Examination of Witnesses (Questions 740
THURSDAY 15 JULY 1999
ARMSTRONG, MP, MR
740. The mayor has won an election after a referendum
and proves to be a complete dud, under the circumstances of the
proposed legislation as far as I can see there is no possibility
of that person being then thrown out, which would be a unique
constitutional position. Do you have any thoughts on that?
(Hilary Armstrong) You have the situation
at the moment where you may get a whole council elected which
simply does not want to get engaged. It is true. At the last election
some people were elected on a single issue and they will not take
part in any discussion on any other issue on the council and there
is no means of throwing them out.
741. But you can throw the leader out
(Hilary Armstrong) The electorate have
elected them. I am sure that that will happen, that the electorate
will wreak their vengeance on that person eventually and will
find their way of doing that mid-term too. We really need to be
sure that we establish ways of workingnot unique because
we are doing that in London toobut if someone is so bad
and they are unable to gain anybody's support, I suspect they
would be forced to resign, but it is not up to Government to do
742. You do not favour any failsafe constitutional
method of some form of recall with a very high threshold which
would allow that procedure to be undertaken, short of a person
actually being frog-marched off by the police because he has done
something terrible and criminal?
(Hilary Armstrong) I have not favoured
that for the reasons I have said really, because I do think we
have to be very careful before we interfere with the electoral
process. That is my main concern.
743. Can I take this a bit further? You said
just now that in some way the mayor might be forced to resign
mid-term if unspecified events took place, but one of the problems
as we understand it in the context of the Bill is there is no
provision in there to determine what happens next. You lose your
mayor, there is no provision for by-elections and there is no
provision in the event of disqualification. Is that an issue which
is going to be given further thought? Are there further thoughts
you can share with the Committee on that?
(Hilary Armstrong) No, is the straight
forward answer. I do believe that that would be such a rare event
744. What if he dies? What happens then?
(Hilary Armstrong) There would be a by-election,
there would have to be a by-election.
745. But there is no provision for that in the
(Hilary Armstrong) There would be a by-election
because the person was a member of the council and if someone
now dies, resigns, et cetera, there is a by-election and that
is what would happen. What we have done is construct the mayor
as a member of the council.
746. If they are directly elected, however,
in that context will there be such a provision? In the Bill there
is apparently no procedure for a directly elected mayor, a new
creature, a new set of arrangements for their election, which
will lead on to a by-election as a consequence.
(Hilary Armstrong) There would because
even though they are directly elected they are still a member
of the council and the rules that currently prevail around members
of the council who die and the rules around by-elections would
apply to the mayor.
747. You relied on councils, just now, as a
comparison with the directly elected mayor in answer to Dr Whitehead's
question, however everything in your evidence so far has been
to say that the way councils work at the moment is not appropriate
for the future and we need to separate powers. Therefore to say
that a whole council could be elected as a group of duds and that
is comparable with the election of an executive mayor directly
elected, surely is relying on something which is a bit dodgy,
to say the least? I wonder therefore whether you might be looking
a bit further at some of the options for recall which have been
put into other constitutions in other countries and whether or
not, for example, a council itself in constructing its constitution
can advance mechanisms for recall and gain approval for them through
a referendum locally?
(Hilary Armstrong) I am reluctant to
do what you are suggesting at the end, because that would then
give the council a way of overturning what the electorate themselves
had decided. I think that is fairly dodgy territory. Obviously,
if you put this in the report, we will have to consider it and
will consider it, but it is trying to get the right sort of balance.
If someone is vastly popular with the public but not with the
party groups, should the party groups and the council have the
chance to un-seat them when they had the overwhelming support
of the public?
Mr Burstow: What about the other way round?
Earl of Carnarvon
748. On the point Mr Burstow has made, the Minister
said that there would be a by-election because he was a member
of the council, but surely in this instance if he had been a directly
elected mayor you would have an election for a mayor, not just
for a councillor. Am I not correct?
(Hilary Armstrong) Yes, but the regulations
around thatand this is the point I was trying to make cleardo
not need to be in this Bill because they are in other legislation
around councillors and that is what would govern the calling of
749. At the present time, Chairman, in a county
council, and I think in most councils, if someone dies or is incapacitated
a deputy would be elected to take on the responsibilities of chairman
or leader, whatever it was. That is what would happen at the present
(Hilary Armstrong) But there would have
to be a by-election so that the people who had voted for that
person had the opportunity to vote for someone else.
750. No, that is not quite the case, Minister.
(Hilary Armstrong) Yes, it is.
751. Well, I do not agree. If under the present
(Hilary Armstrong) You are talking about
the responsibilities they take. Until a by-election is held, their
seat is vacant.
Mr Pike: And can remain vacant until the next
local election unless it is declared by two electors.
Earl of Carnarvon
752. Exactly. That is exactly what I am saying.
(Hilary Armstrong) Right.
Earl of Carnarvon: So you would have a situation
where that particular area of the county or ward of a London borough
was vacant until an election took place, but in the meanwhile
someone would be responsible for taking over the chairmanship
753. In fact the rule is that if the term of
office has got less than six months to run, it can remain vacant.
(Hilary Armstrong) Yes, but it can only
remain vacant for a certain period of time. It cannot remain vacant
for longer than six months. Clearly there would have to be arrangements,
and that would have to be agreed within the constitution of the
council, as to how they resolved that in the short-term.
Earl of Carnarvon
(Hilary Armstrong) Until the by-election,
what would happen is in fact that a member of the cabinet would
have to take over their position.
(Hilary Armstrong) What I was saying
was that, for example, if they really did have to go or they died
within a year, there would be a by-election before the period
of the next election.
Chairman: Can I say to the Committee that there
are members who have not asked questions of the Minister, but
we have not yet touched on standards which we need to do. Mr Stringer?
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My question is
quite short, Chairman, and it is on the scrutiny point.
Chairman: All right, we will take that now.
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford
756. You have used very often the separation
of functions, Minister. There is a classic example of separation
of functions in the United States, and if you took that as a model
your cabinet would consist, as is hinted at at times, of members
having specific responsibilities for education, social services,
et cetera, and they would be matched, if you follow the American
system, by a scrutiny committee for each major council activity.
It seems in the Bill you do not envisage this because you talk
about "one or more". Do you envisage this and what do
you think of Professor Stewart's Oslo example where there is real
separation of functions, where the cabinet do not sit in the legislature,
as you might say? First of all, do you envisage a classic American
(Hilary Armstrong) I think it is our
responsibility to provide the framework and for local councils
themselves to decide exactly whether they have one scrutiny committee
or whether they have a scrutiny committee which shadows the responsibilities
of the different members of the cabinet. That is where there ought
to be local decision-taking and a local framework. I can give
you examples of some authorities who are doing it in the way you
are describing, I can give you other examples of authorities who
are planning to do it in different ways, I can give you examples
of cabinets where they are taking specific responsibilities which
are also cross-departmental. For example, I was in Bedfordshire
last week, and they have a member of their executive who covers
children's services and therefore covers schools and social services
and so on. I believe that it is right that we should not prescribe
precisely how this is done in every council but that we lay down
a framework which says there should be an executive decision-making
body and there should be a scrutiny and representational body
and precisely how they are organised should be up to the local
757. You have been refreshingly non-cynical
today, Minister, but is it not the truth that the proposals in
the draft Bill and the White Paper are not very popular in much
of local government, particularly the elected mayors? We have
had evidence that where councils are trying out the separation
of the executive and scrutiny actually it is a charade. We have
had evidence from London and other authorities that that is the
case and really it is difficult to see how it would not be when
you have got in this country many local authorities where historically
they have been run by one party. Why do you not go further? Is
it not the case that the only way you can separate out, as you
have said, the democratic relationship between the person who
is leading the council, whatever you call them, and the people
from the private political process is to have a separate election?
So why do you not impose that?
(Hilary Armstrong) It is true that certainly
the directly elected mayor model is not popular among councillors,
but the problem councillors have to face is that it seems to be
very popular with the public. That is why I am consistently saying
that it is very important that councillors do not get out of step
with their public and that it is therefore very important that
before changing in any way there really is full consultation with
the public. You are not the first person to have put that proposition
to me, and the reason we have not moved there is that in a sense
we really want cultural change. We want change that is not cosmetic,
that is not a charade, that actually does change the way the council
works and the relationship between the council and the public.
My view is that if all we do is impose a model that we think would
work, that would be done locally because they had to do it and
there would not be ownership of it and people really working through
what this is going to mean to them. I do think that some people
have embarked upon changes on the basis of, as I said before,
"If we get this done very quickly, it will be through before
the Government is able to legislate and then we will be able to
say everything is okay." We will be watching that very carefully.
What I do want is a real cultural change so we will see a real
renewal of local government, because if we do not see that I believe
it will wither and die because the public is losing faith that
councils are working with them and in their interests.
758. Is there not a structural flaw, a principal
flaw, in the mechanisms you propose to instigate an elected mayor?
By and large 5 per cent of the electorate do not get out of bed
and think, "We will have an elected mayor today", they
get seriously annoyed about a particular issue and they think,
"Right, we can get rid of this leader of the council, we
can get rid of this elected mayor, by setting up another mechanism
and having a different electoral process." So it changes
the focus, it is not a renewal, it becomes a one subject issue.
Have you considered placing an obligation, which is less prescriptive
than just changing the rules, on councils to test opinion on elected
mayors by an opinion poll process and if that indicates one way
then to hold a local referendum? Secondly, a slightly different
point, I was not clear what your answer was to Lord Carnarvon
when he put the proposition that elected mayors were less appropriate
to large shire areas than to urban areas. Do you agree with that?
(Hilary Armstrong) On the last point,
not necessarily. I do think that wherever the council is, whether
rural or urban, it needs an appropriate form of leadership in
that area. I can think of some rural areas where it would be appropriate
and where people are looking for that, I can think of others where
it would not be appropriate and the local people are saying that
very strongly. I do not think the assumption should be made that
this is only for urban areas or the core cities or whatever, although
it very clearly is something which has a lot of attractions for
core cities in particular. In relation to the other point that
you were making, basically any council can get out of the fear
of the trigger, which is what a lot are expressing to me at the
moment. I found it quite amusing when we published the consultation
and the White Paper, Local Leadership, Local Choice, and
the draft Bill and some came to me and said, "But you are
going to give the public a chance to change what we do" and
I said, "Well, yes, actually, that was always our intention"!
I do think we have got the trigger for a referendum about right.
We originally talked about 10 per cent maybe, I think that 5 per
cent is about right, but the reality is that any council can jump
over that by themselves holding a referendum. The key thing is
that if councils really are in touch with their local people,
if they have had the sort of consultation that means local people
really are aware of what the council is up to and feeling the
council is working with them, then they do not have to fear the
trigger. I think it would be very difficult for Government to
say opinion polls, because what we say about a referendum is that
we do need to be content that the questions being asked are being
asked in a fair and open way. That is where we will take advice
from the Electoral Commission in the formation of the questions.
What I am trying to do is get a balance between, on the one hand,
councils actually recognising they have a responsibility to work
with local people to find the right way forward which local people
can identify with, but on the other hand, making sure that there
is local ownership of whatever is done. So I do think that if,
for example, there was a local opinion poll which was taken saying
one thing, you would very soon get the local media saying, "What
on earth is this council up to? They are ignoring what local people
want." I do not think councils should get into that position,
I think they should be ahead of the game not following the game,
and they should be in the position where they are actually leading
opinion and not having to run behind it. I hope that we have got
the balance about right but, as I say, I wait to see what you
say about it.
Chairman: We will rely on Mr Pike to ask all
the questions on standards.
759. Do you not now think there should a national
code of ethical standards?
(Hilary Armstrong) We will establish
national guidance which will certainly have the basics that have
to be in any local code of conduct. I do think that you then have
to have differences which reflect the different methods of organisation,
because there will have to be differences in a local code of guidance
which reflect, for example, if you have a directly elected mayor,
and the relationship between that mayor and the cabinet and the
scrutiny. So there will not be a single national code of conduct
around which there can be no flexibility, the national guidance
that we will put out will form the basis that every council will
have to work with. In other words, they will not be able to undermine
or diminish what is in that code, they will be able to build on
it in order to reflect their local circumstances.