She also announced that the government will contest a case referred to the European Court of Human Rights, of four senior local authority employees who have complained that the rules on politically-restricted posts in local government violate fundamental freedoms enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.
Ms Armstrong said:
'We are firmly committed to the tradition - long held in this country - of political impartiality by senior officials employed both in central and local government.
'We shall be looking in particular at the level and number of officers covered by the rules, and shall want to be sure that the language of the rules does not leave room for over-zealous interpretation. We shall also want to satisfy ourselves that the detail of the restrictions imposed is essential for the maintenance of political impartiality.
'In the case now referred to the European Court of Human Rights*, the European Commission of Human Rights found that the applicants' freedom of expression had been violated because they had been prevented from engaging in political activity. In their reasoning the commission question the principle, fundamental to our democracy, that senior and other front-line public servants, in all their public conduct, should act in a manner which guarantees public confidence that they are discharging their official duties in a politically-impartial way. The government shall contest any challenge to this principle.'
*Application 22954/93: Ahmed and others v UK
1. The Local Government and Housing Act 1989 imposes political restrictions on the three highest categories of local government
officer; it then requires local authorities to list other officers who fall within one of two categories, first those whose pay exceeds a certain level and, second, those whose duties involve giving advice to the authority on a regular basis or speaking on a regular basis to journalists or broadcasters on behalf of the authority. The Local Government Officers (political Restrictions) Regulations 1990 set out the nature of the restrictions on political activity which apply
to officers in politically restricted posts.
2. Complaints that fundamental freedoms enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights have been violated are made initially to the European Commission of Human Rights. In this case, the commission has referred the report of its findings to the European Court of Human Rights. The case is to be heard before the Court on 22 April 1998.