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


Examination of Witness (Questions 480-499)

MR PAUL KIRBY

THURSDAY 11 JULY 2002

Chris Grayling

  480. We are hearing on the one hand a chief executive telling us that this process will paralyse an authority for a month and you are saying "We are trying to be terribly light handed and not too much pressure on them". There is a disfunctionality between those answers.
  (Mr Kirby) I think it is definition of an authority. Clearly most of the authorities we are looking at will have 10 to 15,000 staff. This is not something which affects the great majority of staff. I think it would be true that in the month in which we are inspecting the corporate capacity, this issue will dominate the agenda of the chief executive. I think there is no doubting that. If we were doing this month in month out or if we were planning to do it every year in the future I think that would be very regrettable. It is a one-off exercise. Personally I cannot see any other way to get to the other side of all this regulation. Something has to happen when we get an agreed view of how people perform and once we have got that then some people can get freed up, others can get the help they need and everybody knows the system can be reformed.

Mrs Dunwoody

  481. But the template will not be fixed there forever, will it? There must be some ability, if somebody comes back to you and says, "You are not really judging this aspect correctly"?
  (Mr Kirby) Absolutely. We have maximised the use of existing methods so that we do not increase the burden. The new things that we have done we have consulted on. I do not believe there is anything we are doing this year that we would want to automatically repeat. If I demonstrated that, Chairman, it would be our approach to district councils where perhaps the earlier thinking was to do what we have done in upper tier councils and we have said it is not the right thing to do because it will not work in district councils and we want to do something really quite different. I think we are doing a one-off task and then reflecting it there.

Mr Cummings

  482. Can you tell the Committee how the Audit Commission carries out Comprehensive Performance Assessment of a local authority?
  (Mr Kirby) If I can distinguish between the Comprehensive Performance Assessment and the Corporate Assessment. Often those two terms have become confused by people watching the debate in local government. The Comprehensive Performance Assessment, which we will publish in early December, will give a judgement on each of the key service areas, so there will be a judgment on social services, education, housing, environment, and out to consultation at the moment on whether it includes leisure and culture and/or benefits, but those five or six key services, and that will bring together, for example, existing OFSTED reports and education performance indicators and performance against key targets for things like exam result improvements. Most of that comes out of existing work. Over and above that we decided that a lot of that information tells you how things are and how people have performed, but if you are looking to make a new judgment about the changing relationship between central and local government, the key question is this council may not be doing well in all its services but can it work them out itself?

  483. Are you working to a set formula?
  (Mr Kirby) No, what we have then done is to say the only way to learn that is to go and do a new piece of inspection replacing what we were going to do, and that is a corporate assessment. What we do in the corporate assessment is to say the best councils already corporately assess themselves, they have got a particular way of doing it, it is how we have seen people improve themselves. The approach then has been to ask people to start with self-assessment and they answer the four questions I mentioned, essentially what are you trying to achieve and are you achieving it, for themselves, and from the universal feedback we have had from local government that has been a very positive experience in the new cabinets, taking stock in an honest way. By and large, they have been very honest appraisals and people see that to be very developmental. We then go on site for a two-week period with an inspection period. We are conscious as an Audit Commission that although we have grown significantly we lacked some of the key things to make that judgment. We have learned a lot from how IDEA have done reviews and therefore each team has a councillor on it and an officer from local government. That team then looks at self-assessment and forms a view on how well the council is doing.

  484. Perhaps one or two specific questions. Who decides upon the weighting given to a particular service? How do you assess the authority's central management performance?
  (Mr Kirby) On the weighting issues, Chair, that is the subject of our current consultation so there is a consultation document out at the moment suggesting the approach which we intend to take, saying, for example, what weight goes to inspection, what weight goes to performance indicators within a service area, and then which service areas get weighting over another. We have set out our proposals for consultation over the summer and we would look to make a judgment in the autumn in a very explicit way so it will be entirely transparent. Our pathfinder councils next week, the ten of them will sit down with all the information about their councils in a very open way and they will take these models and work it through what it means for them together. The Local Government Association is involved in that debate as well.

  485. I am a bit confused. I tried to ask a simple question to get a simple answer. How should councils balance the importance placed on functions by their auditors against the priorities of the local population? Who audits yourselves?
  (Mr Kirby) What we have done on the corporate assessment, looking at their capacity—your question about what is their overall management capacity—is we have simply said what are your priorities and how well do you do on them? It is not for us to say what people's priorities should be, it is entirely for the councils. People have chosen different priorities. For some people it is about tackling crime; for others it is about improving tourism. It is for them to say. Our question is if you have chosen that, how well can you demonstrate you are delivering it? In that new piece of work that is quite open. On the individual services we have made the proposal in here that between education, social services, housing and environment we think it is invidious to weight one of those higher than another so we would suggest equal weighting. They need to get separate judgment. The public will see, for example, that an authority may not do as well on environment as education but clearly the local politicians will say, "Our priorities are in education so that is how we have done it." The reason we have suggested it is unweighted is that education is a big spender but local government has a more limited role these days around what happens in schools. Social services is a very big spender but 98 per cent of the population do not use it therefore it is not the biggest issue potentially amongst local voters. We know that housing is again a very big spender but, the same as with social services, eight out of ten people do not live in social housing and therefore it may not be a big issue. Environment, which is not necessarily a huge spender, continually comes out across the country as the top issue of local concern. Therefore, we are suggesting it is equally weighted so that people locally can articulate which of those things are their priorities.

  486. The Committee is being informed that the need to weight these services may well be decided nationally.
  (Mr Kirby) That would be true if we had chosen to do it. If we had chosen to say, for example, social services should have a great deal more weighting than another service, there would be that risk. Our proposal is not to do that and to play it in a very flat way and tell the public how services do—

Mr O'Brien

  487. Should there be an appeal against the decision you make on a local authority?
  (Mr Kirby) I will take this one carefully to explain it. Most of the judgments which go into this have already been the subject of a potential appeal process, so there will have been an OFSTED score and if people did not like that they could appeal against it. All inspections have a process for dealing with disputed judgments.

  488. There is no political input, is there?
  (Mr Kirby) On the evidence that goes into the corporate assessments people have lots of opportunities to dispute the judgment and to have that resolved.

  489. In OFSTED there are not many elected councillors involved with opinions or questions and they are the ones that have to answer to the electorate.
  (Mr Kirby) Our line is firstly to say on the individual bits of evidence people have the chance to choose that.

  490. Who are the people? When do the people have a chance to choose?
  (Mr Kirby) The politicians in the local authority.

  491. Should they have a right of appeal if they disagree?
  (Mr Kirby) In all of the cases of inspections they do.

  492. They do? So what you are saying then is it would be possible, if the appeal is strong, to change the decision taken by the inspector and to move that authority out of one category into the other?
  (Mr Kirby) If I could make a distinction. There is the evidence that goes into individual inspections and people can dispute that in their own terms, and they do and judgements get changed as a result of those disputes. The second issue is how all that evidence is combined together and how much weight is given to education, for example, over housing, and how much weight is given to inspection over performance indicators. People have strong views about, that sometimes for principle reasons and sometimes because it helps the balance of their judgment. Our position on that is that we are completely open in our consultation about what the options are.

  493. Should there be an appeal against?
  (Mr Kirby) Our position is that we are completely open about the consultation, we hear all the views and then we will make a decision as a matter of policy that will be totally transparent and every person's judgment will be transparent, and after that people would be appealing on a matter of principle about Comprehensive Performance Assessment and the approach we have taken is we do not think that is something that people should appeal against.

  494. You refer to principle, but if the representations that have been made by the councillors are ignored by the Commission, should they have an appeal to a higher body?
  (Mr Kirby) At the moment people have the ability to complain to the relevant inspectorate.

  495. Not complain, to appeal so there could be a judgment made as to whether a local authority is to be taken out of a lower category and put into a higher category?
  (Mr Kirby) I did not explain very well, I am sorry.

Chairman

  496. I am getting quite conscious about the time, so if we could have fairly short answers.
  (Mr Kirby) I realised why I was taking so long. On that point when it comes to placing people in categories, that will be done automatically.

Mr O'Brien

  497. By whom, by you?
  (Mr Kirby) On the basis of a mathematical model so that everybody can see they got a certain set of scores in this inspection. They can then see how those things are added together and it will be done by pressing a button on a computer. There will not be a further stage of judgment about—

  498. If there is strong disagreement should there be a right of appeal?
  (Mr Kirby) At that final stage our view at the moment is that we will have fully consulted on how we were going to do it—

Chairman

  499. What you are saying is there is not going to be a right of appeal?
  (Mr Kirby) What I am saying is there is a right of appeal about any of the judgments.


 
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