Examination of witnesses (Questions 400
TUESDAY 20 MARCH 2001
and MR PAUL
400. It is purely arbitrary? A wet finger in
the air job?
(Hilary Armstrong) No, more than that. We looked at
the lists, we looked at how those councils were operating, who
would qualify within the 85,000, and so on.
401. So there was a political deal, was there,
in terms of how many councils controlled, perhaps, by the Liberal
Party, who were
(Hilary Armstrong) I certainly would not put it that
way. As I say, the definition was "What is a small district
council?" That is quite a difficult area to define, because
in some areas small district councils will co-operate very fully
though they deliver services jointly with other authorities, very
often. Once they get up to about 85,000 they are not doing that.
402. How many authorities are below 85,000?
How many qualified for alternative arrangements?
(Hilary Armstrong) I need to come back to you on the
detail of that.
403. Can you come back to us on how many are
below 85,000 and whatI think we may have the answersthe
political control is of each of those councils?
(Hilary Armstrong) Do you want that before the election
or after the election? I have to say, particularly in small
districts, political control changes fairly often.
404. As at the date on which the deal was brokered
in the House of Lords.
(Hilary Armstrong) Eighty six.
405. And political control?
(Hilary Armstrong) We need to come back to you on
that. Many of them have no overall control.
406. Perhaps your private secretaries might
be able to add them up between now and the end of the session.
(Hilary Armstrong) They would only be adding up a
407. It is a snapshot on which the negotiation
took place. The principle of 85,000, you said, is non-existent
to those opposed to the principle of these changes altogether. I am trying to get a feel for the influences that came to
bear on the deal.
(Hilary Armstrong) I really have said as much as I
possibly can on that.
408. We have had a discussion saying that June
2001 is not a deadline but a guideline. Particularly given that
the regulations on alternative arrangements were only laid on
15 March, if district councils who are below 85,000 are seeking
to apply under these regulations, can you give them some idea
of how long they have got?
(Hilary Armstrong) Most of them are now getting on
with it. They have to have a decent consultation period and then
get their information in to us. Quite honestly, not many of them
are saying that they cannot do that by the end of June.
409. What is a decent consultation period?
(Hilary Armstrong) It will depend on what consultation
they already have in line. So those authorities that already,
for example, have citizens panels will have somewhere to start.
Others that only ever have public meetings will have some difficulty.
What we are trying to do in terms of consultation is not even
the period, it is using a variety of methods and actually making
sure that they do get involved. If you think about some of the
smaller districts where there will be a large number of parishes,
they should be using their parish councils, their area structures,
to actually get involved and get out there. There are not elections
in district councils this year, so they ought to be able to get
on with things.
410. Are you going to be absolutely inflexible
around the 85,000 mark, in terms of if there is a local authority
population of just over that or close to it? Of course, the figures
on which they are based are the Registrar General's estimate,
in any case. So is there any flexibility in that?
(Hilary Armstrong) We will have much better information
about actual population once we have got the census data.
411. But not in time for this.
(Hilary Armstrong) Not necessarily in time for this.
We are not wanting to be so flexible that it allows councils to
flout the spirit of the law.
412. One of the most onerous parts of the new
arrangements is this split between executive arrangements and
the servicing of the overview and scrutiny committees. Why have
you then inflicted, in the alternative arrangements, at least
one overview and scrutiny committee?
(Hilary Armstrong) Because I think that given the
roles and responsibilities of local government today, scrutiny
has become an aspect of work that is just very important and cannot
be missed in the small district councils. For example, the Crime
and Disorder partnerships are based on small district councils'
size. They do not, as an authority, have responsibility for the
police, but there are lots of other things that impact on the
Crime and Disorder partnership that they would have responsibility
for: some of the licensing, planning applications, the work on
neighbourhood estates, on housing estates and leisure centresa
range of thingswhich are all part of "How do you get
an effective Crime and Disorder partnership working to reduce
crime in your neighbourhood?" If the authority is having
no means whereby it is, through the proper channels of the authority,
looking at how its work there is relating to tackling crime, then
it could be that in one committee or another committee they would
be making decisions without actually looking at what is the impact
of that decision in the housing department, of that decision in
the leisure department and bringing together and looking at it.
413. Surely, you are not suggesting that the
committee structure and the full council structure we have had
to-date is capable of delivering any scrutiny at all?
(Hilary Armstrong) I am saying that in too many councils
scrutiny did not happen at all.
414. At all?
(Hilary Armstrong) At all. Not by councillors, anyway.
415. Where did the idea of this scrutiny come
(Hilary Armstrong) It has come from every other aspect
of local government everywhere else in the world. This was part
of the debate and the discussion that we had in opposition that
was actually put into a document before I was the spokesperson
for local government in Opposition, and was developed alongside
talking to a range of local government members and a range of
other people interested in local government, about how do we actually
enable local government politically to bring in more accountability
but, also, how did we make sure that the corporate and the cross-cutting
attention that was very clearly seen to be necessary was made
possible within the structures.
416. So it is not a possibility that all you
do is put in another tier of bureaucracy that delays decision-making
and, therefore, does the exact opposite of what you are trying
(Hilary Armstrong) It is always possible to frustrate
the way things are meant to work. In any organisation there are
always people around who are good at that. I would, therefore,
not say that that is not ever a possibility. That is one of the
reasons that the regulations and the guidance have been written
in the way that they have been, in order to try and make sure
that people do not get away with doing just that. What it is meant
to do is make sure that those councillors who are not in the key
decision-making positionsand in the past that meant anybody,
really, who was not a chair or a vice-chair, because they were
the people who really made the decisions that would then be reported
to the committee meetingactually had better service and
support to understand the decisions that had been taken and to
examine their impact.
417. Surely, you are losing what is, perhaps,
the centre of any argument as far as any councillor that I have
had any dealing with (and I have had dealings with most in Scotland)
is concerned; that you only get a few high calibre councillors
and the remainder would, if you sat them in a room for two days,
not ask any decent questions about problems. You are kidding yourself
on. Really, what the problem is is about the calibre of the council.
(Hilary Armstrong) You get into an ever-declining
circle if you go down that route, because some people would say
"If you accept that, then the reason that that happens is
because councillors are never given the opportunity to do anything
real and not given powers and opportunities to satisfy their intellect,
their commitment, their belief in democratic participation. I
do not go down the route that there is only a handful on every
council that has the potential to be good councillors in a very
wide way. It does not mean to say we all have to be the same.
There are some councillors who are able to be good ward representatives,
which is a very important part of the new system, and who are
able to be forensic about issues in their ward. Really, what the
new system does is give them the opportunity to get the chance
to be like that. In the past that was getting much more difficult.
418. What are you going to do if the experience
is the exact opposite and that people who have got the calibre
start to move away because they are frustrated by this extra tier
of bureaucracy that you have introduced?
(Hilary Armstrong) I do not accept it is an extra
tier of bureaucracy and I do not accept that in most authorities
that is how it is being treated. Nor do I accept that there are
good councillors that we were able to keep in the old system.
All of our surveys showed that the younger, more professional
people left the council after their first term. That was one of
the reasons why the cohort of councillors was becoming much older.
So I do not accept the premise. What I do say is that in any system
it is possible to frustrate it and make it very difficult. My
modernisation team tell me that in going round they meet some
people who are evangelical about the system but they also say
that within their group or within their council there are people
who do not like it and who try to frustrate.
419. What about the position in terms of members
versus officers? That is another conflict that I have seen time
and time again. This does nothing, in any event, but further frustrate
those of the officers who are wanting to get decisions through
on authorities as quickly as possible to deliver services. That
is part of the reason why there are problemsprobably the
main reasonin the ability of authorities to deliver.
(Hilary Armstrong) The new regime of best value is
very much geared to delivering, and this system gives councillors
and politicians certainly more overview, more influence and more
ability to map what is going on in terms of delivery. I accept
that for some officers democracy is a very frustrating thing (it
is a bit frustrating for politicians now and again, too) but nonetheless
I think it is something that is worth sticking with because, at
the end of the day, I actually do believe it delivers better services.