Examination of Witness (Questions 200
THURSDAY 24 JUNE 1999
200. But can you attend the executive and sit
in and listen to their deliberations?
(Cllr Bird) I as an administration councillor
can attend the mayor's board. Papers are private and it is hardly
welcome but there are very few education items are covered by
it sometimes to do the analysis of scrutiny on the scrutiny committee.
For three and a half months this year, between February and May,
apparently there was not one single education item which needed
scrutiny, so you only pick up any issue if an item comes up for
Chairman: You have provoked great interest in
a number of Members who would like to ask some questions. Lord
Lord Bassam of Brighton
201. Is it your proposition that it is only
through the committee system that you are able to get information
out of officers and members? Can we have a yes or no on that?
Is that your fundamental belief?
(Cllr Bird) We are strong supporters
of a well managed committee system without any question.
202. Before this new system was introduced you
got all of your information, this is what you are saying today,
simply by going along and attending committee meetings. Presumably,
and I am not trying to put words in your mouth, the more committees
you are on, therefore, the more information you have as a member.
Is that your contention?
(Cllr Bird) No. You have to specialise
in certain areas of the local authority, we all agree that. I
was on an education committee and a housing committee and a direct
services committee. The only point I am making is that all the
current issues coming up from Government, things which are happening
in the borough which I would be briefed on at the call over housing
committee, direct services or education committees, I no longer
get and it reduces my representational role in the community.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am very puzzled by
this because there is a general convention that any elected member
of a local authority has an absolute right to know anything about
anything which is relevant to the exercise of their duties and
their functions as an elected member. What is to stop you simply
asking the new executive member or the director or one of the
senior or leading members of the administration any question you
wish to ask them at any time? If you were reliant on the quarterly
committee cycles for your information surely what happens in between
would mean that you would be missing out on a whole tranche of
information that might come into the authority that might assist
you in the exercise of your duties?
Sir Paul Beresford
203. Could I add to that before you answer.
Is one of the problems that you need sufficient papers to have
the knowledge to ask questions?
(Cllr Bird) You need to have it in a
focused structured way. It is not realistic to say to councillors
who have jobs and families "you can make enquiries to ask
about things", you need to be told about things in a focused
way and be able to relate to your local community and local authority.
204. Are you able to give an example of a major
decision affecting the ward you represent that was taken without
you knowing about it?
(Cllr Bird) There are lots of things.
205. You may want to write to us. Can you give
us an example of where a major decision was taken in this way
affecting the ward you actually represent and you found out afterwards?
(Cllr Bird) I have talked about my role
as a school governor. In maintenance workonly a very small
thingthey told the school, I did not know about it, it
was added to the capital programme but I did not know. There are
lots of circulars that go to schools direct, to the chairs of
governors and to head teachers, which we would normally have a
briefing on as to what they were and have some local authority
insight. For instance, talking about school meals, the fair funding
for schools aspect, I need informed local briefings of what it
means for our local primary schools and I do not get it now.
Chairman: We have a number of questions to ask.
Could I ask Members of the Committee to put their points before
we move on to other questions. I know there are some other witnesses
who wish to contribute to this particular point. If I can take
questions from Lord Carvarvon, Dr Whitehead, Mr Burstow and Mr
Pike and then ask the other witnesses to give us their experiences.
Earl of Carnarvon: I will be very quick because
Lord Bassam has asked two-thirds of the questions that I wanted
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My apologies.
Earl of Carnarvon
206. No, I could not be more delighted. First
of all, I have been to all the London boroughs in the last two
years represented along the table and was very shaken by Councillor
Bird's point that he went as a governor and I imagine a councillor
in the same area to a school meeting. You did not have the opportunity
of going to talk to anyone in the education department responsible
for the primary school?
(Cllr Bird) I am not saying that at all.
It is always possible to say that you can go to the officers to
get information and they want to help, the officers are extremely
helpful and we have a wonderful Director of Education in our borough.
The problem is things arise at governors' meetings I actually
listed the things that came up at the governors' meeting last
night, things like the numeracy strategy, the Green Paper on teachers'
salaries, fair funding in relation to asset management. These
papers had gone to the head teacher. I would normally have known
about it being a member of the education committee but I had no
input into it.
207. The point you are making is that previously
under the committee system you had the information but under the
present system you do not get the information?
(Cllr Bird) That is correct.
208. That is agreed by all along the table,
is it? That is my point cleared up.
(Cllr Harrison) I am Councillor Harrison
from Camden. Thank God we have not quite followed Hammersmith
& Fulham down this path but there is more to it, with respect,
than just committee papers. I am on the environment committee
in Camden and the leisure committee in Camden. We attend briefings.
We go right the way across the borough to look at examples of
what that department is doing. The actual paperwork is in a sense
a small part of it. We also, having built up expertise, have got
direct lines of contact with officers who we can phone up and
say "what is going on here in terms of traffic" or whatever
it may be.
Lord Bassam of Burstow: How do you envisage
that might change in a new and more streamlined decision making
209. Why would it change?
(Cllr Harrison) Because it is clear,
and our colleagues from Lewisham and Haringey will point this
up, what are emerging are first and second class councillors.
We are incredibly frustrated.
210. It might be helpful if you could just tell
the Committee very briefly what structure has been put in place
in Camden so we know the background against which you are speaking.
(Cllr Harrison) At the moment, and Councillor
Hammond will speak specifically on the consultation that has taken
place, it is the only major consultation in the country on these
new models of political management and it has been overwhelmingly
rejected. Aileen perhaps should talk about that.
Chairman: Can we come back to that. We are talking
about the lack of information but I will not forget the point.
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford
211. Basically what you are saying is that under
the revised system you have got to ask the question before you
get the answer?
(Cllr Harrison) That is right.
212. Whereas before at the committee everything
was produced before?
(Cllr Harrison) Exactly.
213. Essentially you are the person who has
to feel for the issue and if it is a sensitive issue you cannot
find it unless you happen to hit on the right question?
(Cllr Hammond) You have to know when
a question needs to be asked by magic.
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: Unless you happen
to hit the golden spot. I understand.
214. I have to say as a former council leader
myself I am not sure I recognise this golden age of previously
knowing things and people not knowing things now. As long as I
have been involved in local councils there have been backbenchers
saying they do not know a single thing, they are excluded from
information and so on. Clearly it is the role of the local authority
to get the systems together and the information right and there
may well be local authorities who have bad systems and I would
fully accept that. It may well be true that if you are on a committee
you know a lot more but if you do not happen to be on a committee,
say you were a governor who did not happen to be on the education
committee, the system of information may well deny you the right
to get that.
(Cllr Hammond) No, you get agenda papers.
(Cllr Bird) In Camden we do.
215. Is it not part of the role of a councillor
to go and find things out?
(Cllr Bird) Yes, if you are a full-time
councillor you can do that. You need to have it in a structured
way and you need to get an informed opinion from the officers.
For instance, I can give you one example: I sit on Notting Hill
Housing Trust Committee, a major housing association, and on their
agenda this week there were nine or ten items that had local authority
dimensionsI listed the ones that came up at the meetingand
yet I did not have an input as a local authority councillor representative
on that housing association because I did not know what the council
position was. I did not know that these were fresh things which
had been told to me by Notting Hill Housing Trust. I read the
housing press but I had no local authority dimension.
216. The thrust of my question to you is do
you believe that it is exclusively the changeover from the committee
system to a cabinet system and a mayor system that is responsible
for you not having this information or can you conceive of information
systems under any system which either would allow you to have
information or alternatively might deny you that information?
Is it structure or is it particular councils making particular
(Cllr Bird) I think it is both. There
are always going to be shortcomings in communication systems within
local authorities. There always were, even under the committee
system. My point is that it has become very much more pronounced
217. I have two things. One, I was interested
in your description of the lack of effectiveness of the scrutiny
process in Hammersmith and Fulham and the way in which members
of the majority party were not taking an active part in that process.
However, could you tell me in what way materially the committee
system enabled members of the majority party to play a more active
part? Were they playing a more active critical part in the old
system, and if not, why not? Secondly, have there been any changes
to group standing orders or group processes that have occurred
as a consequence of this new system being put in place?
(Cllr Bird) First of all, group standing
orders obviously have been amended. All I can do is refer back
to experience prior to the introduction of the system. You did
have this learning curve at a committee, at a call-over,
which was a very effective form of scrutiny, very focused, and
you had continuity and that is what is missing now. That has actually
gone now. All the value you get from that has gone and you are
faced with a situation where, as Lord Bassam said, if you want
information you have to go and find it out and you find out what
the issues are.
Earl of Carnarvon
218. Could I ask a question which relates to
the very point you just raised now. It is purely that when you
said you cannot get the answer from your member of the scrutiny
committee, is it because he is in a different political party,
or could you explain that to us as well?
(Cllr Bird) Most of the questions are
fairly technical in that with all the education circulars that
come out you need a professional officer to give you a briefing
on it. An executive member is by and large not capable of doing
it. It is important. You have to have an executive member and
you need a structure for that to happen and that does not happen
now and that is the information gap that we have.
219. All four local authorities have decided
to take the option that has been given to you by the Government
to try as a pilot prior to the legislation. The important thing
to usand this is one of the advantages of having this pre-legislative
scrutinyis that if you were now to look at the Bill, how
do you think the Bill could avoid some of the problems that you
see now? Certainly the Government is not intending it to work
in exactly the type of way you have been illustrating to us, so
how would you think that the Bill could be improved, or would
you like to go away and send us a note on that, because that is
what we have to look at and that is the whole purpose of our looking
at it over the next couple of weeks, and we have a very tight
time schedule, as you know?
(Cllr Davidson) I would say by giving
us the option of the status quo plus, of an improved committee
system. Many of the shortcomings of the old committee system have
been pointed up, probably a proliferation of committees. We could
easily cut them down if we had to and the Government could put
a limit on them if that is what they wanted to do. The time spent
in committee is often a question of chairing and having a properly
trained chairman to control the debate rather than just having
a free-for-all and arbitrarily saying at ten o'clock, "That's
the end of debate. Now vote." We could do that. If we wanted
a real scrutiny committee and we wanted a real opposition, PR
is the answer and I would be in favour of proportional representation
in local elections, perhaps not in the national election, a different
issue, but I would like to see local green parties and even independents
who have particular axes to grind in a ward or whatever standing
and being elected. We are inclusive in Haringey. We want everybody
who is interested and wants to participate to come in and participate.