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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 760 - 770)



  760. So there will be a base standard?

  (Hilary Armstrong) There will indeed.

  761. Fine. On the position as we go forward, there is a feeling that we may, if we are not careful, allow a lot of trivial, vexatious and malicious complaints. We as MPs must all have constituents who complain vigorously that we are not doing our job and who write to various people—the Prime Minister, the Queen and others—and say we are not doing what we should be. How do we ensure that the system does not get bogged down by these? Should there be a filter to make sure we really are looking at what are serious issues?

  (Hilary Armstrong) There will be a filter but through the Standards Board. There has been an argument made that it should be the Standards Committee and I was concerned about that because it is precisely those who make the vexatious and fairly trivial complaints who would never be satisfied if the council itself was saying, "This is not a serious complaint"; they would never believe it if it was the council themselves saying it. I do think that we need to be sure that we organise and set up the Standards Board in such a way that it filters and only therefore brings to official inquiry, as it were, when they are calling witnesses and so on, things which clearly warrant that. This is obviously something we have to work out and be absolutely clear about when we set up the Standards Board. But I have to say that was one of the strong feelings I had around why the Standards Committee themselves should not do it.

  762. The ombudsmen—we took evidence from them last week, it must have been—had a fear that there was going to be some overlap. How do we avoid this? One particular thing that the ombudsmen pointed out was that there was a lot of complaints they dealt with which were planning issues and very often those complainants did not understand that things were already determined in district plans and other things. How do we ensure that we do not overlap with the ombudsmen and duplicate each other and have people wasting a lot of time investigating exactly the same thing? Secondly, should there be something perhaps—we have just looked at one screening thing—to look at planning, to fast-track planning issues, to get them out of the system if it is really just on the basic principles of planning so people can say, "That is that" and clarify people's minds? I think in a lot of cases people really do not understand what the issues are and how they are being dealt with.

  (Hilary Armstrong) I think that is an interesting suggestion. Clearly the way in which the Standards Board is set up and organised they will have to work out what are going to be the things which they have to have specialist knowledge of and that they are able to do things. I would say that planning is certainly going to be one of those and conflict of interest is going to be the other, I would have thought, which will frequently be the allegation which the Standards Board is going to have to deal with, so again they are going to have to have people who can work to that. I will go away and look at that a little more. In relation to overlap, this is clearly a very difficult issue and it is very important, not just for the ombudsmen but for the courts too, that there is a clear understanding of who is going to be responsible for what. There are clearly some things which will be legal matters and will have to go into the criminal stream, as it were, whereas others will be maladministration and therefore the role of the ombudsmen, and others will be allegations, as I say, maybe around conflict of interest or whatever which will clearly be Standards Board issues. There will have to be a good working relationship between the ombudsmen and the Standards Board. Everyone said when the ombudsmen were set up, "Are they going to be taking over and overlapping with what should be going to court or what should be decided within the council" and so on. This is an issue for administrative working out which both the Standards Board and the ombudsmen will have to get on and do, and we have been consulting very carefully with the ombudsmen and with the Audit Commission and the District Audit Service because, again, there is a potential overlap with auditors too. So we have been working very carefully with them and they do know—all of them know—there is going to have to be some administrative working and agreements on how they are going to work and how they are going to sort out what appears to overlap so they are not both pursuing the same issue at the same time.

  763. We had one instance referred to in our evidence where a complaint had taken 11 years to deal with. Recognising timetables are always difficult, for very many reasons, do you think there should be some timetable not only from the point of view of the complainant but also the person who has been complained about?

  (Hilary Armstrong) One of our aims is to speed the process up, quite honestly. I had not heard of the 11 years one but I have heard of too many which have taken far too long. It is in the interests of both sides that that is resolved more quickly. I am not sure about actually setting down timetables, that is something that we will have to keep in review, I certainly agree with that, but I do think that one of the reasons for going down this route is to try and sort out and speed up the process. At the moment, there are all sorts of different bits of legislation which you have to be aware of in order to make sure that you are operating within the law and within the spirit of the law. That is one reason to have a much clearer code of conduct but also a Standards Committee which then makes sure that officers and members understand the code of conduct, understand what is acceptable behaviour and what is not acceptable behaviour and practice, and I believe if you actually clarify that much more and give people training and support so they understand it and know what faces them, then we ought to be able to speed up the process as well.

Dr Whitehead

  764. Is there not a danger in terms of our discussion that we are not distinguishing between the vexatious and trivial complaints and the really serious complaints, and we are not actually addressing what is the reality of a lot of complaints, which is a gradation upwards and there are venial and non-venial sins as far as local government conduct is concerned? Is the present mechanism which appears to hoover everything up to the Standards Board, in your view, sufficiently discriminating in terms of being fair to councillors in terms of their own conduct? There is certainly this issue of councillors, as has happened in America, being under a perpetual cloud of suspicion. If someone has committed a technical breach of conduct which is a problem but is not such that one really needs to take serious actions against the councillor, do you think the mechanism is sufficiently subtle to allow for that to take place?

  (Hilary Armstrong) I think it is but clearly we are looking at that very carefully. What we want to do is give the public confidence that the system can cope and can deal with bad practice and wrong-doing, and it is a case of getting that balance right but also working sufficiently quickly so you do not have someone continually under a cloud of suspicion, because it is in the interests of others to keep the process going. We do not want to see that happen, but we also have been very careful that even in some of those cases where there has been a misunderstanding or a technical breach that is not used in a political way. If that technical breach is discovered three months before an election and is used in order to get somebody out of the frame, that is not in the interests of good democracy. What we are trying to do is make sure we have a system which can respond quickly and can clear things up quickly, and it may be we are going to have to continue to examine all this.

  765. I can, with respect, see the headlines now in a local paper, "Councillor investigated by National Standards Board" immediately anything goes the route that is suggested by the procedure laid down in the Bill. It seems to me that is potentially prey to precisely the problem you have just set out.

  (Hilary Armstrong) I think any system is prey to that. If someone is arrested by the police for a very minor technicality and that drags on for two years, that too destabilises the system. I also do think that we need to be sure that there is a following headline which says, "Councillor cleared by the Standards Board."

  Dr Whitehead: Yes, and not on page 37.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

  766. A very simple question, will the Bill be ready for the next session of Parliament?

  (Hilary Armstrong) With your co-operation, yes!


  767. Will the very many regulations required be available to consider the Bill?

  (Hilary Armstrong) We would certainly be wanting that. I have to say that is why we are hoping you can let us have your deliberations as soon as you can rather than in the spill-over period because we do want to get on with the work of drawing up guidance and regulations. I sought to do as much of that as possible during the passage of the Best Value Bill, so that members in both Houses had as much information before them as to how Government was going to proceed, not just in the primary legislation but in the guidance and regulations as well, and that is what we are seeking to do.

  768. Following that point, would you see regulations dealing with conflicts between the executive and the council, because the White Paper talks about that but there is nothing in the Bill, is there?

  (Hilary Armstrong) No, there is not anything in the Bill, because we think that it is very difficult to prescribe for all 400-odd local authorities exactly the same method of conflict resolution. In a sense, that very much is something that does need to be worked out locally and will differ according to whether it is a council of no overall control, a council mainly of independent members or one that is very much one party. So we will do some guidance but we will not regulate so we are saying how every council should have that conflict resolution. It was in the GLA Bill because we were dealing with only one council but we are dealing with a very different animal here, 400-odd different animals.

Earl of Carnarvon

  769. I am Chairman of the All Party London Group in the Lords and I am worried that the rest of the country is going to think that mayors are going to have the same responsibilities as the Mayor of London. I just hope the Government will find an opportunity to clarify that before referendums go out saying, "Would you like another mayor?" I think a lot of people at the present time, with all the publicity given to the situation in London, might think this is going to be transposed around the country.

  (Hilary Armstrong) I am confident they will not. In some senses, if people in my area thought they were going to get something just because it was in London, that would make them vote against it! We very strongly will be making sure. That is precisely why we are trying not to be prescriptive. It is always difficult for Government, and indeed I know in some of your deliberations you are wanting to push us to put more into the face of the Bill and to be maybe a bit more prescriptive, and then in other ways you are saying, "Don't be so prescriptive." We have to try and find a balance but that is why we are saying we want in every area the council and the public to take hold of this and own whatever comes out of the review so that it is theirs, it is their special model which is for their area, whether that be a mayor or a cabinet or indeed, as I said before, I think for many shire areas a council manager model is a very good model for them to follow. But whatever it is, it is something which is theirs. We certainly will be trying to make sure everybody does not think we are going to make them run like London.

  Earl of Carnarvon: Good.


  770. Thank you very much indeed for coming, Minister, and answering all our questions. I hope we have not delayed you for your next appointment.

  (Hilary Armstrong) Thank you very much.

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