Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120
TUESDAY 22 JUNE 1999
120. Would you want an executive of about ten?
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) I cannot
see how a large authority can have less than ten. It might choose
to have more and I do not see why it should not have more if that
is what suits it.
121. Even smaller authorities would need fulfilling.
Three would be ridiculous.
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) Absolutely,
122. A quick question. It would be helpful if
there was some expansion on the vision for the role of theI
hate using the phrase "back bench councillor"community
councillor, the very important powerful community councillor.
Some of the comments about looking at grass cutting and so on,
with the greatest respect, do not do justice to what is being
articulated there. I wonder whether there has been anything done
to develop the ideas around that, particularly in the context
of a potential power? I keep calling it power community initiative
because I go back that far but I cannot remember what the current
title is. That seems to open up even more avenues of opportunity
and exploration for these community councillors which perhaps
we have not fully developed our thinking on. I wonder if that
is an area that you have done some further work on and, if not,
could some new thinking be given to it?
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) There
was the LGM/LGA publication about this which identified a number
of issues on that.
(Councillor Jones) There has been a piece of work
commissioned by the LGA which in actual fact is an excellent document
and is being presented in the democracy task group tomorrow. If
such a document is sought I can certainly commend it, I had the
opportunity of reading it myself last night.
Sir Paul Beresford
123. A few small things. I was interested in
your comment about improvements for backbenchers or whatever we
are going to call them. Listening to the run down of the various
forms which this could take it occurred to me that this could
actually happen now under the present system if the local authority
wanted to get its act into gear and do it, it is in the hands
of them. This leads me on to another question and that is about
the present local authorities. Many of them run a form of cabinet
system anyway but the difference is that the papers are being
sent down for discussion with the committees and then on to the
full council. This does have the advantage that it is open. Even
if the committee is whipped the papers, the ideas, and so forth
are discussed and it is there for the public to see. One of the
fears that some authorities have is that the new system of mayors
or executives will actually breed the possibility of secrecy and
difficulties for the scrutiny committees to get to the bottom
of policy decisions or, even more importantly, actual implementation
of policy decisions. This could lead to more corruption. We even
get corruption now in a few isolated cases under the present system.
The third and final one, if I can come back to the point Mr Graham
Stringer made about polls and mayors. I think when we have a referendum
such as the one he is talking about people see the mayor as a
"personality" and this I suspect adds to the attraction.
I suspect the Government is hopeful that this will lead to a greater
interest and, therefore, a greater turn out at the polls. In fact
if we look back, like it or lump it, we have had some personalities
in the past: Ken Livingstone is one example, Shirley Porter another,
and I could name a number of others I am not naming in this room.
I think if it is bred on the hope that there will be personalities
then we are in for a disappointment. Yes, there will be some personalities,
we get personalities with the present system, but we will also
get a lot of dull personalities and that will not actually engender
greater turn out at the polls.
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) Some
aspects of the scrutiny role can be carried out now without legislation
and a number of councils are moving in that direction but it is
difficult both to do that and run a full committee structure alongside.
I think we do need more clarity and the Bill serves its purpose
in that sense. Any new system requires safeguards, particularly
access to the information, the reasons for decisions, proper recording
of decisions. The Bill is vague about this. In our view if members
of the cabinet or executive take decisions then they should be
recorded by an officer.
124. How do you define a "decision"?
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) We are
getting somewhat circular.
125. Not really, that is quite important. In
the White Paper at 3.64 the officials, when questioned about what
is a decision, could not answer.
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) The determination
of an issue which affects expenditure and the practice of the
authority, off the cuff.
126. At what level, major or minor?
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) Any determination
by a single member should be properly recorded by an official,
not just by a member. I think that is an important safeguard.
It is clear that scrutiny committees will need to have the right
of access to all information on which executive decisions are
made, that is clearly essential. Finally, your point about personalities.
If I may say so there are several experienced ex-council leaders
on the Committee, let alone people giving evidence before it,
many of whom have very distinguished local government careers.
It is possible under the present system to give effective leadership
without being directly regulated by the whole area. Graham Stringer
pointed to a dichotomy between views of councillors and the public
at large. You can say that 100 per cent of Members of the European
Parliament believe that the European Parliament is important but
clearly at least 75 per cent of the population of this country
thought otherwise. I do not think you can read too much into that
kind of statistical comparison. I think you are right, there is
a view in Government, perhaps because we have a very charismatic
Prime Minister, that there are hundreds of charismatic people
around in local government waiting for the call to serve. That
may be right but it does not have to be that route. Having said
that, the LGA is not opposed to elected mayors. If that was deemed
appropriate by the community in a community area, so be it. We
would want to make sure that the system works effectively on behalf
of the community.
Chairman: I think we must start to move the
Committee on to standards. I know that Mr Burstow, Lord Carnarvon,
Lord Bassam and Lady Hamwee have got some further questions perhaps
on other areas. We will take those four questions and then perhaps
move on to standards.
127. I just want to ask one or two further questions
about scrutiny, the exercise of scrutiny, accepting that word
is perhaps not an appropriate label to attach to the role as being
defined. There is a concern that has been expressed and was in
fact discussed in your own hearings a little while ago that the
scrutiny process will be devalued to some extent or made less
effective in those authorities, such as Richmond, where there
is a one party state to a large degree, or indeed the London Borough
of Sutton or a number of other authorities where one party has
an overwhelming dominance in the authority. What approaches have
been suggested within the LGA to try and address that sort of
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) As I
indicated earlier, my own party is now working on this concept
that the party rules on the way members conduct themselves publicly
in terms of challenging decisions and so on and will have to be
changed. It is not compatible with the scrutiny system to have
a whip applied and we will certainly be changing that rule. I
suspect that the words proportional representation may be in Mr
Burstow's mind as he asks these questions. We have not got a view
about that as an Association. It is a matter that we are looking
into. I have a personal view that an element of proportional representation
may well be desirable, but it is not a necessary concomitant of
this change, as Lord Hanningfield is anxious to make sure. What
is essential is that the members of scrutiny committees or structures
of that kind must be free to ask questions and voice opinions
contrary to that of the cabinet.
128. Can I just follow up on the question about
standing orders and rules within groups because we will set the
PR point to one side, although I think it is an area which a number
of members may wish to return to in due course with other witnesses.
In respect of the standing orders of groups, are there any specific
areas or specific changes in practice that groups have that the
LGA has identified as being areas that might be recommended as
best practice, not enshrined in legislation but recommended as
best practice for groups to adopt in the future of any party?
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) I do
not know if we have yet taken that view. Councillor Jones and
I are both on a committee in the Labour Party which is doing precisely
that at the moment and we will be returning to it on Monday of
(Councillor Jones) My own Authority operates a scrutiny
group at the present moment in time and it has already had a dispensation
that it is not in any way controlled under the group whip. So
they report straight to council under that proviso.
Earl of Carnarvon
129. I am particularly interested in your reactions
on page 12, paragraph 35, where the White Paper is encouraging
local authorities to ask the general public what they want in
the way of a framework for their local authority. When it really
comes down to brass tacks and you are asking them whether or not
they want a power station or an airport, you get about a nine
per cent reaction from the total authority, probably something
like that. I cannot believe that anybody, except the media or
university professors, is going to react to whether or not you
want a framework as suggested in the White Paper. I see the LGA
themselves as saying we think this is a very exaggerated form
of public relations. Mr Briscoe might react to that.
(Mr Briscoe) I think our view would be
that for a process of consultation to be successful it has to
engage and be informative about the choices that are open to members
of the public in order to ensure that the choices that are being
made are being made in an informed way and are actually genuine
choices between options that are understood. The way in which
the framework of referendums are set up in the draft legislation
would suggest that there is, first of all, an opening for members
of the public to identify a desire to have a particular solution
and to require a council to hold a referendum on that. The legislation
would also apparently provide that the Government would determine
what the questioning was and our view would be that that ought
to be something which was determined independently, perhaps by
the electoral commission rather than by the Government who are
indicating a particular preference amongst options which may not
be the preference that was being expressed locally either by the
council or by the public when fully informed. Our example of Camden
is an example where an attempt to make sure that members of the
public knew what they were choosing from produced a different
result from the one that might have been expected on the basis
of the sort of opinion polls that Mr Stringer referred to earlier.
Our view would be that in order to have a real choiceand
the LGA recognises that should be a choice not by the council
but by the council and its community working togetherthere
needs to be an opportunity for a proper public debate about what
the choices are.
(Councillor Lord Hanningfield) In a large rural county
a government imposed referendum would attract a virtually nil
percentage turn out. Who is going to vote in a rural village on
a government imposed referendum as to whether that county has
a mayor? It would have no appeal to the electorate in any way
130. Presumably you would object to the referendum
being only about the mayor or model?
(Councillor Lord Hanningfield) Yes.
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) That is certainly
so. We think there is a case for having a threshold of turn out
perhaps for a referendum to be binding.
Lord Bassam of Brighton
131. I wanted to put these points to Sir Jeremy.
Do I take it from what you have said this afternoon that the LGA
accepts the case for the separation of powers in local authorities
and you also accept the argument in the case of the creation of
political executives and that in essence you would argue and would
like to bring forward more evidence and perhaps more ideas on
what the representational role of councillors might look like
in the new modernised model? Is that a fair summary of your views?
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) That
is a fair summary with one caveat, that we do not think it is
appropriate in every case for that executive/scrutiny split to
be made, particularly in large geographical areas and where there
is less of a tradition of party politics.
132. Therefore, I suppose you could say that
the LGA is generally in favour of the modernization model as long
as it contains other elements of flexibility. So you could have
additional and alternative models on offer and whilst you might
not entirely favour having directly elected mayors, do you favour
the public being given the option in a well-informed debate to
plump for that particular alternative?
(Councillor Lord Hanningfield) We are
not against elected mayors. We do not think that can be forced
on people. If they want to have an elected mayor, let them have
an elected mayor.
133. When the question was posed about councillors,
perhaps only a few per cent like the idea of directly elected
mayors, it did rather sound as though you councillors knew best
and I am sure that is not what you intended, but it did have a
resonance that might read that way and if that was not the intention
of the LGA I would not want that to be a recorded view because
I think that the public opinion polls, whilst one can always query
the basis of polling, have been fairly universal in the range
of findings that they have come up with and they do seem to have
gathered a considerable legitimacy and also, for what it is worth,
they have been very much in line with the outcome of the referendum
in London on London having a directly elected mayor.
(Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) I would
not challenge that. One must be a little careful about assuming
the referendum is the appropriate method for making political
decisions in this country. After all, a referendum on hanging
might show somewhat similar majorities in favour of hanging to
this. I am not suggesting that the two things are comparable.
What I am saying is that it is a question of having an informed
debate, as you rightly say and I think some of us at the moment
who might be better informed after years of service within the
local government than people necessarily who are more involved
with the service they are getting than with the structures that
underpin them may have a different view at this stage. That does
not mean that we are right and other people are wrong. It does
mean that we have got to engage in a proper debate about it.
134. Do you not think that the concept of an
elected mayor is very much an urban concept? You are not suggesting
that one culture is superior to the other. There is a difference
of culture in districts and counties from large urban areas. Do
you agree perhaps that the electorate in shire districts and counties
might not even begin to comprehend the notion of an elected mayor?
(Councillor Lord Hanningfield) Lord Bassam
was born in rural Essex and if you look at rural Essex there really
is no place for a mayor. Harlow, which is a very tight urban area,
is contemplating having a mayor and that might be appropriate
for Harlow and if they want to have a mayor I will support Harlow
having their mayor. All of the opinion research that has been
done on elected mayors has taken place in the urban areas and,
as Lord Carnarvon said, the White Paper and the draft Bill is
very much concentrating on solutions for urban areas. Fifty per
cent of the country is still covered by counties and districts
and even if they move to unitaries they will still be very rural
unitaries. We have got one or two rural unitaries where you have
got three or four small towns in a large geographical area. That
is why we want this fourth option of whether streamlining the
committee plus would be the most appropriate way of doing that,
as it would be often in the two tier areas that we have got now
particularly in the large counties where the geographical distances
are great. You cannot have an elected mayor of Essex, you would
have to have a Governor or something and when I start talking
about a Governor of Essex everyone thinks I have got some ambitions
135. It had crossed our mind.
(Councillor Lord Hanningfield) It is
not compatible with the large two tier areas at the moment.
136. I have this recollection that at LGA's
Democracy Day last year there was a report of a poll of West Sussex
and Arun conducted which suggested that even in those circumstances
there was considerable support, majority support, for the notion
of a directly elected political leader. I might be wrong but I
do recall that from earlier references.
(Councillor Jones) Can I just say in
answer to that, supporting the thrust of the question, this is
why we are perhaps hung up on this whole question of diversity.
I honestly believe that following the London model it would be
of absolute amazement to me if the major cities across the United
Kingdom do not follow on from it because they will see it as a
challenge, an opportunity for them to be matching, and they will
fall like dominoes in my opinion, particularly the large authorities.
137. I suspect there will be a competitive element.
(Councillor Jones) Yes, I agree.
Chairman: I think we will have to move on to
Baroness Hamwee: Can I ask a different question?
Chairman: Providing it is on standards.
Baroness Hamwee: It is partly the impact on
138. I think we will ask SOLACE to comment because
it is unfair to ask Sir Jeremy to comment on his elected members.
We really must move on to standards otherwise we will be inquorate
before very long.
(Councillor Lord Hanningfield) I will
open on standards. Obviously the LGA supports the idea of high
standards in local government and all the commentators say generally,
and I expect you would agree, that there are very high standards
in local government. It is the exception rather than the rule.
Therefore, we have supported Lord Nolan's recommendations that
every authority should have standards committees. We have been
encouraging our authorities to have their own standards committees
and a lot of authorities have taken that up and often with it
independent chairmen. We are not at all against there being a
national standards committee in the Bill but we are very concerned
about the way that it is being set up. In simple words I think
it could be a bureaucratic nightmare with all the complaints being
referred to the national standards committee. In the early stages
we feel there will be quite a lot of either frivolous or vexatious
complaints where people want to get their own back on local politicians
and things like that or the public complaining that they have
not got something and want to put some political bias on it. We
feel, as the Ombudsman has, there should be some rolling method
of screening. Obviously there should be local standards committees
in every authority, they should have an independent chairman,
but perhaps there needs to be more than one independent member
of those standards committees. Perhaps with those members there
should be some way, or in some other way as the Ombudsman has,
where we can actually screen the complaints locally before they
refer to the national standards committee otherwise the national
standards committee might actually have thousands of complaints
and will get bogged down in a bureaucratic nightmare. It ought
to be dealing with serious cases, we totally agree there, but
there should be some system of doing it. We have talked about
this to ministers and they say "if you come up with a system
perhaps we will look at it". We would like them to take the
view that really we should find some simple way of dealing with
this so the national standards committee deals with the major
complaints or the major problems and looks at them and comes up
with solutions with some system of sifting all the complaints
that are likely to come through in the early stages at least.
139. I would like to focus on a particular aspect
of standards, which is planning, where the White Paper and the
Bill have remarkably little to say other than a small amount in
figure 11. Lord Hanningfield, you mentioned Nolan. If I could
just remind us all that Nolan's main conclusion on this was: "Planning
is probably the most contentious matter with which local government
deals and is the one on which we have received by far the most
submissions from members of the public. We have no doubt there
have been serious abuses of the planning process." One example
he gives as a recommendation is: "Government should require
authorities to notify the appropriate Secretary of State of all
planning applications in which they have an interest". The
planning process does not seem to be dealt with in the Bill. Do
you think it should be and, if so, how?
(Councillor Lord Hanningfield) I think
the provisions in the Bill would cover the planning process.