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

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: The best value initiative duplicates the work of the Audit Commission. Under the old regime, the Audit Commission went in to investigate the matters that are now covered by the best value initiative. Will the Minister assure the Committee that the initiative will not overlap in any way with the work of the Audit Commission?

Ms Hughes: The Audit Commission is integrally involved in the audit and inspection of services within the best value regime. It does not duplicate the work of local authorities, but provides an independent assessment of the extent to which a local authority is achieving the objectives that the authority sets itself during the best value review process.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne said that we would all be shocked by the story that he recounted. Labour Members were more shocked by his lack of knowledge and understanding, and his confusion about some of the issues, than by his story. He implied that if a council says that it is well run, then it must be. With his anecdote, he disparaged the principle of inspections. Without some, preferably independent, mechanism for inspection, any organisation, public or otherwise, will find it difficult to stand back and ask whether it is delivering for the people whom it represents. Organisations need to seek the views of their customers if they are not to become inward-looking. They need to ensure that they deliver for the people who use their services rather than for their employees.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: No one would take the view that inspections should not form part of the best value initiative. That was not my point. The bureaucracy involved in this particular inspection is way over the top. The best value inspectorate from Bristol will not be able to inspect every service that my council provides, so why does it not inspect the biggest service? The inspection will cost several thousand pounds, for a benefit of perhaps a few hundred, maybe a thousand or two. The cost will outweigh the benefit.

Ms Hughes: On the basis of the hon. Gentleman's example, although I suspect that we have only partial information, his questions are valid. If he wants to write to me about his previous question, I shall investigate the matter.

How do we know, for example, that that council needs only one such officer and not two? We will not find out until somebody goes in and questions the way in which that office works and looks at other ways of working. There may still be benefits from considering even a small unit of council. If money can be saved in the search service, it can perhaps be directed from a back-room activity to front-line services, so it may still be worth while.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will the Minister give way?

Ms Hughes: I will give way one last time, but then I want to make progress.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The resources provided by the best value inspectorate need to be proportionate to the task that is being undertaken. I agree with the Minister: every area of local government should be open to inspection. In a simple area such as that, I would have expected one inspector to go for one day, tying up one council official. That would have been more proportionate to the task being undertaken.

Ms Hughes: As I say, we probably have only partial information on that. If the hon. Gentleman sends me the details, I shall investigate the matter and reply to him.

The hon. Member for Bath at least focused on the order and made some constructive comments. He began with an appeal for brevity and went down hill a little after that, but those of us who have focused on these issues for a long time over the past two years can get caught up in, and enthused by, the detail. I am sure that that happened in this case.

The hon. Gentleman raised three issues, one being examples in the guidance. He said that we had not been definitive in the terms used, but say ``could'' and ``should'' instead of ``shall'' and ``will''. I understand his concern, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to provide examples that are appropriate to all the contracting exercises. As the hon. Gentleman himself said in an intervention on another member of the Committee, the order is permissive; it is not prescriptive. Therefore, it is not possible to specify all the circumstances and different kinds of contract to which the permission to introduce these issues may apply. It is up to the local authority to discuss with its legal advisers what is relevant to a certain contract, so the use of conditional words is appropriate to the circular, because we cannot be, and do not want to be, prescriptive.

The hon. Gentleman raised two other issues that I want to touch on.

Mr. Don Foster: One of the encouraging developments from the present Government is that many of the documents that they now provide—White Papers, Green Papers, guidance notes and so on—contain separate boxes with worked examples, to which people can relate. That is the type of change that I was expecting. Officers would find that helpful and I should be grateful if it could be considered.

Ms Hughes: The document is a draft circular, and I am not sure whether it is appropriate for a draft circular to have such boxes. I acknowledge that such boxes have become a hallmark of many of our discussion documents, such as Green Papers and White Papers. I shall investigate whether we can go further in terms of exemplification.

The hon. Member for Bath raised two other issues—equal opportunities and local labour. I am grateful for the opportunity to put on record the fact that we believe that the order and the guidance will assist equal opportunities. Under best value, an efficient local authority will be one that has proper regard to equality of opportunity. Consultation and review under best value should ensure that services better reflect the needs and circumstances of all sections of the community. I hope that the official wording of the circular does not detract from that expectation and intention.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about local labour clauses. This is a slightly more difficult matter, largely because of the EU position and the Government's policy that procurement should fundamentally be about value for money. The EU directive is not unhelpful. It refers to authorities having to accept the most economically advantageous contract, defined in its widest sense; it is not simply a matter of cost. However, a proscription in EU law prevents local authorities doing anything that is anti-competitive in relation to companies in other countries. That is the main problem with the local labour clauses.

In a recent reply, I explained that there was nothing to prevent authorities from developing wider policies—social policies, if one wishes—outside the terms of the contract, but in a voluntary agreement with a contractor. That is happening in some of the new developments to which I referred. I have also seen it in relation to the partnership approach in construction procurement, which I have lately been talking about a great deal to local authorities. In the longer-term partnerships that local authorities are now developing with contractors, it is possible to have people under the new deal or local young people in training as part of the contract, but outside it, with the agreement of a contractor. I have found that the private sector is amenable to that.

The Government believe that a motivated work force is critical to the provision of high-quality services. The order will allow local authorities appropriately to introduce these matters into the contracting agreements, and I commend it to hon. Members.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the draft Local Government Best Value (Exclusion of Non-commercial Consideration) Order 2001.

Committee rose at four minutes to Six o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Maxton, Mr. John (Chairman)
Ainsworth, Mr. Robert
Barnes, Mr.
Clifton-Brown, Mr.
Cohen, Mr.
Foster, Mr. Don
Hughes, Ms Beverley
Keeble, Ms
Meale, Mr.
Ruddock, Joan
Simpson, Mr. Alan
Stewart, Mr. Ian
Turner, Mr. Neil
Waterson, Mr.

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Prepared 17 January 2001