Examination of Witnesses (Questions 704
THURSDAY 15 JULY 1999
ARMSTRONG, MP, MR
704. Good morning.
Thank you very much for coming to the Committee. We do appreciate
that your time is somewhat constrained this morning and that you
do need to leave by quarter past eleven. I understand that you
would be happy to proceed directly to questions?
(Hilary Armstrong) I will indeed but
I did think you ought to know who my officials were. This is Paul
Rowsell, who is Head of the Local Government Sponsorship Division
and, therefore, deals with much of this policy area on the political
management side, and this is Tony Redpath, who is heading up the
work on the new ethical framework.
Chairman: Welcome to you gentlemen as well.
Thank you very much indeed.
Earl of Carnarvon
705. Minister, not a very fast ball for the
first run of the morning. Is the Government prepared to be flexible
in relation to the structures within local government?
(Hilary Armstrong) I have always made
it clear that we are more than happy to accept any advice or intimation
that there is another model available, as long as there is a clear
separation of powers. We do believe that a separation of powers
is essential for local government to move on, and I can go into
why I think that, but that means that the framework that we think
we have set down in the Bill is very flexible and does allow for
a wide range of models within that framework. There are three
categories, but within those categories there is enormous flexibility
and the opportunity for very wide differentiating exact models.
I know that John Stewart was here last week and was talking about
the model of the council manager and the council leader. We believe
that that is already possible within the framework that is in
the Bill. If you disagree, then, of, course, we would be happy
to look at that and see how we accommodate that, but the Government's
bottom line, if you like, is that we do believe there needs to
be a separation of powers. We believeand I believe this
quite passionatelythat this will mean that there is more
clarity around who is taking decisions and who is, therefore,
to be held accountable for those decisions, but also that allows
the public to be much more effectively represented. In a sense
you are taking local government back to what it was always meant
to be, that the public had access and had their views represented
in relationship to decisions that were being taken. So I have
always made it clear from the very beginning when we were at the
Green Paper stage that we wanted to be as flexible as possible
but that we do think the separation of powers is something that
has been a long time coming and really does need to be there.
706. We have had a lot of evidence from urban
local authorities, particularly London boroughs, but from the
evidence from the shire counties and from my own experience in
Hampshire, it would be extremely difficult to have a mayor covering
the area between the edge of Dorset going right up to Fleet and
Farnborough, which is 60-odd or 70 miles, identifying themselves
with one person. I think they can identify themselves with an
executive committee or cabinet but not necessarily with an individual?
(Hilary Armstrong) That is precisely
why we have left the flexibility. I would not expect you to know,
Lord Carnarvon, but I represent a very rural seat. Much of my
constituency is in the North Pennines, which is what we call the
last great wilderness in this country. So I am very familiar with
the governance requirements in rural areas. That is one of the
reasons why we do want to see flexibility and we want to see councils
engaging with their public to work out what is going to be the
most appropriate model for their area.
707. You say you are flexible but am I right
in thinking that the one thing you are not flexible about would
be the status quo?
(Hilary Armstrong) You are right.
708. In that case, could I press you on the
subject of referenda. Supposing there is a referendum on one of
these new models and the answer is no. What happens then?
(Hilary Armstrong) The council will then
have to reconsider and start again and look at how it effectively
does what is both within the law but what is within the wishes
of their local public.
709. It has to be one of the three, though,
does it not?
(Hilary Armstrong) If I may just say,
the reality at the moment is that there is hardly, and I have
not yet come across, a council in the land that is not currently
operating, albeit often in secret, some part of what is being
proposed. What you get now is that it may not call itself an executive,
although in some authorities it does call itself an executive,
but you get the chairs of committees who effectively operate as
an executive or you get a council where effectively the chief
executive is the real leader of the council and the committees.
This is a particular model that I see in a lot of shire districts
and in a sense it really is the whole issue, James, of making
this absolutely clear to the public as to who is doing what.
710. That is the theoretical point. Let us imagine
a situation where the council goes to referendum, maybe three
referenda on all three different kinds, and on all three occasions
the people vote no. What happens then?
(Hilary Armstrong) Firstly, that would
really say to me that there had not been much work done effectively
before the referendum, in that if people are so disenchanted with
everything that their local authority is suggesting, there is
really something wrong with the body politic in that area. We
can go on talking about that sort of thing forever. What is it?
What is happening now as fewer and fewer of them are turning out
to vote? We have some authorities who had less than 20 per cent.
711. We understand the reason behind that. What
I am trying to get at is the precise mechanism about what happens
under this Bill. Perhaps I could refer to you a letter dated 2
July from the Department, from Paul Hoey, to Clive Abbott, Chief
Executive of Cotswold District Council, where he says: "
... it would be up to the council to decide whether it then wished
to move to another form of executive government or"if
the referendum is no"to remain with the status quo."
Is that incorrect?
(Hilary Armstrong) No, it is not incorrect.
However, what we said, and what we say in the White Paperit
is very clear in the White Paperis that if the council
does nothing and operates against the spirit of the Bill, then
the Secretary of State has the right to call a referendum, and
in those circumstances, if the referendum is lost, we would have
to accept that local people were saying, "No, we are going
to remain as we are." There will obviously be problems which
arise with that because a lot of the other modernisation aspects
are only really feasible when you have a separation of powers,
but that is technically possible.
712. Theoretically possible. In that case, if
it is theoretically possible can the council campaign for a no
(Hilary Armstrong) We have a report from
Lord Neill about the conduct of referenda. The Government is considering
how to deal with referenda in the future. There will be a Bill
introducing an electoral commission next year and we will have
to work with the electoral commission to decide the nature of
the way in which referenda in local government will be undertaken.
713. Good. In precise terms, under the terms
of this Bill, if the elected representatives of the people say,
"We do not want it. We want to stay as we are. You forced
the referendum upon us," can they then campaign, go to the
people and say, "Look, here is why we want the status quo.
Here is why we are a good council"? They may be a non-political
council, as in the case of the CDC. Will they be allowed to do
that under this Bill? It may become law quite soon, by next summer.
Will they be allowed to do that?
(Hilary Armstrong) We will have the Bill
and the regulations around the electoral commission before that.
Of course they will be able to campaign. In precisely what way
they will be able to campaign, whether as members of a yes or
no vote campaign or whether the council and spending public money
is the issue, has yet to be determined.
714. One last question: the rough cost of a
referendum is about £80,000. Would the Government pay for
that if they were forcing it or would the council pay for it?
(Hilary Armstrong) Those are the things
that we will agree. I do not agree with you about the necessary
cost of the referendum campaign, certainly not in a district like
715. Could you talk to us a bit about how the
scrutiny procedures can be safeguarded?
(Hilary Armstrong) I think this is the
essence of what we are talking about. It is very interesting that
if you think about efforts that the previous government made in
order to improve the decision-making and the accountability within
councils, it was largely done through a couple of Audit Commission
reports which looked at internal structures. I think one of them
was entitled, "We must stop meeting like this," where
they discovered that actually most councillors had gone on the
councils essentially to represent their public and found that
they were spending most of their time in committee meetings in
the town hall and really not having the ability to spend sufficient
time with their public and actually scrutinising what was going
on. I have always been frustrated that frequently you would have
a group decision that something should happen, so everybody in
committee would simply vote along group lines and then that was
the whole thing finished, and no-one was then saying, "What
does that actually mean?" Also, there had been no pre-discussion
by any committee of what the options for the decision were. That
discussion had all taken place in secret in a group meeting and
I always found that very frustrating when I was on a council and
clearly the views of councillors when they were taken for that
Audit Commission report were very similar. The reality is that
far too often councils are in a position of taking decisions and
then there is no follow-up to whether that decision has actually
worked. So I do think scrutiny is very important but I also think
it is very important that we make sure it works properly. So it
would obviously be the intention of the Government, in consultation
with the Local Government Association, with chief officers, with
everyone else who has an interest, to draw up guidance which would
make it clear how scrutiny should operate, but I also think this
is a challenge to the political parties, that they have to look
at the way that they relate.
716. That is my next question, on whipping.
(Hilary Armstrong) I do think that political
parties have to look at how they enable the scrutiny function
to operate effectively under any new models. Taking my Government
hat off and putting on my party hat, the Labour Party is doing
this and will bring forward changing rules to its conference this
year in order to do what I keep calling "grown-up politics".
We really do need to have some grown-up politics at local level,
too, where people recognise that their main job is to work for
the folk out there, not to satisfy the party political needs inside
the town hall. That does not mean I am throwing away party politics
and not that I do not enjoy them myself. Certainly Members of
the Commons know I enjoy that extremely. However, I do think that
we have a responsibility to the public and at the end of the day
councillors have to be representing the public in their decisions
and that means we have to have some flexibility, particularly
at scrutiny level, which enables them properly to question the
717. I have a couple of questions. First of
all, I want to come back to something that was said earlier on
about the need to have this separation of powers to enable other
parts of the modernising agenda to operate fully. I wonder if
you could briefly outline some of the other things that actually
require a separation of powers to be effective?
(Hilary Armstrong) One of the key things
that is happening in local government now is the importance of
local government being the community leader, drawing together
the other organisations, the other bodies, that have a real part
to play in the future of the area, and that does mean working
effectively with business, working effectively with training organisations,
with employers in relation to training and skill development,
with potential investors in the area, and I think that needs very
clear leadership. It needs someone. When I talk to business about
their relationship with local government, they are very clear
that they need to know who they are negotiating with and that
those people actually do carry the authority of the council and
the authority of the community behind them, and we are, through
legislation, making sure that the local authorities have that
power in more ways. For example, the Crime and Disorder Bill puts
the local authority and the police as needing to work together
in order to deliver anti-social behaviour orders and other things,
and in the health service we have enabling legislation to enable
joint working there. I do think that if you are going to have
that level of joint working, then it is very important that you
have scrutiny and that you have people who are specifically there
in order to make sure that the public interest is being sustained
in whatever agreements are being made and whatever partnerships
are being developed. I do think that that is something that at
the moment is very difficult for some councillors and for some
councils, but that is also why we want to change the ethics so
that the ethics framework also is able to accommodate that more
effectively. So that is just one example.
718. I am grateful for the example. Would you
not agree, though, that the operative word in what you have just
said is "some" councils and that there are many councils
who have reviewed their arrangements, streamlined their committees
and have effective leaderships and do have leaders who are very
effective players on the local scene in determining their relationship
with other stakeholders in developing all the sorts of strategies
you were just talking about?
(Hilary Armstrong) Yet in law they have
no separate recognition, they have no authority actually to be
anything other than exactly the same as any other council, and
I do not think that is a healthy position to be in, but we are
developing a system through custom and practice, as it were, which
actually belies the current legislation.
719. But surely on that basis in your own argument
you would only be offering one model because the cabinet model
continues to perpetuate the idea of collective responsibility
and decision-making through a cabinet rather than individuals
taking those decisions?
(Hilary Armstrong) Leadership does not
have to be through one individual but there does have to be clear
leadership, and if that is a group of seven or eight with leaders
on particular aspects, then that is fine, but you also need to
have the scrutiny function in, and the change of the model is
not just about leadership, it is also about the power and the
importance of effective scrutiny and I think that that is one
of the things that really does not happen at the moment.