Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witnesses (Questions 359 - 379)

TUESDAY 20 MARCH 2001

RT HON HILARY ARMSTRONG and MR PAUL ROWSELL

Chairman

  359. Can I welcome you to the Committee and could I ask you to identify yourself to the Committee?
  (Hilary Armstrong) I am Hilary Armstrong, Minister of State with responsibility for Local Government, regeneration of the regions, and this is Paul Rowsell, who heads up my—
  (Mr Rowsell) Local Government Sponsorship Division.
  (Hilary Armstrong) That is what they call it.

  360. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction, or are you happy for us to go straight to questions?
  (Hilary Armstrong) Very happy for you to move straight to questions.

Mr Olner

  361. Good morning, Minister. Do you think it is possible to transfer the executive models of decision-making from this place to local government?
  (Hilary Armstrong) Not entirely, no, but I do think that local government has moved and changed in its responsibilities, and does have to take a more corporate view of what needs to be done. Therefore, an executive and scrutiny split was the logical step, having introduced best value and having looked at how local government had been developing over the past decade.

  362. Do you think it has been confused a little by the elected mayor coming into it, instead of the leader plus cabinet? Do you think that is an option that has muddied the waters?
  (Hilary Armstrong) No, I do not think it has muddied the waters, it gives local government another option and local people another thing to look at.

  363. But the British public do not elect the Prime Minister, do they?
  (Hilary Armstrong) But they are used to direct elections in other ways. This is not something that the Government is saying they have to do, but it is very clear, certainly from two or three of the democracy commissions, that in some areas it is something local people want to look at.

  364. Have you been disappointed or encouraged by the experimental arrangements that some of the earlier local authorities brought in?
  (Hilary Armstrong) I think very strongly the message is that these arrangements were brought in before the legislation was enacted, and certainly before any regulations or guidance had been issued. So they were very experimental. It did, however, help to inform us during the passage of legislation, and in drawing up the guidance and the regulations we have taken account of the work that has been going on in different local authorities, and we have reflected the lessons that they have been learning in the way we have drawn up the guidance and regulations.

  Mr Olner: What account did you take of those authorities who (and I must be careful) might have been motivated by inertia?

  Mrs Dunwoody: Motivated by inertia? An interesting proposition.

  Mr Olner: I said I was being careful.

Mrs Dunwoody

  365. A noticeable falling off in the lack of apathy.
  (Hilary Armstrong) We have within the department a group of people seconded from local government to be working with us and, indeed, with local government on the range of issues that the two local government acts of this Parliament have introduced. One of them said to me "Local government, as usual, has applied the letter of the law but not all of local government has yet got hold of the spirit of the law and begun to change their culture". We do understand that, but you do not change culture overnight, and nor do you change culture simply by telling people what they have to do. So we have continued to resist that temptation.

Mr Olner

  366. Do you think it is more of a problem, Minister, with those local authorities that have no overall political control in trying to come to terms with an executive/scrutiny split?
  (Hilary Armstrong) I think there are some good examples in both very heavily-dominated single party authorities and those where there is no overall control. There are bad examples in both, too.

Mr Blunt

  367. Minister, you will recall saying to the House on 23 January: "I accept that in the past year ... some councils have become far too secretive while purporting to be moving towards new constitutions. Such councils have not done a good job of making the case for local democracy." How will the creation of Forward Plans and the other access to information requirements counter these concerns?
  (Hilary Armstrong) I had ready on 23 January a raft of examples, if you like, of bad examples from authorities who within the old legislation, if you like, were managing to get round that, to hide too much, to do too much in group meetings and not in full committees or to do stuff behind closed doors. So there has always been that problem, and much of the approach that we have taken has been to make sure that even the worst have to actually open up much more. The Forward Plan does mean that councils will have to plan more effectively than they do, and that as soon as the Forward Plan is printed and published then anyone—the public, the press, the scrutiny panels—will have the opportunity to have a look at what the executive may be considering in coming to one of those decisions that is heralded in the Forward Plan. So the papers that are available to the executive will be available publicly and the scrutiny panel will be able, if it is an issue—I do not know—around changing the nature of a school for example, to consult with parents, to consult with teachers and to consult with the Inspectorate—whoever they thought was appropriate—and then forward their views to the executive. In that way it opens up access to information in a far greater way than we have seen hitherto.

  368. You have been quite prescriptive in how Forward Plans should work. If they are going to be so good for local authorities why should they not apply to central government as well?
  (Hilary Armstrong) We ended up being more prescriptive than I would have personally wanted, because I believe that we ought to leave more to local authority discretion.

  369. Why did you not do that?
  (Hilary Armstrong) The House was not prepared for that. This was a debate. This was something that went on for a long period. We consulted both on the regulations and the guidance at great length, both with people in the House of Commons, the House of Lords and, indeed, throughout local government. I am content that whilst being reasonably prescriptive it still does put the onus on local government to be responsible, but there are lots of checks and balances so that that responsibility can be guaranteed. In terms of—

  370. You did not answer the second part of my question.
  (Hilary Armstrong) I started at the beginning by saying I do not see a strict replica between central government and local government. However, I do think that the Freedom of Information Act alongside the Human Rights Act is opening up central government in ways that many people are only just beginning to get near understanding.

  371. It would be extremely helpful to the committees of this House to have a rolling forward programme, updated every month, of the decisions Ministers were going to be considering and the papers they were taking in order to enable us to fulfil our scrutiny role. Surely, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, is it not?
  (Hilary Armstrong) We can do that in local government because local government has a written constitution. I am not sure that you would be advocating the same for central government.

  372. That is a novel defence, but I am not quite sure why it applies.
  (Hilary Armstrong) The arrangement around which the authority is able to make decisions, the whole constitution of the authority, now has to be written and accepted. We do not have that in the national state, we do not have a written constitution. Therefore, the whole issue of checks and balances and the issue of doing things in different ways is very different at central government level. You may say that in some senses the manifesto is the Forward Plan for a Parliament, but in local government they will have a written constitution and the key decisions and the Forward Plan fit into that overall written constitution model.

  373. You can argue we have a written constitution, it is just written in a vast number of difference places. The only difference is you do not go to one document for it. The customs and practices that govern Parliament are now widely seen as being Parliament not doing enough of a scrutiny job. I hear you laying down this new relationship for scrutiny in local authorities, and trying to give the scrutineers the capacity to undertake that scrutiny effectively, whereas what we have in central government is the obstruction of something as feeble as the Liaison Committee's report on shifting the balance.
  (Hilary Armstrong) I have much less experience of government than members of your party, and this is constantly a debate. I have frequently said—and, indeed, have said in the House—that we can learn a lot from good practice in local government. I hope that there is constantly an exchange of information and an exchange of learning. Who knows, a future government, if they begin to see this working—and I have to emphasise, no one is yet doing it, it has not been introduced in any authority to-date - may well want to learn the lessons from that.

Mrs Dunwoody

  374. Minister, you must believe in this system or you would not be proposing it for local government.
  (Hilary Armstrong) I do believe that this was an effective way of meeting the concerns around freedom of information in local government.

  375. So there is, presumably, no reason why it should not be applied to national government as well.
  (Hilary Armstrong) I would not be as sweeping as that because I do not see local government as exactly the same as central state.

  376. But it is a principle; we are not arguing about structure, we are arguing about principle. If you believe in a principle there is nothing to stop you applying that principle to other parts of the system.
  (Hilary Armstrong) That is a debate that will go on, and I hope that people will learn from good experience in local government.

Mr Blunt

  377. Minister, you said that no one has had a chance to see this working yet, but the final draft guidance on Forward Plans and key decisions was published in October 2000. This was replaced by new guidance in December and it has been replaced yet again less than a month ago. Rather than seeing this guidance as working, is not the simple conclusion that the guidance itself is not workable?
  (Hilary Armstrong) The guidance reflects the changes that the House has introduced.

  378. How do you respond to the criticism that the bureaucracy that local authorities will have to create in order to support Forward Plans will undermine your desire for faster decision-making within local government?
  (Hilary Armstrong) I simply do not accept that it will. Any organisation is thinking about what it is doing over a period of time. Central government actually has begun to reflect that by, for example, publishing draft bills, by signalling in one session what legislation it is likely to bring forward in the next session. That, if you like, has been central government's way of making sure that its detailed plans are going to be open to scrutiny, discussion and debate before it brings forward its concluded legislation, as it were. Even that reflects the debate within the House and within committee as it goes through. In any organisation there has to be forward planning. The real issue here is that we are making that forward planning more organised and more open. I do believe that will help efficient decision-making. Efficient decision-making has to take account of the views from more than the person who draws up the initial plan or the initial policy.

  379. You do not think you will impede faster decision-making?
  (Hilary Armstrong) I do not. Indeed, those authorities that have been experimenting with the new structures are saying that they have not seen efficiency diminishing, they have seen it increasing. Even, for example, Barnsley, who came and gave evidence to the Committee, were saying they had more efficient decision-making partly because they had more consultation before they came to the actual decision.


 
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