Councillors and the Community

Written evidence from Dr Mark Ewbank (CC 16)

1. Executive Summary

1.1 This memorandum focuses on one major national survey undertaken with overview and scrutiny ‘backbench’ councillors across England in 2010. The research was undertaken as part of an investigation into how party groups and councillors operated within the Cabinet/ Leader and overview and scrutiny structure. The research undertaken and the results of both quantitative and qualitative investigation could provide useful background context to the role councillors play in their communities. This memorandum will focus upon a small selection of the quantitative output of the research.

2. Context

2.1 This research was conducted as part of a three-year ESRC doctoral research project at the Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV) at the University of Birmingham. The chief focus of the research was upon the freedom of councillors to express themselves both in the public arena and private party group. Given that one of reasons behind the introduction of the cabinet system was to ensure that party groups no longer dominated the activity of councillors to such an extreme extent and ‘councils would be less able to operate behind closed doors without debate and review’ (1998, p.30),’ the research focused on whether the separation of powers had changed the approach of groups and thus councillors.

3. Background

3.1 The quantitative survey research was administered and returned in 2010. Only backbench councillors of the 332 eligible English local authorities who were members of at least one O&S committee, and a member of the Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservative party were invited to take part in the survey research. The survey sample of 20% of the O&S councillor-population was constructed via probability sampling and composed of 1684 councillors, of which 52% returned survey scripts through the post or online, making it the largest backbench-only councillor survey since the introduction of the Local Government Act 2000. Where relevant, the research measures statistical significance to 95% (p < 0.05) and the sampling error is, at its largest, +/- 3.1%.

4. Councillors under control or discipline

4.1 Councillor Whipping

One of the questions in the survey research (Q3.3) asked respondents if they had ever received directive pressure from their group leader or whip about things under consideration by an overview and scrutiny committee meeting. Given that the practice of whipping overview and scrutiny was expressly discouraged in the original guidance on the Local Government Act 2000, approximately 24% or almost 1 in 4 respondents reported this type of advisory whipping, through means of informal pressure, for respondents to act in a certain way in overview and scrutiny committees.

4.2 Q3.4 of the survey research asked respondents whether they had been subject to a strict and explicit party whip in overview and scrutiny. This results of this question showed that this type of whipping in committee meetings was experienced by 12% of respondents.

4.3 Group Meetings and Whipping

When combining whipping and responses to questions about whether party group meetings were devoted or partly allocated to backbench operation on overview and scrutiny, the majority (62%) of respondents had either experienced specific party group meetings relating to O&S, devotion to O&S in regular party group meetings, advisory whipping or explicit whipping from the group in relation to function. Given the legislation’s intention to reduce the role of the group in the operation of councillors on authorities, the level of control over the actions of councillors was still very high, in comparison to previous research conducted with councillors within the committee system by Young and Davies (1990).

4.4 Councillor Time and Group Meetings

One of the questions in the survey (Q4.1) asked whether there were more or fewer party group meetings since the introduction of the Local Government Act 2000. Respondents reported that group meetings have seemingly either remained at the same frequency or increased in frequency in 81% of cases, with relatively few respondents (20%) reporting a decrease in frequency.

4.5 Councillor-reported Group Control of Action

Q4.4 was a conditional question to those councillors who had experience on local authorities before the introduction of the constitutional changes and asked respondents to self-report (on a scale) how much ‘control’ or preclusory organisation that respondents had experienced from their party group both under the former committee system and under the new arrangements.

4.4a - Before the Local Government Act 2000: ‘The Committee System’

4.4b - Subsequent to the Local Government Act 2000: ‘Overview and Scrutiny’

[The scale ran from 1 meaning absolutely no control and 7 meaning absolute complete control]

The mean level of agreement for each question was extremely close between 4.4a and 4.4b, showing the mean agreement for the party control of the committee system to be only 0.21 higher than the mean level of agreement about the party control over overview and scrutiny (4.52 to 4.31). However the differences between the means demonstrated that the difference between the means was statistically significant (p = 0.001) and unlikely to have happened by chance. However the difference between the two reported levels of agreements was very small and both questions were negatively skewed (4.4a -0.223 & 4.4b -0.229) meaning the responses were both more clustered towards higher levels of agreement – meaning that councillors felt more restricted and controlled by their group under both constitutional forms.

In a statistical significance test comparing the means, the political party served as an indicator only for question Q4.4a but not Q4.4b. Thus it was found that Labour respondents reported that the party group had had more control over the old committee system (5.12) than Conservative and Liberal Democrat respondents had believed had been the case (4.49 and 4.06 respectively), which was statistically significant and likely to hold in the population.

However, in relation to Q4.4b, the party did not have a statistically significant association and all parties reported party control relatively equally. The Liberal Democrat respondents provided a mean that was exactly the same in both Q4.4a and Q4.4b, indicating no change. Both Labour and Conservative respondents reported a higher mean level of agreement that the party group had more control over the committee system than under overview and scrutiny. In the Conservative case, this 0.1 agreement difference was almost negligible in contrast to the larger 0.67 difference in means reported by Labour.

4.6 Councillors Speaking in Public / Private

Q3.7 and Q3.8 sought to discover whether respondents had criticised their group’s decisions in two different spheres; public (such as overview and scrutiny, full council et al.) and private (party or group meetings et al.). From figure 1.1 , it is clear that the majority (approx. 75%) of respondents had not criticised the decisions made by their party in any public sphere, in contrast to figure 1.2 which shows that the majority of respondents (approx 65%) had criticised the decisions made by their party in private.

3.7 Since the introduction of the Local Government Act 2000, have you ever criticised the decisions made by your party in any public sphere; such as overview and scrutiny, full council or directly to the local, regional or national press?

3.8 Since the introduction of the Local Government Act 2000, have you ever criticised the decisions made by your party in any private sphere; such as in group or coalition meetings, the local party meetings, national party conferences et al.?

Figure 1.1: Bar chart showing responses to Q3.7, where respondents criticise the party group in public

Figure 1.2: Bar chart showing responses to Q3.8, where respondents criticise the party group in private

Unsurprisingly, from the distinction between the two, it is clear that respondents typically prefer to reserve any criticism about the party group to the confines of the private sphere of the party group rather than in public. However it is the difference between the two that could imply that there would be externalities prompting this type of dichotomy between the two, such as a fear of losing elections, fear of losing positions within the party or being disciplined by the party group et al. which was explored through other questioning in the survey (not explored here) . In looking at the responses to these questions through the lens of political group, the affiliation was not statistically significant when looking at the response to Q3.7 (public criticism) (p > 0.05) and in relation to Q3.8 (private criticism) (p > 0.05).

Table 1.1: Public Criticism (Q3.7) according to party group

Figure 1.3: Cluster bar chart showing responses to Q3.7 (Public Criticism) according to party group

Figure 1.4: Cluster bar chart showing responses to Q3.8 (Private Criticism) according to party group

When testing public criticism with whether the respondent was a chair of an overview and scrutiny committee, there was a statistically significant relationship (Figure 1.5) that indicated that chairs were more willing to criticise their party group in public (p < 0.039), although 71% had never criticised their group. When factoring in chairs from only the majority party group (not within the table below), 69% reported that they had never criticised the decisions made by their party in public.

Figure 1.5: Public Criticism (Q3.7) according to chair vs. non-chair

4.7 Recommendations

This memorandum would recommend to the Committee to ensure to consider the all-encompassing impact of the party groups on local authorities when considering the role of councillors as leaders of communities and neighbourhoods, the recruitment and diversity of councillors and the implications for representation and local democracy. The group is also a factor in the practicalities of being a councillor – including time commitment. The party group is equally important when considering localising decision making to divisions, wards and neighbourhoods.

May 2012


DETR (1998) Modernising Local Government: Local Democracy and Community Leadership

Young, K & Davies, E.M (1990) The Politics of Local Government Since Widdicombe

Prepared 14th June 2012