Examination of Witnesses (Questions 541
THURSDAY 8 JULY 1999
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
(Cllr Slaughter) No, thank you.
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
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
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.
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.
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,
(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
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
(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 systemam
I correctand 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
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
Sir Paul Beresford: No, but whipping and patronage
are and this is a factor.