Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Minutes of Evidence to the Report

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 720 - 739)



  720. On the scrutiny point, we have obviously had quite a few witnesses raising points about the scrutiny process. At the last session we had John Stewart, who outlined four different approaches to scrutiny, and I would be interested to know whether or not you agree with his analysis that scrutiny is a many-faceted creature and not a fairly narrowly defined one? Secondly, the role of scrutiny on local authorities is one which has already been developed by some authorities within their committee systems as it is now. Do you not think that those authorities that are able to demonstrate that they have found ways of scrutinising both decisions and performance, policy-making, within their existing structures to the satisfaction of all their community stakeholders could not continue to operate those three systems?

  (Hilary Armstrong) First of all, John Stewart was part of the advisory group that we used in drawing up the White Paper and he has always been someone whom I have respected and worked with in terms of his knowledge and understanding of local government, and I am not at all anxious about saying that scrutiny is more than one thing. I think of course it is. I also think it is very important that different councils develop their structures and that they do that in ways that are relevant and that match the needs of that area. I actually want to see diversity and not everything the same, but I do say about the current system that at one level the opportunities to do that were there and were pushed through that Audit Commission report way before we came into government. Indeed, I think it is about seven or eight years ago. So the opportunity was there then. You could literally count the number of authorities who did that on one hand certainly until the Hunt Bill was published last year and then this Bill, and it is only in a sense as the momentum has gathered and as the recognition that change is in the air and is coming that that has motivated people to get on with it. I am desperately trying not to be cynical but I am terrified that that would roll back and that we would not get real change if there was no momentum through legislation to sustain that change and to get there. I think that that would be a very bad day for local government. I am not suggesting all of this because I want local government to suffer. I want this because I want to see a rejuvenation and a renewal of local government so that we really can get more of the public feeling that local government is about them.

  721. A final, very quick question. Area committees: can they be decision-making bodies?

  (Hilary Armstrong) There is a very clear role for area committees, particularly in some sorts of councils, and I do think that one of the interesting things is that in a number of councils who are seeking to find new ways of engaging with their public and of meeting some of the ideas in this Bill, they are going to an area committee structure. You can think about Barnsley, Hull, York, as well as South Somerset and others. Indeed, I was involved in setting up area committees a long time ago in local government from the outside and I think they are perfectly compatible with this model. There needs to be a relationship between the corporate centre and the area structure. I have always believed that and I think that the experience over the past ten years has re-affirmed that belief and commitment, but I am perfectly certain that there are ways in which the constitution of a local authority can be written so that there is clear decision-making at local area level but that there is a very clear corporate decision-making process through the separation of powers.

  722. So if the Bill were slightly defective, in our opinion, on that matter, you would certainly look at that again?

  (Hilary Armstrong) Whatever you suggest to us, we will look at. That is what this process is about.

  723. Maybe I should have said "change it"?

  (Hilary Armstrong) That does not mean we will change it but, of course, that is why the Government has moved to draft Bills. We do feel this is very important.


  724. Minister, could I go back to one of the answers you gave to Mr Burstow when you described a scenario of a council leader not having the ability to make a decision when negotiating with business. I am not unsympathetic to trying to remedy that but how will we actually resolve giving whoever, whatever function, that power with the need that we have heard from many people of the importance of having decisions recorded, the advice backing up that decision recorded, because in a sense there is a problem? There is a desire, is there not, to be able to do a deal and make a decision but in local government you have to go away, under the old system, and get authority from somebody or, under the new system, have the decision validated by the advisory board?

  (Hilary Armstrong) I think the reality is that that is how grown-up politics works, that in a sense anyone who is in a negotiating position and takes a decision that is not rooted in the policy of the organisation and rooted in the way in which that organisation is working, is not going to last very long, certainly as an elected person, and I think of that in terms of government. I do not have the power to go off and make decisions which are not within the agreed way in which government is working on something but that does mean that there are occasions when I can say, "Yes, that is what we will do and that is the way we will proceed," and the same is going to be true at local level. I want to see a situation where there is sufficient trust in the people who have the decision-making powers because they have a well worked through structure which has developed a relationship which has some trust within it between the scrutiny and the cabinet or the mayor and so on. I understand what you are saying but I am also saying that if we try and pin things down too carefully we actually then prescribe very strictly the manner in which a local authority will draw up its constitution and it will actually then mean that they do not own it. I have been impressed in talking to councils that some of them are involving in policy terms a fair amount of pre-scrutiny around decisions and others are saying, "No, we are really going to agree the whole policy as a council but then we are going to leave it up to the cabinet to take the decisions and as long as we then know what they have taken the decisions on and what they have been doing, then we can question that and so on after the event." It really is up to the council to work out a structure that meets the overall framework of the legislation but which also meets their own needs as well.

Earl of Carnarvon

  725. Chairman, the ombudsman was very strong on an audit trail and I am sure you are, Minister, as well?

  (Hilary Armstrong) Absolutely, yes.

  726. That is the situation—Mr Burstow's point—that could arise, that people might make a decision that was insufficiently well recorded and there was not an audit trail?

  (Hilary Armstrong) They would be in deep trouble very quickly if that is what they were doing. That is why I am saying that we have to approach this in a realistic and grown-up way, but also that is what the other part of Bill that deals with ethics is dealing with, that there does have to be a very clear audit trail, that every decision, if it involves public money, has to be accounted for. That is precisely why we want that separation of powers so that we can get the clear audit trail and we can enable the councillors to have access to that and to be able to scrutinise and ask questions about it in a way that, certainly in my experience, does not happen at the moment.

Lord Ponsonby

  727. Minister, a couple of weeks ago we had Councillor Andrew Slaughter here, who is the Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham, and he is enthusiastic for the changes that are being put forward, but one of the points he made was that he did not believe the electorate were particularly interested in the type of procedures adopted by the council, and while he very much supported the proposals in this White Paper, he did not think that they by themselves would rejuvenate local democracy, if you like. Perhaps you could tell us what other things you will be proposing or other ideas you have as part of a package for rejuvenating interest in local government?

  (Hilary Armstrong) I agree that if you only talk about structures that is the very best way to turn the public off. They need to know that this is all real, that there are real issues involved that affect the quality of their lives. I do think that the Bill that, in fact, I think your Lordships have in your House today on Third Reading is very much a part of the way in which we seek to change the relationship between councils and their public in relation to service delivery. I think this is a very important aspect of the changes in local government and best value will be a way of councils doing what we are told by the public they want to happen, and that is be involved in some way. That does not mean in referenda or in public meetings but it does in a whole series of other ways, both of users of services and of citizens in an area, that they be involved in the priorities that the council have for service delivery and really have a say about those services and the structure of best value, if you like, is very much geared towards that. We also have ideas which you may have heard about from the Home Office this week which are about making it easier for people to vote and increasing the democratic opportunities at local and, I hope eventually, at national level and there are a whole raft of other changes that we want to bring in, some of which are related to service delivery, and that would be the beacon council areas, the areas of making sure that we celebrate the best and we encourage the spread of good practice, constantly seeking to improve and move things forward, but then as well the measures we are taking to encourage and enable the community leadership function of local authorities through more joint working, through joint budgets indeed for some areas of work, but we are also pushing forward on things like one-stop delivery, so that local people are able to have much easier access. We enjoy talking about district councils and county councils and all the rest of it. For the public the main thing is not which council has responsibility for what but actually are they able to get access, is the service meeting their needs and aspirations and so on. So I do think that it is the whole raft of reforms that will bring changes. We are making some changes in the financial regime, not as much as some people in local government would want, but again the business community, we have been working very closely with them and with local government about changing some aspects of the business rate and some aspects of the way in which business relates to local government in order to make them feel that they are a real part of the future of the area that they happen to be based in.

  728. One of the main criticisms of the existing system is low turnout at elections and there has always been a fairly low turnout in local elections. Are you content that the success of this policy be measured by a higher turnout at elections?

  (Hilary Armstrong) I certainly do feel that if, after all the work that is done, we do not both get a more representative group serving on councils and a higher turnout, then I would see that as failure.

Ms Moran

  729. The draft Bill talks about a role for councillors but then is largely silent about that role apart from the scrutiny process. We have actually heard relatively little about the various roles for backbenchers on community councils. Could you perhaps give us some examples of what other role besides the important one of scrutiny you see for other councillors other than the executive?

  (Hilary Armstrong) Firstly, I think that they will be the real representatives of local people and local groups in ways that sometimes at the moment are quite difficult. I also think that if we change the structure we may encourage a wider representative section of the community to stand in local elections, because what I hope is that they will both be able to be on the council and, if you like, have a life. At the moment the councillors are becoming older, fewer in work, fewer in self-employment, and the trend is very marked in that and that is not healthy for democracy either, but I do think that the whole idea of councillors being real representatives of their community—and I do not just mean pavement politics but being, yes, involved in their wards but also with the other stakeholders that make a community work, that enable a community to work and if backbench councillors are able to have that more representative role, then I think that will be much more enjoyable for them but also be a way in which the council is seen to be much more in touch with the people that it seeks to serve.

  730. We have focused on the political structures. We have also heard from some of the officers about the implications of changes for their role. Could you tell us how you envisage their roles working, given that they will be in a position where they will be servicing both an executive, which could be a single-party closed executive possibly, they will be servicing the scrutiny function and the community backbench councillors' function. How do you see that working effectively to support those political structures?

  (Hilary Armstrong) I think it is very important that I say this morning that the Government is very protective of the independent role of the officer group and, indeed, of the civil service. That is one of the reasons why again within the national guidance on the code of conduct we will seek to spell out the appropriate relationships between officers and members. I do think that is very important and I think that sometimes that has not been done sufficiently well in the past, but clearly it is important that the officers see themselves as servicing both the executive—whether that is a single person or a cabinet model—and the scrutiny and that will mean a re-organisation of their work but essentially it is their role to uphold the law and make sure that everyone working is upholding the law and it is their role, too, to make sure that the council is acting in the interests of the public. I think that the new model, of course, will bring change to them but I am also confident that it will work in ways in which they are able to exercise their management role effectively, and again some of the councils who have been trying different methods and, indeed, who have actually been running an executive for some time since the internal management changes that we suggested all of those years ago, that role has developed and they have developed that with some confidence and I think of Kirklees as an example of that.

  731. One quick question: you have obviously been watching the more recent pilots and experiments that the councils are getting involved in very closely, I imagine. Could you give us any examples of issues which cause you anxiety in respect some of those pilots?

  (Hilary Armstrong) Without naming any, there were some that restructured in order to slim their main committees and ended up with more people in posts of responsibility (as we call them) than they had before, and I did not think that was exactly in the sprit, and I have to say that is one of the reasons why I am extremely cautious about saying the status quo is an option, remodelled. Also, I have been concerned that some have gone straight to sort out their executive without really thinking about the role of the whole council and the role of the backbenchers and the scrutiny. I think some of the most effective councils have been those that have started with the scrutiny role and have started with the different role for backbenchers and then that has led them to be much clearer about the way forward and much clearer about what the separation of powers enables them to do and how to deliver that. I was a bit anxious that some were moving very quickly to a cabinet style as a way of saying, "We have got it in, it is all right, it is fine. Everybody is happy with it," so that they did not then have to have the level of consultation and of reaching out that I think is important. But I do not want to be cynical about this. I am sure that really everybody is looking to change in order to open up but I have said to them very clearly that these changes should not be a fix in order to make life simpler within their political group. It needs to be something that really is opened up and opened out. I actually think that that is one of the problems of the current system, that the leader frequently has to spend more time thinking about the balance within their group rather than what are the real interests of the people out there, and I want to change that system so that it is much more possible for leaders actually to be recognised as having come with the mandate of the people and not just the group.

Mr Gray

  732. Following on Margaret Moran's question on this dual role of officers, would you not accept that there is a very good structure established here, which is that your civil servants have no part in scrutiny at all? They work for you and the executive, and the officers here in Parliament, the Clerks and others, are the people who work on the scrutiny aspect, and there is a very important and clear distinction between the two, whereas in what you are proposing for local government they will be precisely the same people. The civil servants who are with you today would also be advising this Committee and scrutinising what you are doing. Is there not an awkwardness there and a difference?

  (Hilary Armstrong) That would not necessarily be so. It would really depend as to how locally they wanted to do that and I do think that there is some advantage in having a specific group of officers that advise the scrutiny boards, for example, or the scrutiny committees or whatever they may be called, or that particularly work with the area committees, but there does not have to be just one model to work effectively.

  733. There would be the same career structure, the same boss, the chief executive. It might be different groups but it would be the same lot, whereas here the Clerks of the Parliament are entirely separate from your officials?

  (Hilary Armstrong) We have to be realistic about size and there may also be other people who would say a bit of movement around is good for both the civil service and the clerks, that sometimes careers benefit from actually moving across, and one of the things that we have been trying to encourage in government is that there is much more secondment and exchange between local government and the civil service. So I do not want to prescribe such a rigid model that we do not allow what is often useful exchange and movement between different parts of an organisation and, indeed, between different organisations.

Lord Marlesford

  734. Minister, I have two points I would like to raise with you. First of all, I suppose we must all recognise that party groups will always have meetings to discuss their line of policies. You cannot stop it and it is probably perfectly democratic and fair, but if we move on to the cabinet or executive system, which I can see can sharpen up and focus decision-making, that is a stage in which officers are present and very much involved. Would you agree that it is important that that should not be behind closed doors in the sense that all councillors should, unless there is some special commercial reason against it, have access to the agenda, should probably be able to attend the meetings and should certainly see the minutes afterwards?

  (Hilary Armstrong) I am not sure about that. They certainly should see the minutes and they certainly should know what is being discussed and they certainly should have access to the options that were before the executive. What I am aware of at the moment is that I think there has to be a balance between giving the right to some thinking time, some deliberative time, where you can work through what the options will mean without all of that being opened to public scrutiny, because if you do not allow any of that formally, then that will happen informally and nobody will know about it and there will not be minutes that record it. We all know how organisations work and I do think it is legitimate to say that if an authority does decide that the cabinet should not meet in public but that the advice to them in terms of options and the minutes should be subsequently available, I actually think that that should be acceptable. There are some who are trying to run an open system where anybody can come to the meetings but I suspect that they would have done a fair bit of thinking and talking on the telephone before they got to that situation. What we are trying to do is to make the whole thing as open as possible and not, indeed, to roll back any of the openness that there currently is in local councils, but also to be realistic about how organisations work and how people within organisations work and at the moment, as I say, nobody gets access to papers that go to political group meetings or to minutes. So in a sense we will be opening more up than is there at the moment, but I do think that people need, and may well feel that they need, some chance to deliberate, as you as a Committee do. You deliberate about what you are going to ask me and you deliberate about how you are going to draw up the report, and I think that is fair enough, quite honestly.

  735. The second question in a sense reflects that. Lord Nolan focused particularly on planning. How do you see the Bill improving the transparency and probity in the performance of all the planning functions? In particular something which Lord Nolan referred to was the concern about procedures whereby local planning authorities can grant themselves planning permission, so-called deemed planning consent. How do you believe that the Bill should improve the transparency of decisions affecting land and buildings in which the local authority itself has a financial interest?

  (Hilary Armstrong) Clearly the legislation will make it clear that planning is outside the separation of powers, that it needs to be treated in a quasi-judicial and legal manner. Licensing is another regulatory quasi-judicial function. I know that Lord Nolan raised it and there have been other people who have raised that. The planning system has been reviewed and has been out to consultation but also in the second part of the Bill when we talk about the ethics, we are trying to make sure that it is very clear the manner in which local authorities should work in regard to those more sensitive issues and certainly how members and officers should work in regard to those more sensitive issues. It is true that already some councils would, for example, have a separate development control committee from a planning committee and they have sought to separate those functions in that way. That will still be possible for them to do and that may well be one way in which the concerns that you are raising should be measured. But it has always been true in local authorities and, indeed, in any form of government, that there are going to be decisions which have almost got to have Chinese walls around them and that is true in the instance that you are raising and it is, therefore, right that local authorities devise ways in which that is clearly separated in the way in which those decisions are taken and we will expect them to reflect that in the way that they consider planning decisions, certainly in respect of their own applications.

  736. So you would be reasonably content if there were useful suggestions made for modifying the Bill so as to improve the planning procedures?

  (Hilary Armstrong) As I say, we are always interested to have those suggestions and my planning colleagues will pore over them, I have no doubt.

Dr Whitehead

  737. In In Touch with the People there is a strong suggestion that a duty of economic, social and community well-being will be introduced by the Government. In Local Leadership, Local Choice there is a suggestion in one paragraph that this will happen at some stage. Is that not the wrong way round, inasmuch as an elected mayor may find it very difficult to actually carry out a mandate if an appeal to the people is made on the basis of doing all sorts of things to the community and for the well-being of the local authority and so on, and yet that person is still constrained by that power not being available to the mayor when he or she takes office?

  (Hilary Armstrong) We have a legal system which in a sense says what councils can and cannot do and we do believe that it is too restrictive and it has led to some councils getting into legal problems when they really should not have been in that position. We do therefore want to make sure that local authorities will have the power to respond to the economic, environmental and social well-being of their area, and we will seek to legislate on that as soon as we can. There have been a number of representations made on that and all I can say is that we are noting those and taking them forward as much as we can. We were talking about what powers ministers have, I do not have the power to say, "Yes, this will be in the Bill" or "This will not be in the Bill", what I am saying is that we are listening to the representations, we are doing the work on what the power of well-being would actually mean and how it would fit into the legislative framework for local government and we would seek to move on that as soon as possible.


  738. It has been done in the London Bill, has it not?

  (Hilary Armstrong) Yes, it has, but there you are operating a new system for a new authority and a single authority. That was a Bill that covered a wide range of aspects. In some senses we have already had one local government Bill and we had that this year and it was my disappointment that that was not much bigger in the beginning, but Government always has problems in getting everything it wants into a Bill and then making sure it manages its legislation well. So it is not a question we are wanting to give something to London and not to others, it is that in London we are having to deal with the setting up of a new authority and you cannot set that up partially, but in our local government reforms we are having to take those step by step.

Dr Whitehead

  739. So undoubtedly a suggestion from this Committee would be no doubt looked over closely by your civil servants and would add considerable weight to any discussions about what should go into future Bills?

  (Hilary Armstrong) We want to be sure that we can get our legislation through this House and that has been a factor in how we have looked at the size of our Bills. I am sure your recommendations will be looked at, I trust not just by civil servants but by all members of the Government.

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