Examination of Witness (Questions 652
TUESDAY 13 JULY 1999
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
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
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
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 modelsand I would
not want to comment on particular authoritiesthat 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.