Examination of Witness (Questions 160-179)|
TUESDAY 9 JULY 2002
160. Good afternoon, and welcome to the second
session of the Committee's inquiry into the draft Local Government
Bill. Would you like to introduce yourself for the record?
(Mr Clark) I am David Clark. I am Director
General of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and
Senior Managers, called SOLACE for short.
161. Thank you very much. Do you want to say
anything by way of introduction, or are you happy to go straight
(Mr Clark) Yes, I am.
162. Good afternoon. In your evidence to us
you said about local government that central Government's relationship
with it was that central Government uses carrot and sticks as
a way of getting local government to conform to what it sees as
being the appropriate course of action. Do you think this draft
Bill fundamentally alters that approach in any way?
(Mr Clark) No. I think we also went on to say something
in slightly unparliamentary languagethat the absence of
carrots was somewhat noticeable. No, I do not think it does in
a big way, because what we have again is the idea that "If
you do this, something nice will happen for you, and what you
must do must be something that we wish you to do." I think
that is still there. The only thing it does, I suppose, is in
the idea of the approval of the prudential capital arrangements
which, as we said, I think gives some idea of the maturing relationship,
but this relationship is over a period of perhaps 30 years now,
so it has had some common developments, and I think both sides
are trying to re-learn the partnership style.
163. The Government has given quite a bit of
hype to the idea of changing the role, greater freedoms for local
government, new approach for the centre towards local government.
Do you think that is really hype when you look at the details
of what is down there?
(Mr Clark) It is not for me to comment on what is
and what is not hype, but I do think that certainly the Minister
is a firm believer, and he has tried very hard in this to use
the right language and indeed some of the tools that are at his
disposal. I think part of the difficulty that we have is that
most of local governmentin fact almost the greatest percentage
of local government in terms of expenditureas well as several
other people, have an interest in health, education and so on.
I think there is a balance there to be struck between the desire
for ministers to have programmes delivered and the desire for
Government to intervene in local government. That balance is always
a matter of politics really.
164. Do you think the Minister for Local Government
has lost out compared to the Ministers for Education and Social
(Mr Clark) I would not know, because I am not privy
to the combat. I suppose that were I to look at it, we made a
comment, I think at the end of our evidence, along the lines that
it is a shame that it does not say something more about inspections
and a paring down of some of those inspectorates, but I am obviously
aware that some of those inspectorates do not report to the Minister
of Local Government, they are creatures of other ministries.
165. Might you even, on considering it, say
that that role and the new freedoms to local authorities are going
to require a lot more regulations to come out of this legislation?
Is that something that concerns you?
(Mr Clark) Regulations are always fascinating. I am
somewhat concerned that we could get by with a little in regulations
about what constitutes a loan and what constitutes a level of
reserve and so on and so forth. The direction of travel though,
I have to say, seems to me to be fairly consistent, which is towards
a greater freedom , but one could hardly say that this is freedom
of itself. It is a little like a television quiz I am reminded
of, which is where contestants were invited to pick what the picture
is as individual pieces of a jigsaw arrive. In this case I think
they have established it, but they are not quite sure yet what
the picture is on the box. So the direction of travel is fine,
but perhaps it is not quite there yet.
166. Do you think therefore we should be rushing
ahead to legislate on the basis of this Bill, or trying to spend
a little more time trying to get this right?
(Mr Clark) That rather depends. I think that from
what is there, I would be saying that perhaps legislation as fast
as we possibly can, unless there is an intention from parliamentarians
to include substantial new things in the legislation. I think
the majority of my colleagueswe have just had our annual
general meeting of some 150-odd chief executivesbroadly
welcome it and would say, "Yes, it shows that when ministers
say to us that they're interested in more freedoms, here comes
a new prudential capital regime, yes, that would be good."
I actually think that if it were delayed, then there would be
some cynics who said, "Well they didn't really mean it anyway,
167. Would it be better if it was delayed and
therefore had a bit more in it?
(Mr Clark) From my own point of view, if there were
things in it about driving out the costs, not least the opportunity
costs, of the plethora of inspection regimes, then I would delay
it for a very long time if I believed that was an achievable goal.
If I did not believe it was an achievable goal, I would go with
what it is.
168. A lot of it is going to depend on the regulations,
is that right?
(Mr Clark) It would appear that certainly on the finance
side there is an element of that, indeedthat there are
things to be done later. Again, my experience has beenand
I have had considerable experience of the Comprehensive Performance
Assessment process as it has been developedthat both the
Audit Commission and the Minister, Mr Raynsford, have bent over
backwards actually to get local government on side, if you will,
about how this system would work, so I am perhaps not as concerned
as I would be, but my instincts are that regulations drawn up
down here tended not to work when I was in York, they seemed to
be drawn up as though York did not exist and in fact London boroughs
were somehow more important.
169. In a sense, it is very much a parliamentary
issue, but when the 2000 Act went through there were not draft
regulations available at the time the legislation went through,
and there were people who claimed that the regulations were a
bit of a dog's breakfast and that they took a long time. Would
it be better with this to have both the draft Bill now and draft
regulations by the time we are debating the Bill?
(Mr Clark) I think it is entirely an issue, as you
rightly say, for parliamentarians, but that must be right. From
my point of view, if one were able to perceive where those regulations
should be, if there was an actually an open dialogue, I personally
would be less concerned. After all, one of my duties was to introduce
a taxation system with the community charge where the regulations
did not come out until after we had sent out the first bills,
so one is used to the idea of regulations not quite keeping up
with the timetable.
170. You do not think that matters?
(Mr Clark) I think it is regrettable, but I think
it is livable with.
171. In your written evidence you say that even
more prescription around financial administration is a mystery
and unhelpful. Is this all about central Government mistrusting
(Mr Clark) I am not sure what it is about really.
There is an incredible part of the Billand I use the term
advisedlythat seems to indicate that we should ask the
Treasury what the reserves are like. I just find it incredible
that anybody would not. Why one needs to put that into a piece
of legislation, frankly, defeats me, but I could easily be missing
something. There is an element that always creeps back of lack
of trust. I regret, I think it has built up on both sides. After
all, I grew up in a generation where local government officers
were asked to subvert central Government regulations, and indeed
there are Members around here who would remember those regrettable
Sir Paul Beresford
172. Are you telling us they do not do that
(Mr Clark) They may. I shall point my noise in the
direction in a moment. I think that there is quite a degree of
unlearning on both sides, from civil servants on both sidesI
see myself, I saw myself, as a local civil servantreally
to understand and to start to trust each other, and that does
take time. I think some of this creeps back into this legislation.
173. The White Paper talks about increasing
capacity and support for councils. Do you think that Bill is going
to do that?
(Mr Clark) I think I will wait and see, if I may.
I know it talks about it, and it is certainly something I could
highly commend. I cannot for the life of me now understand why
I spent the four years I did as a councillor, nor indeed why anyone
else would do that. The idea that one can build support and actuallyremembering
Asimov's trianglerecognition at the top for what they do
rather than reward, would seem to be rather a good thing.
174. The White Paper also spoke about non-legislative
objectives for local government, things like training for councillors
and others. Is the Government doing anything to help the non-legislative
objectives that were in the White Paper to support local government?
(Mr Clark) I suppose one could say that it is, in
that it is about maturing relationships. I personally take the
view that there is a simplification objective in the Comprehensive
Performance Assessment work. Whether that will actually be realised
in the interdepartmental issues is quite a separate question.
175. Mr Clark, you have already told us that
you have had a direct involvement in developing the proposals
for the Comprehensive Performance Assessment, is that right?
(Mr Clark) Yes.
176. In the light of that experience, do you
have any lingering concerns about any of the aspects?
(Mr Clark) I will not mince my words. More than "lingering".
I think the difficulty with those sorts of things is that they
cannot be done desperately quickly. I am very grateful that I
was able to apply for the job of Director General here as opposed
to Sir Andrew Foster's job which looks to me in particular as
very, very difficult within that time frame. We are providing
a lot of expertise from our membersnot from myself, I hasten
to add, but from the members of our organisation who are practitionersand
we are also providing some of the inspectors, but frankly, for
people who are able to do that and to be trained within this time
frame is quite ridiculous. I looked at a particular one in Kent
which involved a £300 million outsourced operation. How one
inspects the wherewithal of that in the time frames which are
available, when one has not had the practitioner input in any
event in that sort of work, seems to me very difficult. It also
seems to me a little bit concerningand I say no more than
thatthat the core data sets that are being used on inspections
were actually inspected for another purposes. I think that is
something that might need to be revisited. Some of it is somewhat
out of date. Again, from my own authority's point of view and
I think from your point of view, it is rather good really that
it is not quite out of date, but even then if it is it will be
even better . I might have given some views about whether I would
want to have a methodology that was not so heavily reliant on
data collected for other purposes.
177. In principle, do you believe that it is
right that those local authorities that are failing their communities
should be identified?
(Mr Clark) Absolutely, 100 per cent. More than that,
I think it is probably a duty on Parliament so to do.
178. Why is it not a duty on the electorate
to get rid of that?
(Mr Clark) I think it is because of the level of complexities;
that actually to spot the failing organisations is quite difficult.
Also, though, because of the contrast. If you look at this again,
if I may use the City of York as an example, some 80 per cent
of the people there are born and bred, they cannot compare whether
we are doing better or worse than Croydon, because they have not
been a deliverer of services there. In a sense, I think it is
right that an authority should be tested against other authorities.
Whether one calls them skiving, jiving, failing, wailing or whatever
I do not think is an issue, but the idea that they can be judged
amongst their peers by an overview, through yourselves or through
someone else, strikes me as very sensible.
179. Why should not the people of York recognise
what services they want from York?
(Mr Clark) I think they do and I think they are rather
good at it. I hope we are rather good at providing them.