Examination of witnesses (Questions 380
TUESDAY 20 MARCH 2001
and MR PAUL
380. It may be reflective on what Barnsley was
(Hilary Armstrong) I would not have that sort of cynicism
about local government, but I accept it is around.
381. In this Forward Plan process, presumably,
it would be sufficient for a council sometime in September to
say that in December it will be looking at its budget. That will
be enough, will it?
(Hilary Armstrong) That would be enough but that would
then mean that papers that were presented for the budget, that
were final papers, would be open and available to others.
382. What about the process? How does this link
in with the Government giving a decision to a local authority
about the amount of money it is going to have for the following
year? Are you going to be able to give the councils sufficient
forward notice so that they can fit it into this Forward Plan?
(Hilary Armstrong) We will continue to try to give
more and better information over a three-year period. We have
been seeking to do that in the last few years, but there still
is a lot of difficulty because local government finance is largely
arranged around population, and population is changing year-on-year,
and that was the biggest effect on distribution matters in the
last year. We are, through the Local Government Finance Green
Paper and, hopefully, White Paper in the summer, looking at ways
in which we can, in other areas, give greater clarity. We will
never be able to give absolute certainty because Parliament will
have to agree the amounts each year, but we will give a better
framework within which local government can plan. They already
say that is beginning to work and they want more clarity.
383. In relation to the fact that the guidance
about what constitutes a key decision was changed following discussion
in Parliament, can you tell us what safeguard there will be for
local people if they think that their local authority is not interpreting
a key decision in the way in which the guidance suggests?
(Hilary Armstrong) The local authority are ultimately
responsible to the local people. When we are drawing up any legislation
and any guidance we always have to have that in mind. So local
people will, through their scrutiny panel and so on, be able to
challengeif they can persuade some of the scrutiny panel
to challengewhether some of the decisions that they think
have not been labelled "key" should have been labelled
"key". I think that in the early years there would probably
be many decisions which, in subsequent years, would not be seen
as key and will actually be signalled as key because people do
want to be seen to be being very open. Many decisions that are
currently simply taken today as normal daily decisions by officers,
I think, may well be a bit of a problem in the next couple of
years; that councillors will want to be seen to be taking many
of those decisions in open session. That may slow decision-making,
which may get a bit frustrating. Then, however, local people have
the opportunity of the ballot box. I hope they will also have
the opportunity of making their voices heard in different ways
in between voting periods. That is what much of the consultation
legislation is really around, so that councils do not see the
electorate simply as voting fodder but they do see they have a
relationship with them throughout the period. They would, at the
end of the day, of course, be able to go to court.
384. Talking of the ballot box, are the county
council elections going to go ahead on 3 May?
(Hilary Armstrong) I have made no contingency plans
that they should not and there is no reason why they should not
go ahead. I probably have more foot-and-mouth in my constituency,
certainly, than anyone here today, and I am very aware of the
problems. We have introduced legislation to enable postal voting
without any preconditions, and we all know that our parties now
mainly canvass by telephone. I can hardly think of the last time
in my constituency that people canvassed in my hill farms. The
reality is that they do that by telephone and having been doing.
So there is no reason why we should bring panic to people by saying
that democracy cannot proceed, it can proceed.
385. Bearing that in mind, and given that the
elections take place and there may be some change of control in
some counties, how are you going to deal with that as far as the
June 2001 deadline for submissions of new constitutions is concerned?
In particular, if an authority with a new form of political control
comes to you and says "We think we want to do it slightly
differently", will there be some flexibility as far as this
deadline is concerned?
(Hilary Armstrong) It is not a deadline, it is a guideline.
Most authorities are seeking to work towards that guideline, but
clearly if there are political changes in May the new administration
will want to take account of where the consultation is and what
the consultation is saying. I hope that political change will
not mean that any new leadership will seek to overturn what the
public have been saying in response to consultation. Obviously
it is right that authorities should have the opportunity and the
new administration should have the opportunity to look at things.
We have put a guideline of June, most authorities are confident
that they will meet that guideline, but we are aware that there
are some that will not.
386. What is the deadline?
(Hilary Armstrong) We do not have a deadline, the
legislation does not set a deadline. What the legislation does
say very clearly is that the government would have power of intervention
if authorities were clearly simply flouting the law by not making
preparation and by not engaging in the process to get there. We
would expect, therefore, that by May 2002 the vast majority of
authorities would be introducing new processes.
387. What penalties are you going to impose
on those authorities who do not meet the guideline?
(Hilary Armstrong) We will not be imposing penalties,
we will be engaging in discussion with them to see what the problems
are, to see how they want to proceed. We will not be imposing
388. So the grant next year will not be affected?
(Hilary Armstrong) We certainly do not have powers
to affect the grant because of how they do or do not implement
the political changes. What we do have is the power to intervene
to enforce a referendum.
389. One or two single officers have been putting
it to me that they have had to work quite hard to get these new
constitutional documents working through the councils. They are
going to arrive on someone's desk in June 2001. How quickly are
you and your officials going to respond to those constitutions?
(Hilary Armstrong) The law makes it very clear that
within two months they will be implementing the proposals, and
therefore unless we respond within that time they will have licence
to go ahead. So we will have to respond very quickly to those
that we are not satisfied with. We expect that to the vast majority
we will not be going back and saying "Will you change this?
Will you change that?" We expect that most of them will simply
proceed. Is that right, Paul?
(Mr Rowsell) That is right. The two months time, if
there is a needwhich we suspect generally there would not
bewe could extend the two months.
390. I am sorry?
(Mr Rowsell) The two months' period, if there were
to be a need to do that, we could extend the two months.
391. For another two months?
(Mr Rowsell) During which we are considering the submissions.
392. How many civil servants do you have dealing
with these submissions?
(Mr Rowsell) There is a small team of about four or
393. So as long as all 388 councils overwhelm
you with actually pursuing the constitutions that they want, there
is a very good change that most of them will get away with it
because you will not be able to respond in time?
(Hilary Armstrong) It is not quite like that. The
government offices are now much more geared up to, and have had
training and support for, working much more closely with local
government. Therefore, we have, if you like, eyes and ears out
in the regions. Also, as I say, I have this team of secondees
who are working across all of the regions and they have a good
insight into what is already going on.
394. In answer to earlier questions you suggested
that these regulations were not as flexible as you would have
liked. How soon do you think they could be made more flexible?
(Hilary Armstrong) I always have to take account of
what Parliament says and Parliament made it very clear that at
this stage, particularly on access to information, they wanted
the regulations and the guidance to be as such that no authority
would be able to squirrel away and pretend that that guidance
and regulation was not very clear. I do believe, therefore, that
we will run with this, that we will have to learn by this and
we have promised Parliament that we will review it at the end
of the year.
395. Part of this is the secrecy issue, but
there is a huge amount of the rest of it which is still pretty
prescriptive. Would it not be nice to make that much more flexible
and actually trust local government?
(Hilary Armstrong) Again, there is a balance there
between the commitments that were made in committee around the
debate that took place in committee, but, alsoand I think
this was reflected in some of your earlier evidencethere
has been a lot of consultation with local government, with its
constituent parts, with some individual local authorities but
also with the Local Government Association, the Improvement and
Development Agency, the Audit Commission and SOLACE, the Chief
Executives' Group. So there has been a lot of, if you like, ownership
of the guidance, and indeed one of your witnesses said that this
guidance is not the sort of guidance that is normally written
by civil servants. What it does is reflect that there has been
a lot of work done out there with the constituent parts of local
government to get the guidance right. I think that does reflect
the years in which local government did not do anything until
it was told. Because it was forever being told, therefore, it
felt there was no point in doing something until it had been told.
I do not believe we are through that in local government yet.
I hope in the future it would be, but I would not like to put
a time on it.
396. Why are alternative arrangements only open
to district councils with a population of 85,000 or below?
(Hilary Armstrong) That is what Parliament decided.
Chairman: Without your influence at all?
397. You did not have any say in the Bill?
(Hilary Armstrong) I did indeed, but we nonetheless
started with one level and ended up with another level.
(Hilary Armstrong) Because we were looking at what
was the reasonable size where you really could not say any more
"This is not a small district council". My input was
that I really do think that the revised committee system is most
suitable to small district councils and it then came down to what
is the definition of a small district council. We ended up with
(Hilary Armstrong) Because it looked about right.
There is no science in this.