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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 242 - 259)




  242. Mr Taylor, good afternoon to you and your colleagues from SOLACE. Thank you for coming to the Joint Committee. We have, of course, your written submission; and perhaps I might ask you if there are particular matters which you would wish specially to draw to our attention before we go on to questions.

  (Mr Taylor) Thank you, my Lord Chairman. There are just a few matters which I would like to outline on behalf of SOLACE. If I could say that my colleagues: Mr Krawiec from Southend, Mr Greenwood from Tameside, Clive Grace from Torfaen, Michael Pitt from Kent, and myself from Kensington and Chelsea; we are all chief executives representing SOLACE, and not the authorities who employ us, for the record this afternoon. If I could just say a few words and then perhaps, with the Committee's indulgence, Dr Grace could say a few words on aspects relating to Wales, which are a bit particular to his submission. As you will see, SOLACE broadly support the original package, which the Government announced about modernising local government, but we have some slight concern about this part of it, in that we think something is missing and that is the community governance duties. It seems to us that if what is proposed in the Bill is all that there is, then in a sense it is moving the deckchairs rather than providing the tow rope which local government needs to reinvigorate. So that is one point which we would make. The second is that we have consistently said that we think the proposals through their various incarnations are too prescriptive and, as the process has gone on, have become more prescriptive. We have some concerns about that. Our original view remains, which is that there should be set out some broad principles, and from those principles authorities should be allowed to develop their own models. In that context we would observe, by way of example really, that the council manager option, which is one of the three which is mentioned, is not in other jurisdictions limited solely to directly elected mayors. It can exist, and does exist in New Zealand in that version, but with councils and committees; and, in the States, to strong mayors and weak mayors and also cabinets. Our main concern is that in moving to a new system we do not throw the baby out with the bath water. We think that there are many good things in the present system around openness, accountability, recording, scrutiny, which must not be lost. We have set those out in our submission, together with suggestions as to how they might be addressed. We also think—and Members might say "we would, wouldn't we?"—that not enough consideration has been given to the officer end of all of this. We see—and those of my colleagues already engaged in this see—significant changes in the officer role. We have some suggestions around the fact that the head of the paid service role should not simply be incorporated from the existing legislation, but should be redefined in the new environment which will come about as a result of the legislation, assuming it is introduced and passed. We think it is not enough simply to incorporate the existing provision by reference: that the head of the paid service post will operate even more as a buffer under the new set-up than it does now. Finally, we think that the proposals, as they now are, although they introduce the new idea of an executive/scrutiny split, do not define the form of executive clearly enough. Indeed, the relationship between an executive and the management of the organisation: we see a significant distinction between those and we think it is important that the elected members, as the executive, should be looking outward towards the community. There is a danger, at present, that if the proposals are not more clearly defined: that they are, in fact, likely to be drawn into the maw of the machine and perhaps lose sight of the responsibilities of the community at large if they end up in that position. Those are my only comments, Chairman. Perhaps, with your indulgence, Dr Grace might say a few words with regards to Wales.
  (Dr Grace) There are three points I would like to make in this connection and they are set out in a short supplementary submission which I have given to the Clerk. The first is that local government is a very significant slice of the National Assembly for Wales' responsibilities and expenditure. The draft Bill comes at a formative stage in the development of its legislative and policy capacity. This is really one of the first opportunities that Parliament itself will have to shape legislation in the face of those devolved powers. Given that these are, therefore, new ventures in uncharted waters, both for Parliament and the National Assembly, it does seem to be particularly important that special care is taken; so that the Government's broad constitutional purpose in giving effect to devolved government is facilitated and encouraged by the Bill. That is the first point. The second, which is related, is the relationship between the executive and the scrutiny functions. The draft Bill envisages a very fierce separation between the executive and scrutiny functions. Whether or not that is consistent with the sentiment in the White Paper itself is a matter for question, because the White Paper emphasises the importance of dialogue between executive and scrutiny members. If the only relationship between executive and scrutiny members is when executive members are requested or demanded to appear before a scrutiny committee, arguably that will make for a hostile ethos. A more striking point, from a Welsh perspective, is that the National Assembly has arrangements which provide precisely for executive members, cabinet members, to participate and be members of subject committees. Many authorities in Wales are looking to that model and are thinking of using it as a model for their own arrangements. For it to be provided by Parliament in relation to the National Assembly, but precluded from local government in Wales, seems to be a constitutional illogicality. Finally, in relation to secondary legislation, it does appear that certain aspects of the primary legislation, which is envisaged, would inhibit the development of alternative models. The executive/scrutiny split is one, but there are others. Further, arguably the guidance provisions in clause 16 are not wide enough to permit guidance on some of the critical issues which Alan Taylor referred to. So in our submission from SOLACE (Wales): certain of the primary provisions, the regulation power, and the guidance provisions need reconsideration; and they need to be looked at, as it were, as a network of secondary and primary provisions.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. Mr Pike.

Mr Pike

  243. Mr Taylor, when you spoke you said that the draft Bill gives "three alternatives"; and you were quite clearly expressing a view that perhaps there should be more alternatives than just the three options which are listed in the rule. You cannot have an endless list, so how would you overcome that particular problem? Tied in with that, if one looks at the present local government structure, do you believe that it could itself, if it was worked on and improved and addressed, actually deliver what the main objectives of the Government is with regard to efficiency, transparency, and accountability?

  (Mr Krawiec) If I may take the first question. We do believe that if you have certain principles which need to be set down, then you could actually have models formed within that. Mr Taylor has already alluded to some of them. But in terms of the current structure, which is what the question relates to, if one includes section 101 of the Local Government Act 1972, to allow individual members to take decisions, then indeed a lot of issues of the accountability and transparency would, in fact, come through.

Dr Whitehead

  244. You mentioned in the models that you talk about the question of the Head of the Paid Service and so on. It occurs to me that the elected mayor has a role part that of chief executive and part that of elected head of the political machinery of the local authority. How do you see the distinction that is made in that model between the role of implementation and the role of policy, and how do you see chief executives holding the remit between those various elements?

  (Mr Taylor) I think one of the difficulties is that the models as they stand do not make an explicit distinction. There are enough, dare I say, distinguished leaders and ex-leaders of authorities here to have lived through this, yourself included. The relationship varies over time and over circumstances between a chief executive and a leader and in our submission that in the existing set up is the key to success in an authority. If that relationship does not work it is very difficult for the authority to work. A number of my colleagues are living with this at present and may be able to make some comment about how they see it changing. We think it is probably one of the best safeguards for the success of the political element that there should be some definition of what is not within the political framework and that is what constitutes the management process.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

  245. Do you not run the risk of being overly prescriptive if we go down that route? I can almost hear you making that argument for our benefit.

  (Mr Greenwood) We have tried to explain in our paper that we do not wish to be over-prescriptive about the role of the chief executive. I think the answer is that there needs to be a clear understanding of what the role of the chief executive will be in this revised system, whether the checks and balances which are inherent in the present system and which are good and which work will be upset by the changes to the new political forms of executive, changes which SOLACE fully supports. We think that those checks and balances have to be addressed as part of this process of establishing the legislation so that the re-defined role of the chief executive and other senior officers is covered at the same time as changing political responsibilities. We try and set out in our paper the areas where the role of the chief executive could be defined in general terms. This would give local authorities their own ability to define the detail of those systems but within that kind of framework. For instance, one of the points we raise is that the chief executives should be responsible for ensuring there is a system for the clear delegation of decisions, that is not to say who would take those decisions. So we are trying to lay down the prescriptions for a system which will work in different circumstances.
  (Mr Pitt) My Lord Chairman, I wonder if I could make a point about this. The point I would like to make is that there is plenty of room at the top of large local authorities for both the distinctive political leadership role and the role of members working out there in the community with an external focus and doing what is an enormous managerial job. If you take my own authority, we have 33,000 employees and a budget of £1000 million net. So there is a tremendous amount of activity at the top of the authority and it is a bit of a paradox that I spend part of my time being a director of a TEC board, also on two health authorities, which in many respects are political leadership roles, but at the same time some of my elected councillors are there at county hall rolling up their sleeves dealing with some of the managerial matters. I think what we are looking for here from SOLACE is some sort of clarity and some distinction between these quite special and distinct roles.

Dr Whitehead

  246. I understand from Mr Taylor that what you are suggesting is rather more a description than prescription. You are suggesting a prescription should be inserted in the legislation as to what is a strictly implementation element of council work and what is a policy formation area. Is that right?

  (Mr Taylor) I think we need in subsidiary legislation some more explicit role. If you look at the existing 1989 legislation, it is by and large pretty restrictive in terms of what the Head of the Paid Service's role is and was introduced, if my recollection is correct from that time, to deal with what were perceived to be particular issues in particular authorities. I am not sure whether it did that either.

  247. Would you need a further distinction, though, if there were a paid mayor who, according to figure 6, is responsible for proposing the policy framework but not for agreeing it and then a chief executive who is responsible for implementing policy? You seem to have a three-way split in that model.

  (Mr Greenwood) I think we have tried in section 4 of our paper to outline what we see as the role of the chief executive in the new political structures which are proposed under the Bill and related ones which could also be proposed. We think it should apply in all circumstances. What we are saying is we would not expect at this stage the role of the chief executive to be on the face of the Bill, but we do think it is extremely important that the Bill does recognise the need to re-define the role of the Head of the Paid Service and possibly other senior officers and we would suggest that perhaps the Bill should refer to the Secretary of State making regulations which will govern the role of the chief executive subsequently. We feel it must be dealt with at the same time and as part of the same process so we can all develop those checks and balances alongside the changes in the political structure.

Earl of Carnarvon

  248. Mr Taylor, you say you are speaking not for your own authorities but for SOLACE. You mentioned the possibility of an alternative model which I think was referred to by Mr Pike. Do you think that the models in the White Paper are appropriate for large rural area authorities? I know Mr Pitt is from Kent.

  (Mr Taylor) He is probably the best one to respond to that since his is a large, arguably rural, authority.

  249. I am used to the Association of County Councils and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities etcetera and the Local Government Association we have already met. I think it is agreed by some of us that the whole White Paper is very urban orientated and in my old authority of Hampshire I could not see an executive mayor working for Hampshire County Council fitting in at all.

  (Mr Pitt) First of all, the thrust of the consultation paper and draft Bill of raising the profile of members and making them more visible in their communities work for all local authorities of all types. We already operate a leader with cabinet system and I think that has helped decision making within the county council. So that particular model I am very comfortable with subject to the reservations we have already raised. I will stick my neck out and say that I can conceive of a form of directly elected mayor for a county. It may be an inappropriate name, one might want to use the name governor or some other appropriate term, but I see no reason why there should not be a very clear figurehead who stands up in a county for the county council's policies in the same way as in an urban area.
  (Mr Krawiec) My Lord Chairman, I was formerly at Stafford which was a rural area surrounded by a town and certainly there would be some difficulties in terms of the concentration of the executive functions, where particularly in rural areas a lot of the members want to do the representative role in looking after their particular patch and I think that applies to the county council areas as well.

  250. May I probe this slightly more, Chairman. We have talked to a group of backbenchers from the London boroughs. Where the new ideas are being tried out—in Camden and Haringay as examples—they are finding it very difficult without the old committee system. We have had an example of going to a school as a school governor and ward member—I am talking about an urban area—and not being able to get into contact, which they would have done in the past, with the chairman of the education committee or the education officer. This seems to be a weakness in the new ideas and I wonder whether there is a model of an improved committee system which would be acceptable to many chief executives.

  (Mr Taylor) Certainly we do not see the committee system as dead. The whole set of proposals still envisages a significant element of it. We have, in our submission, identified the point about availability of information. Information flows were one of the great glories, (if that is the right term), of the present system. The information is there in public. The public has a right to see the decisions taken. Our suggestion is not precise or specific but what we say is that there should be a responsibility. We suggest it should be on the chief executive to ensure that the council has adequate systems for dissemination of relevant information to all members of the council. We think that is important if the inclusivity, which has been, in principle, part of the local government system, continues. How that works in individual authorities I suspect is going to depend, both on the character of the area and structure of the authority, and also on the characteristics of the members of that particular authority. This is because over time and in different places you find that different sets of people have preoccupations about and interest in different things. The essential of any information system is that it is going to be flexible to respond to that.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

  251. Could I ask Mr Pitt to follow up a point before we get too far away from it, about the high profile of the governor. Do you not feel that a leader of the council—I used to live in Kent where you had a long tradition of very powerful dictatorial leaders—the local papers were full of Mr X battering the opposition and forcing through policy. Do you not think they had high profiles?

  (Mr Pitt) I think they do have. I think you are right to say that the history of Kent is of strong leaders. We have a very strong leader at the moment. They do enjoy a high public profile. I do not think that is true of counties up and down the country.

  252. What about if the governor was elected from the electorate of Kent and it was as tight as it was in Kent, at the moment, where there is a tiny majority in one party and he belongs to the other party?

  (Mr Pitt) I think those complications would apply in any local authority. There have to be arrangements to cope with that.

  253. We have not got that.

  (Mr Pitt) Sorry, in any authority where you have a directly elected mayor system, there is always the potential for a difference of view between the directly elected mayor and the authority itself.

  254. The experience in the United States, of governors of states, is that it is not a happy one.

  (Mr Pitt) Yes.

Mr Burstow

  255. I wanted to come back to the paper, which you submitted to Hilary Armstrong originally, and the reference in here to political neutrality. You referred to these systems having a potential to increase the politicisation of opposition. I just wondered if you could elaborate on the ways in which you see the new systems as having that potential, and the checks and balances that might be put in place to avoid that.

  (Mr Krawiec) The problem we see in relation to that is the duty of the chief executive as it is to the whole council, as to what is proposed in terms of the legislation. Clearly, and as Mr Taylor said—and many of you have local government experience—there are a lot of informal discussions going on, not particularly at chief executive leader level, but which will be at executive level: the indications of what advice has been given and what guidance can be given. Currently, if a member of the opposition comes to a chief executive who can give guidance as to where processes are going, without giving some of the detailed discussions on that, when you are so closely allied with the executive—and you clearly would be in terms of the chief executive situation—then you would be tarred with that particular situation, as being glued to that particular thing. It is difficult to see how you can say, "My loyalties are not to my individual leader" (or minister as a civil servant) as opposed to a full council, if one goes down that line.

  256. That is the problem. What is the solution you are proposing?

  (Mr Taylor) The solution we suggest comes back to Dr Whitehead's point earlier, where he was suggesting that if you had a directly elected mayor, in a sense in part it was a directly elected chief executive. He did not quite put it in those terms but that is really the element of it. There has to be some—and we have not attempted to set it out—definition of where there is a freedom for action and a responsibility to the whole council for certain fundamental aspects of public arrangements of the authority vested in a particular officer, and we suggest the head of the paid service. That is what would, in part at least, respond to Dr Whitehead's point, and respond to yours as well, but beyond that we do not go. My experience is that, in various authorities at various times, it has varied. That is a flexibility, which is important, but there is arguably a base line. The base line has to be, as we say, that the chief executive continues to account for the whole authority. There are certain things which are defined, and we have suggested some for which that executive chief is responsible for ensuring those are in place.

  257. Taking that a stage further, in your paper you also referred to the almost inevitability perhaps of the further development of political advisers. They exist already, to some extent, and the acceptance of that is that they may be developed further. Do you have any concerns about how that develops in such a way as to displace some aspects of the chief executive? For example, we have heard Professor John Stewart theorise along the lines of the emergence of cabinet secretaries as a new form of creature in local government and ultimately displacing the chief executive. What do you think of that particular scenario? Is it a realistic and possible one? What would you do to avoid it occurring, from your point of view?

  (Dr Grace) Chairman, it is an entirely plausible scenario, especially if steps are not taken—either within the legislation itself or guidance or secondary legislation—to ensure that there is a definition of the role of the senior officers. Also, to give effect to some of the sentiments which are in the White Paper, for example, about staff appointments—where the White Paper quite clearly envisages a separation between the role of councillors at very senior appointment level and below that—that this should be a managerial matter. If that kind of proposition is given, in effect, in the legislation or secondary legislation, it would help to make clear that there are important roles for senior officers to perform, as well as for councillors to perform. The White Paper points in different directions. In one place it says that executive members will take day-to-day decisions. Elsewhere it says that the chief executive and the chief officers will be responsible for implementing policy and securing service delivery. Yet elsewhere it uses those very same terms in relation to executive members. There is a need for clarity in that. Certainly the White Paper is not clear and the Bill does not give effect to those kinds of provisions at the moment.

  258. Just to pick up on a comment by Mr Pitt earlier on, which was a reference to there being room at the top of large local authorities for clear separation to be achieved between various roles between elected members, chief officers and so on: that does then beg the question of small authorities and how small authorities will cope with this much more intense form of political management and political structures. How do you think a small, average-sized district council would work in these contexts, and do you think the models set out in the Bill are appropriate for some of the smaller district councils and unitary authorities?

  (Mr Pitt) I wonder if one of my colleagues from a different authority could express a view on that.
  (Mr Krawiec) There is a problem there. There is a difficulty. It is a bigger problem than just in the way you have set it, if I may say so. If there is a need to split off political advice or geographical advice, or whatever, then for smaller authorities that would be a significant call on those resources. That is why we have argued, from the SOLACE point of view, that we need a wide model—including some of those particular smaller shire rural authorities of the committee system or whatever—which could actually take account of their particular requirements. This is because there is an issue there in terms of the need for resource to tackle particular matters. The big danger of the elected mayor, leader, cabinet leader, I suspect in this particular set of circumstances, is in a situation where they would want to do allocation of council houses, for instance, in terms of the management roles, as opposed to the outside looking matters set out in the White Paper and in the Bill.

Mr Stringer

  259. Mr Taylor, I would like to be clear about the remarks you made at the beginning when you said that the draft Bill and the White Paper were really just moving the deck chairs around. Does that mean you accept that local government is sinking?

  (Mr Taylor) I think it needs a bit of a lifeline. I am not sure that it is in the Titanic situation at all. I think there are a lot of good things and you would expect me to say that and I will not take the Committee's time going through them. From our perspective as a Society there is a need to re-invigorate some of the processes. I think there are enough people who have sat through enough unnecessary committee meetings to know that that does need some attention. The two parts of this Bill as it currently sits are, first of all, to deal with this curious notion that we have had for some years that a single councillor cannot take a decision. We all know that councillors effectively as individuals, as leaders or whatever, have been making decisions and we have had arcane processes to justify that for too long. That is not really a very justifiable position. On the other side, as regards the propriety element, the second part of the Bill, we have a situation where it seems to me that only the lawyers really understand the rules about pecuniary and non-pecuniary interests and they can debate them endlessly and the reality is it traps the unfortunate rather than the heinous and something needs to be put in place to rectify that as well.
  (Mr Greenwood) The White Paper that was produced last June on modern local government certainly had elements which all fitted together and seemed to point in the same direction. I understand the reasons for this, but it has been legislated for in a piecemeal fashion. I think it is important to keep that big picture in mind as we progress through a series of Bills that one assumes will come forward. To me the really big issues which will give local government a brighter future, which it is certain to get and deserves, are about the community governance role and the quality services aspect. To me they are extremely important and the political structures to me are a means to those ends in large part and I think what we are saying is we must keep the big picture in mind as the legislation comes through in chunks.
  (Mr Krawiec) We are also looking for constant improvement. We are trying to change things all the time. Manchester United might buy Ronaldo if he came onto the market as it might well improve the course of their play.

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