TUESDAY 20 MARCH 2001
  
                               _________
  
                           Members present:
              Mr Andrew F Bennett, in the Chair
              Mr Hilary Benn
              Mr Crispin Blunt
              Mr Brian H Donohoe
              Mrs Gwyneth Dunwoody
              Mr Bill Olner
  
                               _________
                                   
                       EXAMINATION OF WITNESSES
  
                 RT HON HILARY ARMSTRONG, a Member of the House (Minister for Local
           Government and the Regions), MR PAUL ROWSELL, Head of Local
           Government Sponsorship Division, Department of the Environment,
           Transport and the Regions, examined.
  
                               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.
        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 SOLAS, 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.
        400.     It is purely arbitrary?  A wet finger in the air job?
        (Hilary Armstrong)         No, more than that.  We looked at the
  lists, we looked at how those councils were operating, who would qualify
  within the 85,000, and so on.
        401.     So there was a political deal, was there, in terms of how
  many councils controlled, perhaps, by the Liberal Party, who were ----
        (Hilary Armstrong)         I certainly would not put it that way. 
  As I say, the definition was "What is a small district council?"  That is
  quite a difficult area to define, because in some areas small district
  councils will co-operate very fully though they deliver services jointly with
  other authorities, very often.  Once they get up to about 85,000 they are not
  doing that.
        402.     How many authorities are below 85,000?  How many qualified
  for alternative arrangements?
        (Hilary Armstrong)         I need to come back to you on the detail
  of that.
        403.     Can you come back to us on how many are below 85,000 and what
  -- I think we may have the answers -- the political control is of each of
  those councils?
        (Hilary Armstrong)         Do you want that before the arrangements
  or after the arrangements?  I have to say, particularly in small districts,
  political control changes fairly often.
        404.     As at the date on which the deal was brokered in the House of
  Lords.
        (Hilary Armstrong)         Eighty six.
        405.     And political control?
        (Hilary Armstrong)         We need to come back to you on that. 
  Many of them have no overall control.
        406.     Perhaps your private secretaries might be able to add them up
  between now and the end of the session.
        (Hilary Armstrong)         They would only be adding up a snapshot.
        407.     It is a snapshot on which the negotiation took place.  The
  principle of 85,000, you said, is non-existent to those opposed to the
  principle of these changes altogether.  I am trying to get a feel for the
  influences that came to bear on the deal.
        (Hilary Armstrong)         I really have said as much as I possibly
  can on that.
        408.     We have had a discussion saying that June 2001 is not a
  deadline but a guideline.  Particularly given that the regulations on
  alternative arrangements were only laid on 15 March, if district councils who
  are below 85,000 are seeking to apply under these regulations, can you give
  them some idea of how long they have got?
        (Hilary Armstrong)         Most of them are now getting on with it. 
  They have to have a decent consultation period and then get their information
  in to us.  Quite honestly, not many of them are saying that they cannot do
  that by the end of June.
        409.     What is a decent consultation period?
        (Hilary Armstrong)         It will depend on what consultation they
  already have in line.  So those authorities that already, for example, have
  citizens panels will have somewhere to start.  Others that only ever have
  public meetings will have some difficulty.  What we are trying to do in terms
  of consultation is not even the period, it is using a variety of methods and
  actually making sure that they do get involved.  If you think about some of
  the smaller districts where there will be a large number of parishes, they
  should be using their parish councils, their area structures, to actually get
  involved and get out there.  There are not elections in district councils this
  year, so they ought to be able to get on with things.
        410.     Are you going to be absolutely inflexible around the 85,000
  mark, in terms of if there is a local authority population of just over that
  or close to it?  Of course, the figures on which they are based are the
  Registrar General's estimate, in any case.  So is there any flexibility in
  that?
        (Hilary Armstrong)         We will have much better information
  about actual population once we have got the census data.
  
                               Chairman
        411.     But not in time for this.
        (Hilary Armstrong)         Not necessarily in time for this.  We
  are not wanting to be so flexible that it allows councils to flout the spirit
  of the law.
  
                               Mr Blunt
        412.     One of the most onerous parts of the new arrangements is this
  split between executive arrangements and the servicing of the overview and
  scrutiny committees.  Why have you then inflicted, in the alternative
  arrangements, at least one overview and scrutiny committee?
        (Hilary Armstrong)         Because I think that given the roles and
  responsibilities of local government today, scrutiny has become an aspect of
  work that is just very important and cannot be missed in the small district
  councils.  For example, the Crime and Disorder partnerships are based on small
  district councils' size.  They do not, as an authority, have responsibility
  for the police, but there are lots of other things that impact on the Crime
  and Disorder partnership that they would have responsibility for: some of the
  licensing, planning applications, the work on neighbourhood estates, on
  housing estates and leisure centres - a range of things - which are all part
  of "How do you get an effective Crime and Disorder partnership working to
  reduce crime in your neighbourhood?"  If the authority is having no means
  whereby it is, through the proper channels of the authority, looking at how
  its work there is relating to tackling crime, then it could be that in one
  committee or another committee they would be making decisions without actually
  looking at what is the impact of that decision in the housing department, of
  that decision in the leisure department and bringing together and looking at
  it.
        413.     Surely, you are not suggesting that the committee structure
  and the full council structure we have had to-date is capable of delivering
  any scrutiny at all?
        (Hilary Armstrong)         I am saying that in too many councils
  scrutiny did not happen at all.
        414.     At all?
        (Hilary Armstrong)         At all.  Not by councillors, anyway.
  
                              Mr Donohoe
        415.     Where did the idea of this scrutiny come from?
        (Hilary Armstrong)         It has come from every other aspect of
  local government everywhere else in the world.  This was part of the debate
  and the discussion that we had in opposition that was actually put into a
  document before I was the spokesperson for local government in Opposition, and
  was developed alongside talking to a range of local government members and a
  range of other people interested in local government, about how do we actually
  enable local government politically to bring in more accountability but, also,
  how did we make sure that the corporate and the cross-cutting attention that
  was very clearly seen to be necessary was made possible within the structures.
        416.     So it is not a possibility that all you do is put in another
  tier of bureaucracy that delays decision-making and, therefore, does the exact
  opposite of what you are trying to achieve?
        (Hilary Armstrong)         It is always possible to frustrate the
  way things are meant to work.  In any organisation there are always people
  around who are good at that.  I would, therefore, not say that that is not
  ever a possibility.  That is one of the reasons that the regulations and the
  guidance have been written in the way that they have been, in order to try and
  make sure that people do not get away with doing just that.  What it is meant
  to do is make sure that those councillors who are not in the key decision-
  making positions - and in the past that meant anybody, really, who was not a
  chair or a vice-chair, because they were the people who really made the
  decisions that would then be reported to the committee meeting - actually had
  better service and support to understand the decisions that had been taken and
  to examine their impact.
        417.     Surely, you are losing what is, perhaps, the centre of any
  argument as far as any councillor that I have had any dealing with (and I have
  had dealings with most in Scotland) is concerned; that you only get a few high
  calibre councillors and the remainder would, if you sat them in a room for two
  days, not ask any decent questions about problems.  You are kidding yourself
  on.  Really, what the problem is is about the calibre of the council.
        (Hilary Armstrong)         You get into an ever-declining circle if
  you go down that route, because some people would say "If you accept that,
  then the reason that that happens is because councillors are never given the
  opportunity to do anything real and not given powers and opportunities to
  satisfy their intellect, their commitment, their belief in democratic
  participation.  I do not go down the route that there is only a handful on
  every council that has the potential to be good councillors in a very wide
  way.  It does not mean to say we all have to be the same.  There are some
  councillors who are able to be good ward representatives, which is a very
  important part of the new system, and who are able to be forensic about issues
  in their ward.  Really, what the new system does is give them the opportunity
  to get the chance to be like that.  In the past that was getting much more
  difficult.
        418.     What are you going to do if the experience is the exact
  opposite and that people who have got the calibre start to move away because
  they are frustrated by this extra tier of bureaucracy that you have
  introduced?
        (Hilary Armstrong)         I do not accept it is an extra tier of
  bureaucracy and I do not accept that in most authorities that is how it is
  being treated.  Nor do I accept that there are good councillors that we were
  able to keep in the old system.  All of our surveys showed that the younger,
  more professional people left the council after their first term.  That was
  one of the reasons why the cohort of councillors was becoming much older.  So
  I do not accept the premise.  What I do say is that in any system it is
  possible to frustrate it and make it very difficult.  My modernisation team
  tell me that in going round they meet some people who are evangelical about
  the system but they also say that within their group or within their council
  there are people who do not like it and who try to frustrate.
        419.     What about the position in terms of members versus officers? 
  That is another conflict that I have seen time and time again.  This does
  nothing, in any event, but further frustrate those of the officers who are
  wanting to get decisions through on authorities as quickly as possible to
  deliver services.  That is part of the reason why there are problems -
  probably the main reason - in the ability of authorities to deliver.
        (Hilary Armstrong)         The new regime of best value is very
  much geared to delivering, and this system gives councillors and politicians
  certainly more overview, more influence and more ability to map what is going
  on in terms of delivery.  I accept that for some officers democracy is a very
  frustrating thing (it is a bit frustrating for politicians now and again, too)
  but nonetheless I think it is something that is worth sticking with because,
  at the end of the day, I actually do believe it delivers better services.
  
                             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 SOLAS 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.
  
                               Chairman
        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 have 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.
        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 councils 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 councils 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.