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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 285 - 299)




  285. Members of the Committee, good afternoon. I am sorry to have kept you, but I think you have been listening in another place and in another guise, so you will understand the previous witnesses' set of questions which took us on. Thank you very much for coming to the meeting of the Joint Committee. Perhaps, as indeed with our previous witnesses this afternoon, I could ask you to elaborate briefly on any key points in your written submission that you would like to draw to our attention before we move on to questions.

  (Mr Davies) Thank you, Chair. If I can just add that my name is Owen Davies and I am a National Officer of UNISON. My colleague, Jean Geldart, is an elected member of our National Committee. So, in fact, you have in front of you an example of an elected member and an officer working together on an issue, which perhaps will have something to say to the Committee. I would like to make four points, three general and one minor specific point, but one which is of certain great importance to UNISON. The three general points: firstly, obviously as a union representing a very large proportion of the employees of local government, we are delighted that the Government is taking the need to revitalise and modernise local government so seriously. We are very aware that this Committee is looking only at a part of the modernisation agenda because, of course, the best value and capping Bill, which has already gone through Parliament, is a very important part of it; but we do feel very strongly that there are yet other aspects of the need to modernise local government. These have not yet been addressed and we look forward to further modernisation, particularly in terms of powers and finance which are not a matter for this Committee, but we feel are part of the modernisation agenda. The second point that we would like to make is that we are very concerned, as were our colleagues from SOLACE, who have already explained that this very crucial part of the political management agenda in the Bill is to do with the separation of the executive and the scrutiny functions, which may have unforeseen damaging consequences, particularly in terms of the danger of secrecy being introduced into a system which, at the moment, for better or for worse, is a relatively open and accessible system. If the underlying purpose is to enhance democracy, to increase public interest and enthusiasm in local government, then we do not see that this is likely to be promoted by making decisions less transparent and more secretive, more difficult to find out about. The third general point is that whatever system is adopted, and whichever one of the three models (or indeed any model which may be added) is adopted, it is absolutely essential that the employees of local government, both at the senior levels and at the more junior levels, are clear who their employer is and who they are responsible to for their day-to-day actions. We are concerned that unless the executive scrutiny division is clearly defined, then it may be become difficult for individual employees, in individual situations, to know exactly to whom they are responsible. The fourth point -and perhaps a minor point but one that is rather dear to our hearts—is that as part of the Code of Conduct for local government employees, the White Paper suggests that the regulations on political restrictions should be moved into the Code of Conduct. At the moment, the political restrictions regulations cover a huge swathe of senior managers in local government by virtue of their salary level. We would like the Bill also to look at what activities are proscribed for those officers, because in some ways we believe that some of the present proscriptions damage people's civil and political rights in a way that is not necessary, in order to protect the principles of political neutrality, which we absolutely accept should be fundamental to local government.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. Mr Pike.

Mr Pike

  286. You obviously say quite clearly in your views that you do think that the status quo should be an option that is permitted. There are three options within the Bill. Do you think there should be more options? If the council does not decide to go to a referendum, and you argue that it should not have to go to a referendum, should there be any pressure point at any stage which says this is not necessarily working right? You argue that many local authorities are working well, and I would tend to agree with that, but at the end of the day it cannot just be the councillors and the council officers and the council members and people who make that decision, because if the number of people continue to decline who are voting, then there will be a lack of public confidence. How would you challenge that?

  (Ms Geldart) I think one of the problems in some of the discussions about this is that there is an assumption that public confidence is linked to local authority structures. I have to say that UNISON takes the view that most members of the public are not terribly concerned about what local authority structures are. What they are concerned about is the service that they receive, which comes back to the issue of powers and finance and I think that really underlies what we are trying to say and I think we appreciate it is not part of this Bill. In a sense what is being talked about in this Bill can be construed as being a discussion about the more efficient working of local authorities in a fairly narrow sense but, frankly, is unlikely to have very much influence on public perceptions except insofar as that produces something which is that much more efficient. I suppose what I am saying is that I am putting a slightly different underlying position in relation to what we would say about what the different structures would be.

Sir Paul Beresford

  287. Would you not agree that what the Government is thinking is in having a mayor you can have a strong figure that can increase the interest and so forth in the public and that it may well not be interested in structures below the mayor, the presence of the mayor and the name they feel is going to engender more interest? If you do or do not agree with that, would you not feel that under the present system a strong leader, either one that is intensely liked or disliked—and I can think of people who would fit all the patterns—would do the same under the present system?

  (Ms Geldart) We were listening to the previous discussion and I think it is clear that, yes, if there is one name which is known that can be identified in the minds of the public with what the council does in a way makes it easier for people to understand things. There is a lot of confusion in the minds of most people about what the council's functions are and I am not sure that having a mayor or a strong leader affects that. In terms of a perception of where decisions get taken, I am not clear that it is necessarily in the interests of democracy to identify with one individual. Having said that, clearly most members of the public probably would prefer to identify with an individual. I do not think we have a problem with the idea of a strong leader. We do have concerns about the proposals. We are not saying that if members of the public want it they should not be allowed to have it, but placing the emphasis on a mayor which carries with it, we think, a lot of other problems is not really getting to the point of improved services.

  288. Is the difference the fact that with a strong mayor you have got, as we were discussing earlier, the problem of secrecy? With the strong leader all those matters have to be put in papers and sent all the way down through the system. So they are open, they are available, they are in the library, anyone can get at them. Is that a safeguard worth keeping?

  (Ms Geldart) Absolutely, both from the point of view of democracy and transparency. I suppose in the best run organisations people would consult everybody before they came to conclusions, but in practice the present committee system to some extent acts as a sort of failsafe in that officers and departments who have not been consulted about issues but who do have an interest can put their oar in at an early enough stage to know that considerations which need to be dealt with do get dealt with. Our fear is that any system in which decisions get taken whether by a cabinet or by a mayor without that element of publicity will not only be non-democratic but will not be the most democratic decisions.

Dr Whitehead

  289. Could I take you back to your initial statements about the issues of powers and finance. I think we clearly must accept that for the purposes of this examination the whole question of finance is outside the remit, although I would love to have a discussion about it. The question of powers is obliquely mentioned at the beginning of the Local Leadership, Local Choice paper where it is stated that the Government will "seek such other legislation as is necessary to carry through the rest of the White Paper agenda, including the new duty for councils to promote the economic, social and environmental well being of their area." Is that one of the things you mean by powers? Do you think a sequential approach would work or do you think that incorporating that element into a change in the structures is vital to its success, particularly in the context of having an elected mayor?

  (Mr Davies) We are very much in favour of legislation to provide the duty to promote social and economic well being. That is not where we originally came from, though. Obviously with a trade union approach to this our concern about loss of powers fundamentally comes from issues to do with the removal of social housing provision effectively from local councils or social services authorities being told that they could only provide community care if they had 85 per cent of that provided privately. It was those sorts of powers that we were originally thinking about when we drew up this policy. I am not clear and I do not think we have thought through whether the duty to promote social and economic well being will free up councils to begin to move back into areas where we believe they are uniquely placed to deal with social housing and other sorts of provision. So I am not clear whether that clause if it could be introduced on its own would solve all the problems that we have experienced or our members have experienced in terms of loss of powers. The other crucial area is the question of capping and of the business rate, but we would see those powers as being necessary to re-build the vigorous nature of local government.

  290. Do you think there is a particular issue bearing in mind the preferred models that the Government is promoting in the Local Leadership, Local Choice paper? What is in my mind is the extent to which, say, the political platform of an elected mayor might look rather sorry in terms of the fact that that mayor would be elected and then the officers and the council would say, "Well, you cannot do all these things because we are sorry, it is ultra vires and you have not got power to do this and that", and the idea of the strong mayor would be undermined?

  (Mr Davies) You could say that is exactly what happens at the moment except the excuse at the moment is finance, i.e. we would like to do it but we cannot afford to do it. I do think there is a very serious problem in ensuring that the powers that are allowed to councils under the duty to promote economic and social well being would provide for the sort of community planning issues that are coming forward, but at this stage with no specific proposals it is very difficult to give a very detailed comment on that.

  Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: I wanted to come back to Mr Davies' second point which was about secrecy. He was concerned about greater secrecy of these various systems that are being put forward. I am not sure that I recognise the perfectly open system that we have now. I used to be an opposition councillor in Sir Paul's council and I certainly did not have a clue about the decision-making process that was going on and I think I am right in saying that most of my Conservative colleagues did not know about the decisions being made either.

  Lord Bassam of Brighton: Surely not!

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

  291. Surely we have to recognise the reality of that and the reality that decisions are made in secret and to try and make sure that system is protected and built on and given proper advice rather than trying to talk up a rather inadequate system like the one you have now.

  (Ms Geldart) I think you are absolutely right. The reality in those councils which are controlled by a single party is that decisions get taken either in the party group or in a smaller caucus of the party group and I doubt if any legislation is going to change that. What I think concerns us is that by creating an executive which can take decisions before any material is published that will enable those bodies to entrench themselves and to enforce, in effect, the sort of decision making which at the moment is subject to some public challenge. I think the reality for opposition councillors in such authorities is that they are excluded, and I suspect will continue to be excluded. At least, from the point of view of the public, access for the press, the possibility of the community organisations, interest organisations outside, being able to get hold of what is going on, to raise issues and to campaign to change them—which I think is a very important part of democratic process—I might also add that the same is broadly true of trade unions within the council, who will also be excluded from any knowledge of what is going on, and obviously some will be matters which concern us. The reality of an executive system is likely to be that decisions will be taken before anyone gets wind of them, and that the best that can be hoped for is a process through scrutiny committees, which if they are whipped in the way we all expect in reality they will be whipped, will in itself not necessarily be the way in which decisions will really get changed. My own experience and that of my predecessors—I am certainly not speaking for the authority I work for, which has introduced a cabinet system—is that about four weeks elapse between a cabinet decision and the final decision being taken on an issue. In that period there is a five-day window for items to be called in to scrutiny committee by a number of councillors: not by anyone else, not by members of the public. The reality is, we fear, that this is going to mean that most things will slip by without the opportunity for the public, the people who pay the money and see the services, to challenge them.

  292. So it is important on the scrutiny committee, listening to what you say, to get it clearly defined within legislation? You are expressing, if I am understanding you correctly, strong reservations about whipping in relation to the scrutiny committee in an executive cabinet decision taking process.

  (Mr Davies) Our paper specifically raises the possibility of whipping not being allowed in scrutiny, but also we take what we heard earlier on. In a sense, it is a vain hope, because party discipline is such that whether there is official public whipping, or whether there is other pressure put on people, it is very difficult to see how we can prevent whipping.

  Mr Pike: I always allowed great democracy when I was a leader of the council. The only things we powerfully whipped on was when we decided what the rate was going to be or the rents were going to be. On almost everything else we allowed a great degree of freedom because that is what people were there for.

  Chairman: I know there are other questions about whipping but can we perhaps take those another time. Lady Hamwee.

  Baroness Hamwee: I think my point has already always answered. I wondered, when I saw the comment in the paper, about how the whip system should be banned. How do you envisage that this ban could possibly be enforced? That is possibly more of a comment than a question in the light of the previous discussion.

Mr Burstow

  293. Just on that point and building on some work that was published last week by the Commission on Local Government and the Scottish Parliament, one of their recommendations refers specifically to councils incorporating in their standing orders rules to the effect that where whipping is applied to council business, it should be declared at the commencement of the relevant discussions, and there should be minuted public information and records. Do you think that might be a way in which this could be addressed?

  (Mr Davies) If these changes go through, it is to give backbench scrutiny councillors the most freedom to ask difficult questions without being bullied. It is difficult to find a legal way of enshrining that, but any measures that would leave backbench scrutiny councillors free to do the job— I perfectly accept the Government's good intention in the paper, in terms of a powerful, appropriate, fulfilling role for backbench councillors. At the moment, we are all struggling to find the mechanisms which will ensure that this actually happens in practice.


  294. You cannot stop a party dissenting in the end.

  (Mr Davies) Then people can stand as independents.

Earl of Carnarvon

  295. My question only needs a negative or a positive answer. As I read it in your paper, you feel very strongly that there should be a fourth model which would be an improved status quo. Is the answer yes or no?

  (Mr Davies) The answer is yes.

  296. The second one. You put a higher priority almost in putting the business rate back to local government.

  (Ms Geldart) Yes.

  Earl of Carnarvon: Good.

  Mr Burstow: I do not think my questions lend themselves to yes or no quite so readily. A lot of the evidence we have had so far—and it has been followed through in some of the answers which you have already given—the presumption is always that the nature of the balance between executive and scrutiny will always be in favour of the executive. I wonder whether or not that will necessarily always follow, given that in some authorities, where there is a very strong group structure, and groups are active, groups will elect their representatives to their executives—groups to one degree or another will be holding their members on the executive accountable through their group processes—where, in fact, there is quite the reverse danger in terms of the fettering of members of the executive. I was interested in the question you were asked by Lord Ponsonby earlier on, about the reality of the existing committee system being a fig leaf over the group processes that take place.

  Sir Paul Beresford: But based on flawed judgment.

Mr Burstow

  297. Based perhaps on a unique experiment on a unique local authority. But perhaps generalising out to other authorities, which are maybe not quite as unique as Wandsworth, I wonder whether or not we might have a situation where those group processes will continue and nothing in this Bill is going to touch those group processes, so the reality is that the power will still rest with the majority, where there is a majority.

  (Mr Davies) I accept that within groups it is possible, given the political peculiarities of any given local authority, for there to be strong scrutiny, but the issue surely is that this scrutiny will be secret scrutiny, it will not be public and accountable scrutiny. If the purpose of the Bill, as we understand it, is to generate more public enthusiasm and an interest for and concern about local government, then a system—however effective within the party group—that is secret, is not going to achieve that part of the Bill's objective.

Lord Marlesford

  298. The Bill is described as Local Government (Organisations and Standards). Apart from the pressure on committees, it seems to have remarkably little on standards. I particularly draw your attention to Lord Nolan's report on local government standards and the great emphasis he gives to planning. He says: "Planning is probably the most contentious matter with which local government deals and on which we have received by far the most submissions from members of the public. We have no doubt there have been serious abuses. We believe local authority should examine processes. We have particular concerns about planning gain and about local authorities granting themselves planning permission." Would you like to see something more in the Bill to deal with this important area of standards?

  (Ms Geldart) It is not an issue, to be frank, that we have discussed. I think it is possibly an issue, which is slightly outside our purview as a trade union, although as individuals clearly our members who are planning officers would have an interest in that. Speaking purely personally, I think there is a major issue there. Whether, in reality, it is something which can be addressed through legislation I am not at all clear. My own personal view is that the whole planning system in this country needs something of a shake-up. That comes back to central government in the way in which planning decisions are taken and planning that can be brought which, frankly, is a rather broader issue. I am not clear that something could be resolved within the Bill. Having that said that, I do not have a mandate on this issue.
  (Mr Davies) Could I add that the Bill does talk, in principle, about two Codes of Conduct, and one is for councillors. It talks about a new Code of Conduct for employees, probably based on the existing Local Government Management Board Code of Conduct. We generally support the principle of the Code of Conduct for employees. We have some reservations about the mechanics but what we also think would be very helpful is if there was a code of conduct or a protocol to deal with the relationship between councillors and employees. It is something of the same point that SOLACE were making about the renegotiation, I think they called it, of the relationship between chief officers and cabinet members, but we see it as more of a wider problem. For example, we think that backbench scrutiny councillors, excluded from the joys of the committee system and casting around for something to do, may actually find some pleasure in going into their local council offices and trying to find out in detail what is going on in their local offices. Obviously councillors have a right to know what is being done in the name of their councils, but we think that there needs to be protocols dealing with the way in which councillors relate. We have had some very unpleasant examples at a local level of what could be construed as harassment of individual junior members of staff by councillors who have very strong and perhaps appropriate concerns about services for particular clients. We do not dismiss the part of the Bill that does deal with standards and although there is very little detail, for understandable reasons, about the Code of Conduct for employees, we are very keen to see that part of the Bill enacted and to have a role in ensuring that it is presented in the right way. We also agree with our colleagues from SOLACE that there is very little corruption in local government, but there is a perception in the general public that there is and as long as that perception exists there is a real need to do something about it and that is where we see the codes fitting in.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

  299. Reading your paper and having listened to you for the last half hour or so I rather get the impression that you do not really think that there is a great case made in the Government's White Paper and the other various supporting documents for a great deal of change. You do not appear to like the cabinet system much or the directly elected mayor system. You seem to quite favour the existing committee system and believe that it should be left much as it is. Do you not think there is a bit of a problem in the heart of local government and is not the Government generally going in the right direction when it is trying to design and offer models which would excite more public interest and enhance local government legitimacy? There is a real problem with falling electoral interest, whether people are voting with their feet or not and it does seem to me that your statement does not really begin to address any of those problems. One could make the point that having weak local leadership may well serve better producer interests than consumer interests.

  (Ms Geldart) I think the paper reflects the feedback that we have had from our members, which is that what concerns them is the service, both the issues about powers and finance and service delivery, some of which obviously is contained in legislation currently going through Parliament, others of which we hope to see come through. Most of our members are at the front end of service delivery and of course they are concerned about themselves, but they are also concerned about the services they deliver and their perception very much is that shuffling the deck chairs is not the issue. The issue is about services in the front line and the way they are delivered and I think that is probably reflected in the tone of our evidence. Having said that, clearly we do welcome the fact that this issue is being looked at because we certainly do not think that the existing way in which local authorities function and the way in which the committee system functions is not in the best interests of decision making. We are certainly not arguing for local authorities simply to continue as they are. I think what we are saying is that local authorities should be expected to review procedures and there should be a requirement on them to do that in conjunction with consultation with the public, but they should have a greater degree of freedom than is indicated in the Bill to decide what is the best way of having a process which will deliver services in the most efficient way.

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