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


Examination of Witness (Questions 180-199)

MR DAVID CLARK

TUESDAY 9 JULY 2002

  180. Why should they not benefit, therefore, from knowing that they operate differently from, say, Croydon?
  (Mr Clark) I think one can become complacent. It is always beholden upon us to make sure that we are striving to be the best in class. Let us take a small example of children with special needs. It is very difficult for a family with a child with special needs at the moment to contrast whether we are doing a good job or not, unless they can see what is happening in other areas. They will say, "Hang on, if they can do it in Bristol, or Swindon or wherever, why on earth can't you?" I think it is actually quite good for them to be able to do that. The day will come when people are connected to the internet to be able to do that, but I do not think that is here yet.

  181. Provided they are all starting from the same base?
  (Mr Clark) Who are starting from the same base?

  182. The local authorities against whom they are judging the services. Surely local authorities exist to give locally elected councillors the right to supervise the production of services that the people in that area require?
  (Mr Clark) Yes, that is one of the reasons they exist, but the other reason they exist is to be the local arm delivering nationally determined services.

  Mrs Dunwoody: I am not sure that is quite right.

Chairman

  183. So yes, you are talking about local administration?
  (Mr Clark) No, I am talking about the fact that there are bits of both; that you can easily develop and control issues, but that has no reference to a lot of parliamentary issues about tree preservation and so on and so forth. I do not think there is any Member of this House—and certainly I would not myself—who would not say that part of the delivery of education is actually partly nationally determined and partly locally determined, and that seems to me understandable.

Christine Russell

  184. Could you perhaps itemise for us the changes that you would like to see incorporated in the Bill to improve the clauses on CPA?
  (Mr Clark) Yes. I would like to see a real wish list for me of how I would want to see those sorts of things. Firstly, I would like to see the CPA just kept secret for six months. Why would I like that? It is because I think that would encourage people to change, to make plans and elect to do things in those six months that you would not get if you simply shamed them and demoralised them. That is the one management experience I have seen some people doing. Just shouting at people does work for a bit, but not very long, and actually giving them a chance to improve themselves I think would be a good thing. I would like to see an opportunity for those who are undertaking an inspection role to be trained more heavily, so that gives me a time frame issue with the current one. I would like to see something in it about how the services are to be moderated, really to take the point that came from over here, which was yes, if local authorities start from the same base. Quite clearly, they do not, they have different issues and different circumstances. So the trick there is not actually changing the formula necessarily, it is the moderation process which comes after that, which seems to me to be something that is still very, very difficult and is in all inspections. Finally, I would like to see something about respecting the endeavours of organisations and of individuals slightly more than just their pure outcomes, because I regret, I think, from time to time I was as guilty as anyone of what gets done is what is being measured, as opposed to knowing the point to get what local people actually want. I think some way of incorporating that in here would be more helpful.

Chairman

  185. It is very difficult, is it not?
  (Mr Clark) Yes, it is.

  186. Taking league tables—and really you are talking about football teams—it is not much consolation to say that the team got relegated but played attractive football, is it?
  (Mr Clark) No, but coming from York, of course, we do not talk too much about football. No, it is not, but on the other hand it is not really very fair on a rather good trading standards officer and a very good trading standards department to be damned for all time merely because something went wrong in social services. I think one has to be a little bit cautious about making overall judgements like that that could demoralise very, very good people for reasons well beyond their control.

  187. You also want to keep it secret for six months, do you not?
  (Mr Clark) Yes.

  188. Do you think secrets can be kept for six months?
  (Mr Clark) It is the sort of secret that will almost certainly leak, but until it is official it is not really there. I would not mind that. I cannot recall now, was it Galileo who was showing instruments of torture and therefore people were being tortured without that having to be used. It seems to me that that is rather a management practice to be encouraged, rather than actually forcing them to see what is right and that actually something might happen in the end.

Mr Cummings

  189. What changes would you like to see in the Bill, and what should the Bill entail in relation to the rationalisation of inspection services?
  (Mr Clark) It is so very difficult. I think that one of the things one might do is give some view to saying that there are some generic elements that are inspected right across in all of the inspections. I am someone who has enjoyed being examined by all of the inquisitors. I would like to have seen some interdepartmental work on there being one inspection of all of this stuff, and then if that is found to be okay, we will simply make it an exception sample, leave everything out. I think it is the LGA who estimate that nearly two years ago now the cost of inspection was running at something like £700 million, but that was just indirect costs, as I recall, not in the actual costs to the authority, because for every pound the Government is spending on this the authority is spending £2 or £3 trying to get it right, and the sheer burden is something to behold. I think that in one year we had four, which included Customs and Excise coming to check our petty cash, for reasons which quite escape me. I think we effectively lost four months of our chief finance officer.

  190. Having identified where the areas of concern lie, your memorandum really is quite scathing. You talk about missed opportunity and you talk about "silo" mentality, do you not?
  (Mr Clark) Yes, I do.

  191. Really what do you wish to see in the Bill?
  (Mr Clark) I would like to see a comprehensive inspection of the local authorities that includes all the elements that individual ministers may need to satisfy themselves that programmes are being delivered, but that it is a one-stop shop for inspection services rather than the plethora that we have.

  192. So are you saying that the Government does not have a real desire to see these changes, because of this "silo" mentality?
  (Mr Clark) No, I am certainly not saying the Government has no desire. I am simply saying that that desire is not converted into practice within this draft Bill.

  193. In here you say "A Government with a real desire". You are essentially just playing with words, are you not?
  (Mr Clark) No, I am not. Forgive me, no, I certainly did not say that. Forgive me, I am not saying that. I am simply saying that it is not only ridiculously difficult as far as I am concerned.
  (Mr Clark) Do you believe the Government's proposals on formula grant do anything to reduce the number of ring-fenced funding streams which local authorities have to manage?
  (Mr Clark) I think that is a question of political will. I do not think there is a formulaic solution to ring-fence problems. I do think that it is almost certainly more likely if the Treasury identifies, as I believe they have, that one of the things that puts up council tax rolls is actually ring-fencing of grants—more likely do it in the Bill.

  194. Are you saying that that will not work, or that there will be inbuilt resistance towards the Bill?
  (Mr Clark) I am saying the latter.

  195. There will be resistance from local authorities to make it work?
  (Mr Clark) No, I am saying there is resistance to having ring-fencing reduced, but I did not say that it was within local government.

  196. Would you care to elaborate further on that?
  (Mr Clark) There are two ends to a piece of string, are there not? One end is local government, the other end would appear to be government departments, so I suppose I must be fingering them as at fault.

  197. Are you doing that?
  (Mr Clark) I suppose I must be.

  198. Do you believe that measures were needed in the Bill to reduce the amount of red tape and the number of plans that councils have to produce?
  (Mr Clark) Absolutely, and particularly smaller councils. It must be the case. My neighbouring authority, Ryedale, for example, which has something like of the order of 150 staff, still has to produce 36 statutory plans and so on and so forth. Again, we have had some colleagues working with officials from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on some of that, and it is only to be welcomed.

  199. Do you believe the Bill should be used to streamline Best Value?
  (Mr Clark) Yes. I think that Best Value was mired in a plethora—a point that was being made earlier on by the Chairman—of regulations, and what was once a really rather good management idea has become regrettably a professionalised offshoot of an industry, so you can always spot that when, instead of appointing a manager you appoint a Best Value officer, which always strikes me as odd.


 
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