Political and Constitutional Reform CommitteeSupplementary written evidence submitted by the Centre for Public Scrutiny

1. Professor Tony Travers told us that “blurred accountability suits both central and local government”. Do you agree?

Yes I do agree, so long as we are clear about who in central and local government we are talking about ie decision-makers. Blurred accountability does not help those whose responsibility at central and local level it is to hold decision-makers to account. This blurred accountability enables the government in particular in the current financial climate to get away with what we might characterise as the “centralisation of resources” and the “localisation of blame”. Reducing central regulation is fine but whatever the systems of accountability (not the same as regulation) we need to be clear who is accountable for what and to whom.

If — so, would codification help to clarify where accountability—lies?

Yes if the issue we discussed at the Committee is addressed—that greater consensus is developed across government about the relative roles of local and central government and that codification is not as per the status quo.

2. If there were to be greater clarity about the responsibilities of local government, how would you limit the extent of Ministerial accountability in these areas?

Ministers should be held to account where funding is allocated to achieve clearly state national aims, priorities and programmes. If central funding is allocated purely to achieve resource equalisation ie to areas that cannot raise their own resources through other income streams such as localised business rates that in itself should not give Ministers extra influence and therefore require them to be held to account for expenditure for those funds. Even where funding streams are allocated in support of government priorities voted by parliament, Ministerial accountability should be limited to “what” not “how” ie for the broad outcomes, not for prescribing the detail of how funding is to be spent at local level.

3. In what circumstances, if any, should a Minister be able to intervene in local services to protect the citizen?

Ministerial interventions should be limited to services for vulnerable children and adults and serious financial and governance mismanagement where the local authority has shown itself incapable of resolving its own performance despite support and other forms of intervention short of Ministerial intervention. The form of such intervention should be according to a clear terms of engagement between central and local government, and part of an agreed framework of self-regulation and improvement, which would make it clear that the first line of responsibility for local service delivery is the local authority as the body democratically elected and closest to the citizens affected. In this we would endorse the basic principles of the Local Government Group’s proposals around local self-regulation and improvement, although CfPS has argued for a much stronger role for scrutiny. We would reject the form of Ministerial intervention taken by Ed Balls when he intervened directly in the employment and work of Haringey over its handling of the Baby P tragedy, which raised serious questions about the extent of Ministerial power in the internal affairs of local authorities and was not based on any kind of agreement between central and local government.

4. How should a local authority be called to account for serious mismanagement, if central intervention is to be avoided? Are periodic local elections enough?

We do not think that periodic elections are enough. Mechanisms are needed to ensure accountability between elections. Stronger local scrutiny is part of this picture (see below and attached). Elsewhere CfPS have called for a “web of accountability” which sees all the different forms of accountability working together more effectively than in the past:

through the ballot box;

through transparency and media investigation;

through customer complaints and forms of redress;

through internal performance and line management;

through inspection, regulation and audit; and

through scrutiny.

We have argued that accountability needs to go along with transparency and involvement, which we describe as the three pillars of a healthy democracy. This argument is set out in our publication, Accountability Works (attached plus a summary document).

We are developing an Accountability Charter (draft outline attached) which will enable organisations to work out all their different accountabilities and to determine for themselves (in consultation with their stakeholders) how they aim to be held to account. We think this is an appropriately localist approach to accountability as it puts responsibility at local level but requires organisations to be transparent, inclusive and accountable for their accountability. I would commend the Charter to the Committee.

Are — mechanisms needed at a local level to resolve complaints about the organisation and management of local services?
Do decentralised services require decentralised forms of democratic scrutiny? —

Yes. Decentralised services require stronger decentralised forms of democratic scrutiny. In our submission to the LGG on self-regulation and improvement (attached) we argue for local democratic scrutiny to have a clear power to trigger outside intervention (which could include improvement support from within the sector, as well as an additional inspection or audit outwith the scaled back approach now envisaged). We see this working in the same way as the current power for health scrutiny to refer a major health service reconfiguration proposal to the Secretary of State, which experience shows has been used responsibly by local scrutiny functions.

In my oral evidence I also argued for closer working arrangements between local and central democratic scrutiny functions, as I believe that both have much to learn from each other and could inform each other’s work. Thus a select committee inquiry into a particular topic could seek views and evidence more directly from local overview and scrutiny functions. Joint evidence sessions could take parliamentary scrutiny evidence sessions out beyond Westminster into the local areas most affected by a particular area under scrutiny and recommendations could then be made jointly to the appropriate decision-maker according to where accountability lies—locally or nationally.

5. How should, or could the role of elected mayors affect democratic accountability?

Although the numbers of directly elected mayors are limited, making comparisons and generalisations difficult, CfPS research about the effectiveness of scrutiny functions in Mayoral authorities does not reveal that they are necessarily more challenging or difficult environments in which to ensure strong and effective scrutiny. I should declare an interest in that my partner is an elected Mayor, I was a councillor in a mayoral authority and I am currently a government Commissioner for a mayoral authority in intervention! I think having an elected Mayor puts democratic accountability into sharper focus which is by and large a good thing in terms of clarity of responsibility although this is obviously sometimes uncomfortable.

In the mayoral authority currently in intervention, some of its difficulties arise from the electoral arithmetic which has meant that the Mayor can be voted down by the largest group but that this group in turn does not have enough votes to secure their alternative position in the major budget and policy decisions, leaving the authority in constant danger of stalemate. Some of its other problems predate the mayoral model and others can be more ascribed to personalities and individuals than the fact that one of them is a Mayor.

If elected mayors had more far reaching powers, which arguably they should have by virtue of their stronger local mandate, there would then be clearer grounds to argue for stronger scrutiny mechanisms to hold them to account for their decisions and the exercise of those powers.

Prepared 28th January 2013