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

Examination of Witness (Questions 660 - 679)



Baroness Thornton

  660. I have two questions. Do you think there is a problem at the moment with the low turnouts at local elections and the lack of interest? Is that not what this Bill is supposed to be addressing? Do you think that the elected mayors will help with that? If not, why not?

  A. There is a problem about low turnout. There is a problem with low turnout in a large number of elections and a problem with low turnout in local elections. Sometimes I think the advocates of elected mayors believe in a piece of magic, wave this wand and all will go well. I prefer to look at the evidence. We have tried to assess the evidence and it points both ways. Clearly turnout in America is lower than in this country so the elected mayor is not a piece of magic that will automatically improve turnout. In Israel the turnouts went down. In Italy in the first elections it went up but Italy approaches compulsory voting as is pointed out in Local Leadership, Local Choice. In Hessen turnout went down. I would say that the evidence from abroad is inconclusive. There is no firm evidence that elected mayors would have an effect in increasing turnout. My guess would be that in the first election it probably would because there would be interest in innovation. It would be rather like the poll tax election which aroused a lot of interest at that time but I suspect that after that first election we will be back to roughly the same turnout as now.

  661. What do you think we can do about it then?

  A. I think we should do two things about it, some of which are in the modernising programme. We should make voting considerably easier to do. There is concrete evidence that an increase in postal voting does increase turnout. New Zealand gave every local authority the option of conducting local elections in their own way or conducting them through the post. At first, as you can imagine, very few authorities went for the new way. Now every single authority in New Zealand goes for the new way and it has increased turnout by 10 to 20 per cent. The second thing I would urge is an emphasis upon increasing participatory democracy, involving the public in many ways. Involvement tends to breed involvement. I am not convinced that changing the structure of local authorities would in fact make that much difference.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

  662. Do you think that any change in the financing would be an option. In the great days of Birmingham when Chamberlain was there, they controlled a lot of money and they could transform the city centre. Would you go for a radical solution of giving them more control over the finances than they have at present?

  A. Of course they did not spend anything like the amount of money in those days though they raised most of it themselves, which is your point. The interesting thing of course is that in those days Birmingham and big cities had in effect what is the power of general competence. They did not exercise it in that particular way but through private Bill legislation that was the way by which Joseph Chamberlain municipalised the water and gas undertakings and by which his son Neville created a municipal bank, so in a sense they had a wide-ranging power which is one of the things it is a matter of regret is not in the Bill. I feel very strongly that the new duty of community concern and the powers that go with it should be part of the Bill, indeed otherwise the Bill ends up being a piece of structure for its own sake. I believe that structure should follow purpose and you should state the purpose in the Bill and think about the role and the way of working. However, I am not certain how it would affect turnout if you gave local authorities more finance. I am very much in favour of local government having a much stronger local financial base. I believe it is about necessary for local accountability but we do have to face the fact that the turnout in Britain even in the 1930s when local authorities raised much more of their income from local taxation was in the 40 per cent area. There was no golden age of turnout. There probably was in the Chamberlain period because very few elections were contested and when they were contested they were contested on a smaller franchise.

Dr Whitehead

  663. We have already touched on one of the subjects I wanted to raise with you and that is what has transmuted from the power of general competence through to the power of community initiative through to the power of promotion of economic, social and environmental well-being. You mentioned that you believe that that should have been in place first, I think it is fair to say. How do you think such a power would affect the programme and the ability of an elected mayor to function? Do you think it is important or do you think it would make no difference?

  A. If you take the arguments for an elected mayor the argument for an elected mayor is that the elected mayor will be elected by the whole authority and seen as leading the area. If this approach is to flourish, the mayor is going to have ideas about things beyond the specific powers of the authority so I would see a power of community initiative as important. What is important is that use of that power should be subject to the council in a way that it is not to be subject in London. The mayor in London has been given very, very extreme powers without what you would find in most other countries which is the need to put the exercise of those powers to the council.

  664. So you would define that as policy framework which I think in the models set out in document is clearly in the hands of the council?

  A. Yes if we are to have a separate executive. I welcome what is said in Local Leadership, Local Choice about the role of the council. Many people outside have not realised that the Government has gone further in defining it in this paper. The council would have to approve each of the key policy plans, the council would have to approve the budget and the council would have to approve any changes in policy from that. I think some of the opponents would have been more willing to consider a separate executive if it had actually been made clear that the division was between the council as the makers of policy and the executive as advising the council on policy and implementing that policy. If I go abroad and ask people do you have executive—scrutiny split, they say, "We do not understand what you are saying. We have the council as the policy-makers on the advice normally of the cabinet, and the executive carries it out " and that is a much more understandable split than the one that is being talked about here. In America the council is called the "legislature", and for a large part of business it has its own legislative procedure; they will have a first reading debate on a proposal, refer it to a committee to appraise it hold public hearings and then bring it back for a second reading. It is the emphasis on the role of policy which I think is neglected in some presentations and has not yet been fully understood in authorities.

  665. I am very glad you have emphasised that point because what actually is on offer is a council that makes policy, but, shall we say, the side-effect of that is a possible confusion between what is policy framework, what is implementation, what is executive action and what is policy itself, ie, the policy of the daily work of the council. Do you believe that the document as it stands has sufficiently clarified those different roles and do you think any work needs to be done on that or will it come out in the wash?

  A. Local Leadership, Local Choice has gone some way to clarifying that by specifying certain documents that they regard as policy, although not necessarily saying the content of them. It is going to be an incredibly difficult matter to define what is policy. What is policy in a big city is different from what is policy in a small rural area. I would actually like to see it come out in the wash. I would like the council to have the right to call in decisions which they believed were contrary to the policies of the authority.

  666. A supreme court function?

  A. A supreme court function, if you like, but I was not exercising a legal approach.

Ms Moran

  667. You referred to the role of the back-bench councillor and the emphasis that has been placed on the scrutiny role as opposed to other roles. We have heard very little as a committee about what the new roles of, what I prefer to call, the community councillors or the non-executive councillors would be. You have said something about that, but could you say a bit more about how you see their roles developing, particularly in the context of the new powers which we hope local government will have either in this Bill or subsequently?

  A. In an article, which I have supplied to the Clerk, we did suggest about 14 different roles that the back-bench councillor would play, and I will outline some of them. These roles will only develop if the legislation and the regulations made under the legislation are not too prescriptive, and they allow considerable freedom for councillors to develop new roles. First of all, the scrutiny role involves a number of different things and I prefer different words: policy development; appraising proposals which go to the council, and if that becomes the role of the councillor, the council are not going to do it just at a meeting if they are acting properly, but they should have a procedure to refer it not to a select committee, but to the equivalent of a standing committee to look at and this is the practice you find in quite a number of models abroad; advice to the cabinet or to the mayor, which is one of the functions identified in the Paper. Councillors could serve on cabinet committees, because it is clearly envisaged that the cabinet would set up committees Obviously you would not want somebody to scrutinise the work of a cabinet committee in developing policy that they had served on. There are the wide variety of support roles that can be developed, such as deputies, reference groups of councillors, advisers on a particular subject. Once we get away from the idea that in order to give a councillor a job, they have to chair a committee, you can be very imaginative. For example, the council or the cabinet might want to appoint a councillor for the disabled whose job is to make contact with disabled groups outside and to advise the cabinet and the council upon their needs. In Europe you have what is known as the rapporteur Where a proposal is coming forward from the officers, or from the cabinet, a particular councillor could be appointed to appraise it. There will be a lot of partnership work developing, and I do not think all that partnership work can be done by the cabinet, but they will need to involve other people. Indeed quite a lot of authorities are creating what are known as civic fora to bring together all the main partners in the area and they have the opposition represented on them. Birmingham has the City Pride Board where the opposition sit with members of the majority party. There are roles as the representative and here I want to make an important point. The separation of the executive can become an obsession and carried too far. It is very common in Europe when you have the centralising effect of the cabinet or the mayor that at the same time you decentralise a whole series of local decisions. In Barcelona, for example, which is much quoted in these debates, there are ten area committees which spend 20 per cent of the budget. Area committees exercising executive powers has two effects: one, it actually means that you know you are not over-burdening the executive with what are purely local decisions; and, secondly, you are giving a meaning to the representative role. It is very important that any legislation does not rule out that possibility. There are authorities at the moment, like South Somerset, which have already got most of their work done in area executive committees and it would, I believe, be tragic if South Somerset were forced to centralise everything. When I went to Oslo, they had introduced the cabinet system, but at the same time they had introduced neighbourhood committees They said they would not have wanted to introduce the neighbourhood committees without the cabinet because that would have been too decentralising, and they would not have wanted the cabinet without the neighbourhood committees because that would have been too centralising. One of the things I urge on all authorities is the need to think about the whole authority, not just the cabinet and the scrutiny.

  668. Just following on from that point on the decentralised structures, can you foresee, with the way the Bill is structured at the moment, a separation of functions in each area committee that each committee could continue to operate? Do you not believe that they would have a valid scrutiny function and other functions?

  A. There is no doubt within the Bill that they would have a valid scrutiny function. What is uncertain in the Bill is whether they could have an executive function.

Mr Burstow

  669. I wanted just briefly to cover one of the models, the elected mayor model, and see if you have any views about whether or not, if we were to move down the road of elected mayors, there would be a need to introduce systems of recall as a counterbalance and if you do, whether there are any particular models of recall which you particularly favour.

  A. If you go for the elected mayor model, I think it is important that there would be a way of removing them other than on legal grounds. Clearly there would be a way if they were guilty of corruption or breaking the national code of conduct, but it is quite likely we will have some totally incompetent mayors. We will have some very good mayors and we will have incompetent mayors, and there has, I believe, to be some way, (not easy to operate, otherwise it would be used for trivial reasons), to remove a mayor or to force the mayor to stand for election again and there are two broad ways of doing it. One is to have the right of recall which is that a certain percentage of the electorate can sign a petition requiring that the mayor stand for election again or that a poll be held as to whether that should actually happen, and the other alternative is that a special majority of the council could so move. Unless that provision is made there it is going to be a unique constitutional provision in this country. There is no other political position exercising executive power from which there is no means of removing them. I am not saying the Prime Minister is often removed but it is in the power of the House of Commons to pass a vote of no confidence in a Prime Minister. I think it is very important that there is some safeguard otherwise you are creating a situation where a bad mayor has an unchallenged period of office, and the precedents are there in most countries. The states in Germany that have been introducing a directly elected mayor have spent quite a lot of time considering and debating this issue.

  Mr Burstow: Would you be able to let us have some further material after this committee hearing dealing with those examples?

Dr Whitehead

  670. Cronin's Direct Democracy.

  A. Yes Cronin's Direct Democracy which I can send, if required.

Mr Burstow

  671. I have another question quickly. In the White Paper published last July In Touch with the People prior to its publication there was some talk of the possibility of citizens' initiatives being introduced as one of the elements within the framework that was being proposed. When the White Paper was finally published it boiled down basically to citizens to take the initiative for directly elected mayors. Do you see any scope for widening that out so that citizens' initiatives in their genuine form raising all sorts of topics could become the subject of legislation in this country?

  A. It could be. The legislation would have on the whole to be carefully worked out because it is a question of whether a citizens' initiative is binding, and how you regulate it. There is the experience of Switzerland in this. On triggers for initiatives, because we are talking about initiatives in relation to a mayor, five per cent is low to trigger an initiative, one per cent would be ridiculously low. There is one danger about the trigger mechanism. I do not know if anyone has drawn it to your attention but in one or two of the authorities I have visited there is deep concern amongst the council that the mayoral election would be triggered not because anyone necessarily wanted an elected mayor but as part of a campaign against the authority. One authority has got a pressure group about town centre development and they have already heard that if the group do not get their way on this they have said they will trigger an elected mayor referendum particularly if it is a very small percentage. There is a danger if the trigger is not high enough that it can be used for all sorts of purposes not related to directly elected mayors.

  672. Finally, with the referendum procedures set out in the document who should set the question on the elected mayor?

  A. Questions on elected mayors are a very interesting issue about MORI polls as well. Clearly, if we had an Electoral Commission, which has been proposed, then I believe that it should set the question. I do not believe the Government should set question for the same reason that they argue local authorities should not set the question. The Government have a view on this and they are an interested party. I believe ideally it should be the Electoral Commission and attempts should be made to set up an independent commission in the meanwhile the Electoral Commission has not come into operation.

  Mr Pike: Can I just say if you did feel in response to Mr Burstow you would send in some information it is an extremely tight time schedule because we start to look at our report on Thursday afternoon this week and the intention, the target is to finish the report two weeks today so it is an extremely tight time schedule. Baroness Hamwee?

  Baroness Hamwee: I have three questions but if the Chairman would prefer me to leave one until later to give everyone a chance, I will do that.

  Mr Pike: Take all three.

Baroness Hamwee

  673. Thank you. Could I say now that if I walk out immediately after you have answered it is nothing to do with your answer but my pager has just gone off. You talked about area committees and form following function. Would you make similar points—I am thinking again about Somerset—about the partnership that has been developed there between the district and the county where I know there is a concern that they may be precluded by the Bill from continuing in the same sort of fashion?

  A. I would make exactly the same point about that.

  674. Thank you.

  A. A general point. All sorts of experiments are taking place and it is very important that the Bill does not kill off experiments at a time when we are trying to encourage innovation.

  675. Absolutely, thank you. The second question, you have talked about the different progress that has been made in different authorities in taking forward models. I do not want this question to sound disloyal on my part to local government, but I can see that some authorities may be struggling and may in the future struggle. Is there an argument for working up detailed models, best practice and so on and, if there is, how should that relate to legislation? Should it be something which is quite apart from it?

  A. Yes and no or no and yes. No, there should not be best practice because I do not believe there is best practice. I believe there is a variety of practices some of which suits some authorities more than others. But yes there should be more knowledge of what different local authorities are doing. I do not think it requires legislation. I think the LGA and IDA are already engaged in that. We have been commissioned by the IDA and DETR to carry out an evaluation of six of these authorities and that of course will be published as well. There is a lot of information about on developing practice.

  676. So could you extend that argument to, if you like, the models in the Bill and say that as long as the local authority meets particular minimum criteria then it should be free to work up the thing?

  A. I would agree. If options are to remain I would actually want to issue options as well. I would want an option that actually showed how an area executive system could be made to fit within this approach. I believe the LGA have been working on such a possibility. I also think that there is a case for another option if only to demonstrate other options are possible—and it is the least popular of the options partly because it is misunderstood—a council manager option but without a directly elected mayor. In America authorities have the choice of the two. They either have an indirectly elected mayor or in effect a leader of the authority with the council manager. That was the original council manager system. I think the combination of party system and directly elected mayor with council manager is a very confusing one because directly elected mayor will not have executive powers under that model. If they cannot command a majority on the council they are in a very strange position, a much more acute position than a directly elected mayor who is an executive. If I were a council manager I would be more concerned about the leader of the council than the directly elected mayor. We are taking a model from America and New Zealand where party systems are undeveloped as compared to ours. I think there is a case for looking at the council manager system with a leader and a cabinet. Interestingly, although people have not liked it because the phrase puts people off, it sounds as though you are appointing somebody to manage the council, it is the one that is actually—and this is not an argument for it necessarily—closest to our present system. There is a separation but it is not executive separation so much; it is a separation of the administration. The council manager runs the administration.

Earl of Carnarvon

  677. The problem with going round the room, which we have always done, is that sometimes you cannot follow a question through when someone else has thought of a very good point as Lady Hamwee has and the answer Professor Stewart gave. It is entirely the relationship between the council manager and the chief executive officer which people generally get extremely muddled about. If you have a council manager, the council manager is in effect chief executive. He is a paid officer.

  A. Yes, he is a paid officer.

  678. Who is his boss?

  A. The council.

  Earl of Carnarvon: Who is the boss of the council?

Baroness Hamwee

  679. The electorate!

  A. I take that answer. If I can just explain one characteristic of it, in the council manager model, the council employs one individual. The council employs the council manager and the council manager employs all the other staff, but the council manager carries out what the council actually decides on.

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