Draft Local Government Best Value (Exclusion of Non-Commerical Considerations) Order 2001

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5.3 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I also welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Maxton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) on a riveting speech in which his metaphors ranged over 2,000 years, from Trojan horses to launch pads. As I often do in debate with him, I would gently remind him that no secret deal has been reached between the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party—or if there has, it was so secret that no one let me in on it. Since he was so concerned about the waste of officers' and Members' time, I point out that shorter speeches would be one way to save it.

I echo his remarks about support for the principle of best value and agree that no one could be against it. Best value is a better set of arrangements than its predecessor, compulsory competitive tendering. I welcome the fact that under best value much greater freedom is given to local authorities to determine how best to deliver services to those they serve. Nevertheless, I agree with the hon. Member for Eastbourne that, in its current guise, best value tends to be unnecessarily bureaucratic and costly. I hope that as the Government develop best value, they—in conjunction with local authorities—will find ways to carry it through with a lighter touch.

On the proposal before us, I shall not tease the Minister and withhold my view until the end of what I have to say. I make it clear from the outset that we are keen to support her in her recommendation of the orders and their contents. However, I would like to mention a couple of points on the guidance that accompanies the orders.

We are in some difficulty—as the hon. Member for Eastbourne has pointed out. I had spotted that slightly earlier than the hon. Gentleman because I received my copy before him for whatever reason. It is difficult to make full comment when we are unsure how the document ends. The Minister, who I suspect has not had an opportunity to see the version that the other members of the Committee have received, might wish to know that page 23, paragraph 50 reads,

    In view of their duties under the legislation

and at that point finishes. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us not only what the rest of the sentence was, but whether we have missed a number of paragraphs or that was intended to be the final paragraph of the document.

The two key issues that I want to raise with the Minister relate to equal opportunities and to the concept of local labour and work forces. There is a problem with the presentation of the guidance. The Minister said that throughout we would find a number of examples. I have not found them. Instead, I have found a series of ``coulds'' and ``mays'', which make it difficult for local authorities to know what is expected of them.

I note as an example that on pages 16 and 17, in the second bullet point of paragraph 27, on quality, the guidance states:

    This could include background information on the organisation; average annual staffing for the previous three years

and so forth. When it states ``it could'' it makes it unclear whether it is appropriate to do so. The local authority is being left to work out for itself whether it should or should not.

The matter is further compounded in, for example, paragraph 29, which states:

    The work force of an associated or parent company will, in some circumstances be irrelevant.

That is the point to which the Minister referred. It is difficult for a local authority to find helpful guidance within the notes. Too many of them are surrounded with ``coulds'', ``mays'', ``buts'' and ``ifs''. I acknowledge that it is perhaps too late, but I should be grateful if there were an opportunity to make the document somewhat more user friendly.

In that regard, I must mention equal opportunities. I would have hoped, particularly from a Labour Government, that there would be significant encouragements for local authorities to include the issue in their consideration of contracts. However, the guidance provides no such significant encouragement. In paragraph 42, under the section on equal opportunities, it merely states:

    It will be for best-value authorities to decide in the light of their own legal advice how far to bring equal opportunities into the contracting process.

Paragraph 43 states:

    Best value authorities may take account of the practices of potential service providers in respect of equal opportunities.

It would have been preferable for the guidance notes to be much more encouraging on the issue.

During the consultation on local labour forces, various local government associations asked Ministers whether it would be possible to specify, in certain circumstances, the use of local labour in the carrying out of a contract. In response, the Government outlined some potential conflicts between such a specification and the requirements of the Local Government Act 1988 and various European directives on public procurement. I fully appreciate the difficult position that the Government would be in were they to state that it would be possible always to make a specification for the use of local labour. That said, paragraph 13 of the guidance states:

    Where supply markets are weak or poorly developed, authorities should consider the conditions in which new suppliers might take root or existing suppliers become more competitive and what they can do to create them.

That is a real challenge to local authorities. They are being encouraged to do something about weak or poorly developed supply chains in their area. One of the best ways of doing that is to develop the local skills base, and the best way of doing so is by specifying the use of local labour in contracts.

Notwithstanding the difficulties that exist with respect to the 1988 Act and the European directives, I had hoped that the Government would be able advise local authorities as to how best they could develop their supply arrangements at a local level, and how they could so, if at all possible, through the use of local labour.

I welcome the order. It has been welcomed not only by the CBI, but by local government organisations. They are grateful to have had an opportunity to contribute to the guidance that has now been issued. I hope that the Minister will be able, in any future versions of the guidance, to take on board my points. I also hope that she will be able to draw attention to the issues that I have raised in her dealings with local government. In anticipation that we will now hear what paragraph 50 of the guidance really would have said, I reiterate our support for the orders.

5.12 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I am grateful to you, Mr. Maxton, for allowing me to catch your eye. I welcome you to the Chair.

The guidance note is dated 15 January, the day before yesterday. I have not received a copy of the guidance. I understood that it was a fundamental principle of the House, and a matter of courtesy, that if a Minister was going to quote extensively from a document in a Committee, every possible effort should be made to ensure that members of that Committee were provided with a copy of the document. I have no doubt that had the document been put on the board for hon. Members by the Minister or her staff, I would have received it by now. I can only assume that it was put not on the board but in the post. My post is forwarded to my constituency and no doubt that is where my copy of the document is. To put the document in the post is a fundamentally unsatisfactory way of doing business. It should be put on the board—that is the quickest way to get documents to Members.

It is a discourtesy to the Committee to produce a document that is incomplete. I quote paragraph 50 from a copy of the document that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne has somehow managed to obtain. It starts:

    In view of their duties under the legislation—

but those words are followed by a big blank. Is there any more to paragraph 50? Do we know how many pages are missing? The Committee should adjourn, to allow the Minister the opportunity to produce a proper document. I see you shaking your head, Mr. Maxton, but it is a serious matter.

The Chairman: Order. I am shaking my head because I have no power to adjourn the Committee.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful for that clarification, Mr. Maxton.

Ministers in all Departments should take more care to ensure that Committees have copies of the documents that they want to quote. I had to raise a similar point of order yesterday in Standing Committee D, which is considering the Homes Bill. It is a matter of courtesy.

I am more critical of the order than my hon. Friend. It is self-defeating, bureaucratic and meddlesome. There is no doubt that the compulsory competitive tendering and best value initiative was useful in driving down local authority costs and increasing efficiency. However, this Government and these Ministers and civil servants have seized hold of it and, like everything else that they touch, they have made it far more bureaucratic.

How much will it cost to implement the order and what will be the costs of the best value initiative? I recently heard from my local authority, Cotswold district council, that the best value initiative this year will cost £120,000. That is a huge cost to a local authority with a budget of only £7 million or £8 million, especially as it was already one of the most efficient local authorities. Why impose that additional bureaucratic gobbledegook when it was already doing the job efficiently? The Audit Commission already has more than adequate powers to investigate every aspect of the authority to find out whether it is efficient and obtaining best value.

To show what a nonsense that best value initiative has become, I shall cite an example that I heard about only last week. The best value inspectorate from Bristol is sending two inspectors to my local authority. They will spend four days there, no doubt staying in a nice hotel, to investigate not something useful such as whether council tax has been misapplied, but the council's search department. The department has only two members of staff and a budget of £80,000, yet those two inspectors will be spending four days there and staying in a smart hotel. That is only the start of the story.

The worst part is that the two members of staff in the search department will be tied up for four days, which presumably means that no one will be able to obtain a local authority search during that time. More worrying still is the fact that one of the council's chief executives will have to be on hand.

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Prepared 17 January 2001