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Verdict on Labour’s return – Interesting Cabinet, pity about Scrutiny

Verdict on Labour’s return – Interesting Cabinet, pity about Scrutiny

🕔17.May 2012

Forget all the ‘Twitter leaks probe outrage’ stuff about who leaked what to whom. The straight opening sentence of the report of Monday’s Labour Group AGM was historic enough: no spice or spin needed. “Birmingham Council Leader-Elect, Sir Albert Bore, announced his Cabinet to colleagues in the City Council Labour Group this evening.”

Yes, from the party founded on principles of internal democracy, fiercely protective of its members’ right to elect, dismiss and hold to account their leaders, in which even Tony Blair’s Shadow Cabinet was elected for him by MPs, we had a Labour council leader announcing his personal Cabinet selections to his party group – not them announcing theirs to him.

In fact, it was almost like having an elected mayor. And, like a mayor, Sir Albert also determined the size of his Cabinet – reduced from 10 to eight – and the detail of members’ portfolios, in ways that from a party group would have been almost unimaginable.

First, the size. One of many daft requirements in the Local Government Act 2000, which for most councils replaced committees with executive policy making, was that all councils, regardless of their size, should have executives or cabinets of between three and 10 councillors, including the Leader.

So, while Sir Albert, in 120-seat Birmingham, has at least 67 non-executive Labour colleagues to keep tolerably happy, over in 29-seat Redditch the similarly victorious Labour Leader, Bill Hartnett, could, if he chose, give executive portfolios – plus special responsibility allowances – to two-thirds of his 15 Labour members.

Even after the 10 per cent pay cut agreed by Birmingham councillors, two extra portfolios and allowances would have been an understandable attraction to members of a party in opposition for eight long years. Furthermore, as a group, they’d probably have backed colleagues who served through most of those years, rather than the two comparative newcomers picked out by Sir Albert: Brigid Jones, now responsible for Children and Family Services, and James McKay, with the Green, Safe and Smart City portfolio.

Jones, predictably, has already suffered the “she’s hardly out of school herself” taunt – which won’t bother her, but prompts me to add my twopenn’orth. First, compared to Southampton’s Paul Holmes, who was elected to the City Council at 19, and became Cabinet Member for Children’s Services and Learning at 20, reportedly on the day before he took his final university exams, Jones is a seasoned veteran.

Second, I happen to know she’s not just left school, as she was at the University of Birmingham long enough to acquire a post-grad degree in Physics, serve as elected Guild Vice-President for Education and Access, and write an entertaining, and revealing, blog as – I slightly regret to report – Brigid Jones’ Diary.

From which I can also divulge that she’s not keen on faith schools, all-women short-lists, and Birmingham’s new library, and that, on her student minimum wage of £4.60, it took nine hours’ work to buy a typical textbook. Recent first-hand experience of full-time education can’t be an entirely worthless qualification for her new role, and, although our paths at UB never crossed, I wish her well.

My guess is that, with just eight full members, the cabinet of the country’s biggest council will be below average size, certainly for unitary and upper-tier authorities. Conservative Walsall and Labour Sandwell, for example, both have nine members, Labour in Wolverhampton and Coventry 10, and likewise Solihull, though here only the seven Conservatives are portfolio holders, the other three being Labour, Lib Dem and Green non-voting spokespersons. Oddly, the website states that this Cabinet has been in existence since May 2004 – wake up there, Web Manager!

The reduced size obviously assists the Leader’s wish to avoid cabinet portfolios tying their holders too closely to single council departments, although I suspect that, with the proliferation of multi-departmental directorates, the ‘silo culture’ may even in Birmingham be a less pronounced corporate handicap that it was, say, when Sir Albert first entered local government.

The other significant change Sir Albert would personally have introduced was to offer at least some Overview and Scrutiny responsibilities – chairs or vice-chairs – to the opposition parties. This, however, really was a bridge too far for the Labour group, as Paul Dale described earlier this month (‘Sir Albert Bore confronts the powers that be’ – May 1). So, in a system designed to have a strong executive monitored and held to account by a robust overview and scrutiny regime, all key positions on both sides of the executive divide will be taken by the governing party – just as in the Conservative-Lib Dem years.

This is unfortunate. Even Labour’s ‘Be a Labour Councillor’ web pages advise that “it is good practice, where Labour has a majority and runs the executive, that minority parties should be given at least some scrutiny chairs, to support the independence of this role.” That’s the point: however skilful and assertive scrutiny by one’s own party colleagues may be, it doesn’t look as convincing and independent as it would, if it were even sometimes led by one’s opponents.

That said, it is also understandable why this isn’t, at present, the Birmingham way. Again, it goes back to the 2000 Act and the numbers issue. Neither Ministers nor civil servants had any real idea of how overview and scrutiny in local government would work, so councils were left to develop their own systems.

Birmingham, with roles to find for 110 non-executive councillors, devised a unique model of 10 Overview and Scrutiny Committees, each with around nine members, and each closely aligned to one of the 10 Cabinet portfolios. Which would be fine, were it not that ‘Overview’ and ‘Scrutiny’ are quite different activities, ideally undertaken, if not by different bodies – as in some councils – at least by different approaches.

Scrutiny means holding the executive to account: scrutinising decisions both before they are implemented – ultimately through ‘call-in’ powers – and after. The role is, to quote Carl Rice, Chair of the new Resources, Governance and Member Development O & S Committee, that of a critical friend (‘Labour announces Birmingham council scrutiny team’ – May 16). Which should mean: amiable, yes, but definitely critical.

Overview can comprise numerous functions – policy development and review, assessing the council’s overall performance, investigating the performance of outside bodies – most of which involve working with, rather than challenging, the executive.

When the two activities are combined, and all committees – the previous 10 reduced now, apparently, to seven – are both chaired and vice-chaired by councillors from the administration party/ies, the appearance inevitably, no matter how unfairly, is that cabinet members are getting an easy ride.

In Birmingham that impression can perversely be reinforced by the consistently high quality of O & S’s most visible output – its reports, at least one a month, all downloadable from the archive, replete with policy recommendations. There have been seven already this year, ranging from TB strategy to the promotion of Birmingham as a music city, from the city’s youth service to resourcing devolution – the last of which in particular could hardly be more timely for the incoming administration.

There isn’t one of these reports that, in my experience, wouldn’t bear reading. They are almost all produced by a combination of cross-party working and dedicated officer support, their findings and recommendations usually agreed by all members involved. Which, I suggest, is both their strength and their limitation: they are mostly products more of overview than of scrutiny.

Again, it’s instructive to compare other councils. Labour-controlled Wolverhampton is in some ways similar to Birmingham: six Scrutiny Panels overseen by a Scrutiny Board of leading panel members, which also exercises the call-in function. The difference is that the Vice-Chairs of the Board and all Panels are Conservatives.

In Dudley, under the Conservatives, Labour members had one chair and two vice-chairs on the five scrutiny committees.

In Coventry, Labour’s dominance is such that the Conservatives qualify for only one member on a 6- or 7-member scrutiny board, yet that single member on the Economy, Regeneration and Transport Board is Deputy Chair. In Leeds, where Labour recently more than doubled its overall majority of council seats, three of its six scrutiny boards still have Conservative or Lib Dem chairs.

These councils’ practices may be largely symbolic or window-dressing, but appearances do matter. Birmingham’s “we’re the majority, we take everything” approach is by no means unique, but an incoming administration had the chance to introduce something better and, sadly, chose not to rise to the occasion.

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