Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Report

Examination of Witness (Questions 195 - 199)




  195. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much for coming to the Joint Committee. Mr Bird, I think you are the co-ordinator. May I ask you, as we did with our previous witness, to make some brief observations on the points that you particularly want to expand upon in addition to the submission which you have made to the Committee before we move on to the questions. Perhaps you could just indicate to the Committee in your opening whether there are any particular points that your colleagues might wish to make briefly before we go into the questioning session.

  (Cllr Bird) Thank you very much, first of all, on behalf of our group for agreeing to hear us. We are a recently formed group. We represent a number of Labour councillors in some ten London authorities and a number of local authorities outside London. Our newly formed grouping is concerned about the effects and implications of the draft Bill. Our mainstream ethos supports a real modernisation of our local authority structures as outlined in our declaration of principles of which you have a copy. Today we bring to the Committee back bench perspectives which we would urge you to take account of. Particularly these back bench perspectives are from local authorities who have been part of the experimental phase of the cabinet model and the directly elected mayor model. It is steeped in the ethos of democracy, devolved decision making, power sharing, enhanced interest in local government, ultimately the quality of services. We do not claim to represent all backbenchers but we most certainly do represent an increasing number who have seen the writing on the wall both for what they feel are the democratic checks and balances being lost as well as their own roles. We bitterly resent the insulting tone in relation to backbenchers in the Bill and understand all too well what spending more time in our constituencies really means. That is my opening statement. What we would like to do, if it is okay with you, is I will be speaking about the Hammersmith & Fulham experience where they have 12 months of experimentation under the leader cabinet model and it won the Local Government Chronicle Innovation of the Year Award. I would like to speak of what has happened in relation to scrutiny in that authority. That is the main item that we are bringing today that we want to share with you. We would also like to ask representatives of some other London authorities who have interesting perspectives of what has happened in the experimental model so far. They are representatives from the London Borough of Camden, the London Borough of Haringey and the London Borough of Lewisham where there is a directly elected mayor. These members would like to speak in fairly short terms about what has happened in their areas.

  196. I am sure that the Committee would be happy with that. I would in no way try to hurry you but we will have to rise by six at the latest.

  (Cllr Bird) There are, of course, many areas of our principles that we would like to cover but obviously time is pressing on. The experience of Hammersmith & Fulham is that they introduced a cabinet model with a leader mayor three days after the election in May 1998. This had been prepared by the officers some six to nine months previously. It was introduced and a classic format was set up which was much publicised at the time that there would be an executive and there would be a balancing scrutiny function. The measures we want to bring here today are two things. One, that 80 per cent of what was in the public arena 12 months ago is now behind closed doors and we are very concerned about the emerging ethos of decision making being closed to both the press and the public. Secondly, we are very concerned about what has happened to the scrutiny function. The scrutiny function under a cabinet model is supposed to be a countervail to the executive for a number of reasons which I would like to talk about this afternoon. We asked the research officer of our council to prepare a document, which I have laid with the clerk, covering some 20 meetings of the Committee of the council to analyse what has happened. May we pick out any particular areas of concern there which have emerged which should have application to other local authorities. A number of things have emerged: first of all, that the main thing is that there is an absence of scrutiny by administration members. It is absolutely overwhelming. Of the 107 reports which have been what is called in, only three have been called in by the majority party, and I think it is fair to say that the issue of calling-in and scrutinising by administration members is just not happening. In a way it is like the political version of management by exception, that people cherry-pick which ones they want to be scrutinised. Let us talk about that and what it means and speculate as to why it is happening. I have been going to council meetings since about 1976, both as an employee and as a councillor, a councillor since 1994, and we need to understand the political process and the political culture that we have actually grown up in. Why do councillors not scrutinise? The first thing that needs to be understood and accepted is that the administration councillors in particular could be opposition councillors, and this applies to both parties, the principles. They have fought a common battle to get elected. It is called party loyalty and it is ingrained and I think we should accept that. This extends to friendship, socialising and other forms of bonding. The other thing we need to consider is that the formal and informal whipping culture is still very strong in British local government. One of the writers recently said that whipping is in the head, and I understood what he meant. There is also acute reluctance to criticise your own side in the partisan public area, even when they are patently wrong: "He is my friend. It will be disloyalty. I would only show up his lack of knowledge of judgment. It would be churlish on a marginal issue when I am not sure and fear being shown up or humiliated when the superior briefing of the executive member, who is often under pressure himself, backed by the heavyweight directorate, comes crashing down. He may be a swine but he is our swine." That is the underlying message. Administration members will occasionally ask information questions—we have found that in the scrutiny process—usually of a fairly bland nature but certainly never in a challenging way and never against a major policy issue. A rotating membership on scrutiny committees is an inherent weakness; there is no follow-through, a general feeling of, "Why bother? The scrutiny committee cannot amend a report but can only refer it back to the executive or mayor's committee for further consideration, when in all likelihood nothing, or nothing substantial, will emerge." A feeling of powerlessness permeates both the administration and opposition back-bench members, on the scrutiny committees. The scrutineer is, in effect, taking on both the executive and the directorate and that is what you might call a fairly heavy thing to do. Subject items are often specialist, so that even if you had dedicated scrutiny support officers, if you did, it is hardly an even playing-field. Partisan abuse, sometimes disguising lack of knowledge, effectively ends any continuity of rational and informed discourse about the issues. Everyone jerks into line. This does happen. The collective confidence is not there to overcome that. The executive member who is bringing in some scrutiny is also under structural pressure as well. He has taken the items through the mayor's executive board. The decision has been made and he feels he must deliver the agreed result. Effectively he is whipped every time whenever he comes to the scrutiny panel. No concession is possible unless the executive member has a rare confidence or influence. The new councillor is at a special disadvantage in attempting scrutiny. They have never had the training or experience or the insight gained from the focus committee call-over system. They will not have the departmental or corporate perspective. Back-benchers, even if they have been committee-trained in the past, will not have a command of current issues—it is very important that—and how they relate to their own local authority. They become increasingly out-of-touch. Opposition members—I think we need to consider that as well, because this affects all parties on scrutiny committees—are even more disadvantaged. They do not even see the mayor's or the executive's papers, so that is a very important issue in the Bill, whether that should be public or private. We think it should be public. They only see the published decisions. For items debated at the scrutiny panel, can they rely on the briefing given by the officers for something which the latter are de facto already committed to in the political process. This increasing loss of knowledge and consequent degrading of perspectives leads to cherry-picking of scrutiny items and partisan behaviour. Effectively, opposition back-benchers scrutinise in the dark with one arm tied behind their back. Do not under-estimate the informal pressures of conformity at the scrutiny panel. It is very powerful. I would like to leave it at that and I would also like very briefly to talk about a declining representation role since the new system has arrived.

  197. I wonder if we can perhaps, when you have finished, start the question and answer process. I know your colleagues have particular experiences they want to contribute. Perhaps they may be able to contribute those in answer to the questions as they go along. I do not want to stop anybody speaking but it might assist the process.

  (Cllr Bird) This is slightly anecdotal, but there have been some examples of a "before and after" situation in relation to this. I was on Direct Services Committee, Housing, Education, for a few years and the situation now is that we get little or no information about what the current issues are. I am a school governor of a primary school and have been for many years. I had a school governors' meeting last night and almost every item that was coming up had a local authority dimension and I could not have any input to it because I did not know. I did not know about the details of the numeracy strategy and how it related to local schools, the green paper on teachers' salaries, going right the way through a whole range of issues where you have this information gap on current live issues and applications in direct services, housing and all the rest of it.

Lord Marlesford

  198. I apologise for interrupting but one of the themes has been that you have not had the knowledge as a result of this new system. Does it mean that you as a councillor not on these particular bodies are excluded from going to the meetings that you wish to go to?

  (Cllr Bird) A year ago there was an Education Committee where I would go to call-over, yes, and I would know about current issues and be able to feed things back to governing bodies I represent and the school where I am an adviser. That no longer happens. There is no Education Committee and it is that lack of live information about real issues, which is an important information vacuum.

  199. But are you actually excluded as a councillor from going to any meeting of a particular group of the council discussing council business?

  (Cllr Bird) There is no forum for me to discuss education issues on the council now. There is one executive member who is responsible for education instead of an Education Committee.

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