Examination of Witness (Questions 300
TUESDAY 4 DECEMBER 2001
300. Given the extent of the change that is
being proposed at a regional level, do you think this is the best
time to be looking at devolving services from county councils
and unitary authorities to town and district councils?
(Mr Raynsford) The issue of devolution I think is
a very important one and you cannot draw a borderline and say,
"It can apply only at this level and not at another level."
If there is an aspiration and a wish by people at a very local
level to have a degree of devolved responsibility, we believe
that that is a reasonable aspiration and that they should have
the opportunity of pursuing it, which is why we issued jointly
with colleagues in DEFRA the consultation on Quality parishes
and town councils.
301. In relation to that QUALITY, should every
town and county council not be required to have their 100 per
cent elected members, at least six meetings annually as well as
a competent clerk?
(Mr Raynsford) We do propose in the framework that
there should be not just a competent clerk but that there must
be elected membership at the outset of each term. You cannot guarantee
that, in the course of a term of office, there will not be a resignation
and a gap at some period of time. That happens in the best run
organisations. The principle of there being a fully elected local
council at the start of each term of office is a very important
302. What is a competent clerk?
(Mr Raynsford) That is one of the issues we are consulting
on. The paper is a consultation paper and we believe it is right
that the clerk should have the necessary skills to ensure good
management of the council's business, to ensure that the statutory
obligations are met, that the relationship with the other authorities
in the area is properly maintained, and that the council does
not exceed its powers and deals with its finances in a proper
way. All of those are the kind of qualities that we would expect
a competent clerk to demonstrate.
303. My last question is on the issue of Best
Value. Best Value is based on some very simple ideas: customer
service and value for money. Why is it that so many councils are
finding it so hard?
(Mr Raynsford) Best Value is a very important and
innovatory framework which inevitably in the course of its introduction
has produced some teething troubles. Some areas have found it
a little burdensome, a little costly, but my experience talking
to local government as a whole and talking to the Audit Commission
is that this is bedding down, that people welcome the way it has
helped to focus on improving the quality of service and by refining
the framework, by ensuring that there is a reduced burden in terms
of the number of inspections, there is more focus on cross-cutting
reviews and that the procedures are streamlined in order that
we can get the real benefit of Best Value which is about raising
standards and ensuring that services are delivered in a way which
does respond to customer concerns. All of that can be achieved
and the Best Value regime will serve its purpose and will prove
slightly less cumbersome than it has in its initial year or two.
The Audit Commission share those views.
304. In the process of the bedding down that
you are talking about, do you think there might be a degree of
alignment in the amount of time councils are spending on the various
four `C's involved in Best Value, in particular the comparison
part of it, and do you think the councils have been spending perhaps
a little more time collecting data rather than improving services?
(Mr Raynsford) We think there is evidenceand
the Audit Commission certainly believes thisthat there
has been an improvement as a result of the introduction of Best
Value but there is still a long way to go and we see this as a
continuous process. Best Value is about continuing improvement
in service delivery.
305. When Best Value was introduced, it was
said that all local authorities should be able to save in the
region of two per cent by employing the Best Value programme.
Presumably you have been monitoring that. Is there any evidence
that that has been done?
(Mr Raynsford) We are more than monitoring it, that
is a requirement that is taken into account in the way we approach
the whole financial programme.
306. Have you quantitative data which indicates
that that has all happened?
(Mr Raynsford) Local authorities are expected to achieve
that and we take that into account when we set our grant framework
307. Have you any evidence that this has actually
(Mr Raynsford) There is evidence that it has happened
because authorities' budgets are dependent on achieving that.
They have to demonstrate that level of performance.
308. So they have all achieved that?
(Mr Raynsford) No but, if they do not achieve that,
there will be some painful consequences in terms of allocation
309. If the Best Value process does not workit
is your process, not theirsregardless they have their budgets
cut by two per cent; is that what you are saying?
(Mr Raynsford) We make an assumption each year that
there will be a two per cent efficiency saving, yes.
310. So if they waste their time through the
process, they still have to cut their budget by two per cent?
(Mr Raynsford) They will have to make choices as to
where they make cuts if they cannot deliver two per cent efficiency
savings. That is a perfectly reasonable objective that most organisations
311. Presumption is rather cumbersome. The Best
Value process is a tool that actually produces a two per cent
(Mr Raynsford) We would expect an efficiency target
to be something that any well run organisation would welcome.
We regard this as a reasonable target for local government and,
in our discussions with local government, there is a widespread
acceptance that they ought to achieve this. Obviously in some
parts of local government it is more difficult than others.
312. I cannot work it out but, at a certain
point, if you save two per cent each year, you are spending nothing.
(Mr Raynsford) No, the authority does have that additional
money to spend.
Sir Paul Beresford
313. The other way of looking at it is that
some local authorities saving two per cent should be a pushover
but for other local authorities it could be quite tight.
(Mr Raynsford) It is our objective to raise the standards
of all authorities.
314. So you could cut everybody.
(Mr Raynsford) No, this is not a question of cuts,
it is a question of efficiency incentives.
315. For how long is it going on? Two years,
(Mr Raynsford) We have no plans to change it because
that is a framework that applies very widely in other sectors
of the economy where organisations do expect to go on making continuous
improvements in efficiency.
316. That is exactly how the previous government
wrecked the Health Service.
(Mr Raynsford) If it were the case that we were putting
less money into either the Health Service or local government,
that might be a fair criticism, but in a framework where we are
putting substantial additional funds in, it is right that those
extra funds should be matched by efficiency gains as well to improve
still further the performance of these bodies.
Sir Paul Beresford
317. Much of that extra money that went to the
local authorities last year, which was well trumpeted, actually
was spent, in some cases entirely, on Best Value arrangements
and the new change in the structure of the local authorities and
an implication from your answer two or three questions back is
that the responsibility actually lands with the Government because
despite the warnings in committee etc, the local authorities were
landed with volume upon volume of rules, regulations and so forth
often at a very, very late stage.
(Mr Raynsford) I have to say that the vast majority
of local authorities warmly welcomed the introduction of Best
Value as a much better framework for performance management than
compulsory competitive tendering that preceded it and we obviously
have accepted the need to make continuing improvements. I do not
believe that this ethos of continuing improvement applies just
to local government, it applies to us and we are trying to improve
the working of the Best Value regime along the lines that I outlined
in response to an earlier question.
318. The unions might say in a number of cases
that they have not really moved on from CCT and in fact they see
cost as the key issue.
(Mr Raynsford) I think that is a very fair criticism
and it is one of the issues we are reviewing in the review of
Best Value which I am currently leading in our department to try
and ensure that we get a workable system that puts its focus rightly
on raising the quality of service.
319. So when you actually have as one of your
main instruments a two per cent cut in the cost of doing things,
is that going to reinforce the approach you have been critical
(Mr Raynsford) No. I think an efficiency target is
a reasonable target in any framework and one wants constantly
to be looking at ways of doing things more efficiently and it
is right that organisations should be tested in that way but,
if you are looking at options for delivering the service, the
measure should be quality and not simply cost. You want to do
it in a cost-effective way, but ultimately you want to ensure
you are delivering high quality services and that is what we aim
to achieve through Best Value.