Examination of witnesses (Questions 359
TUESDAY 20 MARCH 2001
and MR PAUL
359. Can I welcome you to the Committee and
could I ask you to identify yourself to the Committee?
(Hilary Armstrong) I am Hilary Armstrong, Minister
of State with responsibility for Local Government, regeneration
of the regions, and this is Paul Rowsell, who heads up my
(Mr Rowsell) Local Government Sponsorship Division.
(Hilary Armstrong) That is what they call it.
360. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction,
or are you happy for us to go straight to questions?
(Hilary Armstrong) Very happy for you to move straight
361. Good morning, Minister. Do you think it
is possible to transfer the executive models of decision-making
from this place to local government?
(Hilary Armstrong) Not entirely, no, but I do think
that local government has moved and changed in its responsibilities,
and does have to take a more corporate view of what needs to be
done. Therefore, an executive and scrutiny split was the logical
step, having introduced best value and having looked at how local
government had been developing over the past decade.
362. Do you think it has been confused a little
by the elected mayor coming into it, instead of the leader plus
cabinet? Do you think that is an option that has muddied the waters?
(Hilary Armstrong) No, I do not think it has muddied
the waters, it gives local government another option and local
people another thing to look at.
363. But the British public do not elect the
Prime Minister, do they?
(Hilary Armstrong) But they are used to direct elections
in other ways. This is not something that the Government is saying
they have to do, but it is very clear, certainly from two or three
of the democracy commissions, that in some areas it is something
local people want to look at.
364. Have you been disappointed or encouraged
by the experimental arrangements that some of the earlier local
authorities brought in?
(Hilary Armstrong) I think very strongly the message
is that these arrangements were brought in before the legislation
was enacted, and certainly before any regulations or guidance
had been issued. So they were very experimental. It did, however,
help to inform us during the passage of legislation, and in drawing
up the guidance and the regulations we have taken account of the
work that has been going on in different local authorities, and
we have reflected the lessons that they have been learning in
the way we have drawn up the guidance and regulations.
Mr Olner: What account did you take of those
authorities who (and I must be careful) might have been motivated
Mrs Dunwoody: Motivated by inertia? An interesting
Mr Olner: I said I was being careful.
365. A noticeable falling off in the lack of
(Hilary Armstrong) We have within the department a
group of people seconded from local government to be working with
us and, indeed, with local government on the range of issues that
the two local government acts of this Parliament have introduced.
One of them said to me "Local government, as usual, has applied
the letter of the law but not all of local government has yet
got hold of the spirit of the law and begun to change their culture".
We do understand that, but you do not change culture overnight,
and nor do you change culture simply by telling people what they
have to do. So we have continued to resist that temptation.
366. Do you think it is more of a problem, Minister,
with those local authorities that have no overall political control
in trying to come to terms with an executive/scrutiny split?
(Hilary Armstrong) I think there are some good examples
in both very heavily-dominated single party authorities and those
where there is no overall control. There are bad examples in both,
367. Minister, you will recall saying to the
House on 23 January: "I accept that in the past year ...
some councils have become far too secretive while purporting to
be moving towards new constitutions. Such councils have not done
a good job of making the case for local democracy." How will
the creation of Forward Plans and the other access to information
requirements counter these concerns?
(Hilary Armstrong) I had ready on 23 January a raft
of examples, if you like, of bad examples from authorities who
within the old legislation, if you like, were managing to get
round that, to hide too much, to do too much in group meetings
and not in full committees or to do stuff behind closed doors.
So there has always been that problem, and much of the approach
that we have taken has been to make sure that even the worst have
to actually open up much more. The Forward Plan does mean that
councils will have to plan more effectively than they do, and
that as soon as the Forward Plan is printed and published then
anyonethe public, the press, the scrutiny panelswill
have the opportunity to have a look at what the executive may
be considering in coming to one of those decisions that is heralded
in the Forward Plan. So the papers that are available to the executive
will be available publicly and the scrutiny panel will be able,
if it is an issueI do not knowaround changing the
nature of a school for example, to consult with parents, to consult
with teachers and to consult with the Inspectoratewhoever
they thought was appropriateand then forward their views
to the executive. In that way it opens up access to information
in a far greater way than we have seen hitherto.
368. You have been quite prescriptive in how
Forward Plans should work. If they are going to be so good for
local authorities why should they not apply to central government
(Hilary Armstrong) We ended up being more prescriptive
than I would have personally wanted, because I believe that we
ought to leave more to local authority discretion.
369. Why did you not do that?
(Hilary Armstrong) The House was not prepared for
that. This was a debate. This was something that went on for a
long period. We consulted both on the regulations and the guidance
at great length, both with people in the House of Commons, the
House of Lords and, indeed, throughout local government. I am
content that whilst being reasonably prescriptive it still does
put the onus on local government to be responsible, but there
are lots of checks and balances so that that responsibility can
be guaranteed. In terms of
370. You did not answer the second part of my
(Hilary Armstrong) I started at the beginning by saying
I do not see a strict replica between central government and local
government. However, I do think that the Freedom of Information
Act alongside the Human Rights Act is opening up central government
in ways that many people are only just beginning to get near understanding.
371. It would be extremely helpful to the committees
of this House to have a rolling forward programme, updated every
month, of the decisions Ministers were going to be considering
and the papers they were taking in order to enable us to fulfil
our scrutiny role. Surely, what is sauce for the goose is sauce
for the gander, is it not?
(Hilary Armstrong) We can do that in local government
because local government has a written constitution. I am not
sure that you would be advocating the same for central government.
372. That is a novel defence, but I am not quite
sure why it applies.
(Hilary Armstrong) The arrangement around which the
authority is able to make decisions, the whole constitution of
the authority, now has to be written and accepted. We do not have
that in the national state, we do not have a written constitution.
Therefore, the whole issue of checks and balances and the issue
of doing things in different ways is very different at central
government level. You may say that in some senses the manifesto
is the Forward Plan for a Parliament, but in local government
they will have a written constitution and the key decisions and
the Forward Plan fit into that overall written constitution model.
373. You can argue we have a written constitution,
it is just written in a vast number of difference places. The
only difference is you do not go to one document for it. The customs
and practices that govern Parliament are now widely seen as being
Parliament not doing enough of a scrutiny job. I hear you laying
down this new relationship for scrutiny in local authorities,
and trying to give the scrutineers the capacity to undertake that
scrutiny effectively, whereas what we have in central government
is the obstruction of something as feeble as the Liaison Committee's
report on shifting the balance.
(Hilary Armstrong) I have much less experience of
government than members of your party, and this is constantly
a debate. I have frequently saidand, indeed, have said
in the Housethat we can learn a lot from good practice
in local government. I hope that there is constantly an exchange
of information and an exchange of learning. Who knows, a future
government, if they begin to see this workingand I have
to emphasise, no one is yet doing it, it has not been introduced
in any authority to-date - may well want to learn the lessons
374. Minister, you must believe in this system
or you would not be proposing it for local government.
(Hilary Armstrong) I do believe that this was an effective
way of meeting the concerns around freedom of information in local
375. So there is, presumably, no reason why
it should not be applied to national government as well.
(Hilary Armstrong) I would not be as sweeping as that
because I do not see local government as exactly the same as central
376. But it is a principle; we are not arguing
about structure, we are arguing about principle. If you believe
in a principle there is nothing to stop you applying that principle
to other parts of the system.
(Hilary Armstrong) That is a debate that will go on,
and I hope that people will learn from good experience in local
377. Minister, you said that no one has had
a chance to see this working yet, but the final draft guidance
on Forward Plans and key decisions was published in October 2000.
This was replaced by new guidance in December and it has been
replaced yet again less than a month ago. Rather than seeing this
guidance as working, is not the simple conclusion that the guidance
itself is not workable?
(Hilary Armstrong) The guidance reflects the changes
that the House has introduced.
378. How do you respond to the criticism that
the bureaucracy that local authorities will have to create in
order to support Forward Plans will undermine your desire for
faster decision-making within local government?
(Hilary Armstrong) I simply do not accept that it
will. Any organisation is thinking about what it is doing over
a period of time. Central government actually has begun to reflect
that by, for example, publishing draft bills, by signalling in
one session what legislation it is likely to bring forward in
the next session. That, if you like, has been central government's
way of making sure that its detailed plans are going to be open
to scrutiny, discussion and debate before it brings forward its
concluded legislation, as it were. Even that reflects the debate
within the House and within committee as it goes through. In any
organisation there has to be forward planning. The real issue
here is that we are making that forward planning more organised
and more open. I do believe that will help efficient decision-making.
Efficient decision-making has to take account of the views from
more than the person who draws up the initial plan or the initial
379. You do not think you will impede faster
(Hilary Armstrong) I do not. Indeed, those authorities
that have been experimenting with the new structures are saying
that they have not seen efficiency diminishing, they have seen
it increasing. Even, for example, Barnsley, who came and gave
evidence to the Committee, were saying they had more efficient
decision-making partly because they had more consultation before
they came to the actual decision.