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

Examination of Witness (Questions 652 - 659)



Mr Pike

  652. Can I welcome you to this afternoon's evidence session, Professor Stewart, and we thank you for the submission that you have made. I do not know whether there are any comments you would like to make about it first before Members start firing questions at you.

  (Professor Stewart) No, I would prefer that Members fire questions at me.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

  653. Would it be fair to describe your position on this whole issue as being someone who quite likes the notion of modernising, reviewing and revising council procedures, but does not entirely feel happy with the modernisation agenda set out in the legislation and that, in essence, you would prefer to see a refined and reformed system of committees focusing more narrowly on the themes?

  A. No, I would also like to see a series of experiments as well in the new model. I was very much in favour of the Hunt Bill and I am, therefore, very much in favour of any measure that makes local authorities more free to introduce different models.

  654. So you would or could foresee a situation in which, say, one of the three models set out in the draft Bill would be applicable to local authorities, but it is just that you do not want to see the Government being overly prescriptive?

  A. I do not want to see the Government being overly prescriptive, and I would also want, and the Government declares it is its intention, to allow a fair degree of freedom within the models themselves. I am worried by some of the regulations which may come which may imply a degree of prescription in the situation.

Sir Paul Beresford

  655. Would you agree that it would be sensible to have an option which would be the status quo, bearing in mind that, in my experience, the status quo has enormous variations and the adaptation of the status quo by many local authorities has greatly varied, many of them meeting some of the concerns that the Government has, such as speed, haste, reduction of committees and so on and so forth, and that from the leadership point of view, rather than having a mayor, quite often local authorities have, certainly in the past, fairly strong leaders who have driven, if you like, as in fact a mayor is supposed to do under the Government's new system.

  A. There are a number of points in that. One of the things I find disturbing in the debate is that there seems to be little comprehension by some of the advocates of the extent to which the political leaders in some local authorities already hold a very prominent public position and are a driving force in the position. I would like to deal with the other side of the question as to whether there should be an option for a reformed committee system. I am not sure that that is the best way to deal with it, but there are clearly authorities where the present system has none of the faults subscribed to it in the White Paper. Obviously the clearest example is that of independent authorities where decisions are actually made in the committees and where it is clear who is actually making the decisions. Now, that position could be met in one of two ways of either having an option or making it clear that the intervention powers of the Secretary of State would not be used in a situation where those criteria apply. One of the features which I think it is important to appreciate, I was reading the other day some older books on local government, and I know we are not supposed to be looking at the past, but I was reading Harold Laski who wrote that Britain made two great contributions to the governments of the world, one being the committee system of local government and the other being the civil service. Now, what has actually happened since those days is that party discipline has been applied to prevent adequate discussion, but if the party discipline applies in the same way to some of the new models and to the scrutiny role, then some of the same problems will arise. If you could solve the problem of party discipline being excessive in authorities, the committee system would work.

  656. One of the things that concerns me with that comment is that I do not see how you could actually solve that problem. Even if you reduce the power of whipping, as we saw from the evidence of one of the witnesses last week, patronage then takes over, so the likelihood is that whatever system you have got, you are going to have a whipping system, so really what you have got to look for as compensation is an openness.

  A. Yes, except of course there are authorities in which the whipping system does not apply at the moment and it would seem to me a foolish legislation to impose upon them the models which have actually been talked about.

  657. Would you not agree they are rare and they generally do not involve the major cities, which is the target in fact of the White Paper?

  A. They do not involve the major cities, but the legislation is being directed at all authorities.

Earl of Carnarvon

  658. Professor Stewart, I certainly worked in a Laski-type authority where the independents were in the majority and they appointed the best person to be chairman of the committee and whatever political party made no difference whatsoever, and it worked in the form of a benevolent oligarchy, which is I think how you describe it. I am particularly worried about the evidence we have had that the local authorities which have already started this type of suggestion, the models which are in the White Paper and the draft Bill, as to what role the non-executive councillor is going to have. It seems to me that in councils with some 60 or more councillors, the executive can be no more than 15 per cent, as suggested, and the scrutiny committee, I do not think there is a figure put to it, but I can see a lot of people wishing to stand for local government, or hopefully that is the purpose of the Bill, to get better people standing for local government, but what are they going to do when they get on to the council if they are not a member of the scrutiny committee and they are not a member of the executive?

  A. , I think you are at the heart of some of the problems. Let us assume we are talking about one of these models because, as I say, I am in favour of some authorities having these models, and I think a lot of harm has been done to the debate by the emphasis upon the executive and the scrutiny roles as being the only roles in this situation. The word "scrutiny" is being interpreted by many authorities in the narrower sense of the term as scrutinising particular decisions and performance. In Local Leadership and local choice, the scrutiny role is given four different meanings, and that is only the last of them. It is about policy development, it is about advising the executive, it is about appraising proposals before the council. Now, that is a very wide range of tasks which will have to be carried out in many different ways. One of my worries about the Bill is that it seems to suggest that it should all be done by one type of organisation, the overview and scrutiny committee, whereas for policy development and for questioning the performance of the cabinet, you need different ways of doing it, and that is why I am in favour of a high degree of flexibility. The second point that is that the emphasis on the role of the back-bencher or the non-executive, (and it is a pity we cannot find a better word for this), has been upon their scrutiny role as though they do not have a support role as well, whereas what is happening in many of the authorities which have introduced the models is that they recognise that there is a grave danger of cabinet overload. If the cabinet take over all of the functions of committees and are then supposed to develop policy, develop strategy and develop community leadership, I know what may well happen; the cabinet will be spending so much time taking those decisions in committees that they never got round to strategy and community leadership. What is actually developing in many of the authorities that are introducing such models is that it is recognised that certainly from the majority party there is a support role as well as a scrutiny role. After all, MPs support the Government at times as well as scrutinising it. So we are seeing deputies being appointed to cabinet members. In North Tyneside we are seeing a reference group of councillors appointed which the cabinet member can actually use. In the authority of which Lord Bassam is a member there are going to be policy lead councillors specialising in particular subjects to advise the council. So there are a variety of different roles developing but because it has been emphasised on scrutiny only and scrutiny has been interpreted in a narrow sense we have a very limited picture of what the councillors can actually do. I think in order to make the system work you will certainly need councillors, involved in many ways.

  659. Chairman, just on one point I do not think Professor Stewart recognised in my question that there are several authorities, particularly within London, several London boroughs already adopting this sort of system, trying it out, and we have had evidence that the so-called backbench councillors are not getting information and are unable to do the job they used to do when there was a committee system.

  A. I think some of the models—and I would not want to comment on particular authorities—that have been adopted have not given adequate consideration to the scrutiny role, not given adequate consideration to all the roles that councillors can play and have not developed an adequate role for the backbencher. The ones that did it earlier are probably the ones that have given least consideration to these things, whereas if you go round to some of the other authorities, Hertfordshire, North Tyneside, you see these other roles developing.

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