Local Government Consultation (HC 316-ii)
ODPM Committee 1 Mar 2004
Evidence given by Ben Page, Director, MORI Social Research Institute, Simon Atkinson, Research Director, MORI Social Research Institute; Kevin Sheehan, Head of Community Governance and Public Management, Cheryl King-McDowell, Head of Policy & Partnership, London Borough of Lewisham, Dr Patricia Roberts-Thomson, Policy Officer, and Liz Reid-Jones, Head of Policy & Performance Leicester City Council, and Dr Gwendolyn Brandon, Senior Research Officer, Brighton & Hove City Council
Q187 Mr. David Clelland: Are they not elected to exercise judgment?
Mr Sheehan: They are elected to exercise judgment and they do exercise judgment but they will be the first to say, "I think we need to consult further on this particular issue" - if you like building a new school or making some infrastructure adjustments in the area - because they recognise that they get one shot at being elected, once every so many years, and all of the questions that arise over a period of four years do not get dealt with in that shot. They are aware of the pressure from their constituents. Their constituents want, as Ben was saying earlier, to be listened to, and they want their views to be heard not just once every four years but on an ongoing basis.
Ms King-McDowell: I could give you some examples where our local council, involved in scrutiny committees, has involved local people in some of the discussions and thinking, and that has informed their thinking. The Public Accounts Select Committee invited local residents to comment on the PFI discussions; the Joint Select Committee on Social Services has invited foster carers and other carers to participate in the discussion, and that has informed thinking. We had an Environment Select Committee that held a transport review. It was held in the town centre and people were invited to come in and use the video booth and that was a way of engaging people. It was very much a partnership informed discussion.
Q188 Mr. David Clelland: Is it not just a way of local authorities saying, "Well, if we get it wrong, it is your fault because we asked you first"?
Dr Brandon: I think there is a misconception about the extent to which decisions are influenced, if you listen to what my colleagues here have said. I would say that very seldom, from my experience, is a consultation exercise undertaken where everything is up for grabs. The degree to which decisions can be influenced by the responses back varies enormously, so that would influence the type of consultation we do, the role the councillors have and so on. I think it really depends what it is you are consulting on and what level of decisions can be influenced.
Ms Reid-Jones: That may particularly be the case in terms of statutory consultation. What can be influenced in statutory consultation is often a lot less than can be in terms of a blank sheet of paper, if you like.
Q195 Mr. David Clelland: Might the consultation process actually have a detrimental effect on turnout, in so far as people feel, "It does not matter who we vote for. They are going to consult us anyway, so why bother? We are going to be taking the decisions in any case."
Dr Brandon: There is an element that if you consult people and you do not respond then you have completely disengaged. There is a massive danger, in terms of the amount of consultation that local authorities do, be it statutory or that they decide themselves, that you use up the goodwill of people. Certainly, say, with regeneration issues, you go out to the same people and ask, "What do you want? How do you want the money spent? What are issues for you?" then maybe in five years time another bid has been put in and the same questions are asked, and there is a risk of disengaging people if you do not respond.
Ms Reid-Jones: I think there is an issue about managing expectations as well. We go to people and ask, "What do you want?" and it is not about saying, "Yes, we can deliver that." We have to be realistic in what we can and cannot deliver as well. I think Ben touched on that earlier.
Q217 Mr. David Clelland: Can the mayor launch a consultation exercise without the approval of the full council?
Mr Sheehan: It would depend on the scheme of delegation.
Q218 Mr. David Clelland: But he could.
Mr Sheehan: He could.
Q219 Mr. David Clelland: Is the politics of the mayor the same as the majority group on the council?
Mr Sheehan: In Lewisham it is.
Q220 Mr. David Clelland: If the mayor was having difficulty with a particular project he wanted to push through and he was getting resistance from the council, is it possible that he could launch a consultation exercise and bypass the majority of the councillors?
Mr Sheehan: I would imagine the leader could do that as well. I mean, I would not say that is particularly the mayoral thing. Anybody could do that. In fact, an effective cabinet member could probably do it as well.
Q226 Mr. David Clelland: There is a lot of cynicism around these days of people in the world of politics. Do you find this finds its way into the consultation exercise? Do people say to you "It is just a public relations exercise, the decisions have all been taken, what we say does not matter?" and if you do find that sort of cynicism, how do you overcome it?
Mr Sheehan: There is a question of fatigue and you particularly find that when people feel you are asking a question that has already been answered. I would say do not do that. If you have an answer and decide on a route, do not pour salt on it because you are wasting people's time and they will be very cynical about that. That is the simple answer.
Dr Brandon: What we have done, as we put in our written submission, is we have brought in a research governance and project approval. If consultation comes our way and that is a learning process, getting officers to realise that it has to come through the corporate process, if it is, as you say, a rubber stamping exercise then it is not given approval because it is not a genuine piece of research or consultation. It is something else, it is a public information exercise or something else so it would not be approved.
Dr Roberts-Thomson: There is a complexity to this because often there is a statute renewal from Parliament that we consult. In some of the big major strategies like the environment, air quality and transport, the actual room for manoeuvre or room for influence is very small but, nevertheless, you have to go through a very required procedure to fulfil the requirements.
Q227 Mr. David Clelland: I understand that but you may be required to do it.
Dr Roberts-Thomson: This can be misleading because people can say "Right, I am going to set an example, we are going to improve parking in Leicester" ---
Q228 Mr. David Clelland: How do you overcome the cynicism?
Dr Roberts-Thomson: It is about public expectation and then you get into issues about information because the flipside of consultation is that councils need better mechanisms about information: "In fact, I am sorry but we just cannot do this because it conflicts with much wider strategies. There is not the opportunity. It is too expensive". Often we do not get the opportunity to put that other side because it seems to be one way, we are required to consult but we do not have that opportunity to say that, in fact, we can only consult on a very narrow range because we are bound by lots of other national things.
Q243 Mr. David Clelland: In the evidence from Brighton and Hove you say that a number of activities are encouraged to ensure that consultation is inclusive and, where necessary, targeted. Can you tell us how your research approvals process ensures that the consultation is inclusive?
Dr Brandon: It is a form of a couple of pages for work that is initiated by officers or officers contracting consultants on behalf of the council. There are three questions, I think, off the top of my head, that refer to equalities and equal opportunities. They say specifically "Please detail in your methodology how you are taking on board equalities issues, equal opportunities issues". We expect to see, if it is relevant to the piece of consultation being undertaken, that translations would be available, interpreters would be available, large print format would be available, whatever was appropriate for the piece of consultation which was being undertaken. If that is not there we would then question the officer and say "Who is it you want to speak to? Which stakeholders?" and then again it would be making appropriate suggestions to ensure that they cover equalities.
Q250 Mr. David Clelland: Staying with this theme of consulting young people, Leicester City Council have set up the Children's Rights Service which is designed to consult young people in the council's care about the services that they receive. Can you tell us how that is working out?
Ms Reid-Jones: Unfortunately, I do not have any information on that.
Dr Roberts-Thomson: I am not sure that we said that. Certainly we have consulted extensively ---
Q251 Mr. David Clelland: You do not have the Children's Rights Service in Leicester?
Dr Roberts-Thomson: Not that I am aware of.
Q252 Mr. David Clelland: We have been misinformed.
Dr Roberts-Thomson: Not that we put in our evidence.
Chairman: It is the IDA who put it forward as an example which is quite interesting on their front. We will pursue that further with them. On that note, can I thank you all very much for your evidence.
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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