Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60
THURSDAY 17 JUNE 1999
60. Nevertheless an area which needs to be very
clear so the local authority know what they can and cannot do
in terms of provision of public information on the pros and cons?
(Mr Whetnall) Yes, you are right. That
might also be something that the regulations should look at. There
is obviously no requirement on the council, if it does not believe
in it, not to say that it does not believe in it.
61. Can I go on and just ask a question about
costs of holding referendums. I just wonder if there has been
any effort to make any assessment of the cost not just of the
referendum itself but also the process that an authority might
have to embark upon in drawing up its proposals and so on which
will entail obviously time, especially if they are of the level
of detail that Mr Hewitt was describing just now? Has any work
been done to try and get some estimate of the costs which might
arise if authorities choose to go down the elected mayor route?
(Mr Whetnall) I think some of the consultation
responses gave examples of costs incurred on voluntary referendums,
including perhaps Brighton.
(Mr Whetnall) Obviously it rather depends
whether you are managing to combine it with another election.
They were not frightening figures.
Lord Bassam: £30,000 to hold a normal referendum
on the future of Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club.
63. More than their turnout for the whole season.
Could I come back, Chairman, on the question of who decides on
how campaigning is to take place. The State of Massachusetts and
a number of other states provide sorts of proposition books for
both sides' arguments to be put forward and that is done in a
neutral heading. Is that something the Government has looked at
in terms of how a referendum might be conducted without getting
into the muddy waters that Mr Burstow has suggested?
(Mr Whetnall) Yes, there would have to
be an analysis of what constituted fairness. There is the recent
report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life which sets
out the position on the use of resources to put forward one side
or another's campaign. I am sure in working up the content of
guidance and regulations we would have to look at that.
Sir Paul Beresford
64. Going back to the petition, do you anticipate
the local authority having to vet the petitioners for legitimacy?
(Mr Whetnall) Yes, I imagine it would.
Sir Paul Beresford: Which could be a considerable
task. Five per cent of Birmingham is
65. Fifty thousand.
(Mr Hewitt) Local authorities are under
a duty now to ensure that, for example, the nominations of those
standing for election are valid.
Sir Paul Beresford
66. It is certainly different.
(Mr Hewitt) It is. It has to be said
that a number of authorities have differing practices on this
but I think very few would go the whole hog of trying to validate
the full five per cent of the petition.
67. So are you suggesting against the petitioner's
name would have to be their electoral registration number?
(Mr Whetnall) That might be a basic check.
That would be a requirement that limits the people who are eligible
to petition. All this is a possible content of regulations under
the power of clause 22 which clearly is among the things that
we need to do a lot more work on.
68. Would professional petition gatherers be
outlawed? A number of American states have allowed professional
petition gatherers to set up in business.
(Mr Whetnall) That is a proposition to
69. Presumably anyone can raise a petition,
political parties, the council itself, the local newspaper or
a tenants association or something. Presumably it is open to anybody
to raise a petition. In the context of that, is not five per cent
a little high as the threshold for requiring a referendum?
(Mr Whetnall) Clearly representations
about whether it is too high or too low are there in the consultation
responses. It would be a bit surprising if a local authority wanted
to raise a petition because it would have the power to trigger
a referendum itself if that was the proposal it wanted to advance.
70. Have you considered any other proposals,
apart from petitions, to trigger this mechanism? As you stated
at the beginning there is a great deal of enthusiasm or support
for elected mayors, as testified by opinion polls, and for obvious
reasons there is a great deal of resistance when it comes to elected
representatives. Have you considered actually putting an obligation
on to local authorities to test opinion via opinion polls and
to use that as a mechanism? Clearly it is the Government's intention
to move along this path, it is not neutral on the issue.
(Mr Whetnall) There is provision, although
it is not very prescriptive, as to the form of what is done in
the clause which deals with working up the proposal which authorities
are obliged to prepare. They should do so in a way which is consultative
and open to the views of the community.
(Mr Hewitt) It is clause 10. There is a duty to consult
in drawing up proposals. Clearly authorities will take various
steps to do that. Some have standing citizens panels that they
can consult and have done things that way, others might commission
research, it rather depends on local circumstances and where they
are in terms of how they develop their own consultative machineries.
Mr Stringer: I was making a slightly different
point to consultation. I was taking the view that I believe to
be the Government's view, that they would like authorities not
to remain in the status quo but to move along the road
particularly to elected mayors but also to executives. In a sense
why put an electorate which is disillusioned with councils to
the trouble, why not just put an obligation on to the council
to hold an opinion poll and if that goes one particular way then
make that the trigger that moves you to the referendum?
71. A focus group. Never mind the referendum,
let us just do it with a focus group, a straw in the wind approach.
(Mr Whetnall) I take the point of that.
72. I probably have not read sufficiently closely
the document but can I ask how a referendum is set up in a particular
form of government with the local authority? Can you then have
a subsequent referendum to change it?
(Mr Whetnall) There is a provision, so
that everybody's mind is not taken completely off the business
of Government, not to repeat referendums before five years.
73. So that is the maximum frequency that would
be allowed under the statute?
(Mr Whetnall) Yes, as proposed.
74. If any councils adopt the elected mayor
model we are going to end up with the mayor as a member of the
council elected on one electoral system and the other councillors
elected by a different electoral system. Do you see any problems
because of those different electoral mechanisms, or any advantages?
(Mr Whetnall) It is not simply the difference
in electoral arrangements that produces that possibility. Once
you have a question on the ballot paper concerning the councillor
who would be the mayor it is just possible that you would have
a different outcome whatever the system of voting. It is clearly
possible that the mayor may be a member of the majority party,
or he or she will be working together with a hung council or a
council with a majority which is different. As you say, clearly
it would be a new situation and it would require work to produce
a consensus on issues before budgets and policy frameworks could
be agreed. Whether that is a problem or an opportunity depends
on how you look at it.
75. With my Lord Chairman's agreement let me
try to marry this issue with the discussion we were having before.
In a sense you have dipped your toe in the water with changing
the electoral system for the mayor if there are three or more
candidates I think. If what is being looked for is a more scrutinising
council, and I think I have heard ministers say this, to break
up one party states in parts of the country, has it been considered,
or is it part of the responses that you have received, that you
might break up that control on both sides of the council, the
scrutinising side and the executive side, by introducing PR into
the local elections?
(Mr Whetnall) I think that the position
remains as stated in the White Paper and in the statement that
the Deputy Prime Minister made in the House when it was published
that there is some move towards forms of PR or alternative voting
systems in what the Government has done on devolution, what it
is doing on London, and what it is doing concerning mayors. It
is a question of seeing how those work. There are no proposals
in this Bill to have the rest of the council elected on a PR system.
76. Has there been much response in the consultation
along those lines?
(Mr Whetnall) A number of people have
sent us postcards advocating PR for local government and some
of the consultation responses developed the argument.
Mr Gray: The Prime Minister is changing his
view after last weekend.
77. Can we move on to standards which occupies
a large part of this Bill which we have not had a great deal of
time to discuss with you. Personally I would like to know why
so complex a system is proposed in this Bill for dealing with
standards on allegations of impropriety and there are a number
of issues arising out of that. It is adding to the number of the
existing established bodies. If we are going to have the new mechanism
why has the opportunity not been taken to look at the question
of the surcharge? How are the auditors, the standards board, the
ombudsman all going to fish in the same pool, possibly coming
to different decisions? I might perhaps add to that what thoughts
are going to be given to it to avoid the whole system being bogged
down? Many people around this table have known situations where
authorities have not been able to sign off their accounts because
somebody has got an objection of little or no substance. It takes
a great deal of time and a great deal of money to resolve all
of these situations. It seems to me that we are not proposing
to take this opportunity to (a) review the surcharge situation
or (b) simplify the whole complaints procedure or bring it together
under one head, it is an addition.
(Mr Redpath) Chairman, you have raised
a very large number of issues there. Perhaps I can just say by
way of opening, the new framework has three principal components:
statutory codes of conduct, the establishment of a standards committees
in local authorities and the establishment of an independent national
body, the Standards Board. The first two of those elements of
the framework were recommended by Nolan and I am not aware of
anyone who argues that we should not have introduced statutory
codes of conduct nor that local authorities should be required
to have standards committees. I think there is a broad consensus
about that. Some people certainly have argued that establishing
an independent national body, a standards board, is perhaps a
step too far and an unnecessary elaboration on Nolan. I think
in response to that, firstly it is worth bearing in mind that
the Nolan recommendations actually included the establishment
of a national set up, a set of tribunals which would hear appeals
from investigations carried out by standards committees and which
would oversee the operation of local authority standards of codes
of conduct. So it is not as if the Nolan recommendations did not
envisage some form of national apparatus. Ministers accept Nolan's
view that the vast majority of councillors stay the right side
of the line on ethical issues but they believe that this is an
issue of such importance to the credibility of local government
that we must establish an effective procedure for dealing with
those few cases where a serious breach of the code has taken place.
The issue is what is the best mechanism for doing that? Now there
may not be many serious allegations at the moment, but there are
some and they are dealt with at the moment by councils. It is
quite instructive to look at the way some authorities deal with
them. Quite often what they do is call in an independent person,
very often a QC or someone suitably else qualified, who carries
out the investigation. The council itself feels that it should
not carry out the investigation because a degree of independence
needs to be established. Then when the investigation has taken
place they call in another independent person to consider the
results of that investigation and decide what further action is
necessary. So the council is saying "We do not think we are
the people who should consider the results of the investigation
either". So it is not as if local authorities at the moment,
some local authorities, have not accepted the argument that they
should not be engaged in this process of investigation and adjudication,
that that is actually best handled independently. That does not
take you a million miles from where we are with the standards
board recommendation or proposal. I think the Government sees
considerable advantages in having one national body providing
that independent investigation and adjudicative role rather than
a lot of councils making their own arrangements. I think they
feel that it is more likely that the people who are subject to
these allegations will be treated fairly and consistently by a
single national body rather than a lot of separate local arrangements.
To the extent that punishment or penalties are to be meted out,
a degree of consistency as between the treatment of one councillor
who has breached the code and the treatment of another councillor
elsewhere who has been found to have carried out a similar breach
of the code, there should be a degree of consistency there. It
is not clear to us how that degree of consistency can be achieved
if you allow local authorities to carry out these things independently.
I think on grounds of public confidence, and fairness and consistency
the Government is pretty clear that the standards board has a
valuable role to play.
78. One of the main arguments that Mr Redpath
has been advancing is that basically the proposals are a translation
of the Nolan Committee's proposals into law and that Nolan has
advanced a number of arguments which are persuasive of ministers
and so on and ministers are minded to put those into place. However,
Nolan also recommended the bringing to an end of surcharge and
the Bill does not address that question at all. It seems a fairly
onerous new set of arrangements are to be put in place to deal
with a few, in Mr Redpath's words, councillors but at the same
time, if you like, the other side of the equation, the surcharge
and the sanctions which are draconian compared with any other
part of public service are to remain in place also. What is the
thinking there as to why most of Nolan is embraced but that part
of Nolan is not?
(Mr Whetnall) Nolan's recommendations
on surcharge were part of a set of proposals which envisage replacing
it by a criminal offence of misuse of public office which the
Home Office consulted on and they are working on how that might
be framed. So those two proposals are to an extent linked and
as I understand it they are getting near the point of taking their
ministers' minds on how that might be done and we would then come
back to the surcharge proposal.
79. Does that therefore mean there may be some
additional clauses for this Bill or it might be the subject of
a separate Bill?
(Mr Whetnall) I would not rule it out
but the policy has not quite got to a decision on that.