Examination of Witnesses (Questions 600
THURSDAY 11 JULY 2002
MP, MS PAM
600. Minister, I think you will be aware of
a Treasury document that came out last December on the cost of
all the different inspectorates and the lack of co-ordination
between them, and it certainly recommended that they should work
more closely together. Have you got any evidence that the inspectorates
are beginning to work more closely together?
(Mr Raynsford) Yes. The inspectorate forum is doing
a very good job in trying to ensure that there is greater consistency
and better understanding between the different inspectorates.
Certainly we want to see that achieved and that is the purpose
of the forum.
601. We are told there is some duplication at
the moment. Is there any opportunity for joint working between
some of those different inspectorates?
(Mr Raynsford) I think there may well be an increased
opportunity for inspections to cover wider areas than just the
rather narrow service areas that have been the focus in the past.
We certainly are encouraging local authorities as part of the
best value process to undertake reviews that cover wider services
rather than simply within individual silos, and that does point
to a case for the inspectorate following similar patterns.
602. When the comprehensive performance assessment
is introduced, do you foresee that there will be compensatory
savings in other inspectorates?
(Mr Raynsford) One of the great advantages will be
a light touch inspection regime where authorities are demonstrated
to have done well and, again, this is a further example in response
to Mr Bett's question, that those service areas where the performance
is high will be specifically subject to a lighter touch inspection
regime in the future.
603. Does that not imply that the others are
going to be heavy handed?
(Mr Raynsford) It implies that one is focusing the
inspection where it is felt there is the greatest neednot
that it is heavy handed but it is targeted towards those areas
where performance could perhaps be improved, and that is the thinking
behind this whole comprehensive performance assessment process.
Each assessment will lead to an action plan which will set out
what is necessary to improve those parts of the authority's performance
that are felt to be less satisfactory than others.
604. Can I ask you to respond to the argument
that has been made by some council leaders that the whole concept
of assessment will undermine their role in providing local leadership?
(Mr Raynsford) I take exactly the opposite view: I
took a lot of heart from the local elections this May where I
think there was quite clear evidence, and it is probably the first
time in my political experience that that has happened, that the
electorate reached decisions in individual areas on the basis
of an individual authority's performance. Traditionally in the
past local councillors have rightly complained that whether they
held their seats or lost them often depended on whether their
party was popular nationally or not. There is quite a wide variation
this time in terms of the performance of individual authorities
in the same region, some of whom clearly got a much better response
from the electorate than others, and if you look at those in relation
to the evidence we have got of the performance of authorities,
there is certainly a quite strong indication that good performance
was rewarded and poor performance was punished. I think that is
terribly encouraging and I think any council leader should look
with enthusiasm at the comprehensive performance assessment as
a way of trying to ensure that their authority is performing well
and reaps the rewards.
605. And how do you answer some criticism which
has been levelled at the new process that it is going to be a
long time before it is fully implemented?
(Mr Raynsford) We are always in a difficult position
because for most of the past nine months I have been pressurised
by local government to slow down the implementation of the comprehensive
performance assessment but to speed up other parts of the package.
I am trying to move ahead as far as I can on the whole White Paper
package. We think that the timetable for the comprehensive performance
assessment is achievable; it is demanding but to slow it down
in our view would be a mistake.
606. Finally, this morning we were given evidence
by the Commission of Local Governance that claimed that the comprehensive
performance assessment contravenes Article 8 of the European Chapter
of Local Self Government. How do you answer that accusation?
(Mr Raynsford) I have absolutely no evidence to suggest
that is the case and, if people allege that, I think they should
substantiate it with hard evidence but I have to say I do not
believe that is the case at all.
607. It is not clear to me how helpful it is
to classify and publish councils as being "weak" and
"failing". How do you believe classification of "weak"
and "failing" by itself will prompt improvement by those
(Mr Raynsford) Perhaps I can give one illustration.
Over the past year when I have been Minister for Local Government
I have spent a disproportionate amount of my time wrestling with
the problems in Hackney. Those are deep-seated and go back a long
time. Had there been a proper comprehensive performance assessment
framework in place to identify those weaknesses at an earlier
stage, I think that authority would have avoided getting into
some of the very real problems it has, which makes the recovery
a much longer and more painful process than it needs to be. Earlier
identification of weakness and action through the action plans
which are an inherent part of this process to tackle those weaknesses
will, in my view, help to ensure we have less unfortunate stories
such as Hackney in the future.
608. I am wondering how you can justify denying
communities the benefits of the new powers and freedoms in the
Bill because of the failure of current council leadership.
(Mr Raynsford) If a local authority is in serious
financial difficulty and cannot manage its affairs it does seem
to me a rather odd proposition that they should be given additional
609. It is also very hard to deny communities
their spending powers.
(Mr Raynsford) The whole purpose of the comprehensive
performance assessment is to ensure that local authorities deliver
high quality services to their residents so those communities
do get the benefits of efficient administration by their local
610. So what you are saying is you have learnt
from intervention in Hackney and Walsall councils. Do you believe
government has all the necessary skills it needs for effective
(Mr Raynsford) We will be publishing a further paper
in the near future about how we intend to carry forward our intervention
role spelt out in the White Paper.
611. The question was whether you believe the
government has all the necessary tools and skills?
(Mr Raynsford) What I was about to say was that we
are obviously learning from our experience in Hackney and Walsall.
With Hackney we have intervened: with Walsall we have been advised
by the Audit Commission that intervention might be appropriate
but we have allowed the authority an opportunity to respond to
the Audit Commission's criticisms before we decide whether or
not to use our intervention powers. That is the position at the
moment. We are taking stock in the light of those two cases, and
also our experience elsewhere, and will be publishing in the near
future our proposals of how we want to use the intervention powers
612. Could you give us a definition of "near
(Mr Raynsford) I would hope this would be within the
next two months.
613. Is it correct that the social services
joint inspections show that 60 per cent of councils are weak or
(Mr Raynsford) The individual inspections carried
out by specific inspectorates are the responsibility of the relevant
departments, so for the Social Services inspectorate you have
to seek the view of Social Services ministers. Since I am overseeing
the comprehensive performance assessment that will judge the overall
performance of all authorities, building on those individual subject
inspections, I have no reason to form a view at this stage that
any particular percentage of local government would fit into any
one of the categories.
614. The evidence submitted to the Committee
indicates 60 per cent. Would this not suggest some form of national
crisis that would require a nationwide response rather than local
(Mr Raynsford) I think it is fair to say as you have
highlighted the Social Services area, which is the responsibility
of the Department of Health, that there are real social service
needs that are not being adequately met for a variety of reasonssome
of those are to do with organisation, some may be to do with finance.
As we discussed earlier, we know about financial pressures on
social services. What I am trying to do is get in place a framework
which assesses in a rigorous but firm way the overall performance
of local authorities to improve that performance and to ensure
that people locally get a higher standard of service from their
Sir Paul Beresford
615. So 40 per cent of authorities in contrast
to this 60 per cent can expect this famous light touch in social
(Mr Raynsford) The overall approach that I have spelt
out is one in which we will be tailoring the level of inspection
to the performance of individual authorities, and that will both
reflect individual service areas but also the overall corporate
performance. I have no reason to believe that a particular percentage
of local authorities will fall into any one category.
616. Minister, you have just told us you have
the overall responsibility. What are you going to do when you
do get provided with the evidence, and we are obviously using
social services in this context, that well over 50 per cent of
social services departments are failing or weak? Who is then going
to take action? What measures are in place for you to encourage
your colleagues in the Department of Health to do something about
failing social services?
(Mr Raynsford) I do not think they require any encouragement
to take action where they believe that social service departments
have not been achieving sufficiently high standards. Our concern
is to ensure that the overall corporate health of the authority
is also taken into account because in some cases that could be
a major contributory factor to a particular failing in one service
area. That is my overriding priority, to ensure we have an overall
picture of the performance of the authority as a whole, taking
account of its performance in individual service areas which,
as you all know, can vary. Some can be very good, even if the
authority as a whole is not doing well.
617. Would it surprise you, Minister, that there
has been widespread opposition in the evidence we receive to the
proposal to merge the revenue streams from the national non domestic
rate with the revenue support grant. Given this measure, as I
understand it, has not been trailed at all before or consulted
on in any formal way, have you decided definitely to do this or
is your mind in any way open to listening to views? Is it generally
a draft Bill or is it set as a policy?
(Mr Raynsford) It is a draft Bill for consultation
and obviously we will take full
618. Some Bills are slightly less draft than
(Mr Raynsford) We will take full account of the views
expressed on it but I have to say this is not a major policy change.
All we are doing is seeking to pull together two separate streams
which currently provide a grant to local authorities through two
separate channels. Our view was it would probably be an administrative
improvement to put the two together, but I have heard the fears
and anxieties and we are particularly conscious of the wish to
maintain transparency. So can I give you an assurance that we
will be maintaining an absolutely transparent structure so people
will know exactly what sums are attributable to which of the two
streams, though we still believe there are benefits in administrative
terms of merging the two together.
619. One of the issues raised with us is that
there was quite a lot of interest around, and some degree of pleasure,
that the government have recognised that the balance of funding
that local authorities could raise themselves as against that
which came from the centre was not right, and the government were
prepared to look at a review of this. Yet at the same time it
was seen that the proposal to merge the business rate stream with
the revenue support grant stream effectively killed off any prospect
of business rates going back to local authorities, which some
people think is the only realistic way to deal with the imbalance
between central and local funding at present?
(Mr Raynsford) Let me reassure you that is not the
consequence of the changes we are proposing because, as I have
indicated, we will be separately identifying what comes through
each of the two streams, and therefore there is no consequence
from this proposal that would prevent a future government, if
it so decided, to restore the national non domestic rates to local
discretion. However, I must make it clear we do not believe that
is appropriate. We have set ourselves against doing that and we
have no reason to change that particular stance.