Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 700 - 719)



  700. That is very interesting. We have had some witnesses tell us that the public service ethos involves going the extra mile and you are telling us in Wales it is the extra mile and a half, are you not?
  (Cllr Sir Harry Jones) Absolutely.

  701. Which is interesting. What I really want to ask you about, it is the only question I have really got for you, is this: I put it to you that there is no connection at all between standards of service provided by local authorities and whether they get rewarded or punished at the ballot box. Therefore there is no meaningful accountability for performance at all. If that is the case, is the Government not right to sort it out?
  (Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) I do not accept the premise actually. My colleagues can speak for themselves. It is not my experience that providing people are aware of shortcomings in service that they do not punish their local representatives. Part of the problem is that they may not be very well informed about how a council is performing in the less obvious spheres. They can see if bits are unkempt, if there is graffiti and abandoned cars abound and so on, and they are very vocal about that. They may be less well informed about what is going on in social services or education and it is incumbent on government and local government alike to make sure they have accessible and useful information on which to make judgments. I do not think the public is acquiescent to low standards of public service and increasingly, particularly in an era where local government has moved quite significantly, I think, into decentralising, into area committee processes, into involving the public, whether it is strategic partnerships or citizens bureaux or whatever, pressure is being brought to bear on elected members. I do not accept the premise and in any event I do not think, even if there was some truth in it, that would be a justification for government substituting its judgment or the actual or potential judgment of the local electorate because they are too remote from the issue.

  702. I find this to be the heart of it. You would expect to find a correlation, would you, between what councils are doing in terms of service performance and what happens to them when they meet their maker? Can you demonstrate any kind of correlation at all?
  (Cllr Keymer) I certainly can. I come from an authority which has elections three years out of four. We have been hung for ten years. We are now under one party control but over that time the issues which were fought over were very much service issues. In fact, whenever the budget came up and people going for a lower level council tax, the argument was what council services would you cut and the whole question of preservation of services and providing them more efficiently was fundamental. Indeed, we had a famous occasion when we transferred refuse collection contracts and over that period it was a total disaster and the party concerned got very heavily punished at the ballot box. I think for local people the provision of services is fundamental. The idea of the highest quality services at lowest cost is something the public do understand.
  (Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) There is a paradox as well. The greater the extent to which the Government imposes its prescription on local authority and retains very strong national control, the easier it is for the local council to blame anything which goes wrong on the Government. To a degree, therefore, the less Government is involved the likelier it is that members and officers, for that matter, alike, will be held more to account for what is happening in an area than if there is something they can blame.
  (Cllr Sir Harry Jones) Could I suggest that one of the problems—in fact I am really following on from a point that Jeremy has made—that what we have is the utter confusion in the mind of the electorate as to who any longer is responsible for what. Certainly it has to be applicable in the case of Wales with an Assembly and another tier, another dimension in terms of the field of responsibility. One of the reasons that in actual fact we have tried to separate the elections in Wales which are coming up for local government in 2003 is to take it away from being held on the same day as the Assembly election, precisely for the reason that there is this combination of a lack of understanding as to whom, one is going to vote in support of, and who one is going to vote against as a consequence of. There is this lack of clarification of where that responsibility lies. If you add on top of that the new directions that the Government itself is bringing in in terms of, for example, in our case, ELWA, which is taking over post 16 education with a comparable situation in England, I think again they have great difficulty in wrapping their minds around any longer who is to be held responsible if there is a failure in the sixth form education. They still see the local education authority seemingly responsible for education and yet they have been told on the other hand that there is now a body that has now taken over responsibility to ensure that there is this success that lies with those. I think for your average person in the street, not those who necessarily are the ones who perhaps delve in and have a better understanding of local government, but for your average person who goes along to the ballot box to make that cross, I think they have great difficulty in understanding, indeed, where, as you say, the day you meet your maker takes place, they really have some lack of understanding as to who comes under the maker and who does not.

  703. Politicians of course go around—we are all politicians—saying "Vote for us, we will make it better. Let us carry on doing it". The other lot says "No, they are not, let us have a go". On the whole the electorate does not know what is going on. We know that, is it a fifth of local councils have one party controlling more than 80 per cent of the seats on the council so there is no real choice going on there. When the Government comes in and says "Why do we not tell people what is going on? Why do we not produce a league tables of councils like the league of hospitals and schools", does it not just help electoral choice if we can see where we are on the league table and whether things are functioning properly or not?
  (Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) I think it is very important that people have meaningful information that will help them compare what their council is doing or not doing with what other councils are doing. I think we have to be a little cautious about the weight that is put on the evidence which may be assembled because it may not necessarily be all that robust, the judgments may not be all that robust. If you look at, for example, the recent announcements around other health or social services authorities, some of the data on which those judgments were made was fairly suspect. Yes, in principle, certainly we need people to be informed; yes, we think it is possible to broadly categorise authorities but not too much weight in terms of, for example, applying rewards and penalties, at least from the Government, should be attached to that process. It is probably also a question of raising expectations amongst both the electorate and for that matter amongst elected members. Here I am hopeful the new scrutiny process as it beds in will encourage a more creative attitude on the part of elected members, a more aspirational attitude than the previous system which relied heavily on whipped decisions going through formal structures where, frankly, the exercise of independent judgment was not a matter which attracted much of a premium in terms of local political approval. The new system does have the potential of achieving the objective which must be a better informed electorate, because in our view the right people to judge a council's performance are the local electorate and not an external inspectorate, although the inspectorate can help people form a balanced view.


  704. It is probably best addressed to Sir Jeremy. I cannot find a way of making this into a question, Chair, so I am going to make a statement and invite your comments on it. That is probably the best thing to do. I am a local authority councillor still, I am a fairly new MP and I am trying to do both jobs at the moment. My local authority has a fairly good record, one I have been proud of over the years. We were a best value pilot authority. We have had good reports on our best value inspections. We passed our local authority Ofsted with flying colours, good SSI reports, okay on all of the audit commission performance indicators. We have attracted large sums of money to the town through competitive bidding, all of which required us to demonstrate that we were working well with our partners and had got rigorous systems to ensure delivery in place and so on and so on. The kind of authority which in the proposals under the Local Government White Paper I would hope would be regarded as "high performance" or at least "striving" in the categories which would warrant more freedom from Government and possible extra resources. The irony of that is that the local authority is Oldham which just this week has been declared a prime example of public service failure, where community leadership has not delivered for the community and where amongst the recommendations made on what we need to do is one that we should have mentors sent in to support local authority officers and councillors in putting the house in order. The Audit Commission advisers should come in (and tell us how to do better. The Improvement and Development Agency) will be a great source of assistance and so on. I see a massive contradiction in all of that and that is the commentary I would welcome your observations on.
  (Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) Clearly I shall have to vote for your authority. Wonderful. You actually illustrated the slight reservation I expressed about the robustness of some of the material on which these judgments are based. We had a similar example, actually, perhaps even more pointed, when the Secretary of State for Health announced his list of goodies and baddies in terms of social services provision, amongst the baddies were two or three authorities which within days had received very warm endorsements from the Social Services Inspectorate. I suppose the judgments were made on a set of performance indicators which were of doubtful relevance and even more doubtful weighting amongst themselves, whereas a more qualitative assessment by the Inspectorate can produce an entirely different result. I think one of the aspects of this is that even a high performing authority is likely to have some areas of activity where the performance is not as great as it might be. I have not read the Oldham Report yet, but we are having a meeting about this issue next week with the authorities covered in this report. It may be there are some aspects around ethnicity, community relations and so on, where it has not been performing to the same high level it has been with perhaps its basic provision of services. I think we would be arguing that what we need to do is to help authorities achieve the highest level of service delivery and for that matter of governance generally and seek to incentivise that process but without invoking a penalties or rewards approach which can be demoralising and counter-productive. We do need, as far as we can, both objective measures of outputs and qualitative assessment, including assessment by those who actually use services of what is delivered on the ground. Even then we are not going to get a completely objective picture of what is happening in any given area. These matters are necessarily somewhat subjective.

  705. Is it not just the case that local authorities are just whipping boys for society's ills?
  (Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) It is always possible for that to happen and particularly with a local media that has decreasingly covered local government I think thoroughly and effectively for them to latch on to the sensational and to portray them as a source of bad news and failure. Unfortunately, we have to live with that I guess but then that is partly down to us to communicate better with the people we represent.
  (Cllr Sir Harry Jones) At the end of the day, is there not an argument that there will always be this variation? It really comes down to the question of local choice. I always find it illustrative in terms of the measurement that is applied for, say, beacon councils where you have authorities who can demonstrate excellence which justifies a beacon status but it is very, very difficult when they carry out the necessary examination in terms of their comparability in terms of all services, it is very few authorities where you cannot find that there are peaks and troughs in terms of what is delivered. To some extent that might well be on the basis of the perception at a local level, indeed of a local community, of what is a priority for them. I think it is one of our arguments that we have against the concept of ring fencing, the ring fencing does not allow for that latitude of local choice, local direction from the community itself and the authority to be able to respond to it to bring about that type of change. Where you allow that to happen then you will have this variability. It might well be that the media has a different view in terms of what ought to be the priorities that should reside within the locality.

  706. Surely that is a myth, is it not? Undoubtedly extra resources have gone into councils in recent years but they have almost always been ring fenced or passported through to schools, for example, and the scope for elected members to make the decisions you suggest is not there?
  (Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) Not sufficiently there. We are very concerned about the whole ring fencing argument. Even this latest settlement, which was broadly a good settlement, now raises the total of ring fencing and specific grants monies to about 15 per cent of the total which is three and a half times more than it was four years ago. There is a real concern about the degree to which local choice can be effectively exercised but there are still areas where that is possible, particularly in the new process of local public service agreements. We think there is a real opportunity and in the extension of it that we proposed to Government, which is endorsed in the White Paper, which we call Partnership for Ambition, a real opportunity to experiment with local freedoms and flexibilities and widen that capacity for innovation and choice at a local level involving Government and the other partners.
  (Cllr Sir Harry Jones) Of course your statement is not true for Wales, it is true for England but in Wales there is no hypothecation. Interestingly, we saw an increase in the amount of money that was being allocated to education on the basis of the freedom to make that judgment at a local level as to whether or not local authorities felt that it was a number one priority. I think this year we are talking in terms of 9.4 per cent with the freedom to make that judgment and that judgment has demonstrated that it is considered a priority and local authorities are acting in a very judgmental manner in terms of taking it forward. I think our argument has always been that where you have high standards as opposed to low standards there is a need to be pushing more money in the areas that need to uplift, whereas you can actually plateau it off in the areas which are retaining the standards and the degree of excellence that one would seek in education and can be moved perhaps into social services in those individual authorities. I think it is with that type of local individual balance that the whole question of ring fencing becomes just anathema.

  707. That seems commendable. That supports Sir Jeremy and is supported all the way through the White Paper, which seems to work in the opposite way to the way you have decided your aspirations in Wales. The rewards go to people who can demonstrate high performance.
  (Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) The rewards are, I think, fairly modest. The thrust of the White Paper is to extend freedoms and deregulation across the piece because they really are to be regarded as tools and not rewards. There are some additional goodies for so-called high performing authorities but they are not of a sufficiently radical character really to be divisive or to suggest that we should be over-anxious about them. The freedom to absorb fines for litter, for example, is not earth shaking in its application. I think they lean towards incentivising rather than dividing. I am not saying we are entirely comfortable with that but it could be worse. In the health service, in some respects it is worse because it is much more restricted and much more designed actually to reward a relatively small number of authorities. One of the good things about the White Paper is that it is very explicit in that it does not propose to divide up local government into four categories, quartiles and the rest. The aspiration is that everybody should be encouraged to move through to be a high performing authority. As I say, these fairly modest rewards or incentives will be available then to them.
  (Cllr Keymer) Can I just take up the point about whipping boys, which is an interesting one. The problem is, of course, exacerbated by the Government. We had this recently with the statement on the settlement when the impression given to the public was that there would be no unreasonable—whatever unreasonable is—increase in council tax. Yet we know particularly with the problem of Social Services that the sort of figures involved will be substantially higher than those being put forward by the Government. This makes a very difficult background for local authorities to work in. It would be good to see, perhaps, the close working between Government and local government, including some sort of agreement on the statement the Government is going to make about the money it is paying out to local government and, of course, what we see very much is greater freedom in raising local funding, in particular the return of the business rate which, it is always seems to me, is the most straight forward way of returning a great deal of local autonomy to those people who are really interested in the local area, including local businesses.

Kevin Brennan

  708. As somebody who probably fulfils most of the stereotypes of a Labour MP as a former teacher, former special adviser and former councillor.
  (Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) Guardian reader?

  709. Occasionally. Perhaps you will forgive me if I play devil's advocate and probe around perhaps some of these things. I would like to ask Harry, do you think that Welsh local authorities after devolution are getting a soft ride compared with the English ones?
  (Cllr Sir Harry Jones) No, I think I would absolutely refute that. I suppose the area where that must now arise as a question mark in the minds of perhaps the less understanding probably is in the changes in terms of best value. I think that could be a classic example where, as colleagues may or may not be aware around the table, in keeping with the legislation in England, where Stephen Byers is now having a review of best value, precisely the same thing is now being done in Wales. The intention in Wales in actual fact is to abandon the name "best value" because we believe it has become so stigmatised, so unacceptable, that to leave it in place even if you make changes is still going to colour views to such an extent that basically you are never going to achieve the changes we would like to achieve. So they have done away with the name and introduced a new name for it in Wales, invented by Edwina Hart.


  710. You had better tell us what it is, I think.
  (Cllr Sir Harry Jones) The Wales Improvement Programme.

Mr Heyes

  711. Whipping boy.
  (Cllr Sir Harry Jones) It is the Wales Improvement Programme and basically we believe that name is sending out the type of message of what it is intended to be about as opposed to the one previously. I must say that best value when it came in had the total support of all authorities, everybody came behind it as the alternative to CCT. I am moving away a little bit but I just want to preface the reason why. I think best value was destroyed by the over-regulation and the inspection regime that has been put in place. The shift that we are now seeking under the Welsh Improvement Programme from best value in the guise that it was previously is to try and move away from the degree of regulation and the inordinate amount of money which was being spent on that. For example, in Wales I think we are spending £29 million on regulation, that is inspection. We are actually spending in terms of improvement three million. There is something totally out of sync in terms of how that is being handled.

Kevin Brennan

  712. The appropriate old Welsh saying, if I can cut across you, is you do not make a goose any fatter by weighing it all the time.
  (Cllr Sir Harry Jones) Absolutely right, and nothing is ever improved by inspection either. It is really against that background that we are looking at this change. Many people have the impression, as you might be alluding to, that we are doing away with best value and whatever is going to take its place is not going to be as strong as the previous body. That is not the case, because there is a great deal of work going on, a great deal of collaboration, to ensure the outcomes are those that the best value originally was intended to be about. What we are looking for is to shift some of that money that is being used on regulation and inspection into achieving improvement.

  713. Would you say then as a consequence of devolution that actually local government in Wales is now in a better position, perhaps, than England to deliver public services?
  (Cllr Sir Harry Jones) I think in actual fact that in many ways what is happening in Wales could well be the pilot for England. Could I say that my belief, and Jeremy would bear me out on this—I have been a passionate believer in regionalism for England because I believe that the full benefits of devolution going down to all areas is not going to happen until it occurs in England in the same way that it has happened in Scotland and in Wales. There are great benefits for local government and for public services as a consequence of devolution.

  714. Could I draw us back on to the public service ethos, which is something we have been discussing. Could I put it to you that it is still too common a case in local government in England and Wales that actually what motivates essentially not everybody but what motivates the activity of local government is a public sector ethos rather than a public service ethos. Many councils are dominated, partly because of the electoral system they have, by a majority of councillors from a majority party who are elected on a minority of votes, who meet in secret in party groups and take all the decisions including, for example, as Sir Harry mentioned earlier on, giving themselves an extra year without an election in Wales, extending it from 2003 to 2004. On those bodies there are representatives of the trade unions who work for the council and who put political pressure on their colleagues in the dominant group to make sure that their producer interests are served above and over the interests of the public. As a consequence a lot of the services—refuse collection and other services—provided by the council are not up to the standard they would be if the council actually was following a public service ethos rather than a public sector ethos. What would your response be to that charge?
  (Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) I think that is kind of "all our yesterdays" stuff. It would be a fairly legitimate accusation to make of perhaps part, maybe much, of local government 20 years ago. I think there has been a significant change and best value, for all the reservations that Harry has correctly expressed about it, has, to a degree, exemplified that, because we have moved to a position where you have to look at the quality of services, you have to involve your community in the design of those services, you increasingly and rightly have to offer choice to the user of services where that does not distort the objectives of public policy. You have to operate in a more open way. The scrutiny system, which I touched on before, I think will facilitate that, although it will take time to bed in as a new approach to local politics. I think the days when it would be a reasonably fair accusation to make of past experience when there was a producerist culture prevailing have declined very markedly indeed. We are now in general terms in a mixed economy of provision where to a degree the concern is now to ensure that we can secure delivery, whether that is from within the public sector or the private sector or very broadly, and sometimes missed in this, the third set, the not for profit sector. The concern is to make sure the provider of services does deliver and the contracts you enter into are actually performing. We have seen examples of success in that context and we have seen examples of failure, both within the public and private sectors. You do not have to go very far from this building to see total failure of private sector contractors, for example with housing benefits in Lambeth or Hackney. Equally, there are cases where they have been very successful. I think local government now would subscribe to a mixed economy and would subscribe to a principle of choice and would subscribe to openness. Increasingly I think this process has been reinforced with changes which have emerged in the last few years and which are foreshadowed in the White Paper. Again, I refer to local public service agreements because these are designed to provide stretching targets for delivery of locally chosen priorities, locally agreed priorities, but again involving not merely a council and Government but with other agencies and partners.
  (Cllr Sir Harry Jones) Can I just make a point, I think there is a little bit of the Lord of the Rings about your statement. There seems to be a great deal of the prevailing myth about local authorities. Whilst one would not argue that there are authorities in varying degrees of efficiencies, I would have thought the vast majority of authorities would not recognise the comments that you have just made, particularly this myth about the advent of local authorities having to take on private services. In the vast majority of many services it has always been a tradition that local authorities go outside, on house building and on maintenance programme. I can give chapter and verse where you live cheek by jowl and the association and the partnership have always been very successful. What changed that tenor of the relationship was the advent of CCT which can be held responsible for a great deal of damage in terms of what had previously been a very successful and worthwhile relationships with the private and public sector. What has happened has been of great concern to myself. I think, if you accept they (private) are the best value for example in the field of social services where it clearly was often easily able to be demonstrated that the private care sector could produce under the auspices of best value a cheaper option to the local authority providing private care. What has happened is many authorities have either totally gone out, they have got rid of all their homes and have gone over totally to the private sector and in many other cases they have halved it or done it in whatever degree. What is happening at this present moment in time in Wales which you should be aware of, is that as a consequences of the advent of the basic fair wage at this present moment in time the private sector is going out in droves, and suddenly you have people who are not able to be released and who are stacking themselves up in hospitals waiting to come out because the number of areas they can move to, particularly the ones they so choose to move into, are not available for them and you have this backlog in beds in hospitals as a consequence of it. We have actually created this situation on the basis of something I totally support, which is the fair wage, but equally the fact is that we have to move out because of whether or not the public ethos is the right one. Here is an example that if CCT had not been in place we would not have this incredible problem of people going into homes. In some instances the standard is such, and I say that without reservation, I would not put a member of my family into them, yet there is very little alternative available as a consequence of the depletion in homes and the depletion within local authorities in their ability to provide an alternative source.

Mr Prentice

  715. Are you saying that the government is not ideologically neutral there, that the government has a clear preference for private sector solutions? The examples you have just given bears that out?
  (Cllr Sir Harry Jones) Initially there was not any question of where they were trying to drive local authority services. You have had some movement away from that in recent years with the Labour government but there is still that underlying tenor and I think in terms of the review that is now taking place on best value under Stephen Byers I think those are the areas that will need to come into consideration. In fact, we had a meeting earlier this morning, there is a greater discretion enabling you now in terms of the utilisation of the private sector, in terms of the expectations you can lay upon them in terms of the deliverability and quality they give that has to be there before you would pass it over to them.

  716. There is not a level playing field. You cannot get a home help from Lancashire County Council these days. Is the Prime Minister a friend of local government?
  (Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) Increasingly if you look at the foreword to the White Paper you will see it is warmer in tone than we are accustomed to. There is a redressing of the balance in process. You touch on a level playing field, I have long argued, the Association has long argued that the restrictions on what local authorities can do in terms of providing direct services, not merely for their own services but for other councils and other agencies and the public at large, ought to be lifted. We ought to be able to compete on a strictly level playing field with other providers, private or not-for-profit sectors alike. That is envisaged within the White Paper and it is clear that the government will be moving on that. I very much welcome that. It is also expands choice.

  717. Have you read the small print? I flicked through the White Paper, are you saying there will be residual control on what local authorities might be able to do? I always cite the example of the local authority that lays tarmac along a road, the marginal cost of doing somebody's drive would be close to zero but all of the little companies out there that do this work they would be up in arms if they thought local authorities were going to get this kind of advantage.
  (Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) There is a phrase in the White Paper which talks about not distorting the market. I take it, no doubt this will come out in further discussions, if it is to be a level playing field clearly the council cannot subsidise its competition with other providers, that would be entirely wrong. Subject to that it does seem to me that the restrictions on the Local Authority Goods and Services Act can, and will, be modified and local authorities should, therefore, be able to compete fairly with others. I repeat, I think there is a neglected sector here, which is the third sector, which really needs to be brought more into the debate, especially round some sensitive areas of public policy, where I think many of us would have some ethical reservations about whether it is right that certain services should be for profit at all. That does not only refer to local government but also, health, for example, and custodial services. Many, not all, would feel these are not appropriate functions to be carried out for profit, where a not-for-profit alternative might be perfectly acceptable and offer something by way of choice or just difference in diversity.

  718. Is the government line that if the public sector does not provide to and acceptable standard then there is always the possibility of going out to an alternative provider, with a gun to your head.
  (Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) The alternative provider may be another public authority, that is envisaged in the local White Paper, if a council is not delivering a particular service then another council might be able to provide that service or an another public agency might be able to provide that service, I think that is not unreasonable, providing that objective is still to ensure that there is improvement and there is, if it is not there now, a built-in capacity for the local authority to deliver its own services effectively.

  719. I understand the partnerships, as you describe them, may involve other public sector organisations, but what about the private sector? We had the man from Capita here a couple of weeks ago, and I think his organisation was responsible for the council tax benefits in Lambeth, which nose-dived. If the object of the exercise is to deliver a decent service to the voters what is wrong with moving an operation or a service over to the private sector if, like Capita, they tell us they can do a much better job.
  (Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) The best value process should throw up cases where that may be an appropriate solution. That is one of the changes that we accept and embrace really, it is as wrong to claim that the private sector is always better than the public sector as it is the other way round. We have to provide the highest level of service and in certain cases it may be that the private sector is the better bet, that is what the best value process will demonstrate. There is a slight paradox, many of the private sector providers derive their skills and experience from people who work in local government and they withdraw from the public service a good deal of skill and experience. I do not think there is any way we can combat that. As far as the consumer is concerned it is important that the service should be responsive and there should be redress for them if the service fails.

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