Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Good afternoon, gentlemen, welcome to the Joint Committee. Thank you for coming to give evidence. I wonder if I could ask if there are some short introductory comments that you would like to make in the first place and perhaps in that connection you would be kind enough to advise the Members of the Committee of your particular responsibilities in the Departments as well, that would be helpful.

  (Mr Whetnall) Thank you. I am Andrew Whetnall from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the Local Government Director.
  (Mr Redpath) Tony Redpath, the Head of the Local Government Legislation Division. We are dealing with the new ethical framework.
  (Mr Hewitt) I am Simon Hewitt from DETR also. I work primarily on the political management structures.
  (Mr Gareth Thomas) Gareth Thomas from the Welsh Office Local Government Modernisation Division. I am dealing with the Welsh interests generally in the Bill.
  (Mr Ian Thomas) I am Ian Thomas from the branch which deals with central-local relations in the Welsh Office. I deal with the new ethical framework aspects of the Bill in relation to Wales.

  2. Mr Whetnall, are you going to lead for the DETR?

  (Mr Whetnall) Thank you, yes. Very briefly perhaps it would help if I explain where we are in the consultation process on the draft Bill. The period for initial comments ended on 21 May and we have had well over 200 responses which we have been sharing with the Committee clerks. I hope they appreciate the volume. We have not yet completed an analysis of those responses and we have yet to talk them through in detail with ministers. The text we are consulting on remains the one that we published in the document[1] which I am sure you have all seen. Quite a number of the responses said that they would like to see more added to the draft Bill. I think it may be as well for me to say from the outset that we can only help to a certain extent on that. The Local Government White Paper had what we hoped was a coherent programme of modernisation and change in which almost all the measures were inter-related. Had we been able to introduce a large Bill to do all of that in the first and second sessions it would have consumed a very great amount of parliamentary time potentially. That is obviously the business managers' concern and they will decide later in the year just what the scope of any Bill for introduction might be. We understand that there are people who are very keen to see additional elements in the Bill.

  3. Thank you. Do your colleagues from the Welsh Office want to say anything?

  (Mr Ian Thomas) We are obviously in the same situation as the DETR using the same Bill. We have had a smaller number of responses, 20 from across Wales. We have analysed the responses and most of them are broadly supportive of the proposals in the Bill, specifically the Welsh proposals for the ethical framework.

  4. Perhaps if I might ask this one general point. One of the objects appears to be to increase public interest and accountability of local government. A great deal of emphasis is placed on the elected mayor concept, although I accept that is not the only one, but that is actually a concept plucked from other jurisdictions without taking anything else with it from those other jurisdictions, be they European or North American. Clearly there is a belief that it will work. I wonder why cherry picking that one idea is thought to be capable of answering the problems about levels of interest in local government and accountability of local government and its efficiency?

  (Mr Whetnall) As you say, it is one idea. It is the leading idea. It is in the context of an analysis that a degree of separation between the executive, the representative, the scrutiny and other roles of councillors would help the public to understand better and help to locate accountability more precisely in the framework of decision making. There is an element of thinking that because levels of electoral turn out have been low historically compared to much of the rest of Europe, and appear also to be declining, that an idea which provides a slight element perhaps of personality politics (which interestingly was one of the reasons why the Widdecombe Committee when it looked at this idea was not attracted to it about ten years ago), would be a good foundation for injecting more public interest, more public understanding and a more precise location of responsibility into the local government system. I think that is the basic premise which has led that idea to be offered. It perhaps also explains partly why the element of choice for local people is offered quite prominently in the policy proposals. Consistently since the Commission for Local Democracy started re-exploring the idea there has been an apparent gap in various opinion polls between the public enthusiasm for the concept and councillor enthusiasm for the concept. That partly explains why the mechanisms of public involvement—decisions by local people, consultation and petitions triggering referendums are in the package as well.

Lord Ponsonby

  5. Can I go back to your opening comments, Mr Whetnall. You said that there have been a number of proposals for change but there was a problem with the business managers of actually getting those into the Bill. Can somebody enlighten me on the procedure. The recommendations which may come out of this Committee or from other people who make recommendations, will they be rewritten in the Bill before the Bill comes to Parliament? Will they be introduced into the Bill as the Bill passes through Parliament?

  (Mr Whetnall) The recommendations of the Committee will, I am sure, carry a great deal of weight. The issue, as ever with Parliament, is of a fairly heavily pressured legislative programme, in other words there is a lot of Government legislation in relation to the time available. That means that within the mechanism for deciding the future legislation programme, and it always has in all the years I have been a civil servant, there is more demand than there is legislative time and therefore it cannot be the decision of the individual Departments which Bills go in the programme or which elements in those Bills. There has to be a collective decision making process. I hope I did not imply that there is a problem with business managers; it is more that it is their proper function to decide in the end on the scope and principal elements of the content of the Bills.

Lord Marlesford

  6. Can I follow up the question which the Chairman asked at the beginning about mayors. In which other countries has the Department studied the mayoral system in depth? In the places where you have studied it in depth have you had a position paper or a description for those countries which could be made available to the Committee?

  (Mr Whetnall) I think there is an increasing volume of academic description which has been triggered partly by this policy agenda. There is material, I know, on the United States. I know of several bits of work that are in preparation by some of the academics you are calling as witnesses, Professor Stewart and Professor Stoker. There is already published work by Professor Stewart and Michael Clark which gives a useful summary of the evolution of the mayoral models[2]. They differ considerably in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United States in particular. There is work on such models in New Zealand as well. We will be very happy to let the Committee have a list of all the publications that we know of, both already in existence and forthcoming.

  7. Thank you. If we can have whatever is the most useful summary of those countries where you consider it to be relevant as to what we might be trying to do.

  (Mr Whetnall) Yes, certainly.

Lord Bassam

  8. I was going to follow that up by saying that presumably, and I suppose it is a leading question, the weight of evidence suggests from other countries where they have got mayoral systems there is greater interest and greater turn out. Is this generally the trend? I know in the States that is not the case but it would appear to be the case in other European countries.

  (Mr Whetnall) By and large, yes, there is a higher level of turn out. One has to look underneath that for factors like compulsory voting in places like Belgium as and maybe for wider traditions of participation as well. I do not know quite how you would establish an absolute causal link between the existence of mayors and public interest. Certainly some contacts have been made courtesy of the Local Government Association with mayors from various American cities. Whether it is a function of the nature of the media or not, they reported considerably greater media interest in local politics. The two factors may be related, I do not know whether it would be capable of proof.

Sir Paul Beresford

  9. You have got three alternatives offered. There is a cry, as I have heard it, for more options. I am interested in why you feel, if you indeed feel, that no change could be a potential option. Secondly, you talk about the mayors and the feeling that a mayor is a personality who would engender further interest and yet if one looks back into fairly recent history there are some notable names of leaders of councils, Ken Livingstone being one that the Evening Standard features today, and there is a large number of others, many of those for good reasons, a few for not so good reasons. So that in fact it may well be the personalities rather than the names or the position itself. I wonder if you could comment on that? Perhaps a negative way of looking at the system, when I look back to New Zealand is that the turn out there tends to be, if I recall correctly, negative in that people will tend to vote for a mayor but then vote for a council which opposes the mayor so that they get stagnation through fear and concern, which explains also why they have a Government system where the Government lasts for three years only because everybody is fearful they will get somebody they do not want for four or five.

  (Mr Whetnall) I think I would hesitate before taking you on on New Zealand. I know that some of the academics I have mentioned have been out there recently and looked at the system and particularly identified the council manager form as perhaps the promising model. To take your questions in order. Why only three models? There is a power to add to that number by regulation. A lot of consultation responses were interested in adding further models without necessarily being very clear what further models they would like. Certainly people were interested in area delegation. There were questions whether the council manager system necessarily had to be linked to a directly elected mayor. All of those models we are looking at. On the status quo, I think the analysis would be that the Government is itself persuaded and wants to persuade Parliament that the committee system has some increasingly serious defects as time goes on. Without intervening directly and imposing systems, it wants to provide a stimulus to local consideration of models with executive separation. It is not imposing them in the sense that it will be open to councils, if they face a referendum by petition, to argue the case for the status quo. Indeed, if they win the referendum there is nothing in the Bill which disturbs them for a further five years, although they might be encouraged to think of one of the other models. I think I would have to say that the ministerial analysis is that the committee system is not the most constructive way of doing business for the various reasons that are set out in the White Paper.

  10. The system that you are suggesting, as I see it, has a fairly long list of committees anyway. You have regulatory committees, planning and so forth, overview committees, scrutiny, standards committees, area committees, joint committees, special access, review committees, advisory committees, area manager committees and the executive independent committees, sub-committees, full council, etc., etc. I have run out of fingers.

  (Mr Whetnall) I paraphrase the committee system in the sense of the requirement that decisions of the council should not be delegated to single elected members and should be taken in politically balanced and representative committees. This is the thing that the Government wants to move beyond. I agree that there are plenty of other committees in the arrangements but, with the exception of those marked out as being outside the scope of the executive (planning, regulatory and so on), they are not the central business of the executive decision taking of the council.

  11. To bring you back to the one that was not quite answered, that was the personality mayor versus personality leader.

  (Mr Whetnall) Yes.

  12. The potential is that we could have the personality of the leader under the present system of leaders being dead and boring. Equally it could apply to the mayor situation.

  (Mr Whetnall) I can say that there is no proposal for personality transplants, as it were. I think the opportunity for public identification of a particular case, which may work with the way that politics is by and large reported these days, is what the Government sees as the opportunity in the proposals.

Mr Stringer

  13. I want to go right back to the first point you made about trying to re-enthuse the electorate to the electoral process. Have you considered part of the way of re-enthusing the electorate in the Metropolitan areas might be bringing in the police, fire, waste disposal, some of the functions that affect people's every day life and make them disillusioned with the political process, bringing that under the new structures?

  (Mr Whetnall) I think that is one of the proposals that has come up in consultation responses so it will be considered. It would tend to run to a rather more extensive reconstruction of the form of local government than the Bill provisions, which are essentially addressed to decision making structures. Certainly it is in the consultation responses and ministers will no doubt want to look at it.

Mr Burstow

  14. I want to follow up on one of the answers that you gave to Sir Paul just now particularly on the responses you have had to the consultation exercise so far. You referred to some of the responses indicating a desire to at least add an area based model of governance to the range of models but you also said that of course there is a power under the regulations for other models to be introduced. One of the problems that quite a lot of local authorities at the moment are attempting to embrace or address as part of the agenda that the Government has and implement it is that too much of the detail is in a sense still absent understandably. I have two or three questions which might help on that. The first is just a practical question around the timetable for the production of regulations and when we might either at a later stage in the passage of the Bill or even during our deliberations have an opportunity to get some greater detail of what might be in the regulations that will be laid as a consequence of the Bill. The second is more specific about area committees because in the documentation there is a very hopeful reference in paragraph 3.26 to decentralised structures being tailored to best fit local circumstances, and I very much welcome that. However, in paragraph 3.27 you go on to say that their role would be seen as advisory, advising the council's executive. Is there any possibility and scope at this stage of introducing on to the face of the Bill a model that would allow for decision making roles for area based committees? Perhaps if I pause at that point I might have a couple of other points to make.

  (Mr Whetnall) Thank you. On the question of the timetable for producing some of the drafts of regulation and supplementary detail, or even producing amendments to the Bill, I think we understand the point that is being made; it is difficult to envisage just how the Bill works in detail without some of that material. Therefore, we are organising the legal and other resources to get some of it drafted, drawing on the offers of help and constructive ideas that have been put forward in the consultation package. Actually I do not think that it would be honest to say that we are confident that we will have a lot more material drafted within the timescale of this Committee if you are planning to report in July.


  15. We are instructed to report by 31 July.

  (Mr Whetnall) Certainly we acknowledge that it would be helpful when the Bill is introduced to have more of that on hand because it is an important part of the explanation. I detected sometimes a slight tension between consultation responses which said "there are a lot of regulation making powers and we hope this will not all be too prescriptive" and those which said "it is really terribly important for us to be given more detail as to how all of this works". I think it is going to be a test of drafting to get that balance right because essentially the more detail, the more prescriptive. There are a lot of things, including the way in which councils structure area systems and decentralisation, which I think the minister is interested in leaving as far as possible to local discretion. Your point that the paper says that these area committees should be advisory is again something that the consultation responses raised, whether they might be extended to a degree of delegation on budgets and so on, and it will have to be part of the analysis in taking all that material forward.

Dr Whitehead

  16. Can I draw your attention particularly to figure six in the document and also the two figures that follow that. The scheme that is laid out there to some extent suggests that it has been modelled on the US experience, that is the separation of the executive legislature, and it is quite clear from that that a directly elected mayor proposes a policy framework but does not decide the policy, the council decides the policy framework, the mayor then takes executive decisions and the cabinet implements policies under the political guidance of the mayor. The problem with the model is that it is not the same as the US model in as much as the mayor is drawing the executive from the legislature and there is no supreme court to decide on disputes about policy implementation. What appears to be the case in this particular model is that there is a potential for almighty confusion between what is policy, what is implementation, what is an executive decision and what is a policy framework. How is it suggested that might be resolved and how can disputes be avoided?

  (Mr Whetnall) Partly the answer to that is the way that the council in draws up the details of its constitution, and sets out the division of responsibilities in that document and in the Standing Orders. That can be done in a way which helps to produce a clear understanding of who does what. My understanding of the American models is that they can also vary as people draw down from some fairly stock descriptions of how it works and build in a degree of local variation. Again, there is the balance that I referred to between prescription and leaving room for locally tailored solutions and structures.

  17. But, with respect, the executive in this model will be drawn from legislature which is outside any North American experience. Therefore, for example, on a whipped vote to secure a policy outcome the members of the executive who have been drawn from the legislature presumably would be required to take part in a whipped vote on a policy outcome which may be something that they have directly argued against as members of the executive.

  (Mr Whetnall) I do not know whether the whipping would always work that way. One of my favourite books on constitutions is The Silence of Constitutions.

  18. A thin book.

  (Mr Whetnall) No, it is quite a large book. It compares Charles I and Richard Nixon at length. The ways in which consensus is arrived at in a framework within which there are two sources of electoral authority are obviously rich and deep and various. It may be that the American tradition has a certain amount of court decision and litigation around it that we would go on seeking to avoid. I agree with you that there is an art in designing the constitution and it is not especially something which I think Central Government will have all the wisdom on.

  Chairman: I do not want to curtail your questions but it is just that there are a number of issues that have arisen out of the third part of your intervention. Perhaps we can come back to you in a minute, Mr Burstow, because Mr Gray wants to come in on this area and I think Lady Hamwee also has a point. Dr Whitehead, have you finished?

  Dr Whitehead: With respect, I am not sure that I have been illuminated greatly but I have finished, yes.

Mr Gray

  19. Just on the question of areas, I think your answer was—forgive me if I am wrong—that you were listening very carefully to what people were saying during the consultation process and therefore you might change the distinction that Mr Burstow has very properly pointed out between the two paragraphs in the document, one of which is proposed areas, the other of which says that it must be advisory and not decision making. Am I right in taking from that that you foresee one possible outcome from the consultation as being that you would allow area committees to be decision making? If that is one possible outcome am I not right in thinking that there is a very real difficulty with that which is the reason why that distinction was written in the firstly place, namely that you are effectively doing away with the council and creating a lower decision making body, you are actually saying "we are replicating parish councils and town councils perhaps by decision making levels at lower level than the district council". That is problem one, you are actually changing the constitution of the council very fundamentally. Of course part of that might well be that those area committees will be of a different political persuasion to the overall council. That is the case, for example, in North Wiltshire where it is trying out these experiments at the moment. It would mean, therefore, that the area committee will be able to take a diametrically opposite decision from that which would be taken by the overall council which again fundamentally unbalances the constitution principle behind the election of the council as a whole. Could you clarify that, first of all whether or not you might be considering doing away with that distinction and, if you are considering that, how you would answer that constitutional imbalance?

  (Mr Whetnall) I think what I am saying is that there are consultation responses which will need to be considered and we are not close minded on them. I take both the points you make. One is if you give an absolute transfer of budgets to area units and do not require those to reflect the political composition of the council as a whole you have effectively fragmented the system. One question is whether it is possible to do that through some form of budgetary delegation which does not go all the way. Another question is whether it is possible to do that in a framework where the constitution sets some limits for the way in which an area committees are to exercise their discretion. This could be done, for example, within the framework of best value so the committee has to demonstrate that it is consistent with the policies the council has adopted on overall efficiency and economy and so on. I think at present where there is area delegation there tends to be area delegation within constraints. My answer is that there is quite a large range of possible permutations. The Government would not want to go so far as to wholly remove the purpose of executive separation by having very large amounts of decision making and spending delegated out to committees, but there are certain possibilities for taking a course which continues to allow decentralisation and neighbourhood planning in decision making.

1   Local Leadership, Local Choice, Cm.4298, March 1999. Back

2   Executive Mayors for Britain? New forms of political leadership reviewed-Michael Clarke, Howard Davis, Declan Hall and John Stewart; University of Birmingham, December 1996; ISBN 0 7044 1759 6. Back

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