Examination of witnesses (Questions 420
TUESDAY 20 MARCH 2001
and MR PAUL
420. The trouble with the whole of this is that
it is based on the assumption that you can have almost full-time
councillors with access to tremendously detailed information.
Frankly, your criticism of individual council committees that
they do not, and have not in the past, scrutinise things, must
accept that that was because they did not have access to sufficient
independent information. What you are talking about is faintly
unrealistic, is it not?
(Hilary Armstrong) I do not think so. What we are
seeking to do is get authorities to look at things not always
in tiny little bits but to actually look at what happens across
a range of issues.
421. But, with respect, the amount and the size
of the problem is not the question. The quality of decision-making
and the quality of scrutiny depends on the information available
to the people asking the questions. Select Committees of the House
of Commons would not operate unless they had access to detailed,
independent information. You are suggesting, firstly, that young
councillors have gone because they are professional and because
they do not get the back-up. Many of us would say that is something
to do with the terms of their employment, which has not been addressed
by any of the changes. However, the reality is that you have not
specified clearly the calibre of officers who would be available
to give independent advice to the scrutiny committees, you have
not specified the difference between the structure within the
council officers which would protect them, if they were doing
an effective job and making themselves unpopular with chief officers,
and you have not dealt with the whole question of industrial relations.
Are those not much more important questions than the ones you
(Hilary Armstrong) I think we have addressed those.
We have not been prescriptive in our addressing of them, however,
because again, essentially, at the end of the day, a local council
has to be accountable to its local electorate and not to us. We
have, therefore, given guidance as to what we think would be good
models and we have drawn those up in consultation with organisations
like SOLACE about what could and should be going on. We have also
made it clear that they should be looking for independent advice,
but we have also made it clear that if they only accept official
advice then they will be missing the trick; it is as much about
being able to get information from the users of services and from
the deliverers of services as it is from officers that actually
enables them to scrutinise effectively. There are some examples
of where that has worked very well and where it has been a real
revelation to councillors just what they have been able to do
by doing things in a different way.
422. What do you do in a political position
where, out of 105 councillors in an authority, 103 of them are
of one party?
(Hilary Armstrong) I do not think that happens anywhere,
not even in Birmingham
423. Strathclyde District Council.
(Hilary Armstrong) I do not have responsibility for
Scotland and I definitely am not accepting responsibility for
Scotland. They do things in different ways there, too.
424. Say it was to happen.
(Hilary Armstrong) If you think about Newham, where
there are not any opposition councillors, they nonetheless are
pursuing the system and they certainly have got service delivery
at the centre of it. That, for them, is the biggest issue in their
borough. What they have done is set up their systems so that councillors
are getting information about what is going on, particularly in
their own ward, and they are actually trying to make sure they
use that effectively. The system is set up so that there is the
ability for questioning, as there is this morning, but without
there being a whip on the group. There is no whip on scrutiny
425. Minister, you are quite right on the scrutiny
committee, perhaps, concentrating on service delivery. Having
concentrated on that service delivery, how does the scrutiny committee
then get the cabinet to provide whatever, so that the service
that they are complaining about is improved?
(Hilary Armstrong) There is one committee that even
in the early stages of experiment did a very thorough scrutiny
of their school services. They extracted from the chair of the
committee, as it then was, now the cabinet member, and the director,
that if they did not meet certain targets within five years they
426. When you make this point about there being
no whip on the scrutiny committee, is that not a bit naive? In
a sense, there is no whip on this Committee, but the pressure
for us to produce a unanimous report because it is so much stronger,
is very considerable. So that for a scrutiny group there is, in
a sense, a whip on them in terms of what is expected from them.
Is that not just as powerful as a party whip?
(Hilary Armstrong) I think that is different. That
is you saying: how do you become most influential? That is not:
how do you stick by the party line? That is certainly something
I do not recognise in a Select Committee.
427. What happens in a practical sense, if an
individual continually goes against what is perceived as being
the party line, is that that individual, when it comes to reselection,
will be dumped.
(Hilary Armstrong) The policy decisions are the responsibility
of the whole council, and so it is legitimate to have a whip on
policy issues. However, that does not prevent decent scrutiny
of how that policy is working and what effect it is having. The
overall policy and the overall manifesto, if you are like, is
what you are elected on. So, yes, you have to stick by that.
428. You said a few moments ago that local parties
are accountable to their local electorates, you are visiting this
new scheme and the vast majority of local authorities do not want
it, and it would not have come forward for proposal in the first
place. They are having to deliver one of the three methods
you have given them. That is not accountable to the local electorate,
they are not making decisions for that. Yet, you are then imposing
on them scrutiny arrangements which will not then protect those
officers who are going to be servicing the scrutiny committees.
(Hilary Armstrong) Firstly, it is not my understanding
that the majority of councils are against the proposals and only
introduce them because the letter of the law says they have to.
I would also say that there is actually much more flexibility
in this system than there was in the old committee system. I would
also say that the new ethical code does protect officers and does
so very strongly. I understand from reading your previous evidence
that you were concerned about the career prospects of officers
who, for example, were servicing the scrutiny panel, as against
those who were servicing the executive. I thought it was very
interesting that the chief executives you had were saying they
did not see that as a problem.
429. In one case they said it because the man
was so senior he got to the top of the tree, and in the other
case I cannot remember. There was a very good reason why neither
of them were going to be part of the existing structure.
(Hilary Armstrong) I read other parts of evidence
which also said that the chief executive saw it as his responsibility
to protect and defend all of his officers and to make sure that
that did not happen.
Mrs Dunwoody: That is like saying it is the
role of the whips in the House of Commons to ensure that members
of Parliament fulfil their tasks adequately.
430. If you were so confident that a majority
of councils wanted this new system why could you not enact the
legislation to enable them to make the choice? Why did you force
them to move?
(Hilary Armstrong) They are part of a nation which
has a legislative framework. If we are to police that legislative
framework then we have to make sure that there is some coherence
within local government in order to do that.
431. You are letting 88 of them, or whatever
the number was, in effect stay with the old system because they
(Hilary Armstrong) No, it is not staying with the
old system, it is reforming the old system, adding in scrutiny
and not having more than five committees that are non-regulatory
432. The argument that something like this can
require consistency across government, given that you are offering
in effect four different schemes, it does not hold water, does
(Hilary Armstrong) We are giving far more flexibility
than there has ever been, that is absolutely true. We do, nonetheless,
have to have some measure of agreement about what people locally
can expect, so that where there is something going wrong and where
there is real denial of local people's rights the Government through
the Audit Commission, through the inspectorates, and so on, have
the opportunity to intervene. That is why we have always accepted
in this country some form of national statute in relation to local
government. As I say, we have tried to make that far more flexible,
but there is still a national statute which regulates local government.
433. Do you think that party groups within councils
will have to change the way they work? For instance, do you think
instead of having meetings in private they have them in public?
(Hilary Armstrong) I think there is much change already
going on in party structures. When I talked about the whips not
being possible, that is a Labour Party decision. Each party will
have to take their own decisions. Certainly in the Labour Party
we are reviewing and changing standing orders in order to reflect
the new constitution. I do not anticipate that all private group
meetings will disappear however.
434. That would be just impossible, the fact
is that that is how they generate the business of the council
if they have a majority group. What about minority groups within
(Hilary Armstrong) It is going to be up to them too
to find their own way forward.
435. Because of that, do you think that they
are going to have to make their views known at some point, that
the other parties are going to have to agree with what the Labour
Party has done?
(Hilary Armstrong) I would hope so. I have asked then
to do so.
436. How confident are you that they will?
(Hilary Armstrong) That is up to them and it is not
the right time for me to try and predict what the parties are
going to do.
437. It could be perceived by other parties
that you are undermining the whole question of the way that the
councils are constructed now by virtue of this proposal itself?
(Hilary Armstrong) I do not follow that at all. What
I do think is that the public are saying they want to feel that
their council is able to represent their interests and that they
are going to know what that is about. They want us to co-operate
more on things that we ought to be cooperating on. The new system
allows that. It cannot dictate that, but it does allow that.
438. I do not have an awful lot of discussion
amongst my electorate about this particular situation. I do not
believe it would be something that everyone knows, I doubt there
is very much discussion about this.
(Hilary Armstrong) I certainly would not expect any
discussion in Scotland, because Scotland have not moved on this.
439. They do not exactly rush in and tell you
in your local surgery, "The one thing that concerns me is
the administration of my local council". They tell you about
the decisions on their rent and the decisions on their council
tax. Do they actually come in and say, "I cannot bear this
structure, it is really terribly overburdened, what I desperately
need is to have all of these appalling committees changed so that
I add a small scrutiny committee, with something like two thirds
of the council not being able to take part in the decision-making
(Hilary Armstrong) Of course they do not. They do
come in and say they did not find out about anything until it
has all been done and dusted.