Examination of Witnesses (Questions 760
THURSDAY 15 JULY 1999
ARMSTRONG, MP, MR
760. So there will be a base standard?
(Hilary Armstrong) There will indeed.
761. Fine. On the position as we go forward,
there is a feeling that we may, if we are not careful, allow a
lot of trivial, vexatious and malicious complaints. We as MPs
must all have constituents who complain vigorously that we are
not doing our job and who write to various peoplethe Prime
Minister, the Queen and othersand say we are not doing
what we should be. How do we ensure that the system does not get
bogged down by these? Should there be a filter to make sure we
really are looking at what are serious issues?
(Hilary Armstrong) There will be a filter
but through the Standards Board. There has been an argument made
that it should be the Standards Committee and I was concerned
about that because it is precisely those who make the vexatious
and fairly trivial complaints who would never be satisfied if
the council itself was saying, "This is not a serious complaint";
they would never believe it if it was the council themselves saying
it. I do think that we need to be sure that we organise and set
up the Standards Board in such a way that it filters and only
therefore brings to official inquiry, as it were, when they are
calling witnesses and so on, things which clearly warrant that.
This is obviously something we have to work out and be absolutely
clear about when we set up the Standards Board. But I have to
say that was one of the strong feelings I had around why the Standards
Committee themselves should not do it.
762. The ombudsmenwe took evidence from
them last week, it must have beenhad a fear that there
was going to be some overlap. How do we avoid this? One particular
thing that the ombudsmen pointed out was that there was a lot
of complaints they dealt with which were planning issues and very
often those complainants did not understand that things were already
determined in district plans and other things. How do we ensure
that we do not overlap with the ombudsmen and duplicate each other
and have people wasting a lot of time investigating exactly the
same thing? Secondly, should there be something perhapswe
have just looked at one screening thingto look at planning,
to fast-track planning issues, to get them out of the system if
it is really just on the basic principles of planning so people
can say, "That is that" and clarify people's minds?
I think in a lot of cases people really do not understand what
the issues are and how they are being dealt with.
(Hilary Armstrong) I think that is an
interesting suggestion. Clearly the way in which the Standards
Board is set up and organised they will have to work out what
are going to be the things which they have to have specialist
knowledge of and that they are able to do things. I would say
that planning is certainly going to be one of those and conflict
of interest is going to be the other, I would have thought, which
will frequently be the allegation which the Standards Board is
going to have to deal with, so again they are going to have to
have people who can work to that. I will go away and look at that
a little more. In relation to overlap, this is clearly a very
difficult issue and it is very important, not just for the ombudsmen
but for the courts too, that there is a clear understanding of
who is going to be responsible for what. There are clearly some
things which will be legal matters and will have to go into the
criminal stream, as it were, whereas others will be maladministration
and therefore the role of the ombudsmen, and others will be allegations,
as I say, maybe around conflict of interest or whatever which
will clearly be Standards Board issues. There will have to be
a good working relationship between the ombudsmen and the Standards
Board. Everyone said when the ombudsmen were set up, "Are
they going to be taking over and overlapping with what should
be going to court or what should be decided within the council"
and so on. This is an issue for administrative working out which
both the Standards Board and the ombudsmen will have to get on
and do, and we have been consulting very carefully with the ombudsmen
and with the Audit Commission and the District Audit Service because,
again, there is a potential overlap with auditors too. So we have
been working very carefully with them and they do knowall
of them knowthere is going to have to be some administrative
working and agreements on how they are going to work and how they
are going to sort out what appears to overlap so they are not
both pursuing the same issue at the same time.
763. We had one instance referred to in our
evidence where a complaint had taken 11 years to deal with. Recognising
timetables are always difficult, for very many reasons, do you
think there should be some timetable not only from the point of
view of the complainant but also the person who has been complained
(Hilary Armstrong) One of our aims is
to speed the process up, quite honestly. I had not heard of the
11 years one but I have heard of too many which have taken far
too long. It is in the interests of both sides that that is resolved
more quickly. I am not sure about actually setting down timetables,
that is something that we will have to keep in review, I certainly
agree with that, but I do think that one of the reasons for going
down this route is to try and sort out and speed up the process.
At the moment, there are all sorts of different bits of legislation
which you have to be aware of in order to make sure that you are
operating within the law and within the spirit of the law. That
is one reason to have a much clearer code of conduct but also
a Standards Committee which then makes sure that officers and
members understand the code of conduct, understand what is acceptable
behaviour and what is not acceptable behaviour and practice, and
I believe if you actually clarify that much more and give people
training and support so they understand it and know what faces
them, then we ought to be able to speed up the process as well.
764. Is there not a danger in terms of our discussion
that we are not distinguishing between the vexatious and trivial
complaints and the really serious complaints, and we are not actually
addressing what is the reality of a lot of complaints, which is
a gradation upwards and there are venial and non-venial sins as
far as local government conduct is concerned? Is the present mechanism
which appears to hoover everything up to the Standards Board,
in your view, sufficiently discriminating in terms of being fair
to councillors in terms of their own conduct? There is certainly
this issue of councillors, as has happened in America, being under
a perpetual cloud of suspicion. If someone has committed a technical
breach of conduct which is a problem but is not such that one
really needs to take serious actions against the councillor, do
you think the mechanism is sufficiently subtle to allow for that
to take place?
(Hilary Armstrong) I think it is but
clearly we are looking at that very carefully. What we want to
do is give the public confidence that the system can cope and
can deal with bad practice and wrong-doing, and it is a case of
getting that balance right but also working sufficiently quickly
so you do not have someone continually under a cloud of suspicion,
because it is in the interests of others to keep the process going.
We do not want to see that happen, but we also have been very
careful that even in some of those cases where there has been
a misunderstanding or a technical breach that is not used in a
political way. If that technical breach is discovered three months
before an election and is used in order to get somebody out of
the frame, that is not in the interests of good democracy. What
we are trying to do is make sure we have a system which can respond
quickly and can clear things up quickly, and it may be we are
going to have to continue to examine all this.
765. I can, with respect, see the headlines
now in a local paper, "Councillor investigated by National
Standards Board" immediately anything goes the route that
is suggested by the procedure laid down in the Bill. It seems
to me that is potentially prey to precisely the problem you have
just set out.
(Hilary Armstrong) I think any system
is prey to that. If someone is arrested by the police for a very
minor technicality and that drags on for two years, that too destabilises
the system. I also do think that we need to be sure that there
is a following headline which says, "Councillor cleared by
the Standards Board."
Dr Whitehead: Yes, and not on page 37.
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
766. A very simple question, will the Bill be
ready for the next session of Parliament?
(Hilary Armstrong) With your co-operation,
767. Will the very many regulations required
be available to consider the Bill?
(Hilary Armstrong) We would certainly
be wanting that. I have to say that is why we are hoping you can
let us have your deliberations as soon as you can rather than
in the spill-over period because we do want to get on with the
work of drawing up guidance and regulations. I sought to do as
much of that as possible during the passage of the Best Value
Bill, so that members in both Houses had as much information before
them as to how Government was going to proceed, not just in the
primary legislation but in the guidance and regulations as well,
and that is what we are seeking to do.
768. Following that point, would you see regulations
dealing with conflicts between the executive and the council,
because the White Paper talks about that but there is nothing
in the Bill, is there?
(Hilary Armstrong) No, there is not anything
in the Bill, because we think that it is very difficult to prescribe
for all 400-odd local authorities exactly the same method of conflict
resolution. In a sense, that very much is something that does
need to be worked out locally and will differ according to whether
it is a council of no overall control, a council mainly of independent
members or one that is very much one party. So we will do some
guidance but we will not regulate so we are saying how every council
should have that conflict resolution. It was in the GLA Bill because
we were dealing with only one council but we are dealing with
a very different animal here, 400-odd different animals.
Earl of Carnarvon
769. I am Chairman of the All Party London Group
in the Lords and I am worried that the rest of the country is
going to think that mayors are going to have the same responsibilities
as the Mayor of London. I just hope the Government will find an
opportunity to clarify that before referendums go out saying,
"Would you like another mayor?" I think a lot of people
at the present time, with all the publicity given to the situation
in London, might think this is going to be transposed around the
(Hilary Armstrong) I am confident they
will not. In some senses, if people in my area thought they were
going to get something just because it was in London, that would
make them vote against it! We very strongly will be making sure.
That is precisely why we are trying not to be prescriptive. It
is always difficult for Government, and indeed I know in some
of your deliberations you are wanting to push us to put more into
the face of the Bill and to be maybe a bit more prescriptive,
and then in other ways you are saying, "Don't be so prescriptive."
We have to try and find a balance but that is why we are saying
we want in every area the council and the public to take hold
of this and own whatever comes out of the review so that it is
theirs, it is their special model which is for their area, whether
that be a mayor or a cabinet or indeed, as I said before, I think
for many shire areas a council manager model is a very good model
for them to follow. But whatever it is, it is something which
is theirs. We certainly will be trying to make sure everybody
does not think we are going to make them run like London.
Earl of Carnarvon: Good.
770. Thank you very much indeed for coming,
Minister, and answering all our questions. I hope we have not
delayed you for your next appointment.
(Hilary Armstrong) Thank you very much.