The Draft Regional Assemblies Bill (HC 972-i)
ODPM Committee 20 Jul 2004
Evidence given by Professor Robert Hazell and Mark Sandford, UCL Constitution Unit; Professor Tony Travers, London School of Economics; Nicholas Boles, Policy Exchange, John Adams, IPPR North, Dan Corry and Warren Hatter, New Local Government Network, and Dr Peter Kenway, New Policy Institute; Pamela Gordon, Archie Gall and Roger Creedon, Boundary Committee for England:
Q10 Mr. David Clelland: How many elected organisations in terms of government in this country do you know of whose powers have remained the same or diminished over the years?
Mr Sandford: Is that a question?
Q11 Mr. David Clelland: Yes. Is it not a fact that it is not a question of where we start, although obviously we are looking at the draft Bill in terms of the principles which I think Sir Paul was relating to of regional government, but what the future holds?
Professor Hazell: I entirely agree. Ron Davis famously said, "Devolution is a process, not an event." It is well known that he was by no means satisfied with the powers offered to the National Assembly for Wales when it started in business, and indeed in Wales there has been a lively debate in the last five years about the powers of the assembly and quite strong demands for those to be increased. One case being made to those who will vote in the referendum in the North-East in November by those in favour of regional government is that this may be a slightly weakly looking creature at the moment but it is the best we can get to get started, so please help us get started.
Q18 Mr. David Clelland: Quite often in local government there are people who are retired, unemployed or who work for public services where they can get more generous time off to deal with their duties. Does this imply that we are going to have the same problem in terms of part-time members of regional authorities, and should this Bill contain new beefed up statutory rights for people to have time off from work to carry out their duties in elected authorities?
Mr Sandford: It is going to be the same problem. I am quite curious as to why the Government has made so much of the part-time nature of assemblies. I think it is only fair to say that the part-time requirements I do not think appears in the current policy statement. It was mentioned in the White Paper two years ago but it has not been mentioned in the policy statement that was released with the draft Bill and I do not know whether that is an oversight or whether it has been re-thought. Yes, I think there is a risk that people will be coming predominantly from the categories you mentioned. As to whether this is the correct place to introduce requirements to allow people to have more time off, I am not sure I can comment on that.
Q20 Mr. David Clelland: Is it not the case that this is where the stakeholders would come in, in helping to man the committees so that the committees do not consist entirely just of elected members but also of all of the other stakeholders, but at the end of the day it will be the assembly itself which makes decisions based on recommendations from the committees? The actual assembly, although it has a core of 25 or 35 members, will actually be a much bigger body.
Professor Hazell: Forgive me. I overlooked that and that is a very important point.
Q26 Mr. David Clelland: The Government is proposing to impose through this Bill the same kind of governmental system that it imposed on local government some time ago, that is the small Cabinet-type of government and in the regional assemblies that would mean a range of between three and seven members. Is that something you see happening? How is that going to work in terms of regional assemblies? That is a very small number of people to be carrying the responsibility. Would it not be better if the Bill were to enable regional assemblies and even local government after a certain amount of time and experience to develop a system and style of Government which is most suited to the particular region concerned?
Professor Hazell: There is nothing wrong in having a Cabinet. Indeed, for local government now they are required to have a Cabinet system of some kind, to have an executive clearly separate from the wider assembly. I think the real question is whether the size proposed in the Bill and, in particular, the minimum size is adequate. I was very surprised to see the figure of three as a minimum. I would want the system to be about six.
Mr Sandford: Because of the full-time/part-time issue, the Cabinet is expected to be full-time under these proposals, I would be very surprised if any governing body appointed less than the maximum number of members since they are the only ones who are going to be full-time. That is going to be quite an important form of political patronage whoever gets in power. I am quite a fan of the Cabinet system both in local government and in this particular case because I think that in small strategic bodies like these which are not going to have much to do it is going to be of benefit to have the decision-making apparatus concentrated in a small number of reasonably visible individuals who will be held to account by the rest of the assembly members. I would echo what Robert said, there is nothing wrong with having a Cabinet. The issue about the Cabinet for me is what its relationship would be with the functional bodies and the Regional Development Agency in particular which, as I understand things, is going to be expected to take on over half of the funding allocated to the assembly. To me there is a possibility there of temptation for the Cabinet to interfere politically with the decision-making of the RDAs. It is going to be such a large part of what it is expected to do, but one will have to wait and see how things turn out.
Q37 Mr. David Clelland: Is not what is being proposed here different to the parliamentary system of scrutiny? With the involvement of stakeholders that we referred to earlier the actual people who would normally be putting in evidence to a committee like this will actually be taking part in the sub-committees and committees of the assembly and, therefore, it is quite a different role. The witnesses that we have to our committee here will actually be taking part in committees and sub-committees. So it will be a different kind of scrutiny role, will it not, than we have here?
Mr Sandford: Up to a point, yes. I would be surprised if sub-committees appointed so many co-optees that they did not have anybody left to give evidence. It sounds as though I am being picky.
Q38 Mr. David Clelland: I mean sectors like the voluntary sector. They would be involved, would they not?
Mr Sandford: Yes.
Q39 Mr. David Clelland: So in that sense they would not have to submit evidence, they would actually be there taking part.
Professor Hazell: They will be on both sides of the table as it were and because some of them will be on your side of the table they will be very well placed to encourage and beat the bushes hard in relation to any specific inquiry and to get the best set of witnesses on this side of the table.
Q44 Mr. David Clelland: The policy statement said that elected regional assemblies would have 'considerable freedom' under their general purpose to spend their funding as they judge best, but in your view what real flexibility will these assemblies have? Is it not the case really that, in terms of their general grant, the budgets have been effectively fixed over the short and medium term?
Mr Sandford: I want to burst out yes but that is not quite the right answer. As you may remember from the White Paper, this was another thing that was not mentioned in the policy statement. Assemblies will have to agree a range of six to ten high level targets with the Government. I assume, though it is not said in the policy paper, that this will take place through the Assembly Scheme which is laid out in the draft Bill. Given the fact that an assembly will have to agree six to ten high level targets and given the fact that it has taken over specific budget streams from the RDA, the Housing Corporation, various fire and rescue functions, rural regeneration, it is going to be very difficult within that to find the flexibility to do anything else. I referred earlier to soft money through the council tax precept. There will also be soft money available through the regional assemblies' limited borrowing powers. That soft money is going to be the main source of anything unusual or inaugurative that the assemblies will be able to do. I do not know how much soft money will be available, I do not know what the borrowing power will amount to in practice, but I suspect it is not going to be a very large percentage of the overall budget of the assembly. That is where the flexibility comes from. It is going to be a limited flexibility. It is not necessarily an insignificant flexibility. There is an example from London of a quite interesting use of flexibility which is the Mayor's partnerships register for same sex couples. That is something that does not cost very much to do but is of interest to a lot of people. That is the sort of inaugurative policy which it may well be possible for assemblies to carry out, things which do not cost much but which achieve quite a lot of public profile and do some good and mean something to members of the electorate.
Q45 Chairman: The Mayor, because of the size of London, has quite a bit of small change in his budget to do some of those things. Is there going to be as much small change for the North-East assembly to be able to do some of those more imaginative things?
Mr Sandford: I would think not. I would not like to give a definite answer on the amounts of money. One would suppose that there is not so much money to do the precept.
Professor Hazell: May I just add one thing on the electoral system? Clive Betts asked me about the Additional Member System and I replied saying that the first-past-the-post system was notoriously disproportionate. The role of the additional members is to correct for the disproportionality in the constituency seats. The one thing I wanted to add is that the Bill leaves it to the Secretary of State - it is in clause 3(4) - to specify the number of constituency members and the number of regional members for each assembly and I think that is a very odd power to confer upon a government minister because in effect it could enable them to decide whether in some regions one party will win and govern or not.
Q55 Mr. David Clelland: Although you are suggesting that it may be the case that local government services would be taken up to the regional level, the services you have actually outlined, Fire and Civil Defence, the Police, are actually services which are run by joint bodies of local authorities, not by single local authorities. So in those terms, in the way you have explained what had happened in London, that is entirely legitimate, that is the same sort of process. They are not really local government services per se; they are wider than local government services and, therefore, is it not appropriate that they should be run by a body which is bigger than local government? The only exception to that perhaps is County Planning but then, again, of course, if there were a re-organisation of local government then the County Planning area would also cover more than one local authority and would be legitimately done by a bigger authority.
Professor Travers: I do not want to open up a whole new front for the Committee on the question of what is an appropriate size for providing particular services, but I think the existence of joint Fire and Police Authorities has come about as, over years, the presumption has been that we need ever larger authorities for these services. After all, they began their lives as local government services but have ended up in these intermediate, bigger than county but smaller than region authorities in most cases. I think I am arguing against the almost inevitable presumption in Britain that we always need to have fewer authorities. In the fallout from Soham the presumption was that the Cambridgeshire Constabulary was too small, and so you can see that the pressure within the police is to move to ever bigger Police Authorities and possibly with some national police co-ordinating institution. The point I am making is that you must be right, that there are services such as Fire and Emergency and the Police, which are now being provided by authorities in many cases bigger than the county or bigger than the existing local authorities, but they have arrived there themselves by dint of a presumption that we need ever bigger authorities. You can keep stepping this way until we have just one local authority for England, and that is where we will end up if all of this carries on in the same direction over another couple of generations. So in that sense I take the point you are making, but these very large authorities have themselves come about because of the presumption always that we need bigger and bigger authorities.
Q67 Mr. David Clelland: We have talked about different classes of member but what about different classes of employee? Has the Greater London Authority managed to draw a distinction between employees serving the Executive and those employees serving the Assembly?
Professor Travers: I think the honest answer is not. Again, I was trying to be fair to the government earlier on. I think the GLA legislation, when it was created, attempted to make the Mayor and the Assembly work consensually by making the Mayor the executive but giving the Assembly the power to appoint all the senior officers. In fact, given that the Assembly is also supposed to scrutinise the Mayor in national political terms - a bit like allowing the Opposition to appoint the Senior Civil Service - it is not, in my view, a particularly appropriate way of making an authority of this kind work. So I think that the staff of the GLA have found life very difficult because they are appointed by the Assembly, with a small number of exceptions who are direct mayoral appointments, and that has made their lives as the deliverers of the Executive's policies difficult, and what has happened in fact is that the Mayor, as the Executive, operates through his office directly to senior board officers, bypassing the staff and bypassing board members. It is more like an American model of government, and I am not sure that this would necessarily work in quite the same way in the Regional Assemblies outside London. Your question certainly begs this bigger question of how a single group of staff can reasonably work for an Executive and a scrutinising body at the same time, and I do not think it has worked particularly well at the GLA.
Q68 Mr. David Clelland: We are discussing the draft Bill here for the Regional Assemblies. Do you think the Bill adequately deals with this point, or should there be something included in the Bill, which will deal with that separation of responsibilities?
Professor Travers: I certainly think that the legislation should make it clear that the Executive on any Regional Assemblies and the scrutiny function have reasonable independence of each other in the way that these Committees employ officers of Parliament not of the government to oversee the Executive at national government level. I think that some independence between these two processes is essential, yes.
Q73 Mr. David Clelland: It is a general question to all of the witnesses. The elected Regional Assemblies look set to rely substantially upon a general power of competence rather than detailed powers and resources in particular policy fields. What impact is that likely to have upon the effectiveness of these Regional Assemblies and how, if at all, will elected Regional Assemblies add value to the current system of government and the regions?
Mr Hatter: I think we need to learn from the experience of local government, specifically the Local Government Act 2000, which gave local authorities the power of well being. I think there is a pretty broad consensus that those powers have not been used to anywhere near the extent that one might wish. There are probably very good reasons for this, specifically that the relations between central and local government have been so polarised, and local government over the past few decades very much got into the mode of being a delivery arm and responding to guidance to legislation, to guidelines and to directives from the centre, and actually having a power, something that you can use rather than a duty as something that you have to do, guidelines that you have to follow, is something that unfortunately culturally local government has found it hard to grasp. On the other hand, I do not think it is realistic to think that there is any real point in trying to develop regional governance unless there is that general power of competence. What our research suggests to us is that the success of regional governments, whether it is through a Chapter II agenda or Elected Regional Assemblies in the future, should the electorate so decide, will depend on the individuals and the bodies developing regional governance having credibility with the people, with the public and with stakeholders to make it work, and in a sense that power of competence, you could argue, is more important than the specific powers that are given to ERAs.
Mr Corry: Can I just add to that? We are not exactly sure whether the things outlined in Clause 43 do give enough. We are turning it from what local government has; it has a power of well being into a duty of well being, and making it clearer. So we are not exactly sure from our reading of what is in the Bill and in the policy statement so far, whether it gives that power, that duty.
Mr Boles: Your colleague asked about whether this whole idea is likely to add value to governance in the country. I would have thought that all of you, certainly all of us, whatever political, philosophical persuasions we are, are probably more exercised about the question of how you restore public faith in the political process, public interest in what politicians are doing to them than almost any other question, because it is quite clear that nobody is listening to us and they all think we are a bunch of lying fools. It would be hard to design a piece of legislation that was more guaranteed to increase that cynicism and that apathy than this particular Bill. There is almost nothing in it that will inspire any confidence in anyone of the honesty, transparency or real willingness to do something to improve people's lives than this Bill. These things are a charade, they are a mockery, they will add no value at all, they will cost a huge amount of money and they will generate enormous amounts of blether, with absolutely no purpose. You could have created Regional Assemblies with a purpose, you could have decided - I do not know whether it would be a good idea - to regionalise the National Health Service, to give them control of all of the Primary Care Trusts in the region; you could have decided to go down that route, many European countries operate in a similar way. The government has not decided to do that, yet it is ploughing ahead with an utterly cynical exercise. It will add no value at all.
Dr Kenway: Let me develop that point. We think - and I hope our submission made clear what we think - that one needs to look at the powers that the ERAs would have, in the context of the fact that they first have to cross the hurdle of winning a referendum, and we are fully in support of the idea that it should cross this hurdle, and that that hurdle should exist, that they cannot simply be imposed. But our view is that you will not, with the sorts of general powers which are there at the minute, stand any chance of persuading anybody that these things are worth having. There has, therefore, to be - and this perhaps is where I am getting close to my colleague here - some specific powers, some specific responsibilities that Elected Regional Assemblies need to have in order to persuade not just the electorate that it is worth voting for them but also to persuade serious politicians, whether at local or national level, that these things are worth getting involved in. Therefore, there needs to be something specific, there needs to be something concrete in there. Perhaps I might put one more point that I might develop later, that we do think those specific things might very well differ between different parts of the country - that what is important in one place may not be as important in another. In our view, in London it was quite clear that one of the main things that made people think it was worth having a Mayor was that there was transport to be dealt with. Whether you agree with what he has done or not it is quite clear that that is what the thing was about, it was not just about a general power. So our view is that there does need to be something specific, but that that could vary between different regions.
Q78 Mr. David Clelland: The problem is that some of these organisations are not democratically accountable and that is really what this is about. In terms of the RDA, the biggest area of responsibility that the Regional Assemblies will have is in the field of economic development. Do you think that that means because of that that other areas of influence they will have over, say, culture, sports, art, higher education will be driven to the periphery, or do you think they will begin diverting the resources from economic development into these areas, and what impact is that likely to have?
Mr Corry: I think economic development is the number one thing and is the number one thing that people in the regions that vote for these things will be looking for. The Assemblies will have quite strong housing and planning policies. These are very strong powers. They do have a very strong link with the RDA, and it was discussed earlier as to how that would work and if it became too strong was that a problem, and so on. So that is going to be the guts of what they do. As Warren was saying earlier, all our work, even on the London Assembly as well, starts to have quite a big influence, even with its much maligned strategies, on certain things which it does not really have much competence over, by being focused, bringing partners together, stakeholders and the rest of it being an influence in central government departments, and so on. I think that its role in some areas will be much more like that, giving regional leadership.
Q109 Mr. David Clelland: But is it reasonable to advise against all-postal arrangements on the basis of what I think the Chairman of the Commission said was the reporting of alleged fraud when actually no fraud was found?
Ms Gordon: It is not simply about fraud and intimidation although that is a major issue, and we believe that there are measures, particularly the individual registration of voters, which need to be in place before we move forward more widely on that. That would provide a means of a very considerable check on fraud.
Q110 Mr. David Clelland: Sorry, so you are suggesting that the Commission may review this decision and there could be a recommendation for all-postal ballots in the future given certain circumstances?
Ms Gordon: No, the other main reason why we are revising our own view on all-postal voting is the very considerable response we have had from something like a third of people across the board. In the research that was done for us there are over 50 per cent of people who are comfortable with all-postal voting and most of those would go for postal voting on demand in a different situation. They are very comfortable, they are very satisfied. However, there is a very significant minority of something like a third across the board which is very uncomfortable. It is not solely nervousness about fraud and intimidation, it is also about not being compelled to use postal voting, they want choice, they like traditional ballot boxes, they see it as a civic duty which is represented by going to the polling station. There is a range of views. We concluded from this that the right way forward would be to provide a system that does build in choice for the voter. We do see a very considerable future for postal voting on demand. The safeguards that we have talked about (individual registration in particular) are absolutely essential for an extension of postal voting on demand, the same considerations in that sense as for all-postal voting, but there are many people who want alternative ways and of course in due course we would expect various e-technology to be brought in, whether it is texting or using computers or televisions or a range of things. So we are proposing to work with other colleagues on the development of what we have called, for want of a better term, a foundation model of voting, which will be able to build in these options.
Q111 Mr. David Clelland: We know that postal voting is very popular. If postal voting on demand resulted in, say, 75 or 80 per cent of the electorate voting by post, is it therefore reasonable in terms of the cost involved to provide ballot boxes all over the place for those 20 per cent who want to vote in the ballot box?
Ms Gordon: Clearly the situation would have to be kept under review. There would be concerns about costing. I think there are two sides to that. There is a very strong argument that we have traditionally had our democracy on the cheap as regards to elections and for the number of safeguards and improvements that we are recommending there would be an increased cost which we believe, when it is costed out, would be justified to improve and modernise the system. However, I accept that in due course, if there were a major move, there might have to be an adjustment of the proportions of different provision but hopefully that would come along at the sort of time that other means of e-technology and so on were coming on stream and it might not be so great an issue. I think one of the difficulties is that we are really in a period of transition and trying to move too abruptly to a different system has been responsible for some of the difficulties, certainly some of the public perception difficulties, and one of the major concerns that we have is that the traditional consensus and trust in the electoral system has been broken by what has happened and we need to rebuild that and we think a more gradual transition therefore would be better. Maybe in due course it would move back but it would be in a more honest and more secure foundation.
This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.
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