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



Examination of witnesses (Questions 380 - 399)

TUESDAY 20 MARCH 2001

RT HON HILARY ARMSTRONG and MR PAUL ROWSELL

  380. It may be reflective on what Barnsley was like before.
  (Hilary Armstrong) I would not have that sort of cynicism about local government, but I accept it is around.

Chairman

  381. In this Forward Plan process, presumably, it would be sufficient for a council sometime in September to say that in December it will be looking at its budget. That will be enough, will it?
  (Hilary Armstrong) That would be enough but that would then mean that papers that were presented for the budget, that were final papers, would be open and available to others.

  382. What about the process? How does this link in with the Government giving a decision to a local authority about the amount of money it is going to have for the following year? Are you going to be able to give the councils sufficient forward notice so that they can fit it into this Forward Plan?
  (Hilary Armstrong) We will continue to try to give more and better information over a three-year period. We have been seeking to do that in the last few years, but there still is a lot of difficulty because local government finance is largely arranged around population, and population is changing year-on-year, and that was the biggest effect on distribution matters in the last year. We are, through the Local Government Finance Green Paper and, hopefully, White Paper in the summer, looking at ways in which we can, in other areas, give greater clarity. We will never be able to give absolute certainty because Parliament will have to agree the amounts each year, but we will give a better framework within which local government can plan. They already say that is beginning to work and they want more clarity.

Mr Benn

  383. In relation to the fact that the guidance about what constitutes a key decision was changed following discussion in Parliament, can you tell us what safeguard there will be for local people if they think that their local authority is not interpreting a key decision in the way in which the guidance suggests?
  (Hilary Armstrong) The local authority are ultimately responsible to the local people. When we are drawing up any legislation and any guidance we always have to have that in mind. So local people will, through their scrutiny panel and so on, be able to challenge—if they can persuade some of the scrutiny panel to challenge—whether some of the decisions that they think have not been labelled "key" should have been labelled "key". I think that in the early years there would probably be many decisions which, in subsequent years, would not be seen as key and will actually be signalled as key because people do want to be seen to be being very open. Many decisions that are currently simply taken today as normal daily decisions by officers, I think, may well be a bit of a problem in the next couple of years; that councillors will want to be seen to be taking many of those decisions in open session. That may slow decision-making, which may get a bit frustrating. Then, however, local people have the opportunity of the ballot box. I hope they will also have the opportunity of making their voices heard in different ways in between voting periods. That is what much of the consultation legislation is really around, so that councils do not see the electorate simply as voting fodder but they do see they have a relationship with them throughout the period. They would, at the end of the day, of course, be able to go to court.

  384. Talking of the ballot box, are the county council elections going to go ahead on 3 May?
  (Hilary Armstrong) I have made no contingency plans that they should not and there is no reason why they should not go ahead. I probably have more foot-and-mouth in my constituency, certainly, than anyone here today, and I am very aware of the problems. We have introduced legislation to enable postal voting without any preconditions, and we all know that our parties now mainly canvass by telephone. I can hardly think of the last time in my constituency that people canvassed in my hill farms. The reality is that they do that by telephone and having been doing. So there is no reason why we should bring panic to people by saying that democracy cannot proceed, it can proceed.

  385. Bearing that in mind, and given that the elections take place and there may be some change of control in some counties, how are you going to deal with that as far as the June 2001 deadline for submissions of new constitutions is concerned? In particular, if an authority with a new form of political control comes to you and says "We think we want to do it slightly differently", will there be some flexibility as far as this deadline is concerned?
  (Hilary Armstrong) It is not a deadline, it is a guideline. Most authorities are seeking to work towards that guideline, but clearly if there are political changes in May the new administration will want to take account of where the consultation is and what the consultation is saying. I hope that political change will not mean that any new leadership will seek to overturn what the public have been saying in response to consultation. Obviously it is right that authorities should have the opportunity and the new administration should have the opportunity to look at things. We have put a guideline of June, most authorities are confident that they will meet that guideline, but we are aware that there are some that will not.

Mr Blunt

  386. What is the deadline?
  (Hilary Armstrong) We do not have a deadline, the legislation does not set a deadline. What the legislation does say very clearly is that the government would have power of intervention if authorities were clearly simply flouting the law by not making preparation and by not engaging in the process to get there. We would expect, therefore, that by May 2002 the vast majority of authorities would be introducing new processes.

Mr Olner

  387. What penalties are you going to impose on those authorities who do not meet the guideline?
  (Hilary Armstrong) We will not be imposing penalties, we will be engaging in discussion with them to see what the problems are, to see how they want to proceed. We will not be imposing penalties.

  388. So the grant next year will not be affected?
  (Hilary Armstrong) We certainly do not have powers to affect the grant because of how they do or do not implement the political changes. What we do have is the power to intervene to enforce a referendum.

Chairman

  389. One or two single officers have been putting it to me that they have had to work quite hard to get these new constitutional documents working through the councils. They are going to arrive on someone's desk in June 2001. How quickly are you and your officials going to respond to those constitutions?
  (Hilary Armstrong) The law makes it very clear that within two months they will be implementing the proposals, and therefore unless we respond within that time they will have licence to go ahead. So we will have to respond very quickly to those that we are not satisfied with. We expect that to the vast majority we will not be going back and saying "Will you change this? Will you change that?" We expect that most of them will simply proceed. Is that right, Paul?
  (Mr Rowsell) That is right. The two months time, if there is a need—which we suspect generally there would not be—we could extend the two months.

Mr Blunt

  390. I am sorry?
  (Mr Rowsell) The two months' period, if there were to be a need to do that, we could extend the two months.

  391. For another two months?
  (Mr Rowsell) During which we are considering the submissions.

  392. How many civil servants do you have dealing with these submissions?
  (Mr Rowsell) There is a small team of about four or five people.

  393. So as long as all 388 councils overwhelm you with actually pursuing the constitutions that they want, there is a very good change that most of them will get away with it because you will not be able to respond in time?
  (Hilary Armstrong) It is not quite like that. The government offices are now much more geared up to, and have had training and support for, working much more closely with local government. Therefore, we have, if you like, eyes and ears out in the regions. Also, as I say, I have this team of secondees who are working across all of the regions and they have a good insight into what is already going on.

Chairman

  394. In answer to earlier questions you suggested that these regulations were not as flexible as you would have liked. How soon do you think they could be made more flexible?
  (Hilary Armstrong) I always have to take account of what Parliament says and Parliament made it very clear that at this stage, particularly on access to information, they wanted the regulations and the guidance to be as such that no authority would be able to squirrel away and pretend that that guidance and regulation was not very clear. I do believe, therefore, that we will run with this, that we will have to learn by this and we have promised Parliament that we will review it at the end of the year.

  395. Part of this is the secrecy issue, but there is a huge amount of the rest of it which is still pretty prescriptive. Would it not be nice to make that much more flexible and actually trust local government?
  (Hilary Armstrong) Again, there is a balance there between the commitments that were made in committee around the debate that took place in committee, but, also—and I think this was reflected in some of your earlier evidence—there has been a lot of consultation with local government, with its constituent parts, with some individual local authorities but also with the Local Government Association, the Improvement and Development Agency, the Audit Commission and SOLACE, the Chief Executives' Group. So there has been a lot of, if you like, ownership of the guidance, and indeed one of your witnesses said that this guidance is not the sort of guidance that is normally written by civil servants. What it does is reflect that there has been a lot of work done out there with the constituent parts of local government to get the guidance right. I think that does reflect the years in which local government did not do anything until it was told. Because it was forever being told, therefore, it felt there was no point in doing something until it had been told. I do not believe we are through that in local government yet. I hope in the future it would be, but I would not like to put a time on it.

Mr Blunt

  396. Why are alternative arrangements only open to district councils with a population of 85,000 or below?
  (Hilary Armstrong) That is what Parliament decided.

  Chairman: Without your influence at all?

Mrs Dunwoody

  397. You did not have any say in the Bill?
  (Hilary Armstrong) I did indeed, but we nonetheless started with one level and ended up with another level.

Mr Olner

  398. Why?
  (Hilary Armstrong) Because we were looking at what was the reasonable size where you really could not say any more "This is not a small district council". My input was that I really do think that the revised committee system is most suitable to small district councils and it then came down to what is the definition of a small district council. We ended up with 85,000.

Mr Blunt

  399. Why?
  (Hilary Armstrong) Because it looked about right. There is no science in this.


 
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