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

Examination of witnesses (Questions 420 - 439)



Mrs Dunwoody

  420. The trouble with the whole of this is that it is based on the assumption that you can have almost full-time councillors with access to tremendously detailed information. Frankly, your criticism of individual council committees that they do not, and have not in the past, scrutinise things, must accept that that was because they did not have access to sufficient independent information. What you are talking about is faintly unrealistic, is it not?
  (Hilary Armstrong) I do not think so. What we are seeking to do is get authorities to look at things not always in tiny little bits but to actually look at what happens across a range of issues.

  421. But, with respect, the amount and the size of the problem is not the question. The quality of decision-making and the quality of scrutiny depends on the information available to the people asking the questions. Select Committees of the House of Commons would not operate unless they had access to detailed, independent information. You are suggesting, firstly, that young councillors have gone because they are professional and because they do not get the back-up. Many of us would say that is something to do with the terms of their employment, which has not been addressed by any of the changes. However, the reality is that you have not specified clearly the calibre of officers who would be available to give independent advice to the scrutiny committees, you have not specified the difference between the structure within the council officers which would protect them, if they were doing an effective job and making themselves unpopular with chief officers, and you have not dealt with the whole question of industrial relations. Are those not much more important questions than the ones you are putting?
  (Hilary Armstrong) I think we have addressed those. We have not been prescriptive in our addressing of them, however, because again, essentially, at the end of the day, a local council has to be accountable to its local electorate and not to us. We have, therefore, given guidance as to what we think would be good models and we have drawn those up in consultation with organisations like SOLACE about what could and should be going on. We have also made it clear that they should be looking for independent advice, but we have also made it clear that if they only accept official advice then they will be missing the trick; it is as much about being able to get information from the users of services and from the deliverers of services as it is from officers that actually enables them to scrutinise effectively. There are some examples of where that has worked very well and where it has been a real revelation to councillors just what they have been able to do by doing things in a different way.

Mr Donohoe

  422. What do you do in a political position where, out of 105 councillors in an authority, 103 of them are of one party?
  (Hilary Armstrong) I do not think that happens anywhere, not even in Birmingham—

  423. Strathclyde District Council.
  (Hilary Armstrong) I do not have responsibility for Scotland and I definitely am not accepting responsibility for Scotland. They do things in different ways there, too.

  424. Say it was to happen.
  (Hilary Armstrong) If you think about Newham, where there are not any opposition councillors, they nonetheless are pursuing the system and they certainly have got service delivery at the centre of it. That, for them, is the biggest issue in their borough. What they have done is set up their systems so that councillors are getting information about what is going on, particularly in their own ward, and they are actually trying to make sure they use that effectively. The system is set up so that there is the ability for questioning, as there is this morning, but without there being a whip on the group. There is no whip on scrutiny positions.

Mr Olner

  425. Minister, you are quite right on the scrutiny committee, perhaps, concentrating on service delivery. Having concentrated on that service delivery, how does the scrutiny committee then get the cabinet to provide whatever, so that the service that they are complaining about is improved?
  (Hilary Armstrong) There is one committee that even in the early stages of experiment did a very thorough scrutiny of their school services. They extracted from the chair of the committee, as it then was, now the cabinet member, and the director, that if they did not meet certain targets within five years they would go.


  426. When you make this point about there being no whip on the scrutiny committee, is that not a bit naive? In a sense, there is no whip on this Committee, but the pressure for us to produce a unanimous report because it is so much stronger, is very considerable. So that for a scrutiny group there is, in a sense, a whip on them in terms of what is expected from them. Is that not just as powerful as a party whip?
  (Hilary Armstrong) I think that is different. That is you saying: how do you become most influential? That is not: how do you stick by the party line? That is certainly something I do not recognise in a Select Committee.

Mr Donohoe

  427. What happens in a practical sense, if an individual continually goes against what is perceived as being the party line, is that that individual, when it comes to reselection, will be dumped.
  (Hilary Armstrong) The policy decisions are the responsibility of the whole council, and so it is legitimate to have a whip on policy issues. However, that does not prevent decent scrutiny of how that policy is working and what effect it is having. The overall policy and the overall manifesto, if you are like, is what you are elected on. So, yes, you have to stick by that.

Mr Blunt

  428. You said a few moments ago that local parties are accountable to their local electorates, you are visiting this new scheme and the vast majority of local authorities do not want it, and it would not have come forward for proposal in the first place. They are having to deliver one of the three methods you have given them. That is not accountable to the local electorate, they are not making decisions for that. Yet, you are then imposing on them scrutiny arrangements which will not then protect those officers who are going to be servicing the scrutiny committees.
  (Hilary Armstrong) Firstly, it is not my understanding that the majority of councils are against the proposals and only introduce them because the letter of the law says they have to. I would also say that there is actually much more flexibility in this system than there was in the old committee system. I would also say that the new ethical code does protect officers and does so very strongly. I understand from reading your previous evidence that you were concerned about the career prospects of officers who, for example, were servicing the scrutiny panel, as against those who were servicing the executive. I thought it was very interesting that the chief executives you had were saying they did not see that as a problem.

Mrs Dunwoody

  429. In one case they said it because the man was so senior he got to the top of the tree, and in the other case I cannot remember. There was a very good reason why neither of them were going to be part of the existing structure.
  (Hilary Armstrong) I read other parts of evidence which also said that the chief executive saw it as his responsibility to protect and defend all of his officers and to make sure that that did not happen.

  Mrs Dunwoody: That is like saying it is the role of the whips in the House of Commons to ensure that members of Parliament fulfil their tasks adequately.

Mr Blunt

  430. If you were so confident that a majority of councils wanted this new system why could you not enact the legislation to enable them to make the choice? Why did you force them to move?
  (Hilary Armstrong) They are part of a nation which has a legislative framework. If we are to police that legislative framework then we have to make sure that there is some coherence within local government in order to do that.

  431. You are letting 88 of them, or whatever the number was, in effect stay with the old system because they—
  (Hilary Armstrong) No, it is not staying with the old system, it is reforming the old system, adding in scrutiny and not having more than five committees that are non-regulatory committees.

  432. The argument that something like this can require consistency across government, given that you are offering in effect four different schemes, it does not hold water, does it?
  (Hilary Armstrong) We are giving far more flexibility than there has ever been, that is absolutely true. We do, nonetheless, have to have some measure of agreement about what people locally can expect, so that where there is something going wrong and where there is real denial of local people's rights the Government through the Audit Commission, through the inspectorates, and so on, have the opportunity to intervene. That is why we have always accepted in this country some form of national statute in relation to local government. As I say, we have tried to make that far more flexible, but there is still a national statute which regulates local government.

Mr Donohoe

  433. Do you think that party groups within councils will have to change the way they work? For instance, do you think instead of having meetings in private they have them in public?
  (Hilary Armstrong) I think there is much change already going on in party structures. When I talked about the whips not being possible, that is a Labour Party decision. Each party will have to take their own decisions. Certainly in the Labour Party we are reviewing and changing standing orders in order to reflect the new constitution. I do not anticipate that all private group meetings will disappear however.

  434. That would be just impossible, the fact is that that is how they generate the business of the council if they have a majority group. What about minority groups within the council?
  (Hilary Armstrong) It is going to be up to them too to find their own way forward.

  435. Because of that, do you think that they are going to have to make their views known at some point, that the other parties are going to have to agree with what the Labour Party has done?
  (Hilary Armstrong) I would hope so. I have asked then to do so.

  436. How confident are you that they will?
  (Hilary Armstrong) That is up to them and it is not the right time for me to try and predict what the parties are going to do.

  437. It could be perceived by other parties that you are undermining the whole question of the way that the councils are constructed now by virtue of this proposal itself?
  (Hilary Armstrong) I do not follow that at all. What I do think is that the public are saying they want to feel that their council is able to represent their interests and that they are going to know what that is about. They want us to co-operate more on things that we ought to be cooperating on. The new system allows that. It cannot dictate that, but it does allow that.

  438. I do not have an awful lot of discussion amongst my electorate about this particular situation. I do not believe it would be something that everyone knows, I doubt there is very much discussion about this.
  (Hilary Armstrong) I certainly would not expect any discussion in Scotland, because Scotland have not moved on this.

Mrs Dunwoody

  439. They do not exactly rush in and tell you in your local surgery, "The one thing that concerns me is the administration of my local council". They tell you about the decisions on their rent and the decisions on their council tax. Do they actually come in and say, "I cannot bear this structure, it is really terribly overburdened, what I desperately need is to have all of these appalling committees changed so that I add a small scrutiny committee, with something like two thirds of the council not being able to take part in the decision-making process?
  (Hilary Armstrong) Of course they do not. They do come in and say they did not find out about anything until it has all been done and dusted.

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