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



Examination of witnesses (Questions 440 - 455)

TUESDAY 20 MARCH 2001

RT HON HILARY ARMSTRONG and MR PAUL ROWSELL

  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.

Mr Donohoe

  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.

Mr Olner

  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.

Mrs Dunwoody

  443. They were representative only of themselves.
  (Hilary Armstrong) Yes.

Chairman

  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 deputy?
  (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 is limited.

  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 people get.
  (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 system work?
  (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.


 
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