Eric Pickles, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, has asked whether the Cabinet system on Rotherham Council should be completely abolished, and the council return to the Committee system.
“It has also been suggested that the governance of the authority could be improved – made more transparent and accountable – if it were changed to the committee system. Before taking any steps to implement such a change, I will be inviting the commissioners views as to what they see would be the most effective and efficient form of governance for the authority. I am also open to representations from the public.”
At the moment the Council there is run by commissioners having been beset by scandal. The question is what system will operate from May next year after all the council seats come up for election.
There are advantages to a Cabinet system. It means that decisions can be taken more quickly. Conviction politics can triumph over the mushy consensus of a committee – and the compromises of placating fractious Party colleagues. A Cabinet Member signed a sheet of paper handed to him by a bureaucrat and the matter is resolved.
The disadvantages with the arrangement are also easy to spot. There is a lack of accountability. True there are “Scrutiny Committees” of councillors, able to ask questions, but these are mere talking shops with no power.
With the Committee System all these decisions have to be voted through the committee. Instead of a Cabinet Member for Housing, or Children’s Services, or the Environment, or Adult Social Care, or whatever it is, there is a Chairman for a committee for each of these matters.
Usually the Council leadership will still be able to get its policies through. The Committee chairman can still have frank discussions in private with the council leader and council officers about the merits of a proposal. The Committee chairman can still talk privately with those committee members who are members of the same party and try to resolve any difficulties in securing their support. Once the matter comes to a committee meeting the whip applies.
Yet the committee is being asked to take real decisions – not just to note a report. That does mean more accountability and more transparency. It means more power for councillors and less for bureaucrats.
Last year a referendum in Fylde voted for the Council to restore the committee system. The referendum was triggered after the Fylde Civic Awareness Group gathered the required number of signatures – five per cent of the electorate.
If the majority of councillors on a local authority wish to have a committee system they can – this is provided for under the Localism Act.
UKIP favour a return to the committee system. The idea was also backed by the Daily Telegraph in a recent leading article:
“The resignation of the entire cabinet of Rotherham council following a damning report into the sexual abuse of girls in the south Yorkshire town is a rare example of enforced democratic accountability in modern local government. For too long, town hall leaders have been shielded from proper public scrutiny by the structures of governance created under Labour, in which council chiefs grandly preside over “cabinets” that are heavily reliant on powerful and highly paid full-time officers.
“This system is inherently anti-democratic. Decisions are often taken behind closed doors by a small group of favoured burghers, whose conclusions are then rubber-stamped by the full council. The local press, or what is left of it, struggles to find out what is going on, as its reporters once could under the old open committee system.”
The paper concluded:
“Above all, this grubby episode should spell the death knell for the council cabinet system. If the Conservatives make one manifesto promise about local government, let it be to make it subject once again to the scrutiny that might have ended a dreadful ordeal for hundreds of vulnerable girls.”
Good decisions can be implemented more effectively with the Cabinet system. That is an important advantage. Yet when things a going badly the Cabinet system can allow them to go very badly indeed.
If restoring a committee system is judged part of the solution in Rotherham then other local authorities, and their residents, may consider following the same route.