Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Minutes of Evidence to the Report

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 704 - 719)




  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 believe—and I believe this quite passionately—that 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.

Mr Gray

  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 Paper—it is very clear in the White Paper—is 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 vote?

  (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 Cotswold.

Baroness Thornton

  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 executive.

Mr Burstow

  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.

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