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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 640 - 651)



Dr Whitehead

  640. Does the chair of the committee have a call over with officers of the papers before they go out?

  (Cllr Paget-Brown) Yes.

  641. Does the majority membership of that committee meet prior to that committee?

  (Cllr Paget-Brown) Not in all cases, no.

  642. It does sometimes?

  (Cllr Paget-Brown) Occasionally, yes.

Baroness Hamwee

  643. Chairman, we heard the actual figures of turnout in two of the authorities, can I ask South Somerset if their's are broadly comparable, around 30?

  (Ms Shortland) 38.

Ms Moran

  644. A question to all of you on the role of what the papers call backbench, and I would call community, councillors. The paper states that there will be a powerful role for all councillors and we have heard some views that might not be the case in your view from the Bill. If you were to put forward recommendations to enhance the Bill, particularly to empower more fully the role of backbench councillors, what would they be? That is the first question. Secondly, can you see a further role for backbench councillors were the social and economic well-being powers to be introduced into the Bill?

  (Mr Smith) I think my answer is easy because if the fourth option that we have talked about were to be adopted in some form then it would clearly solve the problem which I think we would all see in terms of the present structure and the damage it does to the role of councillors. All the things that are on the positive side, the ward representational role, the community leadership role, all those aspects are there and can be there within both the existing system and the sort of improved system that a number of us have talked about. They are not either/or, they are capable of being delivered anyway. The removal of the possibility of a large number of councillors being involved in most of the decision making is one that is not mendable under the proposals. It does seem to me that potentially that is a surrogate for somebody saying "have we got too many councillors?" I do not believe that we have and I do not think that is the right argument but it does look to some of us as though the way this is structured is actually seeking to address someone's different perceived problem.

  645. So, to be clear, you are saying you cannot foresee any enhanced role at all for backbench councillors under the proposals in the Bill?

  (Mr Smith) What I was saying was I think we can enhance that role and I think we will enhance that role and a number of authorities will anyway but I do not think it needs the Bill to enhance the role of councillors.

Earl of Carnarvon

  646. Too prescriptive.

  (Mr Smith) You can reduce the amount of time they take sitting in committee and you can increase the amount of time that councillors can spend with their constituents and can spend with other agencies and can spend working in partnership without this Bill frankly.
  (Ms Shortland) If you were to compare what we are presently doing, the alterations that we have made to try and fit in as close as we can with the Bill, with the prescriptive Bill that we think we are reading, that would actually lead to a lessening of the role for ordinary members because they would not be able to sit on an area committee and make decisions. The amendment that I would want to see within the Bill as it is presently worded is an acceptance that not for all local authorities is this going to be right. What you have got to say is that the sharp executive scrutiny split is not appropriate for all authorities. As long as an authority can clearly demonstrate that they have scrutiny mechanisms built in to their present way of working they should be left alone and allowed to continue their own improvement. It is only at some point when it is clear that is not working that you should then start trying to change it. I think the Local Government Association have got some pretty clear views as to what the framework should be. As long as that authority fits into that framework and slots into that they should be allowed to do that rather than trying to have it too clearly prescriptive which is where I feel that the Bill is quite wrong. The only other thing I was going to say is because of the need to have cross-tier working and because we have got strategy groups, every member at the moment is so fully involved across all levels, whether it be in a thematic role in a strategy group or whether it be in a geographical role in an area committee.
  (Mr Cockell) I do not believe in a separation between what you call community councillors and executive councillors. All councillors are ward councillors be they the leader of the council right the way to the most junior person on the council. They all have local responsibilities and I do not think there should be some division between some who are above that and some who simply reflect that side. I do not believe anybody has gone into local council to be a bystander, to sit on the outside and watch other people making decisions. If you want the suggestion of an amendment, I think one of the most vital powers currently that are held by all councillors probably in all authorities is that they can attend any committee meeting and speak at any committee meeting be they on that committee or not. That allows real representation of one's residents.

  647. To speak but not vote?

  (Cllr Cockell) Speak but not vote. To go before that committee, to make their views known and then to allow that committee to take those into consideration as they reach their decision. That of course would go under the Bill and I think that is an extremely important right that all elected members have. So as far as an amendment, I think if the current Bill went through without the fourth option we have talked about then members should be given the right of access to that executive to make their case. That is a suggestion but I do not accept the whole premise.

  Mr Pike: Obviously the point you were making at the end of trying to suggest an amendment that might from your viewpoint improve the Bill is using very much what this type of procedure is for. You will appreciate that the Modernisation Committee of the House has suggested that we should do this more to try and improve legislation before we actually get to the stage where we have the actual Bill rather than a draft Bill. The questions I want to ask, there are three quick issues as I recognise time is pressing on. One, the experience of candidates: do people feel that there is a drop in the number of people willing to stand for local councils and is that addressed in any way by the type of thing that is within the Bill that we are looking at today? If councils are going to be more beefed up and more functional, will that attract people to stand and to give their time? The second point I would raise is the question of mayors. We have heard MORI and we have heard other people say that opinion polls show that people are heavily in favour of an elected mayor. My question to you would be do you think people though are thinking of a mayor performing the traditional role of a mayor which is very different from what we are talking of a mayor with a cabinet where they will not be performing the traditional role of going to the old people's home and schools and other things? I am not saying about the idea of having a person doing that but is it the wrong thing to confuse that position with that particular role? The final thing is you will recognise that within the draft Bill over half of it is dealing with ethics standards. From all your experience as councillors, do you see a major problem in ethics standards or do you think that within the Bill we are taking a sledge hammer to crack a nut and having something which will actually create more frivolous complaints and perhaps cause a lot of people on the standards panel and whatever to follow through to national level, create a lot of time and divert back a lot of resource for dealing with it? I am sure we all accept that corruption is something none of us want to see and believe it should be stamped on. We all start from that point but it is whether what is in the Bill really is the way forward.

  Chairman: Before you answer that, can I just ask Mr Stringer, does your question follow on any of those?

Mr Stringer

  648. Yes, one did. With your permission I will add that on and the other part even though it does not exactly follow it but it does form part of the whole. If I can start with elected mayors. As Mr Pike said there is overwhelming opinion poll evidence both from urban areas and almost exactly the same figures from more rural areas that the public want elected mayors. What do you say to the charge that you are actually defending a very unpopular status quo situation and having the direct election of a person to the head of the political organisation would help reinvigorate local government? Secondly, there has been some defence particularly from Chelsea and Hammersmith of the committee system. Are you aware of the advice of the Audit Commission Report of, it might be a year or two ago, probably about five or six years ago, that looked at the committee agendas across a large number of councils? I think it found that the best councils had about 25 per cent of papers that were policy issues and the rest of the issues were basically things that could have been delegated and should not really have been part of the decision making process. Are you aware of that and do you believe that your committees perform better than that?

  (Mr Paget-Brown) In terms of the first question which Mr Pike asked about candidates, we do not find it is a problem to attract strong candidates. We have to have a waiting list of people who would like to be candidates and we try to make sure that there is a list, that the wards can then select people who have got experience or a particular interest which they can bring to the council that perhaps we do not have there already. I am worried that the proposals in the draft Bill may diminish that. There will be some people who will have a vested interest in staying on the council, in being candidates, in getting an executive role and perhaps a salary to go with it, and others who frankly do not just want to sit there being scrutineers for four years with little else to do but look at the proposals after they have gone through. Candidate quality is not a problem. You asked about the mayor and whether the general perception is that an executive mayor would be rather like a traditional ceremonial mayor. I do not think in Kensington and Chelsea, and that is really all I can speak about, that people have a problem with the role of the mayor as it has traditionally been, above politics and ceremonial and a figurehead. Nor do I think they have a problem in identifying where decisions are currently made. You can say with an executive mayor you can immediately identify who has taken the decision and who is responsible for policy in the borough but I think our residents and the people who vote in Kensington and Chelsea know where the decisions are made, they know they have access to the leader, to the policy and resources committee, to their local councillor and to the committee and they make use of that facility if and when they wish to do so. The third question was about ethics. I think it is right that the Bill and the Committee focus on the whole issue of ethics in local government, I am sure it is of wider public concern. I think the requirements on declarations of members' interests are already quite strong. The members are required to disclose any financial interest and to leave the room when any matter which may affect them comes up and to declare any other interests as well before a meeting starts. I think it is right that whole area of ethics and the conduct of elected members should be looked at and maintained. The final question about the Audit Commission and were we aware of it, yes, and were we aware that only 25 per cent of papers were policy papers. A lot of papers that come to committees are for information and may be taken straight through without discussion or there may be something in the For Information Paper that a member wishes to raise, to discuss, to draw attention to and that will lead to the chairman, the officers who are in attendance at the committee, taking note of what is said and that will feed into future policy decisions or other decisions. The other side of all this is that one of the roles of the council which perhaps has not been mentioned very much is that we have to look at the implementation of policy. It is all very well discussing policy proposals, policy issues, is this the way we are going to go, but if in fact you do not implement the policies effectively then there is not much point in doing that. Part of the role of the committee is to look on a regular basis at how policy is implemented.
  (Mr Smith) Picking them up in turn, Chairman. In terms of difficulty with councillors, I do not believe there is evidence of that locally. As I said, our experience has been that we have had more contested elections and more greatly contested ones than perhaps we were doing ten years ago. I think there is an issue about how the Bill might affect that as I do not believe that in my area, and I do not believe it is untypical, there are a large number of people waiting in the wings to assume the role of these executive councillors on a virtually full-time basis. I think that whilst that may be true in the larger urban areas, I believe there is an urban/rural split in relation to this which may not exist in relation to the MORI poll. So moving on to that, yes, I was aware of the various results which have been quoted. I am not aware yet that anybody has put the question as to whether people would vote for and support a system in which their ward councillor had a say in decision making. The question is being put in a way that encourages people to think about mayors and I think there is some confusion about roles of mayors in terms of the current role and the future anticipated role. I think there is an issue there about accountability because I think there is a valid point that at the moment there are elements in which that accountability is not clear in some systems. It does seem to me that if one is looking for the way to write the fourth option—if I can just go back to that—it seems to me wrong to describe that as just status quo plus and everybody can have their go with what they like. It seems to me you have got to put some requirements on that. One of the requirements would be that it shows where the accountability lies and another would be that it shows how the community is involved in the decision making and another one would be that it demonstrates effective processes for decision taking. No doubt others would add other requirements but it does seem to me that is a way of addressing that. On standards, I think it is right that there is a process which is publicly observable for the regulation of standards so I think the Bill is largely right but not quite and the respect in which it is not quite is that it has taken away real power to look at this on a local level, it has pushed everything up to the regional boards. It seems to me that local councillors faced with model standing orders that someone else is pushing down on them, and whenever they have got a complaint to investigate having to push it up to the regional investigating officer, that does not encourage an ethos in which they are actually taking care and looking for the rules themselves. I then say that nevertheless that whole system is there as a safeguard to cover the very small number of cases in which it would ever need to be used. In that respect it could be a sledge hammer to crack a nut, as the original question was. Finally, on committee agendas, I disagree slightly with my colleague here in terms of information items. My own authority moved some time ago to move information items to a separate part of an agenda and under its new structure has weeded them out entirely. It does not recognise the need to put information items to committees at all. What it does do is recognise the need to keep all councillors informed of what is going on and, therefore, that is dealt with by an entirely different process but not within the committee structure.
  (Ms Shortland) I will try and be fairly brief. I will not add anything to the discussion about candidates, what has already been said I totally agree with. I definitely agree that it would be a disincentive for people to stand if they thought they had only got a role as a scrutiny role because it is not seen as very exciting. I think people want to have full involvement. The issue of mayors, I would totally agree that people are very confused about what a mayor is. You ask anybody in South Somerset "are you in favour of elected mayors", they will tell you, yes, they think their mayor does a wonderful job, opening fetes and supporting charities and all the other sterling work that the elected mayors do in the market towns and parishes. I think that would be something that it would be very sad to lose. If you impose an elected mayor for a local authority like South Somerset there would be this confusion even greater than and parishes would then be thinking "Well, can we still have our mayor if you have got your mayor?" I think that would be a very sad loss to this country if we did not have a mayor doing that kind of work at a very local level. In terms of the standards, I think it can be a major problem and I have no doubt at all that there are some nuts out there that do need cracking. I think it is about public perception and in our council we have always encouraged people to err on the side of caution when declaring interests, "if in doubt get out" is the theme and that sort of thing. I am very interested in the Government's proposals about having a standards board but we need some more information as to what kinds of things they are proposing before we can make a full comment on it. My understanding is that we have not even had details as to how it would work, whether we would have something referred to the standards committee on the council and then up to the board. The latest thinking is that it would go straight to the board and then come back to the council but I think that would be quite unworkable because you would have complaints coming in all over the place. Every time somebody disagreed about a planning decision they would complain about the councillors that made that decision. In terms of the last question, we have a very high proportion of delegated decisions. I cannot really comment because we do not have that much on committee agendas any more.


  649. Thank you very much. Ms Peters, you have sat and listened to your colleagues, is there anything that you want to add before we close the session?

  (Ms Peters) In the previous session there was a question about officer roles and supporting executive and scrutiny and perhaps I could just make a comment there. I do think that all the officers I have ever worked with would find it very difficult to be put in a position where they have got to support primarily either executive or scrutiny because I think most of us feel that we were appointed to serve the whole council, that is the nature of local government. Certainly we see it as a partnership between all officers and all members. We believe in giving objective advice and I would hate to see the day when officers either have to make a decision or be directed towards supporting parts of the council but not necessarily working with others.

Lord Marlesford

  650. The Bill and the White Paper deals with standards in theory but it does not seem to deal with standards very much in practice. Lord Nolan referred particularly in his report of 1997 on standards particularly to planning where he felt there were quite a lot of problems, for example procedures where local authorities grant themselves planning permission, deeming consent and matters like that. Do you think that this Bill could be extended and expanded to improve the standards in general?

  (Ms Shortland) Yes is the simple answer, I think it could, but I do think it needs a lot more thought being put into the detail.


  651. Any other comments?

  (Mr Cockell) If it could sort out the total confusion over pecuniary and other interests where members simply declare any relationship they have with any item on an agenda, almost to the level of being ward councillor because it is referred to in a committee, that would be of great benefit to everyone.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for coming and giving evidence and answering our questions.

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