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.