Examination of Witness (Questions 680
TUESDAY 13 JULY 1999
Earl of Carnarvon
680. I was lost as to whether he was a paid
officer or whether he was elected.
A. I think you are on an important point. If
you create a situation where the mayor is the executive or even
the cabinet is the executive, though the position of chief executive
will remain at least in form, head of the paid service I think
it will subtly change. I visited Oslo which had appointed a cabinet.
They had a chief executive and they also had a cabinet secretary,
but three years later only one of those posts existed, the cabinet
secretary. The chief executive position could lessen in significance
with an executive mayor.
Earl of Carnarvon: Well, Lady Hamwee asked the
question, but Dr Whitehead will know about the difficulties in
Hampshire when there was a county secretary who was head of the
legal department, the chief executive was also a lawyer and on
the Baines system he was chairman of the officers, and then you
had semi-executive chairmen on top of that and it was an extremely
difficult balance to keep between highly paid officers and a chief
executive who was not a mayor, but who was leader of the majority
681. I was going to ask a question about officers
and I think Professor Stewart has gone a long way to answering
it, about whether in the models which involve an executive cabinet
or an executive mayor you have any comments to make about the
likely effect on the career structure and so on for officers.
A. It is very difficult because we are dealing
with a very uncertain area and that is why I much prefer experiments
so that we can learn about them. I think there will be a tendency
for the role of the chief officer as head of the department or
the chief executive as head of the officer structure to lessen
in significance because of the existence of executive councillors
exercising executive powers. That is not an argument for or against,
but it is just that it is a tendency that I think will happen
in the situation and I think there is some evidence, and it is
significant that in quite a lot of countries the equivalent of
the chief executive is not called the chief executive, but the
chief administrative officer and I think that conveys the flavour
of it. I think there are one or two issues that are really uncertain
because Local Leadership, Local Choice is a bit ambiguous.
One of the tensions even in the present system is that an officer
has two responsibilities: he has a responsibility to the majority
party; but he has also a responsibility to the council, and sometimes
there is a tension between the two. This Paper is still maintaining
the position that the council is a single corporate body and that
officers will be responsible both to the executive and to the
general body of the council. I think there are features of that
where the tensions will actually grow, particularly on this very
difficult issue of advice given by the officers to the cabinet
which the cabinet rejects and whether the other councillors are
entitled to know that or whether we take a model closer to the
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
682. I wanted to move on to the question of
standards. Do you think the proposals are sufficient or over-elaborate,
and particularly in the relationship between the national Standards
Board and the local standards committees, do you think there needs
to be greater clarification in the division of those responsibilities?
Another point here is that the draft Bill does not propose replacing
surcharges with compensation orders, but do you think that is
an issue which the Bill might look at?
A. Let me begin my answer by saying that I have
not studied the standards section to anything like the same depth
that I have studied the organisation section. I genuinely feel
that it would have been better if the legislation had covered
all the related issues in it and that is why I am interested in
the abolition of the attendance allowance and that is why I would
be interested in it dealing with the surcharge issue all as part
of the same legislation, so the answer to that part of your question
is yes. I think the role particularly of the local standards committee
is very uncertain in the present Bill. It is obscure what it does.
At the moment a large number of authorities have set up standards
committees with significant external representation usually at
a fairly high and important level. There is quite a fear that
if the standards committee has not a clear role at the local level,
you will not get those people. I was briefed before I came today
and I got a little note from Sir Richard Knowles, the former leader
of Birmingham, who is on the standards committee, which is chaired
by a former President of the Law Society of Birmingham, and he
makes the point to me that if the functions of the standards committee
are so vague and uncertain at the local level, he does not particularly
want to serve on it and he does not think any independent people
would actually want to serve on it. In Hertfordshire, the standards
committee consists entirely of external people. It consists, I
think, of the Bishop, the Lord Lieutenant and I forget the other
two, but they are of that status.
683. When you say "functions", do
you mean defined powers of the standards committee?
A. Powers to consider cases first of all I think
they would ask for, and defined powers and sanctions they could
actually use, but I think the way you have phrased it is the correct
way. At present it seems to be very uncertain what their role
is. Training, yes, which is important, and drawing up the code
of conduct, that is important, but after that what is their role?
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford
684. I want to go back to this cabinet idea
because the Cabinet, by definition, in central government consists
of the heads of major departments and the parallel in local government
would be the chairmen of the committees. Now, I acknowledge that
you might want to refine and slim down the committee system, but
do you see any mileage in having what would be real cabinet government
where the chairmen of the major committees would sit on the executive?
I would like a further opinion because this Bill of course restricts
it by restricting the numbers on the executive, so do you think
a cabinet system on the model of central government and, if you
like, a sort of bastardised version of the separation of functions
with the committees behind the chairmen fulfilling the role of
committees in the American Senate, do you see any mileage in that
sort of proposal?
A. I see some mileage in that proposal. Some
of that is actually in the nature of the proposals. As I understand
it, what is envisaged about the cabinet is that it would consist
of a group of individuals and each would be given portfolios.
Those portfolios could well be the existing committees, so you
would have a councillor for education on the cabinet and a councillor
for other matters. If they had to make proposals to the council,
if, in other words, they had to get a policy approved, then that
could well go to a committee to appraise those proposal, but the
committee would not be an executive committee under these proposals,
but it would be examining the nature of the proposals. It is interesting
you quote America because in the cabinet system in Oslo, and I
have to explain one feature of the cabinet system in Oslo, the
cabinet are not members of the council, but the cabinet resign
from the council when they are appointed to the cabinet. That
is because it happens in the Riksdag as well, the separation of
functions. Therefore, they are like the President and they cannot
move things in the House, so it goes to a committee like a congressional
committee, their policy proposals, and the committee then moves
685. Could I press you further and say do you
think that is a good idea because if you had a chairman then you
would have something like what is in central government, a head
of department and committees which would be an executive grouping,
but if you went for the American style, the Oslo style there you
would have, if you like, true democracy in the council, where
many of my colleagues came from, and true muscle because the committees
would have the power of congressional committees. Do you think
this is a runner?
A. I think it is a runner and it can be made
in these proposals. It is because the advocates of the proposals
have presented it in such a limited way and have not emphasised
the importance of the council
686. This would break at a stroke the over-powerful
party which bedevils the English executive.
A. Not necessarily because I imagine the party
would whip its members on major policy in this situation but it
would mean that it was properly debated and argued about in the
687. My question was about whipping actually.
It was about what role do you think whipping has to play in these
models with which we are presented?
A. I was going to add one point to that and
then come to your question. This may mortify people but if the
council plays this role you will find it meets more frequently
than our councils meet. In American authorities the size of our
local authorities the council meets either weekly or fortnightly.
It may devote six meetings to considering the budget. So once
you say that the council is the important body it means it has
to re-think its procedures. One of the failures of a lot of the
transitional models is that they have not thought through that
issue. Whipping? My position on whipping in the present structure
is that whipping is carried to excess. I defend the existence
of party politics in local government, if people want to vote
for it, because it gives a degree of cohesion and direction to
the working of the authority but in many authorities whipping
is carried to excess on all sorts of issues which raise no party
point. Basically whipping is used in many authorities to carry
through the officer recommendations. Sometimes councillors have
said to me, "The opposition made a very good point but there
was nothing we could do because we had been whipped beforehand
and therefore it went through." One deputy leader said, "I
think the group should meet after the committee rather than before",
which is an interesting idea, if rather impractical! So in other
words, I would defend whipping on major policy issues where the
party point of view is at stake in it. I would expect that to
apply to most of the policy documents going to the council.
688. What about the scrutiny function though?
A. A lot depends, of course, on what you are
talking about in relation to the scrutiny function because before
I emphasised four different sorts of scrutiny and clearly in assessing
performance you would not ideally want the whips to apply in that
situation. You have to face the fact that even if the whip is
not applied there will be a reluctance on the part of the average
councillor loyal to his party to criticise with the press there
the leadership of the council. So that is the dilemma about developing
the role. There is another danger which is the reverse. It is
not positive scrutiny, it is, let's say, a faction in the majority
party or the opposition using it just to attack. I have known
some councillors say, "Now we have got a scrutiny function
we can really get at the officers." I think there is a danger
that it is used in a negative way. Councils will have to think
about protocols to govern the role.
Baroness Thornton: Thank you.
689. We have heard evidence both from backbenchers
and from leaders and chief executives of councils who have adopted
an executive scrutiny model that really what is going on is that
the decisions are still being taken in the political groups but
you have just got a new front of house to the council effectively.
Given that I believe from the White Paper that the Government
is determined to separate out the executive and the scrutiny function,
how would you go about making the executive and scrutiny function,
given your four roles of scrutiny, work and not just have it falling
into a pretence?
A. I think a lot would depend upon the executive.
690. Can I ask one more. Is that your experience
that the evidence we have had before this committee is actually
what is going on in those councils that have adopted that model?
A. Not universally. Particularly where the emphasis
has been placed on the more positive types of scrutiny, policy
development, developing new ideas, advice to the executive, in
other words, things that the executive themselves wants to see
actually happen, there is evidence that that is operating in a
more positive way and is more meaningful. What is not developing
is the criticism of performance in the situation. Broadly, my
answer is if an executive wants to see scrutiny develop then it
can encourage it.
691. Can you encourage it by structures? What
proposals would you put in the Bill that would make scrutiny more
effective and efficient?
A. I want to get away from the idea that there
has got to be one model of overview and scrutiny committees. I
would want it to be made very clear that many of these things
are going to involve informal groups and informal panels and so
on and so forth in this situation. There is a danger in the legislation
as drafted at the moment that it looks over-formalistic on the
scrutiny and overview function.
692. Can I press you on that. Is there any advice
you can give the Committee apart from saying some of this would
happen informally that would improve the legislation in terms
of how scrutiny would take place and to stop it in effect disappearing
into the smoke-filled rooms which is where we know most of the
decisions are taken in town halls?
A. There are things you cannot legislate for.
My advice would be after the Bill there should be struck the provision
for regulations governing a number of the things which it is suggested
regulation should actually be drawn up for, and one of those would
be regulations governing overseeing and scrutiny in this situation.
I think attempts to deal with it by regulation will be doomed
to frustration and lead to further regulations as people attempt
to overcome the problem. I would also not want regulations to
govern the relationship between the executive and the council.
I would want a fair degree of freedom for the council themselves
to settle the way the divisions took place.
693. In answer to Sir Paul Beresford you made
some sceptical comments about the opinion polls showing support
for elected mayors. Could you expand on that?
A. Yes. I think opinion polls are very good
for telling you certain things. They are very good for telling
you things that people understand and know about. To ask the question
Are you in favour of an elected mayor? without explaining what
an elected mayor is is not going to get a meaningful answer. I
think many people thought they already had a mayor and the mayor
was elected. To just ask the question out of the blue is wrong.
To show just how people did not understand, in the big cities
the question was asked after a previous question, which you could
say was a leading question, Did you know that London was going
to have an elected mayor? The interesting thing which shows how
uninformed people are is that 51 per cent said they did not know
that. You are asking a question in a situation where people do
not understand the nature of what is being asked. It may be that
in a referendum 67 per cent would vote for it but I do not think
you can place any weight on that statistic.
694. Can we come back to the evolving power
to promote well-being and ask a couple of questions on that. There
was a debate in the House of Lords last Monday initiated by Lord
Hunt which explored what the Government's thinking of this was
and what the timetable of this would be. My reading of that debate
suggests that it is as distant as ever as to when the Government
will find legislative time. Can you say what your view is as to
whether or not we want a duty to promote well-being or a power
to promote well-being because they are not necessarily the same
thing and can have quite a big impact on the way local authorities
work and on the way in which authorities are open to litigation
in due course.
A. I believe we need both. The duty is described
as enshrining in law a new conception of local government, a conception
which many authorities are aspiring to. In some ways the duty
is a symbolic duty, but it is given teeth by the power. It is
also important to remember that there is another duty being proposed
and that is the duty to do community planning which is bringing
together the various partners in the area and consulting people
locally and I see the three as all bound up together.
695. Do you think that vision of community leadership
fits comfortably in the context not just of local government legislation
and the White Paper on Local Government, but in the context of
some of the other legislation and White Papers, for example, the
Social Services White Paper, the School Standards and Framework
Act and so on in terms of the tenor of those pieces of legislation?
A. I think there is a problem at the moment
actually in the lack of ability in dealing with cross-cutting
issues in local government. We are seeing a series of initiatives
coming from government and in many ways that is a sign of a government
that wishes to do things, but many of them are not clearly related
to each other or related to the modernising of local government
agenda. It is said that the Education Department has required
eleven new plans from local authorities since the election and
it is not clear how those plans relate to each other, nor how
they relate to community planning, nor how they relate to local
performance planning. In other words, the interrelationship between
the modernising agenda and other parts of the Government's programme
have not been worked out and some local authorities are struggling
to work it out for themselves.
Earl of Carnarvon
696. I am interested in some of the things you
have said, Professor Stewart, and in relation to the general public,
I quite agree personally that the general public are interested
in the services that are supplied by the local authority and they
are not particularly interested in how the local authority sets
itself up in the way of committees. As you know, in county councils
there is no such thing as a mayor and there are plenty of county
councils in this country where they know the senior member of
the county council who is regularly on television. Can you really
ask a member of the public, "Do you prefer A, B or C model
in the way that the local authority functions?"? I cannot
see them answering that question unless they have got a basic
knowledge of local government.
A. It is for that reason that I think that opinion
polls tell you nothing because people are answering them without
any knowledge of what is involved. I think if a referendum was
held and it was really proposed and opposed, people would begin
in the campaign to learn about the arguments for and against,
but there would have to be a lot of work getting out of the misapprehensions.
If you take the cities, there will be tremendous confusion about
the position of the present mayor in the authority and indeed
I think it might have been much healthier if we had not got the
word "mayor" in for this role because the mayor is understood
in a different way.
Earl of Carnarvon: As Dr Whitehead will know,
the Mayor of Southampton is the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth, or is
it the other way around?
Dr Whitehead: Lord Mayor of Portsmouth.
Earl of Carnarvon
697. During the last 40 years that I have been
involved, there have been more rows about whether Southampton
should have a lord mayor in the same way as Portsmouth. The mayor
in terms of the general public is a figure for a year who is going
around doing good jobs. Is that not the view that the majority
of the public would have of the mayor if it was not for the London
situation where people are beginning to realise that the Mayor
of London is an executive person, not a ceremonial person?
A. Yes, that would be the first thing to have
to get over to people. I do not think if you just ask the question
in an opinion poll that people have got over that. They are thinking
of the traditional mayor that they actually know. I also think
that it is very difficult to say how people would actually vote
in a referendum if they understood it. If you were campaigning
against having the mayor in a big city, one of your slogans would
be that they are trying to turn the mayor into a political figure
and they are trying to get rid of the old mayor and turn it into
a party hack or something like that. That would be one of the
ways in which you would campaign on the other side. I think the
role of the mayor certainly in the big cities has not been fully
698. There is also an added complication in
that the Mayor of London is in fact a First Minister of the Regional
Authority and the functions really are not the same as is being
suggested for the mayor of a city. I wanted to return to the vexed
question of whipping. Are you saying, and again this is an issue
of coming out in the wash, that with some constraints, the whipping
system would be tolerable within some of the new structures or
are you suggesting that under certain circumstances it would simply
paralyse the system? I have in mind here one particular problem
which occurs to me which is that since the executive is chosen
from the council and those executive members are, therefore, members
presumably of the majority group who under circumstances where
a policy was at stake in the council would be presumably whipped
to vote with the council on policy, but may have participated
in a policy discussion suggesting the opposite with the elected
mayor, they would, therefore, be neatly torn in two when it came
to discussing that matter with the council.
A. That sort of thing can actually happen at
the moment where many authorities at the moment have policy development
groups sometimes constituted on an inter-party basis, and in the
end the recommendation of that can be defeated in the political
group. It is not unknown even in the House of Commons for people
to vote in different ways from maybe what they actually believe
in a situation.
699. Do you think that the recommendations of
the Macintosh Committee, which I think has suggested in Scotland
that you might have an announcement that a particular vote was
to be whipped before it was taking place, do you think that would
have any effect at all?
A. It is an interesting suggestion because it
clearly would be a constraint upon applying the whipping in trivial
situations. I do not think you can get away from that. If you
have party politics in local government, I do not think you can
get away from whipping on issues of significant policy because
that is in a sense what the party will have put as its position
in its manifesto at the election and is entitled to get support
in that situation, and back-bench councillors in the party will
see one of their roles as being to support the majority party.
1 It would also be appropriate if the legislation allowed
councils to hold the residual responsibilities rather than the
executive, as seems to be implied by the Bill (Explanatory Note
Clause 3). Back