Bristol: The Start of an Independents Revolution?

Martin Stott

As the only city to hold a mayoral referendum last May and vote in favour, Bristol confirmed its reputation as a city that marches to the beat of a different drum. The mayoral election in November reinforced this maverick status with electors decisively (albeit on a turnout of only 27.9%) electing Independent candidate George Ferguson as Mayor.

The idea of elected mayors has been around for over a decade, one imported uncritically from the US and grafted onto the existing system of local government here. Catherine Durose in her blog ‘Elected mayors: the wrong solution to the wrong problem’ argues that seeing elected mayors as the solution to the ‘democratic deficit’ is wrong. It certainly hasn’t fired up voters, with nine out of the ten cities conducting referenda in May rejecting them –  as they did when asked during earlier attempts by New Labour to introduce the concept outside London.

Durose is right in observing that almost all the elected mayors that do exist are already mainstream politicians (ex-MPs or council leaders) and this makes Bristol’s choice more interesting. George Ferguson is a colourful architect and entrepreneur with a track record in making things happen, including the Tobacco Factory in Southville, a multi-use regeneration project that includes café, bistro, apartments and a theatre. Despite his history  a Liberal Democrat – he only resigned from the party in May –  Ferguson stood as an Independent and won decisively, beating the favourite, Labour’s Marvin Rees, by 37,353 (54.4%) to 31,259 (46.6%)  on the second round. He also led by a substantial margin in the first round.

One of the interesting aspects of the result is just how badly the three main parties did, obtaining  between them, just 45% of the vote in the first round. The Bristol Post described Ferguson as making ‘mincemeat of the three major parties’.  While this appears to be true, it is also a reflection of the profound disconnect between party politics and the voter, expressed nationally in the very low turnout for Police and Crime Commissioners on the same day  – as does the election of 12 independent candidates as PCCs.

In Bristol, Labour claimed afterwards that Ferguson won because the Tory and Lib Dem vote collapsed. This is partly true – neither of them even managed 10%, but it begs questions about Labour’s ability to connect with and energise voters too. There was a distinct split across the city in terms of turn out, with relatively high percentages in middle class areas like Henlease (43%), Clifton, Redland, Bishopston, Windmill Hill and Westbury-on-Trym but really poor turn outs in Labour strongholds like Southmead, St George, Filwood and Hartcliffe (11%). The result of the mayoral election may have been important to the Labour Party, but its voters don’t seem to have agreed.

Four days before the vote, Ferguson held an ‘Independents gathering’ in the Tobacco Factory theatre. The audience, numbering well over 100, was surprisingly large for a Monday afternoon event.  With him on the stage were Independent veteran ex-MP Martin Bell, independent candidates from Liverpool and London and Independent PCC candidate for Avon and Somerset Sue Mountstevens. Bell, though very supportive, clearly thought that like the Liverpool and London independents, Ferguson and Mountstevens were going to be another pair of plucky losers. By the end of the week both had won, Mountstevens with the largest PCC mandate in the country, and Ferguson humiliating all the mainstream political parties. We may yet record that ‘the march of the independents’ started out in Bristol.

Martin Stott was Head of Environment and Resources at Warwickshire County Council until the autumn of 2011, when he concluded a 25 year career in local government.  He has recently become an INLOGOV Associate.

Elected Mayors: The Wrong Solution to the Wrong Problem

Catherine Durose

Only one eligible voter in every three participated in the local elections in May 2012, the lowest turnout since 2000 and despite a context of austerity and swingeing public spending cuts. The recent elections for Police and Crime Commissioners saw turnout slump to a record low for a national poll, averaging at 15%. To quote a Guardian editorial, ‘lack of engagement is the most eloquent of all the political messages…. and one that the parties need to take most seriously. Voters are fed up, not fired up’. Collapsing turnout is perceived as part of a wider decline in traditional forms of political participation, this trend has been labelled as a ‘democratic deficit’ and it is this ‘problem’ that elected mayors are seen as offering a fix to by as simplifying local democratic accountability and offering greater visibility for citizens.

In the referenda held in May 2012, the rejection of elected mayors was near unanimous. The average turnout was low at 32% with over 60% of those who participated, voting for the status quo. The turnout can be, in part, explained by the uncertainty and confusion amongst the electorate about what they were being asked to vote on (the powers which elected mayors would have was, and remains, unclear). But, the size of the ‘no’ vote suggests, at the least, a lack of enthusiasm about electing more politicians. Indeed, voters in Hartlepool have now decided to scrap the position of a directly elected mayor after three terms of office.

Bristol is an exception, by a narrow margin of 7%, it was the only one of the ten cities to vote in favour of an elected mayor. Yet, the Bristol mayoral election, held on 15 November 2012, only received a turnout of 27.92%. Of the fifteen candidates who contested the elections, only one was female and one was non-white. The newly elected mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson, whilst depicting himself as an independent, has previously sat as a Liberal councillor and contested a seat at two General Elections for the Liberal Democrats.

In thinking about why citizens are ‘fed up’ with local democracy and why the idea of elected mayors was a turn-off, perhaps we should take a look at those contesting and winning these elections. As in Bristol, mayors do not represent a radical departure from the professionalised political class or indeed the mainstream political parties which citizens are increasingly dis-engaged from: Boris Johnson in London, Ian Stewart in Salford and Peter Soulsby in Leicester, are all former MPs; Joe Anderson in Liverpool is a former Leader of the council.

I would argue that elected mayors are the wrong solution to the wrong problem. The currently proposed fixes in the constitutional reform agenda, including elected mayors, to deal with the ‘democratic deficit’, are clearly not producing changes which citizens are interested in engaging with. Perhaps this is because the assumption that underpins such fixes – that citizens are apathetic about politics – is incorrect. If we challenge this thinking, then many of the proposed fixes seem like the wrong solution to the wrong problem. If we instead recognise that many people feel that representative politics doesn’t represent them or indeed engage with the important issues that affect their everyday lives, then a different problem with a potentially different solution emerges.

One means of responding to a decline in traditional forms of political participation is to offer different opportunities to engage democratically. Broadening the range of democratic engagement fits with re-thinking what citizenship means: it’s less a ‘status’ which people possess and more a ‘practice’ that people participate in. Looking at data on levels of different forms of civic activity in the UK suggests there is a healthy base of existing participation and an appetite for more. The Hansard Audit of Political Engagement suggested that 14% of people are already active, but 51% felt that getting involved could make a difference; 14% of these were considered as ‘willing localists’, people who were not actively involved but were willing and likely to do so locally.

But how can we tap into this latent demand? First, local authorities and other public bodies need to stop ‘second-guessing’ citizens.  Recent research highlighted that whilst two thirds of local councils felt that the community would be unmotivated to participate more locally, less than 20% of them had formally assessed communities’ interest.  Second, we need to acknowledge that a lot of current opportunities for ‘participation’ replicate some of the problems of local representative democracy by acting as ‘mini town halls’ offering only tokenistic consultation of citizens, failing to recognise Sherry Arnstein’s seminal observation that “there is a critical difference between going through the empty ritual of participation and having the real power needed to affect the outcome of the process”. Third, to look for alternative ways to mobilise citizens and communities. I recently attended Locality’s annual convention – the organisation now recruiting and training 500 senior community organisers, along with a further 4,500 part-time voluntary organisers, over four years spent working with community host organisations. For Locality, this initiative is about ‘building a movement’. Speaking to organisers, they see their challenge as mobilising social action and generating a sense that change is possible. I have seen the impact of organising first-hand in Chicago, and it was inspiring to hear the impact the programme is already making there. If an elected mayor is to make a difference to local democracy, it won’t be as a visible manifestation of Politics, it will be about embracing and supporting these new social movements.

Catherine Durose is Senior Lecturer and Director of Research in the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham.  Catherine’s research focuses on the changing relationships between the state, communities and citizens.

Who Will Really Commission the Police?

Ian Briggs

By the end of this month, 41 newly elected Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales will be facing the challenge of filling their diaries with appointments to help them get to grips with a role that is both new and controversial. Whatever their mandate from the electorate, their role will open up some very interesting possibilities around public involvement in policing.

However, behind this significant change sits a number of questions for policing in England, and near the top of the list is how policing could operate within the possibilities created by taking a strategic commissioning approach to the way that policing operates. Strategic commissioning is of course nothing new, it is an established approach in many parts of the public sector and when it is done well and with care new operational opportunities arise, and in certain cases significant economies and quality improvements can be made.

Ensuring that we, as members of civil society, are adequately protected and that crime is efficiently detected will always be the core role for the police; but the emphasis is shifting in some very important areas. Crime prevention is a core task and there are clear benefits in attaining targets through early intervention with young people and those that are more vulnerable in society. Indeed, here the police have developed some interesting and innovative experience through partnership working and aligning intended outcomes with other public bodies and agencies; but the prevailing performance mindset in policing is one of targets and rational planning and not always one of the application of imagination. Where we can see some powerful examples of the benefits of strategic commissioning in other public services it is often around the imaginative approach to the way that joined up outcomes can be achieved. This often brings with it some uncomfortable choices.  At a simple level if we took away the gritting of the highway in winter and focused our attention onto making the pathways safer and free from snow and ice, then we potentially have fewer elderly members of society having their lives ruined through shattered bones and in so doing save us, the taxpayer a fortune in the expert care they require to enable them to recover. Can the PCC now do more than merely be held to account by the electorate in budget setting and the overemphasised issue of hiring and firing the Chief Constable?

Already advanced thinking is taking place.  In West Midlands Police work is underway to look at how strategic commissioning can open up opportunities to go beyond simple target attainment and seek to demonstrate how effective policing can have a wider impact. For example, a concentration of resources upon an often deprived locality could reduce house break-ins and burglary, which in turn could impact upon a reduction in insurance premiums – and which then could put some marginal but important extra spending power into that community to make other services more sustainable.

Whatever we think about the new PCCs, let’s hope that their diaries will have some reflective thinking time and allow imagination to flourish and break free of the terror of targets that policing and communities have suffered from in the past.

Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies.  He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

Equal Pay: Birmingham’s Seriously Disagreeable Christmas Sprout

Chris Game

You probably caught Monday’s headlines: “Country’s largest authority hit by £757 million equal pay bill”; “Birmingham taxpayers face massive service cuts to pay for growing compensation bill”; “Council bankrupt if Government withholds borrowing permission”.

If so, they may have prompted a feeling of déjà vu – both recent and distant. Recent, because these November 12th headlines reported only Birmingham City Council’s delayed official reaction to the genuinely headline-meriting event a fortnight earlier: the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling against the Council and in favour of 174 former employees seeking compensation under the Equal Pay Act 1970 (now the Equality Act 2010). Distant, because – to the shame of all those materially responsible – this lamentable case has been dragging on, chapter by chapter, for a good proportion of the 42 years since Barbara Castle’s historic legislation was passed in the final days of the 1960s’ Wilson Governments.

It’s inevitably a complex story, and the basis of the Supreme Court’s 3-2 majority judgement exceptionally so. But it also has potentially huge implications for other public and private sector employers. A bit of background, therefore, may be useful.

The Equal Pay Act outlawed unequal treatment of men and women, by permitting equal-pay claims to be made by women in the public and private sectors, who were engaged in the same or broadly similar work as men. Though passed in 1970, the Act’s implementation was put back until 1976, thus allowing employers what many felt was a generous period in which to make the necessary ‘adjustments’. Don’t laugh!

It took local government decades seriously to consider its adjustments, but in 1997 the National Joint Council for Local Government Services (NJC) – representing local government employers and the main trade unions: UNISON, UNITE and GMB – negotiated a Single Status Agreement, intended finally, or at least by 2007, to implement the Act without wholesale recourse to employment tribunals. The aim was to develop, through systematic job evaluation schemes, a common pay and grading scale for all manual, administrative and clerical jobs, based on the principle of equal pay for women employed in jobs of equal value to those typically done by men.

Whatever may have been fondly imagined, Single Status could never be cost-neutral. With (in Birmingham) men earning up to four times more than women doing identically pay-graded jobs, there would be losers as well as winners, with local authorities having to find very large sums of money on top of their required efficiency savings, and without jeopardising their primary task of improving local services. They had to devise and negotiate a more expensive unified structure, and compensate those discriminated against under the existing regime, while also ensuring that the now ‘downgraded’ bin men and road sweepers would not be penalised excessively – either through pay cuts or the withdrawal of the supposedly output-based bonus payments that tended to be the preserve of male-dominated jobs.

Righting a major long-term injustice is inevitably difficult, but 10 years was a fair time-frame.  Nevertheless, in 2010, three years after the deadline, one in five councils had still not implemented a Single Status Agreement. Few emerge from the saga with much credit. Ministers set no staged timetable, enabling them to refuse to provide extra funding for back-pay settlements. They also capped, initially at a hopelessly inadequate £200 million, the total ‘capitalisation’ sum councils could borrow against their own assets: a figure that, even in 2006, would barely have covered the then estimated costs of Birmingham City Council alone.

The generally male-run unions resisted any national campaign, giving the impression of putting men’s wages – and Labour councils’ interests – above those of their women members. ‘No win, no fee’ lawyers rushed in to fill the vacuum, taking action against recalcitrant councils, against unions who had settled for less than maximum compensation, and trousering up to 25% of any payout. In a particular irony, employment tribunals, which Single Status was designed to bypass, eventually took centre-stage. One decreed that up to six years’ compensation should be paid for past injustice, instead of the two years that had become the norm – thereby adding further huge sums to councils’ pay bills.

Then, in April 2010, 4,000 women won potentially the biggest pay-out of all in a tribunal judgement against Birmingham City Council. The tribunal found that thousands of women workers – cooks, cleaners, carers, clerks – were entitled to the same pay as men working as gardeners, refuse collectors and grave diggers, who had earned several times as much through large and discriminatory cash bonuses ‘awarded’ for tasks such as picking up refuse sacks and completing rounds on time. Adding insult to the financial injury of conceivably up to £3 billion, the tribunal criticised the Council for wasting public resources in misguidedly incurred legal fees, and its senior management for having continually pushed the problem to one side ‘like a disagreeable sprout on a Christmas dinner plate’.

Obviously, given where we are today, the advice was not heeded. Christmases came and went, the sprout increased in size and disagreeability, but the Council persisted in pushing it around. It took the above case to the Employment Appeal Tribunal, where it was dismissed. Meanwhile, it was facing other cases in the courts – brought by former-employee claimants, unable to go to employment tribunals because of the rules limiting their jurisdiction to cases brought within six months of the termination of the claimant’s employment.

This was how the present case started, and what it is essentially about. The Abdulla Group, as it became known after the first alphabetically listed claimant, comprised 170 women and 4 men who had missed out on the Council’s equal pay compensation payments paid to women still working for the Council in 2007/08 or who had recently left and taken their cases to an employment tribunal. The 174 had all left more than six months earlier, which the Council cynically decided meant that, since they would be time-barred from going to a tribunal, they could be safely excluded from the compensation scheme.

The Council’s case was that ordinary courts should refuse to consider such claims. In the words of the 1970 Act, the court should “direct that the claim be struck out”, on the grounds that it “could more conveniently be disposed of separately by an employment tribunal” – as indeed all previous equal pay claims had been, generally to the considerable benefit to the claimants, in costs, time and accessible expertise.

In the High Court, however, the deputy judge was less concerned with precedence than with Parliament’s intended meaning of ‘more conveniently’. Grossly oversimplifying the literally hours of judicial time since expended on this innocent little phrase, the judge’s interpretation was that a tribunal could hardly dispose of a case more conveniently, if it was time-barred from considering it at all, and that this surely cannot have been Parliament’s intention.

Nearly a year later, in November 2011, the Court of Appeal took the same view, and so two weeks ago did three out of five Supreme Court judges. Former employees have the right to bring claims in the civil courts, where the relevant time limit is not six months, but six years – which, with this case having started in 2010, includes anyone who was still working for the Council from 2004.

The District Auditor estimates that the Council will need to find £757 million to cover actual and potential equal pay settlements, which will mean going cap in hand to Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles for permission to borrow £325 million on top of the £430 million already secured to help fund the pay claims.

At the same time, struggling finally to digest their wretched Christmas sprout, the Council’s leaders have the nerve to moan at the long succession of referees who’ve ruled against them: “Employment tribunals and the courts have changed their opinion around the law over this period of time always in one direction, which has added significantly to the amount of claims we have had and the cost of them.” To which the thousands of exploited women employees will surely chorus: well, you could always have settled sooner, or even not discriminated in the first place.

Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political  leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

What Difference Might Police and Crime Commissioners Make?

John Raine and Paul Keasey

The elections on 15th November 2012 of 41 Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) for the police force areas of England and Wales (outside London) represents the start of one of the biggest experiments in democratic governance. The new office of PCC, for which there is no known precedent in policing around the world, surely represents the most significant change in at least fifty years in how the police in England and Wales are governed and held to account. The replacement of Police Authorities (an assembly of nominated councillors and independent members) by PCCs has generated much public debate since it was first proposed back in 2010. Proponents argued that it would make the police more directly accountable and more responsive to local communities. Opponents, on the other hand, highlighted the potential for politicising the police and for local populist policies to take precedence over other vital, but less visible, national policing priorities; for example, counter-terrorism and serious organised crime.

Whatever the realities, it is clear that the introduction of PCCs has the potential to engender any number of far reaching and significant developments in the fields of policing, criminal justice and community safety, more broadly, and the change deserves to be closely monitored and evaluated.  While some of the key intended ‘outcomes’, such as better police performance and enhanced public confidence and trust in the police, may only become apparent over the longer term, there are other important issues concerning the change of democratic ‘process’ that are certainly of more immediate interest.

Among the many interesting questions raised in this respect three seem especially significant to us:  first, what might be the implications of the new framework for the nature and patterns of accountability, authority and influence regarding policing policy and practice?  Second, to what extent can the introduction of new framework be seen as being congruent with the Coalition Government’s policy goals of ‘localism’, enhanced democratic governance and citizen engagement? And third, how might the ‘local commissioning’ role of PCCs affect the wider criminal justice and community safety policy and institutional landscape beyond policing?

And what makes these questions particularly interesting is the complex interplay of actors and accountabilities involved in the new framework.  For example, the PCC, as a directly-elected office holder, will feel accountable to the local voters for local policing priorities and practices in their particular police area but it is the chief constable who remains wholly responsible for operational policing matters. At the same time, while local voters will have chosen their PCC primarily to address their concerns and priorities, there is also an accountability requirement on the PCC in relation to national policing priorities as established by the Home Secretary (through what is referred to as the ‘Strategic Policing Requirement’). Moreover, since most PCCs will have stood as candidates for a particular national political party they are also likely to feel some sense of accountability towards their political masters, whether/or both at national level or locally. Then one further element of complexity arises in the form of Police and Crime Panels (PCPs), these having been established in each police area, and comprising nominated local councillors, whose role is (also) to hold the PCC to account.

It will be fascinating to see just how these competing pressures on PCCs will work out in practice in different parts of the country; and how the tensions are resolved between, for example: national and local policing priorities; between local voter priorities and political party priorities; between the chief constables’ operational responsibilities and the PCC’s role in strategic oversight; and between the professional advice and authority of the chief constable on the one hand, and the scrutinizing attentions of the local Police and Crime Panel on the other.  Probably some sparks must be expected to fly in some quarters as opinions, backgrounds, sources of authority and personalities vie with one another to try and impose their way, and not least at a time of shrinking police budgets because of the austerity climate of the public finances.

A fuller description of such accountability tensions and implications is to be found in our recent article – Raine JW and P Keasey (2012) ‘From Police Authorities to Police and Crime Commissioners: might policing become more publicly accountable?’, International Journal of Emergency Services, 1, 2, 122-134.

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John Raine is Professor of Management in Criminal Justice at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham.  He has been involved in criminal justice research, consultancy and teaching at Birmingham for some twenty-five years and has a strong track record of commissions for the Home Office, Lord Chancellor’s Department/Department for Constitutional Affairs/Ministry of Justice on aspects of policy and practice within the criminal (and civil) justice sectors).

Paul Keasey is a Doctoral Researcher in the School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham.  His doctoral thesis focuses on the impact of the Police and Crime Commissioners initiative and, in part, their affect upon public confidence in policing.  Paul is also a Superintendent in West Midlands Police.