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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 740 - 759)



  740. The mayor has won an election after a referendum and proves to be a complete dud, under the circumstances of the proposed legislation as far as I can see there is no possibility of that person being then thrown out, which would be a unique constitutional position. Do you have any thoughts on that?

  (Hilary Armstrong) You have the situation at the moment where you may get a whole council elected which simply does not want to get engaged. It is true. At the last election some people were elected on a single issue and they will not take part in any discussion on any other issue on the council and there is no means of throwing them out.

  741. But you can throw the leader out—

  (Hilary Armstrong) The electorate have elected them. I am sure that that will happen, that the electorate will wreak their vengeance on that person eventually and will find their way of doing that mid-term too. We really need to be sure that we establish ways of working—not unique because we are doing that in London too—but if someone is so bad and they are unable to gain anybody's support, I suspect they would be forced to resign, but it is not up to Government to do that.

  742. You do not favour any failsafe constitutional method of some form of recall with a very high threshold which would allow that procedure to be undertaken, short of a person actually being frog-marched off by the police because he has done something terrible and criminal?

  (Hilary Armstrong) I have not favoured that for the reasons I have said really, because I do think we have to be very careful before we interfere with the electoral process. That is my main concern.

Mr Burstow

  743. Can I take this a bit further? You said just now that in some way the mayor might be forced to resign mid-term if unspecified events took place, but one of the problems as we understand it in the context of the Bill is there is no provision in there to determine what happens next. You lose your mayor, there is no provision for by-elections and there is no provision in the event of disqualification. Is that an issue which is going to be given further thought? Are there further thoughts you can share with the Committee on that?

  (Hilary Armstrong) No, is the straight forward answer. I do believe that that would be such a rare event that—

Mr Gray

  744. What if he dies? What happens then?

  (Hilary Armstrong) There would be a by-election, there would have to be a by-election.

Mr Burstow

  745. But there is no provision for that in the Bill.

  (Hilary Armstrong) There would be a by-election because the person was a member of the council and if someone now dies, resigns, et cetera, there is a by-election and that is what would happen. What we have done is construct the mayor as a member of the council.

  746. If they are directly elected, however, in that context will there be such a provision? In the Bill there is apparently no procedure for a directly elected mayor, a new creature, a new set of arrangements for their election, which will lead on to a by-election as a consequence.

  (Hilary Armstrong) There would because even though they are directly elected they are still a member of the council and the rules that currently prevail around members of the council who die and the rules around by-elections would apply to the mayor.

  747. You relied on councils, just now, as a comparison with the directly elected mayor in answer to Dr Whitehead's question, however everything in your evidence so far has been to say that the way councils work at the moment is not appropriate for the future and we need to separate powers. Therefore to say that a whole council could be elected as a group of duds and that is comparable with the election of an executive mayor directly elected, surely is relying on something which is a bit dodgy, to say the least? I wonder therefore whether you might be looking a bit further at some of the options for recall which have been put into other constitutions in other countries and whether or not, for example, a council itself in constructing its constitution can advance mechanisms for recall and gain approval for them through a referendum locally?

  (Hilary Armstrong) I am reluctant to do what you are suggesting at the end, because that would then give the council a way of overturning what the electorate themselves had decided. I think that is fairly dodgy territory. Obviously, if you put this in the report, we will have to consider it and will consider it, but it is trying to get the right sort of balance. If someone is vastly popular with the public but not with the party groups, should the party groups and the council have the chance to un-seat them when they had the overwhelming support of the public?

  Mr Burstow: What about the other way round?

Earl of Carnarvon

  748. On the point Mr Burstow has made, the Minister said that there would be a by-election because he was a member of the council, but surely in this instance if he had been a directly elected mayor you would have an election for a mayor, not just for a councillor. Am I not correct?

  (Hilary Armstrong) Yes, but the regulations around that—and this is the point I was trying to make clear—do not need to be in this Bill because they are in other legislation around councillors and that is what would govern the calling of the by-election.

  749. At the present time, Chairman, in a county council, and I think in most councils, if someone dies or is incapacitated a deputy would be elected to take on the responsibilities of chairman or leader, whatever it was. That is what would happen at the present time.

  (Hilary Armstrong) But there would have to be a by-election so that the people who had voted for that person had the opportunity to vote for someone else.

  750. No, that is not quite the case, Minister.

  (Hilary Armstrong) Yes, it is.

  751. Well, I do not agree. If under the present circumstances—

  (Hilary Armstrong) You are talking about the responsibilities they take. Until a by-election is held, their seat is vacant.

  Mr Pike: And can remain vacant until the next local election unless it is declared by two electors.

Earl of Carnarvon

  752. Exactly. That is exactly what I am saying.

  (Hilary Armstrong) Right.

  Earl of Carnarvon: So you would have a situation where that particular area of the county or ward of a London borough was vacant until an election took place, but in the meanwhile someone would be responsible for taking over the chairmanship or leadership.

Dr Whitehead

  753. In fact the rule is that if the term of office has got less than six months to run, it can remain vacant.

  (Hilary Armstrong) Yes, but it can only remain vacant for a certain period of time. It cannot remain vacant for longer than six months. Clearly there would have to be arrangements, and that would have to be agreed within the constitution of the council, as to how they resolved that in the short-term.

Earl of Carnarvon

  754. Exactly.

  (Hilary Armstrong) Until the by-election, what would happen is in fact that a member of the cabinet would have to take over their position.

  755. Exactly.

  (Hilary Armstrong) What I was saying was that, for example, if they really did have to go or they died within a year, there would be a by-election before the period of the next election.

  Chairman: Can I say to the Committee that there are members who have not asked questions of the Minister, but we have not yet touched on standards which we need to do. Mr Stringer?

  Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My question is quite short, Chairman, and it is on the scrutiny point.

  Chairman: All right, we will take that now.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

  756. You have used very often the separation of functions, Minister. There is a classic example of separation of functions in the United States, and if you took that as a model your cabinet would consist, as is hinted at at times, of members having specific responsibilities for education, social services, et cetera, and they would be matched, if you follow the American system, by a scrutiny committee for each major council activity. It seems in the Bill you do not envisage this because you talk about "one or more". Do you envisage this and what do you think of Professor Stewart's Oslo example where there is real separation of functions, where the cabinet do not sit in the legislature, as you might say? First of all, do you envisage a classic American system operating?

  (Hilary Armstrong) I think it is our responsibility to provide the framework and for local councils themselves to decide exactly whether they have one scrutiny committee or whether they have a scrutiny committee which shadows the responsibilities of the different members of the cabinet. That is where there ought to be local decision-taking and a local framework. I can give you examples of some authorities who are doing it in the way you are describing, I can give you other examples of authorities who are planning to do it in different ways, I can give you examples of cabinets where they are taking specific responsibilities which are also cross-departmental. For example, I was in Bedfordshire last week, and they have a member of their executive who covers children's services and therefore covers schools and social services and so on. I believe that it is right that we should not prescribe precisely how this is done in every council but that we lay down a framework which says there should be an executive decision-making body and there should be a scrutiny and representational body and precisely how they are organised should be up to the local authority.

Mr Stringer

  757. You have been refreshingly non-cynical today, Minister, but is it not the truth that the proposals in the draft Bill and the White Paper are not very popular in much of local government, particularly the elected mayors? We have had evidence that where councils are trying out the separation of the executive and scrutiny actually it is a charade. We have had evidence from London and other authorities that that is the case and really it is difficult to see how it would not be when you have got in this country many local authorities where historically they have been run by one party. Why do you not go further? Is it not the case that the only way you can separate out, as you have said, the democratic relationship between the person who is leading the council, whatever you call them, and the people from the private political process is to have a separate election? So why do you not impose that?

  (Hilary Armstrong) It is true that certainly the directly elected mayor model is not popular among councillors, but the problem councillors have to face is that it seems to be very popular with the public. That is why I am consistently saying that it is very important that councillors do not get out of step with their public and that it is therefore very important that before changing in any way there really is full consultation with the public. You are not the first person to have put that proposition to me, and the reason we have not moved there is that in a sense we really want cultural change. We want change that is not cosmetic, that is not a charade, that actually does change the way the council works and the relationship between the council and the public. My view is that if all we do is impose a model that we think would work, that would be done locally because they had to do it and there would not be ownership of it and people really working through what this is going to mean to them. I do think that some people have embarked upon changes on the basis of, as I said before, "If we get this done very quickly, it will be through before the Government is able to legislate and then we will be able to say everything is okay." We will be watching that very carefully. What I do want is a real cultural change so we will see a real renewal of local government, because if we do not see that I believe it will wither and die because the public is losing faith that councils are working with them and in their interests.

  758. Is there not a structural flaw, a principal flaw, in the mechanisms you propose to instigate an elected mayor? By and large 5 per cent of the electorate do not get out of bed and think, "We will have an elected mayor today", they get seriously annoyed about a particular issue and they think, "Right, we can get rid of this leader of the council, we can get rid of this elected mayor, by setting up another mechanism and having a different electoral process." So it changes the focus, it is not a renewal, it becomes a one subject issue. Have you considered placing an obligation, which is less prescriptive than just changing the rules, on councils to test opinion on elected mayors by an opinion poll process and if that indicates one way then to hold a local referendum? Secondly, a slightly different point, I was not clear what your answer was to Lord Carnarvon when he put the proposition that elected mayors were less appropriate to large shire areas than to urban areas. Do you agree with that?

  (Hilary Armstrong) On the last point, not necessarily. I do think that wherever the council is, whether rural or urban, it needs an appropriate form of leadership in that area. I can think of some rural areas where it would be appropriate and where people are looking for that, I can think of others where it would not be appropriate and the local people are saying that very strongly. I do not think the assumption should be made that this is only for urban areas or the core cities or whatever, although it very clearly is something which has a lot of attractions for core cities in particular. In relation to the other point that you were making, basically any council can get out of the fear of the trigger, which is what a lot are expressing to me at the moment. I found it quite amusing when we published the consultation and the White Paper, Local Leadership, Local Choice, and the draft Bill and some came to me and said, "But you are going to give the public a chance to change what we do" and I said, "Well, yes, actually, that was always our intention"! I do think we have got the trigger for a referendum about right. We originally talked about 10 per cent maybe, I think that 5 per cent is about right, but the reality is that any council can jump over that by themselves holding a referendum. The key thing is that if councils really are in touch with their local people, if they have had the sort of consultation that means local people really are aware of what the council is up to and feeling the council is working with them, then they do not have to fear the trigger. I think it would be very difficult for Government to say opinion polls, because what we say about a referendum is that we do need to be content that the questions being asked are being asked in a fair and open way. That is where we will take advice from the Electoral Commission in the formation of the questions. What I am trying to do is get a balance between, on the one hand, councils actually recognising they have a responsibility to work with local people to find the right way forward which local people can identify with, but on the other hand, making sure that there is local ownership of whatever is done. So I do think that if, for example, there was a local opinion poll which was taken saying one thing, you would very soon get the local media saying, "What on earth is this council up to? They are ignoring what local people want." I do not think councils should get into that position, I think they should be ahead of the game not following the game, and they should be in the position where they are actually leading opinion and not having to run behind it. I hope that we have got the balance about right but, as I say, I wait to see what you say about it.

  Chairman: We will rely on Mr Pike to ask all the questions on standards.

Mr Pike

  759. Do you not now think there should a national code of ethical standards?

  (Hilary Armstrong) We will establish national guidance which will certainly have the basics that have to be in any local code of conduct. I do think that you then have to have differences which reflect the different methods of organisation, because there will have to be differences in a local code of guidance which reflect, for example, if you have a directly elected mayor, and the relationship between that mayor and the cabinet and the scrutiny. So there will not be a single national code of conduct around which there can be no flexibility, the national guidance that we will put out will form the basis that every council will have to work with. In other words, they will not be able to undermine or diminish what is in that code, they will be able to build on it in order to reflect their local circumstances.

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