Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260
TUESDAY 29 JUNE 1999
260. I think I take that to mean that you believe
that there should be a radical change. Last Thursday we heard
from a number of dissatisfied councillors that where those local
authorities had already taken a step to separate executives away
from the scrutinising role that had not happened in reality, it
was a charade. While the committees on one side that were supposed
to be scrutinising things existed, there was a problem certainly
with the flow of information, but actually the political structures
behind the scenes were exactly the same as they had always been
and councillors were going in to these scrutiny committees heavily
whipped. Is that your experience and do we need to take account
of those strong political structures in the legislation?
(Mr Taylor) I think I would need to turn
to my colleagues who are experiencing it at the moment.
(Mr Greenwood) Certainly those issues have been discussed
within authorities that are trying to operate this experiment,
including my own. I am acting as secretary to the cabinet as well
as chief executive. It seems to be an entirely consistent approach
like the Civil Service. In a council that genuinely is picking
up the modernization agenda as set out in the White Paper those
are things to work through because it is a big change for Whips
to feel that they are losing some control and it is going to take
some time and so the initial issues that are being scrutinised
in my own authority are the less controversial ones and I think
with learning will come more relaxation and more comfort with
the process because the benefits of speedier decision making hopefully
feeding through to more prosperous communities and better services
will be clear to everyone.
Sir Paul Beresford
261. One of the points we put to a professor
who came last week was that you are actually going to have overt
whipping replaced by covert patronage, so it is actually not going
to make one iota of difference.
(Mr Greenwood) That could be the case,
but much will depend on the way those changes are led.
(Dr Grace) This is a critical point. If you go back
to the key constitutional legislation for local governments, which
is currently the 1972 Act, you find an absence of references to
political parties and there was then an attempt in 1989 to make
provision for how politics came into play within the local government
constitution and whatever one thinks of that as an attempt, it
was a genuine attempt and it has been workable. There is a real
question in the current provisions as to where politics sits and
there is a danger that almost like a sort of catastrophe theory
scenario where you have a constitutional structure which is made
to operate but actually you can slip off the side of it because
politics can come in from left field and that is not provided
for within the local government constitution. The issues in terms
of committeesand this really refers back to Lord Carnarvon's
pointare significant here. I come from a small authority,
though I am not speaking on behalf of it, but significantly the
members there were very keen to hang on to what they saw as the
benefits of the committee system and try and absorb them into
a system that took on the features of an executive and responded
to the Government's agenda but nonetheless kept some of the features
which gave them access and a stronger sense of involvement. It
is worth remembering that scrutiny within the White Paper includes
the provisions of policy development and a much wider range of
functions than many have taken it to mean when they have looked
at the word scrutiny.
262. When I first heard about the proposals
I worried that by giving such an overt executive role to members
there might be a long-term threat to officers' careers, to morale,
possibly even to the calibre of people who are prepared to serve
at a senior level as an officer in local government. I hope that
that fear is one that I should put out of my mind, but it is a
point on which I would like to hear from you.
(Mr Pitt) My Lord Chairman, I think Lady
Hamwee puts her finger on the precise point as to why our evidence
is as it is, because we think there is a need for some sort of
protection to ensure that that does not happen in authorities.
I think it would be very regrettable indeed if the very high professional
standards which have operated in local government for many years
were to be lost as a consequence.
Lord Bassam of Brighton
263. I wanted to pursue that point a bit further.
I went to Dieppe last year and I paid their mayor and their general
secretary a visit and the general secretary (who is the equivalent
of our chief executive) had a moderate office in the corner of
the building and the mayor occupied one of these rather nice wood
panelled offices and I rather sensed that that is where the power
was. Is it your concern that the directly elected mayor model
is going to absorb and take away from the chief executive more
power and responsibility and authority and is it also your concern
that this will happen with the executives and cabinets? Secondly,
how would you begin to define or re-define these roles and responsibilities
and where would you see the power ultimately resting? Do you see
(Mr Taylor) Dieppe sounds a bit like
my own authority! The answer is that many of us exist in well
understood relationships about these things. Emphatically, no,
this is not a rearguard action trying to grab hold of powers which
were fast disappearing. It is rather a suggestion that the thing
needs thinking through to ensure that somebody on the staff has
independent responsibility for ensuring a number of key elements
around propriety and appropriateness of the provision of services
by a public sector organisation. Over time, no doubt, the relationship
will develop, but we think there is a base line to be established
rather than saying we want to hang on to particular things.
(Mr Pitt) May I put that back in a slightly different
way. Having worked in a lot of local authorities, there is a lot
of evidence to suggest that the best local authorities have strong,
powerful members and strong, powerful officers. It is negotiations
between the two that give you the best possible decisions and
the best possible organisations. Whatever we come on to now with
the new arrangements, somehow we want to try and increase the
chances of that happening in as many authorities as possible.
(Mr Krawiec) Also, that we are concerned that the
council, as a body, is the final decision maker. That is where
the ultimate power should lie in an overt fashion. Any system
which comes into place should allow that to be: the final power
to rest in the open with a full council meeting. Any system needs
to take account of that in the final analysis.
264. It is the case, is it not, that one of
the malaises that has dogged local government for many years is
inadequacy in leadership calibre and also a lack of clarity in
the respective leadership roles. Part of the organising project
here is to try to sort out things, so we are clear as to who does
what and where accountability lies.
(Mr Krawiec) We have no problem with
that. The final thing is that it is overt and transparent in terms
of situation. It could be argued that some of the proposals in
the draft Bill: that, actually, some of the things behind the
closed doors are covert rather than overt. At the final analysis
clearly always things happen, in talking, in discussions, but
the ultimate power must be, must lie with the council, the council
must be supreme.
265. I would like to focus back on counties,
not metropolitan counties, and take Kent, since we have Kent here.
I would like to try and find out, because I am a very unclear,
what real difference it would make to change the present structure.
Now, let us take Kent. We have heard that Kent has traditionally
had, and has presently got, a powerful county council leader.
I do not know what you mean by powerful but presumably you mean
in terms of getting the council to do things that he or she wants
it to do. How much is the leader of the Kent County Council a
public figure? What proportion of the electors of Kent would know
the name of him or her? And what real difference would it makeand
perhaps you could give some examplesif there had been a
different structure, with a directly elected person in charge
of the Kent County Council, with a much higher profile?
(Mr Pitt) Chairman, this is a chance
for me to clarify something from the earlier debate. I was not
advocating, as such, a directly elected mayor. I was just not
ruling it out as a possibility. I would like to make that clear
in case there are many members of the press here. Coming to the
point of Kentand I think in many respects Kent is an unusual
county council in having those figureheads over quite a long period
of timetherefore, in considering the future, we have to
think of other countries where the profile of the leader is much
lower. But there are many examples of my leader taking a very
strong public stand on issues. Back in April of last year he published
and widely circulated a policy document with 68 targets, with
targets which can be monitored over time, and which he personally
will be held to account, I believe, by the media and by opposition
members. For me, that is strong political leadership, which a
lot of authorities do lack and which they need. So all of the
things, which we are trying to do in relation to the Bill, is
to move in that direction; so that the people of Kent, or whatever
county it is, do know who these figureheads are, and know who
to blame if things go wrong or who to give credit to if things
266. You are just saying that this is happening
in Kent without the changes the draft Bill envisages.
(Mr Pitt) I think, Chairman, that this
is a consequence of personalities which we just happen to have
in that county. I could quote many examples of other places in
the country where those circumstances do not exist.
267. But there is nothing intrinsically, it
is just if you get the right personality?
(Mr Pitt) That is absolutely right.
268. It is really a function of the right people
going into local government rather than the sort of flags you
let them fly on their cars.
(Mr Pitt) It could be a combination of
both. I think it is about the right people going into local government.
It is also about creating the right systems and arrangements,
so that these people are encouraged to take up those roles.
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: Are we not being
a bit gloomy about this? You say about this strong leadership
in Kent but I could mention a leader of a district council in
Canterbury. It is much more widely spread in the country. If you
open any local paper these people are compared as a cross between
Hitler and Mussolini by their opponents. To say it is not happening,
when I stay with friends I usually find a headline: Leader X doing
something else. Now, there may be these little timid figures that
we never hear of, but to alter the whole local government system
when these leaders exist in many areas of the country, are powerful
and known and fill the local papers, as in Kent. Do you really
thinkyou may not want to be indiscreet in this waythat
there is a need to put the whole system on its head for the possibility
of improving the weaker element, of which there is in any system?
There will be weak elected mayors.
Sir Paul Beresford
269. Before you answer that, could I add something
which follows from that. It is that one of the advantages now,
where you have a weak or a strong leader, is that all the decisions
go through a committee stage; where you were saying earlier that
they are clear and seen by media or anyone who wishes to in libraries,
etcetera. One of the difficulties you may have if you get the
strong leader that you wish, is that you are opening the door
to Tammany Hall and some of the systems which have been suggested
in this paper, because of the secrecy system and because of the
dominance of whipping or patronage or both. Even with our open
system we get isolated instances of really quite dreadful corruption.
Are we going to allow an opportunity for this to happen?
(Mr Greenwood) That is really one of
the key elements of our submission: that we are saying that those
possibilities, remote though they are and rare, they do theoretically
exist to perhaps a greater extent in these new systems. That is
why we feel the redefinition of the role of the chief executive
as the head of the paid service to provide different checks and
balances, which is needed in this system, has got to be an integral
part of the process of considering the changes.
270. The problem with that suggestion is that
I can think of one local authority in England recently, on at
least two occasions, where it has been between the officers and
the members working together that there has been corruption. It
is even with the committee system.
(Mr Greenwood) You could have the monitoring
officer as a separate post and the finance officer as a separate
post. There are other checks and balances and further checks and
271. The alternative could be to add a fourth
or more to the three options and that is what we have now, recognising
the modifications that many local authorities, including, Kent
(Mr Greenwood) Certainly SOLACE's view
is that there is room for more variance of the political executives.
Certainly our views, perhaps the way the Bill is drafted is over-prescriptive,
but the changes to me that are most significant or valuable or
important in the Bill are about the way decisions are made. To
permit individual members to make decisions in law is long overdue.
Whether that is an elected mayor, which seems to be in the mind
of some members who are asking questions, or not, I do not think
matters. The key change is about the way decisions are made: replacing
the committee system with what, I believe, could be a much more
effective system, as long as it contains the checks and balances.
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford
272. Yours is a much more pragmatic view than
exists in this Bill. When you say whether it is an elected mayor
or not, this Bill is not saying that. We are asking you about
the Bill. Now, I know you are very discreet civil servants, but
are you coming out and saying that this Bill is too prescriptive?
(Mr Krawiec) Yes, we are.
(Mr Taylor) At various stages of this process we have
said that a breath of fresh air is interesting but you must not
be too prescriptive. What is happening is that as we move forward
at each stage there is a bit more prescription.
Lord Bassam of Brighton
273. And you have asked for some more as well.
(Mr Taylor) We have asked for a different
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
274. I wanted to move on to something, which
Dr Grace was talking about in his first comments, and that was
the role of the scrutiny committee. He talked about the Assembly
in Wales, where the executive would be on the scrutiny committee,
and how that may be replicated within local government in Wales.
I wonder if I could hear from the English chief executives whether
they thought that was a good thing. I wanted to make the more
general point which is that we see here with this Committee and
we see in Scotland pre-decision scrutiny and it certainly came
across to me from last week's backbenches that a lot of the backbenchers
are extremely unhappy with the proposals because they feel they
will get even more marginalised than they are now, but it does
seem to me that the scrutiny committees would be somewhere where
backbenchers together with the executive could have a proper role.
I was wondering whether you, the English chief executives, thought
that the scrutiny committees should be beefed up and taken more
seriously because, I have to say, the impression we got last week
was that they were not taken particularly seriously by the executive?
(Mr Taylor) I think that is understandable.
It is an early concept; it needs time to develop. My personal
view would be that members of the executive should be entitled
to be on the scrutiny committee. Maybe you could say that there
are certain circumstances, it is a matter for the authority, in
which they would not be and my own authority which is experimenting
with a scrutiny committee, it is just about to be one-year-old,
does not have them on, but they do attend before them and participate
in the process, that is another way of dealing with it, a process
which can be friendly and aggressive depending on the nature of
the particular subject. So far as pre-decision scrutiny is concerned,
I think that is envisaged in the consultation paper because it
does envisage policy development being part of the scrutiny role
and I think it is important that it should not be seen every time
as someone coming up behind and criticising. For my book, members
at large are not going to be content simply with a critical role.
The opportunity for participating in the development of ideas
leading to decisions is one of the most important elements of
their job now and I think it needs to be for the future.
(Mr Krawiec) I think it is quite an important point
to make because I am not totally convinced in my mind I know the
difference between what is policy and what is executive on certain
occasions. For instance, in my authority we have had to go through
the process of rationalising the old people's homes because of
over-provision and the budget, which is policy, I think. We decided
to close three. Policy or executive? Which three? Policy or executive?
The one which causes the most angst to the backbench members and
the scrutiny members was which homes should be closed if they
are in their particular patch. I think that analogy is quite useful
to decide things that just do not fit easily into different boxes.
Earl of Carnarvon
275. My question is putting you back as officers
now. I was chairman of the policy and resources committee and
not a member of a political party, so I was the nearest thing
to a chief executive that was not an officer of Hampshire County
Council with a budget of £1.5 billion. The local authority
officers worked on what we called in those days, as I am sure
Mr Pitt will remember, the Baines
system. Do you expect the Baines system to continue, i.e. the
chief executive of the new authority will be chairman of the officers'
group reporting to the leader or the chairman of the policy and
276. Can you explain that a bit further because,
after all, this is your problem, is it not?
(Mr Pitt) We have had two goes now at
the cabinet system and up until the end of last year the cabinet
at Kent County Council tended to meet privately with a limited
amount of officer advice, some of it written, sometimes an individual
officer would attend. My view was and still is that that system
did not work particularly well. Since January of this year the
seven most senior members have met with the seven most senior
officers every Monday morning from nine until about eleven o'clock.
Each of the decisions made is backed up by a professional paper
written by the appropriate officer, oral advice is given by officers
and there is clear negotiation between members and officers on
the decisions being made. Also, we then have proper documentation
of those decisions being made after the event. I am in no doubt
that the quality of decision making has shot up since January
and I think the members of cabinet would warmly agree with those
sentiments. I think if there is some advice to give it is about
the engagement between professional officers and the senior politicians
and how that is done and getting that process right will make
a real difference to the quality of decisions made.
277. I would like to put two points. The first
one is on referenda. What do you feel about referenda, who should
conduct them, when would they become binding, what type of thresholds,
what type of issues? I remember in Manchester in the late 1960s
after a change of control we did have a vote on a number of issues.
I think the only one that any notice was taken of was where Manchester
decided not to go for local radio and did not have the first local
BBC radio station which went to Leicester at that particular time,
but I think the rest of them were totally ignored and it was a
very, very low turn out. Secondly, obviously the draft Bill contains
a lot on standards. As I have read your paper, and you refer to
that in section 10(h) and again in 17, these are important issues.
Is there a real problem on standards and ethics within councils?
It has to be dealt with obviously when it is a problem, but do
you think the Bill has got it about right or would you feel it
needs to go into a bit more detail?
(Mr Taylor) As far as referenda are concerned,
my Lord Chairman, I think our view is this is firmly in the area
of the elected representatives. If somebody decides to have one
we will get the ballot boxes out and do it. I think it is very
much a members' decision. As far as standards are concerned, I
think most of my colleagues would agree that the standard in local
government is very high, I do not think there is any doubt about
that. The reality is that the legislation which we currently have,
as I said earlier, is difficult to understand, difficult to apply,
was written for a different era and does need some form of updating.
I think there is a question about whether what is proposed may
also turn out to be a bit too complex and all of us will have
had experience of the use of the question of ethics in the political
argument and attempts to use it as part of the process of gaining
advantage. One would have some concerns that we may be creating
more opportunities for that than is justified in this almost three-tiered
system which is being proposed. It is not a general problem, but
it does need updating.
278. I wanted to follow up on Lord Ponsonby's
question about scrutiny because we have dwelt a lot on the executive
side of the equation so far in this session, but there is going
to be an important new senior role in local authorities for those
who take a lead role in the scrutiny overview process that local
authorities set up as well. Given the answers you gave earlier
on which suggest that you wish to maintain the notion and reality
of chief officers and other officers serving the whole council
and not just one part of it, can I just set out a scenario for
you, which is you or one of your fellow chief officers attends
a meeting of the cabinet, you proffer advice to the cabinet in
a written form setting out a range of options. You then, because
you have to record the decision of the cabinet, are present while
they weigh the pros and cons of the issue and come to a decision.
You then have to attend a call-in meeting of the chair of the
relevant performance, on which they will be considering items,
if they wish to call in for further scrutiny and so on. If you
have a fairly effective chair, who starts asking some fairly pokey
questions of you about what they might want to be pursuing, they
may even be asking you for advice as to whether they should be
seeking further questions. I could try and elaborate on a specific
case study but I am not going to. I think I have done enough to
give you a sense of what we are looking for. There must be a tension
there, at the very least, as your role as the adviser, proffering
advice to the cabinet; and your role, the chief officer's role
of any department or whatever, tendering advice, to enable the
chair and the members of the scrutiny committee to exercise their
role effectively. How are you going to square that? Surely the
tension will ultimately lead to a split of roles?
(Mr Taylor) I do not think you are suggesting
that the chief executive did it all.
279. That is why I used the words "chief
officer", thinking of other departmental heads as well.
(Mr Taylor) We suggest that there should
be a responsibility on the chief executive to put in place arrangements,
which may well mean that if there is a fully developed scrutiny
role, there is somebody who is charged with doing the research
and support for the scrutiny committee. What is important is that
somebody has the responsibility to make sure that, frankly, the
executives do not short-change the scrutiny brigade, because that
could easily happen and we see that as being a responsibility
of the chief executive. It does not follow that the chief executive,
or a particular chief officer, is going to have to sit always
on both sides of the fence, although under the present system,
I have to say, it is not so far away from the experience that
we have, where we may well advise members of the majority party
privately about something, and then have members of the minority
party coming in to talk about the self-same issues. You have to
indicate where you have to draw the line.
Mr Burstow: Going back to your point about making
arrangements to handle particular posts that would be supporting
the scrutiny function, are you specifically saying that there
may be a need to have additional specific staff dedicated to that
function, albeit under the direction of a chief officer, such
as a chief executive
1 Mr Baines, chief executive of Kent County Council,
formally deputy clerk of Hampshire County Council. Back