have said, the landscape has become complicated. We have police and crime commissioner elections coming along; we have an education policy that is seeking to take LEA control away from education; and the Localism Bill has provisions for referendums on council tax increases and so on. A lot of that strand of localism is bypassing local authorities and local councillors. In that context, what role do you think local councillors have to play in that complicated landscape we have?

Brandon Lewis: That is localism in its truest sense-in the sense that it is decentralising power. It is not just about moving power from central Government to metropolitan, unitary, county, district or parish; it is about having that tier all the way through across areas. If the most local place for power to be is in the neighbourhood parish, that is where it should be. If the most localised place for it to be is in the school, whether that is an academy driving itself, that is what that means. If we are starting to say everything has to go through a local authority-whether it is the police commissioner, fire and rescue in some areas, or education-we are coming away from what decentralisation is about.

Q400 James Morris: Is one of the potential downsides not that if I am someone aspiring to be a councillor but I look at the landscape and think, "It is confusing. It looks as though the Government want to take power away from me and there is a lot more direct, democratic intervention," it creates confusion in people’s minds about what their role will be as a councillor in the 21st century, and what they do in relation to police and crime commissioners, for example?

Brandon Lewis: If people are interested in being involved in education, they will tend to move towards wanting to be a school governor and get involved in a school. If they are interested in being involved in police commissioning, they might even be running for police commissioner this year. In that sense, it gives people the ability to specialise in a particular area that suits them and that is good for them. As people get to learn more about what they can do, whether as a councillor or a school governor, or whatever their interest happens to be, that is likely to be where they will start to move. For me, in terms of local government-I do not want to stray too much into the Home Office’s remit-and police commissioners being local government, that is about, as I have said already, making people as aware as we can about moving as much power as we can locally and decentralising, so that there is more incentive for people to want to be involved and see that they can make a difference in shaping and forming their community.

Q401 James Morris: You cited the community right to challenge provisions in the Localism Act as an opportunity for local councillors to get involved. Do you think that that implies that there will be a different kind of mindset or skill set that councillors will need to be able to take the opportunities that those provisions present? Certain local authorities say that the community right to challenge is something they want nothing to do with because it is about trying to break up the monopoly of local government. Should councillors have a role in facilitating some of those provisions and not be afraid to champion them?

Brandon Lewis: Yes, is the short answer. Mr Morris, I saw your article published today that outlines that perfectly, in the sense that on a range of areas-this being one of them-it is the people and the authorities that grasp an opportunity and run with it, to put it in the colloquial sense, that will gain the most. There will be areas that will do this more, and I would love to see more and more councils making more and more people aware.

One of the interesting things will be, particularly if you have a cabinet structure in a district council, for example-and you can have back-benchers who can be a bit frustrated because they are not in the cabinet, which makes all the decisions-that this is an area where they can really go back to representing their community. That was what I was alluding to in my opening remarks: with that right to challenge and that right to be getting involved with their community in their local neighbourhood and really making a difference, they may well make themselves a bit of a nuisance to the executive. That kind of tension may not necessarily be unhealthy. It is about making them more aware and making local authorities understand what those opportunities are and welcoming them rather than being resistant to them.

Q402 James Morris: Is that not quite a radically different role for a local councillor in the future? If you can imagine a world where community right to challenge really means something, that is quite a radical change in the role of the councillor. Do you think that is a good thing?

Brandon Lewis: I would almost answer your question with a question: is it a radical change in what the role of a councillor should be, or is it a radical change in what councillors do, as opposed to what has been done in the past? There are many councillors across the country who do brilliant work, and there are some councillors who get frustrated because they are on the back bench and they feel they cannot do very much, or just have not been able to do very much, for whatever reason. This is giving them an opportunity. It is really giving them a chance to represent their community, which is arguably at the core of what a councillor should be there for. That also has a knockon effect: as more and more people realise what those opportunities are and what they can do with it, we should, hopefully, start to see more and more people wanting to do it from a wider range of backgrounds and certainly we should be persuading them to do so. In that sense, yes, I think it will be a change, but hopefully for the better and a change that, to an extent, we should have seen a long time ago in people wanting to get involved and make a difference for their community.

Q403 Chair: Do you understand that some councillors might be a little frustrated? They get elected with the view that they are going to serve their community and have difficult decisions to make, and they will conscientiously try to look, for example, at refuse collection. After a lot of consideration, they come to the view that alternate weekly collection is the best way forward in their area and suddenly they get the benefit of "guided localism" and the Secretary of State saying, "You do not know anything about your areas. I know best. Weekly collections for everybody, please". Then, a few months later, they find that they are trying to struggle with all these difficult planning applications and they are now told they might be the beneficiaries of "muscular localism" and their planning powers might be taken off them if they do not behave in a certain way. Do you not think that is rather discouraging for councillors?

Brandon Lewis: You touched on waste collection and, of course, people can choose to do what they want. The Department might well say, "We think this is a particularly good way and we will help facilitate that if you want to go down that road." With planning, to be fair, the Secretary of State made it very clear on the Floor of the House that that would apply only if there was a council in a particularly unique position of poor performance-the phrase "muscular localism" is no doubt going to go down in history now. But it is the job of Government to lay out a framework and sometimes give a journey of travel outline, but to let local councils get on with it. Whether it is waste or even the new scheme of council tax benefit localisation, it is not compulsory; it is there if you want to do it.

Q404 Chair: But with a £100 million incentive to change your system in a certain way right at the last minute. We will not go into that necessarily today, although we might come back to it at a future inquiry.

Brandon Lewis: I am sure we will have a conversation about that at some stage.

Q405 Mark Pawsey: Minister, you will know as well as anyone that only 4% of councillors come from BME communities, that only 30% are women and that the average age has increased in the past few years from 55 to 60. Given what you said about handing powers down to local communities, is that an issue that should be left to local people, local communities and local political parties, or is it the role of the Government to do something about it?

Brandon Lewis: I do not think it is the role of Government to go in heavy-handed and to regulate, force and make it happen. I do think it is the role of Government to set that direction of travel and talk about it publicly and openly, and for all of us, as politicians, particularly if we have been through local government as well, to highlight that the best way to represent a community is to have a good mix of people. I was very, very fortunate. When I became leader of the council that I was on, I had a pretty fair mix. I might be proved wrong on the actual numbers, but I had roughly 50:50 men and women, give or take. I had the youngest councillor in the country at the time. I had the first 18-year-old, who was the youngest in the country, up to people in their 70s and a pretty good spread all the way through. They were also from different backgrounds as well-different types of profession and experience. I have always had the view that what made that group a success-I appreciate that I am slightly biased-and work well as a team was having a really good mix of people from all different parts of the community who could come together. I do think that political groups on local authorities have a really important job to do: to look at their community, as we are doing in Parliament, and say, "Are we representative of our community and what can we do to make sure we are going out and talking to people who should be involved in representing their part of the community, adding to our team and helping us make the community better?" I do not think it is for central Government to go in and make it happen, because you end up with targets and topdown structures that are painful and create tension. We should be encouraging people locally to do it.

Q406 Mark Pawsey: Can the Government do anything to encourage it to happen other than simply talking about it? Could it insist on shortlists, for example, of different people from different backgrounds and communities?

Brandon Lewis: It is difficult for the Government to go in and force something to happen, and go much beyond talking, persuading and encouraging, because you end up with topdown targets that, in themselves, create tensions, whether it is particular types of shortlists or anything like that. It needs to be down to the local communities. Groups on councils should be looking to encourage people in their communities to come forward and represent their community.

Q407 Mark Pawsey: Are there any other ways in which Government can encourage people to engage with the local democratic process?

Brandon Lewis: One of the things that local councils can be doing is looking at themselves and how they function and run, and asking whether that is conducive to allowing people to be involved. You mentioned the age range of people. One of the problems for people of working age is that councils that meet during the day can be very, very difficult. I know employers will give people time off, but there is a limit to what you can do. Smaller councils will often meet in the evenings and look at their membership and try to arrange their meetings and the way the council works so that people from different backgrounds may be more involved. Again, that has to be locally driven, because every councillor in every community will have a different area to represent and therefore slightly different needs.

Q408 Simon Danczuk: Do you agree with the leader of Hertfordshire County Council that allowances are "high enough to offend the public but not high enough to encourage any sane person to give up their career and earning capacity to take the role on"?

Brandon Lewis: Some councils are different from others, I suspect. I saw a press release last week about a council-I think it was Cornwall-that was talking about raising its allowances by 20%. In the current climate, that is a very unusual decision to be looking to take. Councils should be looking quite carefully at that, particularly at a time when every household is squeezed. If we are looking at councils to play their part and then they put up allowances, there is a question mark.

The issue of allowances has always been a difficult one. When I first became a councillor it was in the times when you did not get allowances. I think it was £13 for a meeting, if you claimed it after a certain time or something like that. It has changed dramatically in that time. Again, different areas will have different needs; there will be different commitments from councillors depending on what level they work at and what type of authority they are in. That needs to be driven by what is right locally and, if people get carried away, the democratic process is a pretty powerful process to be aware of.

Q409 Simon Danczuk: We had councillors here last week and the annual allowance was about £2,400. That is derisory, is it not? It is abysmal.

Brandon Lewis: Again, that is up to the independent panel locally. Great Yarmouth, my council, is one of the lowest in the country, to be fair. That local authority with its independent panel can look at that, and take a view on how it works and on whether that is appropriate for that size authority in that area. That is a matter for it to look at locally to get a figure that it thinks is a fair representation of what people are doing. There is a difference between that and a salaried job; I personally do not think it should be salaried.

Q410 Simon Danczuk: I am worried that you are not matching your rhetoric, you see, because you said earlier that you were keen to get people from all different backgrounds involved, but if you are the working poor in this country, the chances are that you would not be able to be a councillor. You might be working overtime to get money into the household. You would not be able to afford child care costs to cover political meetings, would you? You might be in insecure employment. You could not survive on £2,400. On the one hand, your rhetoric is about involving a wider, broader spectrum of people, but, on the other hand, you are not prepared to put your money where your mouth is and pay these people, or give them a decent amount of money to be able to live off.

Brandon Lewis: It is not my money to give them; it is the taxpayers’ money and the residents’ money. That is why I come back to the fact that it is for the people in that area. I am not saying whether £2,500 is too little or whether £25,000 is too much. My point is that it is for that local authority, with its independent panel, to look at what is right to be able to allow people to come in and do that job and represent their community with the pressures and the time involved of the local authority. To go beyond that, you are tempting me into centralising it again, and I think it should be something that is done locally.

Q411 Simon Danczuk: So you do not see any correlation between the size of allowances that are offered and the kind of people who come forward for election as councillors.

Brandon Lewis: I have no doubt at all that there could be a correlation between how much somebody is paid in an allowance-whether it is an allowance to be a councillor, or a special allowance to be a senior member of an executive-and whether people come forward. What I am saying is that I do not think it is for central Government to decide what allowance should be set for a particular district, county, unitary or other council. It is for them, with their independent panels, to work that out and to come up with a figure that works correctly for them and represents their community properly.

Q412 Simon Danczuk: Why not have a national system-an independent body to help set it? For example, IPSA is now talking about setting our MPs’ allowances. There will not be a vote on it; it will be set by IPSA. The increase will be determined by IPSA. Why not have the same system for local councillors?

Brandon Lewis: Again, you are tempting me into centralising when I believe in localising and decentralisation.

Q413 Simon Danczuk: I am just asking you for the argument as to why you would not do that.

Brandon Lewis: Because that would be to move away from localisation and decentralising power. I think we should trust local authorities to come up with the right schemes with their independent panels, and I do not think it is for central Government to do it. Equally, if central Government were to go out to all of the district councils across the country and come up with a scheme, by definition they would be likely to be tempted into using onesizefitsall, and I do not think that works. The needs you have would be different in a very small district authority with a turnover of a few million pounds-sometimes you have parishes that are bigger than that-compared with big metropolitan authorities, unitaries and counties. It is right that in different parts of the country, and in different areas within it, those local panels, with the independent people involved, get to choose what they think is right for their communities. If they are not getting the right people coming forward, again it is for the local community and the local council to look at it and ask: "Have we got this figure right? Is it right in terms of what it recompenses people for the time they are giving up?" and take a view on that. But I personally do not think it is for central Government to go in and start dictating that.

Q414 Simon Danczuk: But when Cornwall, as you were saying earlier, decides to increase allowances by 20%, it gets criticised by the local government Minister, which is what you have just done. On the one hand, you are saying it is for local decision makers-

Brandon Lewis: Absolutely, yes.

Q415 Simon Danczuk: But then you criticise them.

Brandon Lewis: There is a difference, because I am not the one who is going to go in and tell them whether they can do it or not. I am just saying I think it is a very, very odd decision to make in an economic climate like this, and the ballot box generally tends to do a pretty good job of dealing with those situations. But if Cornwall feels it are doing the right thing and the people of Cornwall think that is the right thing to do, that is fine for Cornwall.

Q416 Chair: Just let me pick two points up very briefly. First of all, if a local authority wanted to exercise its decision making in the same way that we in Parliament have chosen to with regard to our pay-in other words, to appoint an independent body and allow the decision to be made by that body; not simply advice, but the decision-should councils be allowed to do that?

Brandon Lewis: At the moment, they have to have an independent body, but you are right that it does come back to the council to sign it off. I do not hold a particularly strong view on that, so I will have a think about it and come back to you. To an extent, they can do that, because all they have got to do is just accept what the independent body says.

Q417 Chair: But we have been here in Parliament with that before, have we not? We have had that situation and it is never the right time to accept and that is what council leaders have told us here. I just wonder whether there is a way, just as we have now simply said to IPSA, "You do it; we are not going to vote on it," that a council would be allowed to be in the same position if it wanted to be.

Brandon Lewis: That is something that is worth us having a look at, yes.

Q418 Chair: Okay. Secondly, something we heard earlier is that a problem is that what might be a reasonable allowance for someone who is retired and keeps their income-they might have their private pension as well as their state pension, so the allowance is a top-up-is very different, if it is the same amount, than for someone who has lost a couple of days work and loses more in pay than they gain in the allowance. Would it be possible to have a look at something like a loss of earnings, which used to exist? The electorate might be more understanding of someone not losing out on their income because they are spending time on council work, but people not gaining it if they do not lose the income in the first place?

Brandon Lewis: Again, at the moment, that is something for local panels to have a look at. The problem is that if a local council says £2,500 is the allowance, I am not sure that it is right that somebody should get more or less than that. Putting aside whether they get special responsibility allowances, if they are a back bencher and that is what they get, whether they are retired or not does not change the level of responsibility they have got for being a councillor. When we start talking about if they have to give up work to attend council meetings, it comes down to why I say that councils should look carefully at how they structure their meetings to make sure the people in the community can be involved. But you do make a fair point, which I will have a look at, in terms of how that is structured. That is an interesting point and I will have a look at that.

Q419 Chair: Maybe as an alternative, instead of an allowance for some people, they could have a loss of earnings. Would you be prepared to have a look at that and give us some indication?

Brandon Lewis: I will come back to you on that, if you do not mind.

Q420 Bill Esterson: We had a witness who told us that the jobcentre told her not to put the fact she was a councillor on her CV, and other councillors have told us that they were turned down for jobs because they were councillors. Do you think that is right? Should there be legislation to prevent discrimination against people for being councillors, in terms of employment?

Brandon Lewis: I have not heard that, so I am not going to comment on specific cases, but it is very disappointing. If anybody is discriminated against for any reason, it is wrong anyway.

Q421 Bill Esterson: Should there be legislation if that is happening?

Brandon Lewis: I have not seen any specific cases. I do not doubt you have got some examples. If you have a specific example, I would be very happy to have a look at it and see what was behind it before I start commenting in a broader sense on any specific issues.

Q422 Bill Esterson: On the other side of what the Chair was just asking you about people being compensated for time off work, what about compensating small businesses for losing people, in particular? Bigger businesses can usually manage if someone is not there for a few hours, but for smaller businesses, in particular, should there be compensation for councillors and the contribution they are making?

Brandon Lewis: That is where this whole issue becomes very complicated and very difficult, because it becomes openended-both financially and in terms of how you structure. It makes it, again, very difficult even if you wanted, which I do not, to have a central system, because in every different place, every business and every person could make a case with very different numbers and very different figures.

Q423 Bill Esterson: But equally, that particular issue could not be dealt with by an independent panel either.

Brandon Lewis: No, but as I say, that is what makes it much more complicated and what makes the whole thing very difficult. But equally, again, it does come back to why I think it is important that local authorities look at who their members are and work out, as far as they can, a system for having their meetings to facilitate members being able to play a full and active role in that council.

Q424 Bill Esterson: And you would look at the possibility of compensating businesses.

Brandon Lewis: I have never looked at the possibility of compensating businesses. What I would much rather councils do, which would be far more cost-effective and timeeffective, is look at how they can run their meetings so that councillors involved in that council can be part of it. For example, when I was a council leader, our council meetings were in the evenings to enable people to be at those meetings rather than during the day.

Q425 Bill Esterson: There is a lot more to being a councillor than just going to meetings though.

Brandon Lewis: Absolutely, yes, but I do not see being a councillor as a full-time job.

Q426 Chair: We have had this discussion with quite a lot of people and the complication is of having meetings at times that suit everyone, because someone who is working might appreciate an evening meeting, apart from the fact there are maybe still community organisations that want to see them during the day; however, someone who has children might want daytime meetings so they do not have extra child care to pay for. It is not easy.

Brandon Lewis: Yes. There are councils that will look at that and work out how they structure their meetings to try to suit the members they have. I know there are councils that have certain committees that will meet during the day, if it suits the members on those committees. They will structure it that way and I think that is a very sensible way of doing it.

Q427 Chair: Does that not sometimes just suit the councillors who are there, but discourage other people from becoming councillors who might not be suited to those particular times?

Brandon Lewis: That again comes back to why it is important that the local councils have the power to work out locally what is right for them, their members and their community, rather than having us try to do that centrally. Whatever you come up with, a onesizefitsall approach does not work. It is very difficult even within one authority, as you have just outlined, let alone across the country with lots of different types of authorities.

Q428 Heather Wheeler: We have had some interesting conversations about councillors who are "bed blockers" and those who are incompetent. Do you think there is any sort of role for the Government to ensure that councillors do a competent job?

Brandon Lewis: It is difficult for central Government to take a view on what every individual councillor is doing on every council. We have to trust local authorities and the councillors on those authorities to work out what is right for them, and local political parties and other parties to work out what is right for them. If people are not good enough, there are opportunities there, whether it is with some of the schemes the LGA or the NALC run, to give people training. Many local authorities themselves will run training to help councillors to improve their skill set and do their job better, and that is very important. But for central Government to get involved in that would be quite difficult and potentially quite dangerous.

Q429 Heather Wheeler: That is interesting. As a CLG Minister, do you think that the DCLG should put out an agreed set of performance standards for councillors across the country? Does the Department have any stats or evidence about whether the quality of councillors is going up or down?

Brandon Lewis: The problem with judging that is about who is making the judgment call on whether somebody is effective or not. I am a passionate believer in the ballot box. For all the criticism some people can occasionally give it, I think that generally the ballot box will get it right when deciding whether somebody is fit to be a councillor or not. We should deal with that at the ballot box and trust the good people of the electorate to deal with it. For us in central Government to start asking local authorities to make a judgment call and feed back to us would not only put another burden on local authorities, which I think they could well do without and for which they probably would not thank us, but would start to move away from what the ballot box is about.

Q430 Heather Wheeler: The final thing is completely different, really. We have heard evidence from councillors about the tsunami of e-mails, casework and what have you that they have to take on. Do you think it is appropriate that councillors should have a paid assistant to help with their casework?

Brandon Lewis: Again, that is up to local authorities. If they feel that is something that is right for them and they can afford to do it, it is a judgment call for the local authority, but it sounds like a very expensive route to go down to me.

Q431 Mark Pawsey: Minister, we have heard evidence that some of the best recruits as new local councillors are people who started off as community activists. Community activists start off at the most local level and the most local level is parish councils. I know the Government are doing some work on encouraging town and parish councils to set up. What is the progress there?

Brandon Lewis: We are moving towards making sure we make it easier. We have developed a consultation paper setting out the options for making it easier to set up these councils where they do not currently exist. This includes looking at how new neighbourhood forums can come together easily and straightforwardly, and we plan to publish that consultation very soon.

Q432 Mark Pawsey: Is there any work the Department can do to encourage community activists to make the transition towards becoming councillors?

Brandon Lewis: As we were saying earlier, it is for all of us to be talking up the opportunities so that people want to be part of it, and it is about making sure we are creating those opportunities and moving that power locally so that people can see that if they get involved, they can make a difference for their community and be an important part of it.

Q433 Mark Pawsey: In terms of encouraging people to take up the role of councillor, do you think that is facilitated by single-member wards or multi-member wards? In a multi-member ward, can somebody hide and let the other guys get on with it, or is it better to encourage people to come forward as councillors in a single-member ward where their work is much more visible?

Brandon Lewis: I think that it is for those local authorities to take a view on what is right for them-they can do that. I know there are some local authorities that are looking at whether they want to change their set-up-from three to two or to one, as it were-and that is a matter for them to work through with the boundary commission.

Q434 Mark Pawsey: But have you got a view about which model would be more attractive to a new potential recruit coming forward as a councillor?

Brandon Lewis: No. I think that is a matter for the local area and, again, it is down to the local community to work out what is right for them.

Q435 Mark Pawsey: I wonder if I might ask you as well about the different forms of local government.

Brandon Lewis: You are tempting me into reorganising local government from the top, which I am going to resist.

Q436 Mark Pawsey: Well that is the next one, Minister, because our structure of local government is very confusing for somebody sitting outside it who is a community activist who wants to get involved in their local community-it is pretty complicated. Some areas are twotier. We have unitaries-we have some massive unitaries with more than 120 members on them-and we have metropolitans. Does the system of local government militate against somebody who has got a genuine local interest coming forward as a councillor?

Brandon Lewis: It can be a complicated system. We have got parishes that are bigger than some districts. But, to my mind, that is kind of the beauty of it, because what has happened over the years-it is still happening is those local communities-is that those local areas and councils, at whatever level, have evolved and developed to be what their community is best served by. It will continue to evolve that way. That is one of the beauties of our system-it can move and evolve, rather than being forced and directed.

Q437 Mark Pawsey: But it is confusing for somebody who moves around the country from one place to another. Is there anything that the Department can do to facilitate understanding of the structures of local government? Would that, in itself, encourage more people to come forward as councillors?

Brandon Lewis: That is also, I would argue, the temptation and the challenge as you move around the country-you can go from one type of authority to another and try something different. All of us as politicians-and certainly in government-have to make sure that we are clear about the what value and importance a local councillor can have in their community, why that matters, what they can do and what their powers are, so that people want to be part of it. Whether that community is one that is run primarily locally by a parish council with a district and a county or a unitary or a metropolitan is irrelevant. If you want to get involved and do something for your community, get involved with whatever that structure is where you are.

Q438 Chair: The Government will not be implementing Lord Heseltine’s report, then.

Brandon Lewis: You tempt me into commenting on something that is not yet published. I will wait and read the report before I comment in too much detail on that one, but we have been clear about our position on unitary authorities.

Chair: Minister, thank you very much indeed for coming and answering our questions this afternoon.

Brandon Lewis: Thank you.

Prepared 6th November 2012