Examination of witnesses (Questions 440
TUESDAY 20 MARCH 2001
and MR PAUL
440. That is not quite, with respect, Minister,
the same thing?
(Hilary Armstrong) Of course it is not. I am not saying
that it is the same thing. I also think people are not coming
in here, coming into us in our surgeries and saying, "We
do not like the way Parliament behaves", well they do say
that, actually. They do not talk about the detail of how Parliament
is organised. However, they do want a democracy that looks to
be working for them more effectively.
441. It is the decisions that the public worry
about, it is the lack of consultation that the public worry about,
it is when decisions are taken behind their back they worry about.
I am not so sure on the basis of what you are saying there would
be any change to that whatsoever. Unless you introduce another
aspect to that and that scrutiny is outside the council then you
are not going to be achieving that. You are going to have the
same cabal in operation. In most authorities I have had any experience
of there is not going to be any change. If what you are suggesting
down here were to be applied in Scotland I have to say, on the
basis of some experience of local government ,I would not see
one iota of difference as far as the public themselves are concerned.
That is the worrying element of this.
(Hilary Armstrong) All I can say is that your prediction
may well be right in many authorities. I have seen for myself
examples where it has not been like that. I have actually been
called to give evidence at select committee hearings or scrutiny
committee hearings or democracy commission hearings in different
areas and there has been a representative sample of people there,
certainly not the whole borough or the whole city or whatever,
but nonetheless there has been an interest and there has been
a will to be there and to question people, including me, about
what is going on. The authorities that are using scrutiny well
are doing precisely what you suggest, they are opening it up so
that members of the public are being as powerful in their questioning
of head teachers, for example, as members of the Committee.
442. They are the same people who write regularly
to the letters page of the local evening paper?
(Hilary Armstrong) No, they are not, because in one
area it was people who were drawn from a Citizen Panel, who had
had no experience of the bureaucracy, if you like, until they
became a member of the Citizen Panel. In another area it included
the Youth Parliament, it was representatives from youth clubs
and sixth forms from around the city. In another area it was their
Democracy Commission that had been selected in the way the Citizen's
Jury had been selected. They had a Citizen's Jury running alongside
the Democracy Commission, and the Citizen's Jury had been selected
on a random basis.
443. They were representative only of themselves.
(Hilary Armstrong) Yes.
444. Can I ask you, do you think we have too
many councillors in this country?
(Hilary Armstrong) No, I do not. I think that the
bringing in of neighbourhood councils and of more parish councils
is demonstrating that there is the capacity for using councillors
in different ways, and I think that that is quite interesting.
I do think we will have to look at things very carefully as the
reforms bed in.
445. This question about cabinet members have
deputies, you frowned on that somewhat, is that not a bit foolish?
(Hilary Armstrong) It is simply trying to be clear
of the role the councillor has, either they are in the executive
or they are responsible for holding the executive to account.
There is no problem within a cabinet, for example, for one to
be the lead member on one issue and another to be the deputy on
that issue. What we are saying is that it is unrealistic to have
half of the council in that position simply because that is better
management of the group, if you like.
446. Good use of patronage, you mean?
(Hilary Armstrong) Well, whatever.
447. I can think of think of a particular councillor
who is holding down a very substantial professional job and who
has a very limited amount of time to give to the council but would
be extremely good as the person who was the strategic person responsible
for social services on a particular council. That individual is
not going to be able to give up a huge amount of time, is it not
sensible for that individual to be able to contribute that strategic
membership of the cabinet but have someone else who will deal
with a lot of the detailed decisions within the social services.
(Hilary Armstrong) There is nothing stopping the cabinet
from organising things for that to happen.
448. You are going to allow somebody to be a
(Hilary Armstrong) As long as it is very clear that
they are within the cabinet and not a member of scrutiny seeking
to assist. Obviously the total number of people in the cabinet
449. Right. Outcomes, are these things going
to be measured on the turnout in local elections or are we going
to have some other ways of measuring how successful they are in
two or three years' time.
(Hilary Armstrong) I think it would be too crude to
see the turnout at the election as the manner in which you measure
this. There will have to be another way of looking at what is
successful, essentially local people will do that.
450. Is it going to be local people will decide
whether the system is successful or are you going to try and do
some natural review of this in a year or two years' time?
(Hilary Armstrong) I made it clear to Parliament we
will do that. We will commission research later this year when
we know that the systems are in place around the country. It is
too early, we believe, to commission the research just yet, but
we are preparing for what we will commission, as it were, and
we would expect that to report.
(Mr Rowsell) There will be an evaluation over three
to five years.
451. How much cheaper is the new system going
to be to run?
(Hilary Armstrong) Again, we have not said what it
will be cheaper or that it will be more expensive. I make no prediction
on that. We have made predictions about best value, and as this
is a system which is essentially how you improve service delivery
and how you make sure that what you actually decide you are going
to do works and you monitor that then we would expect some of
the savings in best value would be reflected in the way that the
council undertakes its political management.
452. You will not be criticising the council
if it is more expensive. It seems to me that a lot of them have
very imaginatively looked at setting up district assemblies and
evolving powers, but that does appear to be a rather more expensive
way of delivering the service.
(Hilary Armstrong) We never looked at how much the
old system cost, we have very little to be able to compare. How
the authority organises its budget has essentially been a matter
that has been left to people locally. As I say, we have very little
to compare it with.
453. We will not be able to tell whether it
is successful or not?
(Hilary Armstrong) I would not see its success simply
being in terms of finance.
454. It would be nice to able to say this system
is either so much cheaper or so much dearer, but it delivers this
much better in terms of appreciation of the services that local
(Hilary Armstrong) It may well be that individual
authorities will be able to do that. I know that, for example,
the authorities that have moved to a more devolved structure would
justify increased finance because they do believe, even if they
were very sceptical about it at the beginning, that this is beginning
to deliver a better service and better communication between the
council and the citizens.
455. Would you like to put on record your appreciation
of the tremendous amount of hard work that has gone on by local
officers and councillors in local authorities to try make your
(Hilary Armstrong) I would certainly do that. I do
not see it as my system, I see it as a means whereby they can
enhance their relationship between the citizen and the council.
I also see it as part of ensuring they are able to get effective
service delivery. They have been working exceptionally hard and
I am very encouraged by that and I take every opportunity to let
them know that I really do appreciate their commitment to serving
the public evermore effectively.
Chairman: On that note can I thank you very
much for your evidence.