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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 541 - 559)




  541. Good afternoon. Thank you very much for coming to the Committee. Members of the Committee will want to put some questions on particular things which are of concern to them about the scrutiny committee and the monitoring and recording of decisions, but perhaps in the first place I could ask you if there are any particular matters from your written evidence that you want to draw our attention to briefly before that questioning starts?

  (Cllr Slaughter) No, thank you.

Mr Gray

  542. Could we just start with a general question which is that you have a form of organisation which does not currently exist under the draft Bill, so what changes would you make, assuming the Bill becomes law?

  (Cllr Slaughter) We have tried, we have made some amendments consequent on our first year of experience, and also in relation to what is in the draft Bill, to bring what we are doing as far as possible in line with the draft Bill. I do not know if you have any particular differences in mind, but other than the nomenclature, I am not sure that there are any differences.

  543. For example, your own means of election does not come into the Bill, so would you change that?

  (Cllr Slaughter) Do you mean in relation to—

  544. I understand or I think I am right in saying that you are indirectly elected as the Mayor in the sense that you were the leader and you have become the Mayor since, so, in other words, you were not directly elected by the people.

  (Cllr Slaughter) No, we are modelling what we do at the moment very closely on the leader cabinet model in the Bill for a number of reasons which we do set out in the written submission. We think that the term "mayor" for a number of reasons, one of which is for consistency, is appropriate for that model as well. I do not think it really is necessarily something where one should get hung up on nomenclature, but from the public point of view it probably is easier if there is a consistent use of the terminology for whoever is at the head of the administration of local authorities, and it seems to us to make little difference in practice in terms of the actual management and governance of local authorities whether they are directly or indirectly elected, and that certainly the option should be open and possibly it should be prescribed that whether you are talking about a council management system with a directly elected mayor or a directly elected mayor with executive power or what is currently called a leader cabinet system, the term "mayor" should be in general usage.

Mr Pike

  545. Under the scheme that you are operating at the moment, how do you feel the management of the Council is better than it was before and the ones who are not on the cabinet executive, do they feel they have less information about what the Council is doing and are they happy or is the whole of the Council happy about the way things are going?

  (Cllr Slaughter) Well, to take the last point first, our adoption of the scheme predates any government initiative. It is very much in line with what we have been trying to do for five or six years and we took the plunge, as it were, in the light of the Hunt Bill before there was any indication that there would be any government time for it, so it was done in that climate, ie, there was no, as I think there is in some local authorities now, pressure of, "We must do this", or "We have to do it", or "It is inevitable", and it was a voluntary choice for us absolutely. The vote in the Labour Group of 36 at the time was about 30 for and two against, and I am told that in the Conservative Group, they indicated that there were one or two who had reservations in that, so about 45 out of 50 members of the Council were in favour of at least exploring the option we are currently undertaking.

  546. And how do they view it now and is the Council management running better?

  (Cllr Slaughter) There has been a change of leadership in the Conservative Group and I do not want to bore you with parochial matters, but as far as the Labour Group is concerned, the two-thirds majority administration, I do not think the views have changed. There is still overwhelming support for the route we have gone down. I think that is in two parts. I think part one is an almost universal, with one or two members dissenting, view that the old system was a bad system with differing degrees of qualified support from wholesale, outright support to sceptical support of what we are doing at the moment. In terms of what I think is the $64,000 question as to whether it improves things, I think that is a long-term view in terms of results in terms of lower council tax, improved performance indicators, things of that nature which take several years to come through. In terms of the way that the Council runs on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis, it certainly feels from my perspective and the colleagues I have talked to that it is running better, particularly the relations between the members who hold executive positions, members of the cabinet, and the officer board. I think that crucial inter-relationship has improved quite a lot.

  547. Do you think the scrutiny committee should be whipped or unwhipped and if the legislation says it should be unwhipped, how would you actually enforce it because you have obviously got a tight Labour control, and I am a Labour MP and was leader of a group, so how do you make sure that it can do its job that it is there to do?

  (Cllr Slaughter) Well, we are a very old-fashioned council in the sense that we have always had in the past very strong whipping. We have had two-party confrontational politics with an opposition which has always composed at least, say, a third of the Council and which has always had an expectation that at some stage they will be the administration, so to some extent we are quite an unusual authority to go down this particular route which does beg a lot of questions about consensus and about perhaps the ability for people to dissent in public from their own group's decision. We have tried to find a compromise at present which is as close as possible as we can make it to reconciling two completely irreconcilable positions, being group decisions of both parties taken in private by the group which are binding on the members of that group and the ability of elected councillors, both as representatives of their constituents and as people who are elected under the national code of conduct, to speak out on matters they think are right. Now, in the end I do not think one authority can resolve that dichotomy and it is as much a dichotomy at national level in many ways as it is at the local level, but the way that we do it, the practical way that we do it at the moment is that we say that as far as the scrutiny committee goes, and we have two types of scrutiny, one being what we call pre-implementation scrutiny whereby any decision of the executive can be called in before it is implemented, and the other is what is more generally known as policy review, there is no whipping on those committees, or no whipping save where there has been a prior decision of the Labour Group, in that case, a particular line has to be proposed, so clearly that means in reality that the most highly political and the most highly significant decisions are whipped.

Baroness Thornton

  548. My question is about the whipping and the scrutiny. What do you think should happen? I know that one council cannot stand alone, but what, in your view, should happen?

  (Cllr Slaughter) I am not trying to be glib about it because I do think it is a real dilemma and we are all elected as party politicians and we all sublimate our differences both because we want the party to be elected, but hopefully there is the goal beyond that which is the overall objectives of the party that the party will pursue, and in our case there are several achievements which I believe, I am sure, would be adhered to by the opposition party and which we have achieved over a period of twelve years because we are the Labour Party, being very significant social changes within our local authority area as opposed to the other way around which would not have been achieved without our party in power, and they are probably more significant in terms of their overall impact on people's lives than individual work of individual constituents. I do not in any way, therefore, downgrade the role of the party and the party groups in this and I am not a supporter of getting rid of party groups and allowing everyone to do their own thing, and, apart from anything else, it leads to administrative chaos. But I think we have somehow to allow, in the best way that we can, to allow some freedom for people to speak or, otherwise, you get the grotesque situation where perhaps you have a Labour administration and Labour ward councillors strongly representing their constituents' interests who fought tooth and nail within the Labour Group behind the scenes for it, but when it goes to any public forum, they have to sit mum because they are bound by group decisions. So, as I say, it is trying to reconcile two almost irreconcilable principles.

  549. Can I ask you about elected mayors, and I know that you are running the cabinet system at the moment, but one of the aims of this legislation is that we are trying to get people more interested in what you are doing and get more participation in the elections. Do you think that what you are doing at the moment in Hammersmith and Fulham will actually lead to more people being interested, or has it?

  (Cllr Slaughter) I do not think it will in the short term. I think there is a great misunderstanding between public access and public interest. What we are trying to do is to enhance public access, and one of the things I have found most objectionable about the committee system is that unless you are in the know, unless you knew how a council was actually operating, if you actually turned up at a committee meeting, and it certainly goes for London boroughs and I am sure a lot of authorities outside, and thought that this was where the decision was going to be made, then you were wasting your time and you have lost an opportunity because the decision had actually been taken somewhere else and often it was not clear where it was taken. Therefore, what we do try to do now is to publicise what is coming up, to tell the individual members of the executive that they have to consult the relevant people, including the opposition party, including community groups and so forth so that when they bring it to cabinet, they have already got the view on how well it is going to go down, so there is a pre level, but also once we have taken a decision, but before it is implemented, it can be called in either by a sort of negative resolution style procedure where it goes forward unless someone calls it in, either by our own back-benchers or by opposition parties or by ten members of the public, so any decision which we now take ten members of the public can call in and challenge and question me or whoever takes the decision about that before it is implemented. I think that gives two levels at which people genuinely have access and input. I do not think that that increases turn-out at elections or necessarily increases people's actual involvement or interest in our local authority. I think people basically want decently low levels of tax and decently good levels of service and they are not really going to be bothered if they have got a cabinet or an elected mayor or anything of that kind to do it. They might be because of the razzamatazz of an elected mayor, so there might be a slight blip there, but I think the only way you are going to increase turn-out over is by proving that local government actually does listen to people and is a worthwhile institution and then it will have rather higher esteem than it does at the moment.

Sir Paul Beresford

  550. As I understand it, you have a draft scheme for payment of councillors depending on their position in the Council with more for the leaders of the groups, et cetera, et cetera, and this would be implemented if the Bill goes through, yes?

  (Cllr Slaughter) We have a council scheme as per an independent report done by David Widdecombe which was agreed by the Council on the 3rd June last year.

  551. But it waits for this Bill to be implemented?

  (Cllr Slaughter) No, it is implemented as of the 1st July of this year, although it has been mitigated by the recommendations in the Grant Report from the Association of Local Government.

  552. What were the original proposals?

  (Cllr Slaughter) I have got a copy of Widdecombe here and I would be happy to leave it with you if you want.

  553. What is an average member paid?

  (Cllr Slaughter) Widdecombe recommends allowances between a £10,000 basic allowance to a £30,000 special responsibilities allowance for the mayor.

  554. Over and above the £10,000?

  (Cllr Slaughter) Yes.

  555. If any of the members of your Council were on other boards and national trusts, they would obviously be paid? Am I right?

  (Cllr Slaughter) If they were members of quangos?

  556. Yes.

  (Cllr Slaughter) I am not a member of a quango myself, but I understand that you do get paid. In fact part of the Widdecombe recommendations take into account other payments in the public sector, yes.

  557. To be elected as a mayor of a council you need to stand and you need to be selected through the party system—am I correct—and you can equally be deselected, and one reads newspapers and hears of Agenda 99?

  (Cllr Slaughter) Yes, it is called something like that. I cannot remember what it is called.

  558. What I am getting at is that even if you have a reduction in whipping, you have got a potentially very heavy hand and a covert practice.

  (Cllr Slaughter) I do not follow the point.

  559. I will leave it there anyway.

  (Cllr Slaughter) My view on allowances is simply that the Government has said that they believe that two things have to follow before councils undertake fundamental reviews of their allowances. One is that they have an independent report and the other is that they adopt some form of modernisation agenda and I think that is reasonable to lay down. I think there is an element of chicken and egg here which is that I do believe that the standard of members of local government and the way councils operate is very low and there is a danger, I think, in beginning to pay what ought to be fair remuneration to people to whom it may not be fair to pay it, if I am totally honest, but I think in due course local government, like other parts of the public sector, needs to move on to what are reasonable amounts to pay for the responsibilities which councillors undertake.

  Chairman: Allowances are not in this Bill, are they?

  Sir Paul Beresford: No, but whipping and patronage are and this is a factor.

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