Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 300 - 319)

TUESDAY 4 DECEMBER 2001

RT HON NICK RAYNSFORD, MP

  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 one, yes.

Chairman

  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.

Ms King

  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 evidence—and the Audit Commission certainly believes this—that 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.

Dr Pugh

  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 happened?
  (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.

Chairman

  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 of resources.

Dr Pugh

  309. If the Best Value process does not work—it is your process, not theirs—regardless 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 saving.
  (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.

Chairman

  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.

Chairman

  315. For how long is it going on? Two years, three 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.

Mrs Dunwoody

  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.

Mr Betts

  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 of?
  (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.


 
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