TUESDAY 4 DECEMBER 2001
Andrew F Bennett, in the Chair
RT HON NICK RAYNSFORD, a Member of the House, (Minister for Local Government and the Regions), examined.
(Mr Raynsford) I am Nick Raynsford, Minister for Local Government and the Regions in the Department of Transport Local Government and the Regions and the only Minister who was serving in the old DETR whose annual report you are considering.
(Mr Raynsford) I am happy to go straight into questions.
(Mr Raynsford) The framework for developing regional policy places the overall responsibility with the Deputy Prime Minister and he is working in very close co-operation with our department in order to produce a White Paper which we intend to publish in the early part of next year and that will be presented to Parliament by the Deputy Prime Minister with the full support of the Secretary for Transport Local Government and the Regions.
(Mr Raynsford) Inevitably there are different perspectives throughout government, but we accept a collective responsibility in terms of the development of regional policy and that is the framework that I have already outlined.
(Mr Raynsford) As I said in response to the earlier question, there are different perspectives. On your specific point about regional economic disparities, the DTI would obviously take a lead role. They have responsibility currently for regional development agencies which used to lie with our department but, as Minister for the Regions, I clearly have a very real interest in issues such as the one you have discussed, but the wider framework of regional governance, both now and the future pattern of regional governance which we will propose in our forthcoming White Paper.
(Mr Raynsford) There are different funding streams which go into the regions from different government departments, in the same way that there are different funding streams that go into local government from the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Health and other government departments as well as DTLR and we work together to ensure an appropriate collective responsibility.
(Mr Raynsford) The current framework, as you know, was set up during the last parliament and it was felt right that, in the absence of directly elected regional assemblies, there should be chambers, which are sometimes called assemblies, which should have a monitoring role in relation to regional development agencies and that is the framework which currently exists. We will be publishing, as I have already mentioned, a White Paper setting out our proposals for allowing those regions which wish to elect -
(Mr Raynsford) We are overall responsible for the policy in relation to -
(Mr Raynsford) The chambers have only recently come into existence. We have been responsible for giving them a -
(Mr Raynsford) We have been responsible for providing initial funding for the regions -
(Mr Raynsford) We are assessing their progress.
(Mr Raynsford) Indeed but, as I pointed out earlier, there are issues relating to regional development which will also be the concern of over government departments and I would expect, very obviously, the DTI to take a particular interest in relation to economic development problems.
(Mr Raynsford) The Deputy Prime Minister has overall responsibility for the development of the new policy framework.
(Mr Raynsford) He is doing this.
(Mr Raynsford) The Deputy Prime Minister obviously operates in the way that he chooses to operate.
(Mr Raynsford) I have met regularly with the Deputy Prime Minister to discuss the way that we are handling our approach to the regions.
(Mr Raynsford) I honestly do not think that I am in a position to answer that question.
(Mr Raynsford) As I said in response to the question, these are very early stages. We have just made awards of £0.5 million to each of the chambers or assemblies to enable them to set up appropriate machinery to monitor the work of the RDAs, to liaise with other bodies in the region and to enable them to fulfill their functions. It would be premature for me to give a snapshot judgment on the performance of bodies that are only in a very, very early stage of their development.
(Mr Raynsford) As I was saying, I think it would be premature to try and produce an over-definitive view of the performance of bodies which are just coming into existence.
(Mr Raynsford) We have looked at the work that they are doing and we have assessed that in the course of preparing the grants that we have issued to those bodies, but I would not pretend for a moment that that was a rigorous and definitive assessment for the reasons I have explained.
Sir Paul Beresford
(Mr Raynsford) I would have to seek further advice on the detailed total annual cost but the main source of funding is from our department, yes.
(Mr Raynsford) Of course. I will write to you.
(Mr Raynsford) As I have already said, we hope to publish early in the new year.
(Mr Raynsford) I cannot.
(Mr Raynsford) I can certainly outline the broad thrust of the White Paper. It will give effect to our Manifesto commitment to allow those regions which express, through a referendum, a wish to have an elected regional assembly the opportunity to do so, so it will clearly set out the way in which the approach to that referendum takes place. In other words, what triggers it and how the referendum will be conducted. It will then go on to spell out the type of body, how it would be elected, the electoral system, the representation on the body, and the total numbers and arrangements for involving social and economic partners. It would also obviously define the powers and remit and the funding -
(Mr Raynsford) That is a phrase that has been fairly widely used to cover a range of organisations including business, trade unions and voluntary organisations, all of which would have an interest in the work of the regional assembly.
Mrs Dunwoody: People?
(Mr Raynsford) It would be too soon to give a definitive answer to that, but I have already indicated that, if we maintain the timetable that we are working to, it should be possible, if a region votes in a referendum for an elected regional assembly, for one to be up and running before the end of this Parliament.
Sir Paul Beresford
(Mr Raynsford) We have experience of referendums in Scotland, in Wales and -
(Mr Raynsford) ... and in Greater London. In none of those cases did we apply a threshold. The turnout did vary quite significantly between those three separate bodies but the problem with a threshold was made rather clear in the later 1970s when a threshold was applied in relation to Scotland which resulted in the aspirations for devolution in Scotland being deferred for some 20 years, although the Scots had voted by a majority in favour of devolution at that date. So there are difficult issues here.
(Mr Raynsford) It may not but it is one of the examples I have to look at when framing the proposals in -
Sir Paul Beresford
(Mr Raynsford) I think the people of Scotland and Wales undoubtedly feel that there are considerable benefits from the establishment of devolved government with governance within their countries and I certainly feel that the framework in London for the governance of London is a considerable improvement on the situation that followed the abolition of the GLC which left London alone of all cities in the developed world -
(Mr Raynsford) ... without its own democratic city-wide government.
(Mr Raynsford) No, but it was my answer.
(Mr Raynsford) This is one of the big issues that will be covered in the White Paper and let me just spell out the reasons why it is a particularly important and difficult issue. You have rightly highlighted the fact that, if there were simply the creation of a further tier of government on top of the existing ones, that would appear to be creating an unnecessarily large number of tiers of government -
Sir Paul Beresford
(Mr Raynsford) That is not the same as London because they are only unitary authorities in London. The second consideration is that the experience of the early 1990s was that the process of local government reorganisation, the Banham Commission, was seen as a not entirely happy event in which a great deal of time, energy and effort was exhausted by local authorities concerned about their future and I think it is fair to say that attention was taken away from what we regard as the highest priority, which is ensuring efficient service delivery, and we have no intention of returning to a large-scale reorganisation of local government on the Banham scale. We just believe that that would be a distraction from the main priority of raising standards of service delivery in local government. However, it is the case that our Manifesto says that we envisage the opportunity for the creation of regional government to apply in those regions with predominantly unitary patterns of local government.
(Mr Raynsford) No, we are not going to scrap county councils and, as I have already said in my answer, it would be, in my view, a serious disruption to embark on a wholesale review of local government in England.
(Mr Raynsford) No. What I have said is that the commitment in our Manifesto is to allow the opportunity for regions that vote for it in a referendum to have an elected regional assembly but this should apply only in regions with a predominantly unitary pattern of local government. There must therefore be a mechanism for considering whether or not that test is satisfied.
(Mr Raynsford) That will be spelt out in the White Paper, as I have said. If I can just paint the context. We know at the moment that, in Yorkshire and Humberside, about 89 per cent of the population are living in unitary authorities. That might be considered to be a predominantly unitary pattern of local government. In the north-east and north-west, around two-thirds of the population are living in unitary authority areas. In other parts of the country, it is very different. In the eastern region, less than 20 per cent of the population live in unitary authorities. Therefore, there will inevitably be a need to approach this issue in a way that takes account of those very significant regional variations and that, as I said, is one of the difficult issues. I have openly shared with the Committee the potential difficulties there, the conflict between the commitment to have a predominantly unitary framework if regional tiers of government are introduced as against the disruption caused by an extensive review and reorganisation of local government which would divert attention away from prime priority of efficient service delivery.
(Mr Raynsford) We are constantly assessing the performance of local government at all tiers and that is -
(Mr Raynsford) The overriding priority, as I have already said, is to ensure that local government, in all its forms, delivers high quality services and the experience of the Banham Review in the early 1990s was that a disproportionate amount of time and energy was spent on considering reorganisation which did not help local authorities to deliver services efficiently and which caused very, very expensive changes in structure and organisation. We have no wish to repeat that experience.
(Mr Raynsford) I cannot offhand but I could certainly get the figures and send them to you.
(Mr Raynsford) What I am saying is that this is one of the issues that has to be covered and will be covered in the White Paper because we are approaching this in a very pragmatic way. We are not trying to impose a blueprint and say that a single pattern must apply everywhere. Implicit in our pledge that regional governance will only be introduced where people vote for it in a referendum is the assumption that some regions will opt for it and others will not. That therefore does inevitably mean variation between the patterns of government in different regions.
(Mr Raynsford) I think that flows automatically from the proposition that I put and I would accept that interpretation, but all I would say is that we do not at the moment have very much evidence of any great appetite in the eastern region for a regional assembly. We know by contrast in the north-east and in some of the other northern regions, there is significant interest in the possibility.
(Mr Raynsford) I have had meetings, the Deputy Prime Minister has had meetings, my colleagues in the Cabinet Office have had meetings with a range of people in -
(Mr Raynsford) No.
(Mr Raynsford) This will be one of the issues that will be tested in the referendum which is why the Government have been absolutely clear that there must be endorsement through a referendum of all the electors if this is to proceed, but I have to say that it is not only the people with a vested interest who I have met. I have met people with very different points of view, but I have to say that I have noticed in the northern regions of the country a greater appetite for regional assemblies than I have in other regions of the country.
(Mr Raynsford) No, that is one of the issues that will be covered in the White Paper, but I did point out the equal and opposite problems that flow from setting an arbitrary threshold which can result in the democratic wish of people being frustrated because they did not meet that threshold, even though there was a clear majority in favour of that option.
(Mr Raynsford) No, I am not saying that there will be a threshold at all. The issue of whether there will be a threshold is one of the issues that will be covered in the White Paper. We did not have a threshold for Scotland, Wales or Greater London, so that might be seen as a precedent. We do not have a threshold for election to this House, even though some members are elected, particularly in by-elections, on very, very low percentages. I think that is something that has to be borne in mind.
Sir Paul Beresford
(Mr Raynsford) There is no purpose in that sense other than to give each region of the country the opportunity, if it so wishes, to have a referendum on this subject. That will involve a trigger mechanism, as I have mentioned, and that clearly will have to be considered and will be considered in the White Paper, but it will depend on the region voting in favour of it. If there is a vote against, there will then obviously need to be some terms limiting opportunities for repeat votes which would be unnecessary or counterproductive in terms of time and effort and again we will consider in the White Paper whether there should be a limitation on subsequent -
(Mr Raynsford) The objective will be to establish the opportunity for regional assemblies where people wish to have it. If they do not wish to have it, they will vote against in the referendum and there will not be a regional assembly.
(Mr Raynsford) That is the consequence of voting for a structure and people will be aware of that when they cast their vote in the same way as in Scotland and Wales when they voted for having a parliament or assembly, they were aware that that was the consequence.
(Mr Raynsford) Referendums will be held where the region indicates through an appropriate trigger mechanism which will be covered in the White Paper.
(Mr Raynsford) My difficulty, as you will know, is that, until the White Paper is published, I cannot obviously give definitive answers.
(Mr Raynsford) There will not necessarily be a referendum in each region, no, because if there is not a triggering of the wish for a referendum, no referendum will be held. A referendum will be held where people locally, through the appropriate trigger mechanism that we establish in the White Paper, indicate a wish to have a referendum.
(Mr Raynsford) This is another controversial issue which will be covered in the White Paper. There is a strong presumption in favour of working within existing boundaries because the consequences of opening up the issue of whether boundaries should be changed is clearly a very controversial one. When I was in Cumbria recently, there were some people who were strong advocates of Cumbria remaining associated with the north-west and others who felt that part of Cumbria might more appropriately lie with the north-east. The conclusion that I came to from my discussions was that the northern part of Cumbria probably felt more comfortable with the north-east and the southern part broadly more comfortable with the north-west.
(Mr Raynsford) I had no solution but our White Paper will set out the framework in which we intend to proceed.
Mrs Dunwoody: As to that, we will think of it in the future!
(Mr Raynsford) Yes.
(Mr Raynsford) Exactly.
(Mr Raynsford) I agree that there are inevitably anomalies and the south-east is probably the greatest of all where there are very real questions as to what does constitute a viable region in the south-east. However, as I indicated, the opening up of these questions is a veritable Pandora's Box which could entirely divert energy and attention from the main issue into a great deal of squabbling which would be reminiscent of the activities of the Banham years in terms of local government reorganisation.
(Mr Raynsford) Exactly.
(Mr Raynsford) I have indicated that this issue will be covered in the White Paper but, as you would expect, I am not free to reveal the contents of that White Paper before it is published.
Mrs Dunwoody: Even if you knew what they were!
(Mr Raynsford) Yes.
(Mr Raynsford) No, there will be regional government in all regions but whether it is regional government through an elected regional assembly will depend on the decision of the regions through a referendum, so there will need to be - and this is one of the other crucial issues for our White Paper - arrangements to ensure that Government's relations with those regions that do not opt for regional assemblies do not disadvantage those regions in terms of access to the resources and the support which regions can rightly expect from the Government, but there will be a different relationship where there is an elected regional assembly.
(Mr Raynsford) That is one of the slightly messy consequences of a programme of devolution and of course that applies equally in relation to Wales and Scotland.
(Mr Raynsford) I know that the bureaucrat would produce an ideally structured pattern which was consistent in every region. Sadly, that does not actually relate to the wishes and aspirations of the people of our islands who have made it very clear that they wish to enjoy a measure of devolution in Scotland and Wales and we are extending that opportunity to English regions.
(Mr Raynsford) The Spanish example is one where there are very wide variations in the degree of devolved autonomy given to the different autonomous regions with Catalonia and the Basque region enjoying far more extensive devolved powers than ... I think it is true to say that the devolution experience in Spain has been very successful in relation to Catalonia and has helped to resolve the very longstanding -
(Mr Raynsford) About six months ago and I have been a frequent visitor, I am very familiar with the region.
(Mr Raynsford) I think it is fair to say that there were substantially more serious problems during the Franco era when the aspiration of the Catalan people for a degree of autonomy was suppressed.
(Mr Raynsford) I think it is one of the great triumphs of the democratic government in Spain that it has given a measure of devolved autonomy to regions.
(Mr Raynsford) These are some of the very difficult and big issues that we are considering in preparing the White Paper. The basic framework and principle is that regional assemblies should involve the devolution of powers from central government and from bodies that currently exercise responsibilities in the regions and may be answerable to ministers but are not otherwise accountable, so creating a framework for accountability within the regions with the devolution of powers from on top, not drawing up powers from local government. However, inevitably there is going to be an interface between local government and the regional assemblies and getting that right so that it does not inhibit local government powers and local government initiative but ensures a coherent relationship between local government and the regions is one of the very important issues that we are considering.
(Mr Raynsford) That, in our view, will be one of the core elements for regional assembly.
(Mr Raynsford) The experience in London is that there is a continued need for a government office but much scaled down compared with previously because certain functions still require a government response and that is one of the issues that obviously has to be covered by the White Paper.
(Mr Raynsford) That again is one of the issues to be covered in the White Paper and Lord Falconer obviously will be saying more on the issue of planning when he publishes his planning Green Paper in the reasonably near future.
(Mr Raynsford) We obviously take broad account of the patterns of expenditure, particularly those which relate to our own department's activities in each of the regions. We will be announcing later on today the local government settlement for next year which obviously will be a very significant component in that because that will govern the total spending of local authorities in each region of the country but, as I said earlier in response to your earlier question, there is a collective government interest in this and I expect my colleagues in other government departments who have a direct interest in the relevant issue to be as much involved in this as I am.
(Mr Raynsford) The overall patterns of spending are indeed kept under review and that is one of the concerns which both the Deputy Prime Minister and my Secretary of State have very much in their minds.
(Mr Raynsford) As I mentioned, this is a collective government responsibility because there are different lead government departments in relation to different activities. It is our role to set an overall framework for regional governance, it is the Deputy Prime Minister's role to oversee that work and also the ongoing work of the government offices in the region for which he is responsible. That is the current framework and that is how we try to monitor current arrangements and bring forward proposals that will create a better framework in the future for regional governance.
(Mr Raynsford) Ultimately, the Chancellor is the final arbiter.
(Mr Raynsford) No, I have mentioned that this is a matter for collective government responsibility and, if it is a question of overall decisions on financial matters, it will be quite rightly the Chancellor's preserve.
Sir Paul Beresford
(Mr Raynsford) We judge the quality of service by performance indicators and it has been one of our main concerns to ensure that there is a proper framework for performance management and we will be saying more about that and how we can improve the measurement of performance and indeed improve the standards of performance in local government in our local government White Paper. While that is a separate matter from input of government finance, there is no question that resources are crucial to the delivery of services. Without adequate resources, it is not possible to deliver certain services.
(Mr Raynsford) The variations between regions are obviously significant and they can reflect a number of different factors.
(Mr Raynsford) I leave that to others to judge.
(Mr Raynsford) Scotland is not part of my responsibility.
(Mr Raynsford) Disparities in the English regions are a matter of concern to me and I look at them both in relation to the local government settlement that I have been working on a great deal in recent weeks and also in relation to our approach towards regional governance that I have been outlining, but I have no responsibility for Scotland and Wales.
(Mr Raynsford) As I say, I have no responsibility for those wider issues which clearly engage both Scotland and Wales.
(Mr Raynsford) I am primarily concerned with creating an appropriate framework to allow the English regions to operate within a framework that they have the opportunity to determine through a referendum and that allows the scope for each region to develop as effectively as it can to enhance its economy and therefore reduce disparities that currently exist. That I see as a very important responsibility but that does not extend beyond England in the case of my job.
(Mr Raynsford) I did not say that because I pointed out that I had spent quite a lot of time on the local government settlement which is one of the main ways in which government money is allocated to the regions, but I also pointed out that other colleagues in government are responsible for different spending decisions relating to the regions.
(Mr Raynsford) That is a matter for the White Paper.
(Mr Raynsford) The answer to that question is that we will be conducting an extensive review of the formula next year with a view to it being introduced in 2003/04. That is our commitment. That will not cover the Barnett formula but it will cover the allocation of resources of local government. In the meantime, we felt that it was right, insofar as it was possible, to provide local government with as great a certainty as possible about a future spending pattern. So, over the last three years, we have not changed the methodology for assessing the allocation of resources. We have obviously taken into account changes in data reflecting population increases or reductions, changes in costs, the area cost adjustment applies there, and factors such as changes in deprivation. We have not otherwise made changes to the formula. The floors and ceilings that you referred to was introduced in response to concerns expressed by local government that, in a supposedly stable position where there was no change in methodology, there were still very wide variations between outcomes because a change in population or a change in costs could have a significant effect, positive or negative, on individual authorities' budgets and, to give a greater degree of certainty, we felt it was right - and this has been warmly welcomed by local government - to have a floor below which no authority falls and to pay for that - clearly that does have a cost - and there would have to be a ceiling above which no authority could receive a payment. That has been regarded as a fair framework.
(Mr Raynsford) The whole process is not predictable because I have to say that the elements that go in, the changes in school population, the changes in population, the changes in costs, can have quite significant and sometimes unpredictable effects.
(Mr Raynsford) Not that I know of.
(Mr Raynsford) I think it is right that the regional development agencies should have a focus on economic development and job creation, but clearly they have a wider remit as well and it is important that their work should tie in with the regeneration programs that are operating in the region to ensure that deprived areas do get the benefits not just of jobs but of improvement in physical fabric of the area, reductions in crime and other measures that will create a happier, more successful community, so that wider regeneration focus must not be ignored though, as I have stressed, I believe it is right that regional development agencies should be primarily focussing on economic development.
(Mr Raynsford) This is one of the classic areas where there is a tension between the role of central government as exercised through various bodies that are answerable to central government including regional development agencies and local government and it is one of the issues that we will be considering in our regional government White Paper to ensure that there is a coherent relationship between the activities of local government which will continue to be fundamental to regeneration but that those must mesh with the activities at the regional level.
(Mr Raynsford) Sally Keeble is the Commons Minister with responsibility for housing and that is the reason that she was proposed.
(Mr Raynsford) The DTI is overall responsible for the RDAs which transferred, following the last General Election, from our department to the DTI.
(Mr Raynsford) That was a government decision.
(Mr Raynsford) There is an obvious need to try and ensure that policies dovetail and do work together, and that has been very much the theme of what I have said in response to a number of questions earlier on, but I have to say that it is not always possible to predict people's choice of location for their home and it would be difficult to tie people down to forcible occupation of housing in certain areas. We have to work with the fact that people do expect, and rightly so, to exercise choice and, if they feel that a neighbourhood is unsatisfactory and unsafe, they will probably want to move elsewhere. Therefore, the key is to ensure that the economic programmes to do with job creation are matched with regeneration programmes. As I have said, that will help to tackle those deprived neighbourhoods and make them attractive places once again for people to live in if there is still a need for housing in that area. There will be some areas where it may well be concluded that a fall in the total resident population is inevitable and that should be reflected in terms of housing policy.
(Mr Raynsford) Certainly that kind of initiative to encourage local labour schemes, to give jobs and training to local people who are unemployed to help them into employment as well as possibly creating housing or other facilities for them are very attractive schemes and I have supported many schemes of that nature in the past and hope they will continue.
(Mr Raynsford) We have a continuing discussion with colleagues at DTI about that.
(Mr Raynsford) The answer is that, yes, in a number of important economic development projects, there is a strong local labour component. I hesitate to raise a controversial one but, in my own constituency, the regeneration of the Greenwich Peninsular, has been a major economic development initiative but it has also been associated with a very, very successful local labour scheme.
(Mr Raynsford) It is not our intention to revisit so quickly the structure of the GLA after its creation. I qualify that by saying that that would not necessarily preclude minor amendments to cope with anomalies or manifest weaknesses that need to be changed, but it is certainly not our intention to contemplate fundamental changes in the powers or the structure of a body which has only come into existence within the last two years.
(Mr Raynsford) I can see potential conflict but I do not in practice because I try to handle those two in a way that avoids those conflicts. Inevitably in government, ministers do have different responsibilities and they sometimes can involve priorities pushing one way or another. I think it is very important that one should be clear about how one discharges one's responsibilities to avoid a conflict of interest.
(Mr Raynsford) I see my role as ensuring that there is a fair and the best possible settlement for local government as a whole and clearly I would expect London to share in that but not to have any special favours as a result of me being London Minister as well as Local Government Minister. I am the only London member in our department and therefore it is almost inevitable that I would be the minister charged with London responsibility.
(Mr Raynsford) The Mayor has substantial roles as defined in the Greater London Authority legislation which you have a very considerable familiarity with having served on the committee that brought it into existence. We believe that those powers are broadly right. I hope that the Mayor will want to continue to work constructively with the London boroughs because that kind of partnership between the strategic authority and the boroughs is necessary for good governance in London and for the promotion of the economy and regeneration in those parts of London that are deprived. In just the same way in our regional government's proposals, we will want to see a close and effective working relationship between the regional assembly where regions vote for that and local government.
(Mr Raynsford) Yes.
(Mr Raynsford) No. As both groups report to me and as I have been responsible for the detailed work on the preparation of the local government White Paper and doing the detailed work on the preparation of the regional government White Paper, I am in a strong position to ensure that they do work closely together.
(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, QUALITY councils, local councils.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(Mr Raynsford) Local authorities are expected to achieve that and we take that into account when we set our grant framework -
(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.
(Mr Raynsford) No but, if they do not achieve that, there will be some painful consequences in terms of allocation of resources.
(Mr Raynsford) We make an assumption each year that there will be a two per cent efficiency saving, yes.
(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 -
(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.
(Mr Raynsford) No, the authority does have that additional money to spend.
Sir Paul Beresford
(Mr Raynsford) It is our objective to raise the standards of all authorities.
(Mr Raynsford) No, this is not a question of cuts, it is a question of efficiency incentives.
(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.
(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
(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 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.
(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.
(Mr Raynsford) I do not accept your description of Best Value. I have said that we want to achieve a streamlined system and we are working to do that, but the purpose of Best Value is to raise the standard of service and, if you are a local council taxpayer, you want to be confident that all the services the local council deliver to you are run efficiently and well and therefore it is right that there should be measures to consider the performance of the local authority in all its responsibilities. Clearly it is for the authority itself, with guidance from the Audit Commission, possibly with help from the IDA and other support bodies in local government, to consider how it can take the most effective action to deal with those services which are least efficient and also to ensure it is giving high priority to those services which its local customers say they value most. Those are legitimate and proper democratic decisions, but I do not think it is right to say that one should have a framework where it is perfectly possible for an authority not to deliver decent standards of service across the board.
Dr Pugh: Nobody is saying that.
(Mr Raynsford) The Best Value review is looking specifically at the current framework in relation to a number of issues including the one that you have highlighted about the impact on staff who transfer to another provider. We have said that we will consider evidence on the emergence of a two-tier workforce and if there is evidence that is conclusive and that has an adverse impact, then we will consider appropriate remedial measures. It just so happens that this week the meeting of our review group is due to deal with that particular issue so I am not able to say more about it. In the previous meetings, we have had three very productive meetings; these have been held jointly involving representatives from the trade unions, from local government, from the Audit Commission, from the private sector and from the voluntary sector and, in the course of those discussions, we have covered a number of important issues about establishing a level playing field, ensuring that the focus is on quality rather than simply cost and ensuring that it does work effectively as a means of raising standards because that is our overriding objective. So, the meetings have been very positive indeed to date. We have some hard work still to do before I submit the report to the Secretary of State by the end of the year which is the timetable he has set me.
(Mr Raynsford) The review is solely concerned with Best Value in relation to local government.
(Mr Raynsford) But the Transport & General Workers' Union is represented on the review, and parties have brought their wider experience to the review. I have to say, we have seen quite interesting evidence of circumstances where it has been found possible to do particular jobs in a better manner, to deliver a more efficient outcome, some of which have involved an entirely public sector solution, some of which have involved a partnership with the private sector or voluntary sector. Our approach is very much that there should be a level playing field without a predisposition to one particular type or model of service delivery.
(Mr Raynsford) It is, and it is one of the issues on which we expect to say more in our Local Government White Paper. We did consult on the possibility of replacing the current borrowing approvals regime with a prudential regime, in our consultation paper on local government finance published more than a year ago. We will be setting out how we intend to take that forward in our Local Government White Paper. The position, I should clarify it, would involve local government being freed from a requirement to seek borrowing approval, but instead there would be a prudential regime to avoid authorities undertaking a level of debt that they would not be able to service. So it would not provide a completely open door for widespread borrowing.
(Mr Raynsford) It certainly would allow that particular option, and that would, in our view, be widely welcomed by local government.
Sir Paul Beresford
(Mr Raynsford) Yes. We also believe it is right that as part of both the creation of the level playing field but also part of the general framework of freeing local government from unreasonable restrictions, that there should be greater opportunities for local authorities to trade, and that that should also be governed by similar rules relating to efficiency in performance. So there will be greater freedoms for those authorities that have demonstrated particular abilities in that field.
(Mr Raynsford) There will inevitably be different standards of performance that will apply in the public as against the private sector. The aim will be, within those patterns, to ensure that were a local authority is trading, it is doing so in an efficient way. That is measured against the performance of other service deliverers.
(Mr Raynsford) I think you have to say that that exists already in the voluntary sector which provides a number of very important services, but where it is not subject to the same taxation regime as the private sector. These are differences that exist and they reflect the nature of different organisations. What we are seeking to do is to try to create a level playing field without the kind of biases that currently prevent sensible activity that is to the benefit of the community.
(Mr Raynsford) The comparison is entirely valid, because there is a large number of voluntary organisations that do sterling work in many fields. You will be aware of the housing field where housing associations now represent a very, very large proportion indeed of the total housing stock and they are voluntary organisations.
Chairman: Can I just remind the Committee that we have a fairly lengthy set of questions, and I hope we can reduce the number of supplementaries that we are getting. Christine Russell.
(Mr Raynsford) I can supply you with the full cost, but I cannot off the top of my head give you the figures for the total cost of all the inspections including Ofsted and the Social Services Inspectorate for which I am not responsible. What I can say is that it is our objective to try to achieve a more coherent and more integrated framework, so that the various inspectorates are working to broadly comparable standards and to reduce the unnecessary burden and bureaucracy of inspection, which is very much part of what I was talking about earlier about how we could simplify and streamline the Best Value review, with less inspections, again relating to the performance of a local authority, so a light-touch regime applying to those authorities that have demonstrated a high level of performance. We expect to say more about that in our forthcoming White Paper.
(Mr Raynsford) That would not surprise me at all.
(Mr Raynsford) I think it is reasonable to ensure high standards of performance, and that the effect of inspection in a range of different areas - I just mentioned education as one - has undoubtedly played a crucial part in helping to improve performance standards. What we have to do is to get value for money and to ensure that the people of our country are getting high standards of service from local government.
(Mr Raynsford) Yes, I am. I would not pretend for a moment that every inspection is successful. Inevitably there are some that do not do as well as others, but I do believe the process as a whole is a very competent one and it is helping to raise standards.
(Mr Raynsford) There is a lot of evidence, and the Audit Commission is increasingly publishing evidence showing the way in which local authority services are responding. What we are keen to do is to sharpen that process, to ensure that there is more focus on outcomes and less on the process itself, to get away from a slight tendency towards a tick-box approach towards inspection and more of a focus on outcomes that really will benefit local people who will get improved services. That is very much our intention.
Sir Paul Beresford
(Mr Raynsford) I cannot give you precise figures off the top of my head, but I can certainly write to you with those.
(Mr Raynsford) The Audit Commission has taken on a very substantial additional range of responsibilities to include Best Value and Best Value inspections as well as its traditional auditing role.
(Mr Raynsford) Yes, we believe there is an important role for peer review. I have discussed this regularly with local government and with the IDA which is doing very good work in this field already. Most people in local government I speak to feel that both are necessary, that there is a need for more external inspection which can so often be more rigorous than a peer review and that there is the need for the supportive approach which those who are currently working in other local authorities are often best placed to give to help organisations that are having difficulties in improving their service.
(Mr Raynsford) I have been deluged with information which measures local government performance in a whole variety of different indicators. What the Audit Commission is seeking to do, quite rightly, is to draw together the key ones that give above all a sense of the corporate health of a department, because while you can get detailed figures about the performance of individual services, very often a failing service is the result of a corporate failure by the authority as a whole, and it is that area of the corporate health of the local authority which is going to be one of the key focuses for proposals in our Local Government White Paper, building on the existing Best Value regime and the existing inspection regime which inevitably measure the performance of specific services. So those three elements we want to bring together to ensure that we get a picture of the performance of local authorities. Can I add that the White Paper will spell out the categories of performance that we expect to use in the future, and this will define the difference between the levels of performance achieved by local authorities, but it would not be right to say that 15 per cent of authorities are treated as failing.
(Mr Raynsford) I think size does have an impact. One of the interesting conclusions that we have drawn is that among different councils there is probably the widest range of performance, with some doing very well indeed, others having difficulty. We certainly think that it is going to be important for local authorities to look at ways in which they can work with others, and that will include links between neighbouring districts or links between districts and counties, to ensure more efficient service delivery. If I can move into the area of introducing electronic government, which I think is hugely important, that is an area where it is quite clear that the small authorities simply cannot go it alone, they must work with others, and we are encouraging that.
(Mr Raynsford) We think there is a great deal to be gained for the public in different tiers of local government working together, and indeed local government working with other public service bodies so that there are links with the health service, with the police and others who will have an impact on service delivery locally.
(Mr Raynsford) We have had perhaps the harshest test in relation to the London Borough of Hackney, of course, in the last few months, where evidence from both the Local Authorities' Chief Finance Officer and subsequently from the Audit Commission indicated that there was a serious failure, as a result of which we have served directions on Hackney Council. Those directions have aimed to ensure that the authority builds up the capacity to run its affairs competently and efficiently and achieve a balanced budget again. That is the basis of our intervention, and we think it is right that there should be that intervention in such cases, but our overall framework is one where we hope that the regime will encourage local authorities themselves to improve performance, without the need for the use of intervention perhaps.
(Mr Raynsford) I do not think it is unique, but we do not want to intervene except where it is quite clear that something additional is required because of a serious failure at a local level.
(Mr Raynsford) I have no supplementary list, but I know that concerns have been expressed on a number of counts by the Audit Commission about services in certain areas. Indeed, my colleagues in Government have indicated concern about services, whether it is social services in particular authorities or other services that are not delivering as high a standard as they should. Our concern is to put in place, as I said, a performance management framework which will enable a rounded judgement to be formed on the performance of the local authority as a whole, as well as its performance on individual service areas, so that this will help the drive to improve performance standards, with the intervention powers available if necessary but very much the last resort.
(Mr Raynsford) The answer is yes, it is true, and while I cannot give you all the details now, I have already indicated in response to a question from Mr Betts the financial freedom in relation to capital which is one of the areas. We intend to carry through a programme of deregulation which will free local government of some of the burdens and restrictions. At the moment there are large numbers of consent regimes requiring the approval of the Secretary of State, certain actions which could perfectly well be taken by a local authority on its own initiative. There will be reductions in the number of requirements to produce plans. Currently there are very large numbers of plans that local authorities are required to produce. We believe there is scope for reducing that significantly.
(Mr Raynsford) I made it clear that we are in the process of trying to create a framework which will give greater freedom and opportunity for local government, together with a performance management and incentive regime which will help to drive up standards.
(Mr Raynsford) The approach that we will adopt will involve a removal of unnecessary regulation and a provision of greater freedom to all local government, but there will be a graduated approach which will give greater freedoms and greater benefits to those high-performing councils. In response to an earlier question I talked specifically, on inspection, of how a lighter-touch inspection would be a natural consequence of an authority achieving a high level of performance, because there would not be the requirement for detailed scrutiny by the Audit Commission of that council to the same extent that there would be of an authority which was having difficulty. So there will be a combination of general benefits, general freedoms, but also additional ones as a reward and an incentive for high performance.
(Mr Raynsford) We have been discussing one such authority a moment ago. It is right that there should be intervention in such cases, but our view is that it is right that there should be incentives for all authorities to raise the standards of performance, and it is a matter of judgement as to what is the best way to achieve that. When you see our White Paper you will form a judgement as to whether we have got that balance right.
(Mr Raynsford) I agree entirely, and that is one of the reasons that we are seeking to remove unnecessary restrictions, but also there has to be an expectation of improved performance. We do not believe it is right simply to turn our backs and say, "Okay, it's over to you and we won't pay any further attention." We think it is right that they should be encouraged, through deregulation and the removal of unnecessary controls, to exercise more initiative and more freedom, but with the clear expectation that that will result in better service delivery and more effective community leadership.
(Mr Raynsford) They marry very well with the proposals for freedoms, because local PSAs are based on the framework which allows a local authority, in response to setting or agreeing to meet stretched targets for performance which would be higher than they otherwise would be likely to reach, to receive freedoms and flexibilities to help it to achieve that. So there is a direct link between expectation of higher performance and greater freedom, and there is also a financial reward.
(Mr Raynsford) We have completed the pilots which involve 20 authorities. We are now in the process of negotiating Local PSAs with over 100 authorities who have indicated their wish to participate in the national rollout . The first four have been agreed. I signed the first of those with the East Riding of Yorkshire last week. Leeds, Peterborough and Buckinghamshire are the other three which are due for signature in the next week or so, then there are a further 12 currently under negotiation at the present time, and that will be followed by groups of 12 authorities over a six- to eight-week period thereafter, to allow negotiations with each authority on a package which reflects both Government's concern and priority to raise the standards of key services such as education, and local government's priority - because local government brings its priority to that negotiation - and a framework which allows agreement on stretched targets and greater freedoms and flexibilities to help deliver it and the reward grant of 21/2 per cent of budget at the end.
(Mr Raynsford) This applies to only top-tier authorities, but we have encouraged co-operation between councils and districts.
(Mr Raynsford) We are offering more money to those county authorities that involve the districts in their negotiation. I am pleased to say that Buckinghamshire involved all four of its districts, so that its Local PSA which we are about to agree involved some important contributions, particularly in relation to housing involving the districts. So there was a joint proposal from Buckinghamshire County Council and all four district councils in that county.
(Mr Raynsford) It is not an obligation, but it is working well, and we hope that other counties will want to follow that route.
(Mr Raynsford) It will be a very comprehensive White Paper which will chart the way forward for local government. It will set out the Government's overall objectives which can be defined simply as meeting higher standards of service delivery and providing effective community leadership. It will cover a very wide range of issues which I have been discussing with the Committee up to now, including the performance management framework, freedoms and flexibilities, the incentives and rewards that will be available, the arrangements for handling failing councils and a whole variety of other issues.
(Mr Raynsford) The financial elements will divide between those that require primary legislation, where clearly we will have to await the first legislative opportunity, and those that can be done by regulation, where we will indicate our timetable for introducing some of those freedoms. A number of them can be done without the need for primary legislation, and we do intend to take forward a number of those.
(Mr Raynsford) The programme involves fairly detailed discussions initially between government departments and then involving the Local Government Association, which will result in proposals which will be discussed more widely before conclusions are reached in the summer of next year, the summer of 2002, for implementation from the financial year 2003/04.
(Mr Raynsford) We are already involved in discussions at the moment.
(Mr Raynsford) I do not think there will be a single discussion document, because a lot of this work will involve a lot of technical discussion about the impact of particular indicators and the interface between different indicators, but there will be a full opportunity for local government to be involved in this process before decisions are taken.
(Mr Raynsford) The work is already ongoing. There will be continuing discussion and there will be a full involvement of local government before decisions are set out next summer.
(Mr Raynsford) As always, decisions are subject to review, because we publish our provisional assessment, as you know, and then accept representations on that assessment before we finalise it. In the case of next year when there will be the impact of this big review of SSAs, that will clearly be a crucial opportunity for authorities to see the impact of the new arrangement on their finances and to make representations. In the current year, because there are no changes in methodology, we do not see the need for an extensive programme of representations, but next year there undoubtedly will be.
(Mr Raynsford) We see this as a longer-term measure, because moving from the current framework to one where a significantly greater proportion of local revenue was raised locally would have very significant implications. We believe that should be considered further, and we will be setting out in the White Paper our proposals for doing that over the next year or so.
(Mr Raynsford) The situation has improved a little bit. The percentages are up by about 0.2 of a percentage point both on councils' collection and the business rate collection, but there are still a number of authorities that are failing badly. We have mentioned Hackney earlier where their collection rate of some 6 to 7 per cent is clearly wholly unacceptable and tough action is required to turn that around, but there are other areas too where performance could improve.
(Mr Raynsford) It is a difficult issue and one on which I have spoken frequently to my colleagues in the Department of Work and Pensions who, of course, have responsibility for that scheme.
(Mr Raynsford) They are working on this matter. It is very much our objective to provide a framework that simplifies housing benefit, to make it easier to administer and easier for the public to understand, but it is not easy to do that because there are direct tensions between achieving a fair system that reflects the variety of different circumstances and allows people to get benefit that does reflect their circumstances, as against a simple system which is easy to administer. There is a tension between those two. I would not say that the Government believe we have absolutely got it right, but we are moving towards creating a simpler, fairer system, and equally we are trying to encourage improved delivery of service. I have to say, looking at local authorities, there are some exemplars, there are some that do an extraordinarily good job, but others find it more difficult.
(Mr Raynsford) I think there is improvement in certain areas, but it is not necessarily good enough and there is a good deal more work needs to be done.
(Mr Raynsford) A very substantial number. In the White Paper we will set this out. It varies, of course, depending on the tier of authority, but around 60 to 70 is the overall figure and we are aiming to reduce that significantly in our proposals in the White Paper.
(Mr Raynsford) Yes.
(Mr Raynsford) That is one of the reasons we are seeking to reduce the number, and we will set out our proposals in the White Paper. The purpose of the plans is self-evident - that this is to focus attention on an important service, to ensure that the authority does act in a way which makes it likely to meet the objectives of efficient service delivery, but a proliferation of plans can be implemented. That is why we are now engaged in a process of rationalisation and will announce our proposals in the White Paper.
(Mr Raynsford) I am not going to speculate now on numbers, but we are seeking a significant reduction.
(Mr Raynsford) I have to say, there is a collective approach in the Government whereby individual government departments responsible for particular services take responsibility for looking at the plans in those areas, so I would expect all the education plans to be read not by my officials but by officials in the Department for Education and Skills.
(Mr Raynsford) There are a significant number in relation to our Department. I think I am right in saying that there are about 17 currently. We hope to reduce those very significantly indeed, and that will mean less reading for our officials.
(Mr Raynsford) We attach considerable importance to raising health and safety standards, and as a result of the Revitalising Health and Safety publication which came out a year or so ago we have set targets for reducing accidents and problems of ill-health, particularly in those industries where there are the greatest concentrations of problems. We have identified in particular construction and agriculture as areas with a particularly unfortunate record for accidents, and the Health and Safety Executive is focussing particular energy and attention on those areas. This is very much a response in relation to the level of risk in particular industries.
In the absence of the Chairman, Mrs Dunwoody was called to the Chair
(Mr Raynsford) I would have to say that the responsibility for transport matters lies with other Minister in my Department, and I cannot comment on that, but we certainly have taken very careful consideration of the recommendations currently reported, and I know that it is the intention of the Secretary of State to seek early legislation to give effect to Lord Cullen's recommendations.
(Mr Raynsford) We have made very good progress. We have received new constitutional proposals from the overwhelming majority of local authorities. The timetable is such that we should certainly meet our target that every local authority should have reviewed its constitution and put in place appropriate arrangements by the end of 2002.
(Mr Raynsford) The very large majority will involve a leader and cabinet model. We will have a certain number of Merrill options. It is difficult to give precise figures at the moment, because there are some referenda that are pending and other authorities whose proposals have not yet been fully submitted or have not been fully considered.
(Mr Raynsford) I think the answer is that it is probably the closest to local authorities' existing structures; that the process of change is quite a painful one, and that people tend on the whole to favour models that contain familiar elements.
(Mr Raynsford) The committee system is a system that has been around for a very considerable length of time. It was our view that there was a need for modernisation and reform. Far too much time under the old system was spent in the process of attending committee meetings; there was not often a clarity about decision-making, where the public were often left with little idea as to who was responsible, and where it was possible for the buck to be passed very easily between different councillors.
(Mr Raynsford) I have to say I do not regard the status quo, if it is not delivering a satisfactory outcome, as something that should be retained simply because it has been done for many years in the past. We believe it is right that local government should be changing its approach to ensure that it is delivering efficient services, that it is responsive to the public in this area and that is the whole purpose of the government's reforms. What we are doing is seeking an element of proper consultation between all local authorities and their electors before they finalise arrangements and giving electors the opportunity to have a say.
(Mr Raynsford) From a menu of options which will deliver efficient services and a proper framework of accountability.
(Mr Raynsford) We think it is right there should be a proper framework rather than a total freedom to select whatever systems of governance the authority thinks is appropriate. Having said that, let me just say, one of the main thrusts of our white paper is going to be about trying to give a greater degree of discretion to local government in all sorts of ways and I hope we can do that also in relation to government.
(Mr Raynsford) The experience of committees such as this one is very much a positive one, about the benefit of scrutiny.
(Mr Raynsford) There are obvious issues about lines of responsibility and avoiding conflicts of interest in local government. It is certainly our wish that scrutiny should apply in an effective way, with the opportunity for local authorities to make use of independent expertise in the same way as parliamentary select committees can in order to ensure that the executive is held properly to account.
(Mr Raynsford) We are keen, and we will say more about this in our White Paper, to encourage the scrutiny function in a way that really will ensure that there is an effective input from people outside who have a valuable contribution to make.
(Mr Raynsford) No, because local government does not operate in a similar structure where you have an entire separation between Parliament and government.
(Mr Raynsford) I have discussed the possibility of external advice. What I would say is I believe most local government officers are capable of acting in a responsible way and giving proper and considered advice to enable the scrutiny committee to fulfil its role properly and at the same time keep the executive under scrutiny.
(Mr Raynsford) There are three broad functions you could define as the responsibility of councillors, one which would be exclusive to those who are in the executive, which will be the responsibility for key decisions taken by the authority. A second will be the scrutiny role, which will be a very important one and the third is one that we all perform in our role, which is local representation. That will continue to be a hugely important role. I believe there will be more opportunity under the new framework for councillors to represent their local communities effectively, to be in touch with their electorate and to convey the concerns of their electorate to both the executive and those colleagues involved in scrutiny.
(Mr Raynsford) We have received lots of representations, some councillors are not happy with the new arrangement, others believe the new arrangement works very well. We want to allow the new arrangements time to bed in. These are quite important issues about how councillors are best advised in their scrutiny role, how they can do it effectively. There is a learning process. There is a lot of scope for learning from the best practice of other authorities to improve it and I would not for a moment say that we regard this as the end of process. We see this as an evolving process.
(Mr Raynsford) We have recently consulted on opportunities for pensions for certain councillors, we certainly have not set our face against that. We do not at the moment have any proposals for severance payments.
(Mr Raynsford) We are trying to reflect the fact there are these different responsibilities, the decision making responsibility, the scrutiny responsibility and the representation responsibility. We want to ensure that councils can operate effectively, can have a clear decision making process which is transparent, so the public know who is responsible, that they are held to account through a proper system of scrutiny and that the public can feel confident that their local representatives are free to give attention to their concerns. Too many councillors in the past complained about the fact that time that was spent attending committees made it very difficult for them to fulfil their representation role. We are hoping that the new arrangement will help to overcome that.
(Mr Raynsford) No. As I indicated in response to the chairman, the parliamentary model is inevitably different because the local authority is a corporate body as a whole and that is different to the framework in Parliament, where the government is a separate position in relation to Parliament and it does create a different framework of responsibilities. There are parallels because all of us, whether back benchers or front benchers, have local representation responsibilities with our constituents and that will certainly apply equally to councillors. Some also have executive responsibilities, and members of the government have that. There are parallels, but it is not an exact parallel, for the reasons I have already mentioned.
(Mr Raynsford) We have no plans as such to do so. I think it is right to say that authorities have in the course of looking at boundary changes and in the course of reviews have considered in some cases whether they could streamline and reduce the numbers, but we have no plans to impose that.
(Mr Raynsford) I certainly do not. I see local councillors as a very, very important part of our democratic structure and what we are trying to do is to help local councillors to do their job as effectively as they can to serve their communities and to get satisfaction out of doing that. We also want to try and attract more people to become councillors, because it is currently the case that in some areas the numbers of councillors are not terribly representative of, for example, ethnic minority groups or young people, and that probably is a mistake. We want to have a more representative local government.
(Mr Raynsford) I think we are in a transitional period and the process of change is unsettling, that is why it is always inevitable that some councillors will not feel happy about taking on new roles.
(Mr Raynsford) We believe it is right that there should be a clear decision making process, which was not the case in the past, many decisions were taken in ways that the public could not understand either how the decision was taken or who was responsible for it.
(Mr Raynsford) Yes, I can, where decisions were taken in all-party group meetings, with no way in which the public had access to that and then rubber stamped in a committee, which ostensibly was the decision making place, but where everyone who went into the committee knew in advance what the outcome was going to be.
(Mr Raynsford) It is a very proper division between the in principle decision, which has rightly been taken by the executive, and the detailed definition of a matter which had properly been considered by a planning committee, which is one of the committees that will continue to exist, as you know.
(Mr Raynsford) In just the same way as our recent consultation on the future of the planning system we proposed a framework on major infrastructure projects which could well be a case for Parliament to give an in principle decision, leaving the detailed issues of local protection and response to local concerns to be handled at the public inquiry. That is an entirely apposite parallel.
(Mr Raynsford) Because the cabinet are the people known to be people responsible for the decision.
(Mr Raynsford) The cabinet members are all known and identified as such
(Mr Raynsford) Their decisions will be reported.
(Mr Raynsford) The cabinet makes clear the relatively small number of members of the council who are responsible for the decision, and they are known to be responsible.
(Mr Raynsford) I believe it is a much better way to take decisions which clarifies responsibility.
(Mr Raynsford) Because it makes clear who is responsible and it limits that to a defined number of people.
Mrs Dunwoody: We have been round that circle, it is clear.
(Mr Raynsford) As I said, this is a newly emerging framework. We will obviously look closely at how it develops, we do not take a totally fixed view about how constitutional arrangements might develop in the future. I have already indicated in our White Paper we expect to indicate some areas where there will be greater freedom for local government to define arrangements.
(Mr Raynsford) No, I think it is entirely a matter for the areas themselves to decide. It is right they should have that opportunity and the electors should decide this in those areas where there is an interest.
(Mr Raynsford) I was seeking to define the difference between an important in principle decision as to whether or not an authority should seek to establish a major new transport scheme and the detailed mitigation necessary to ensure that the impact of that does not have an adverse effect.
(Mr Raynsford) I would regard it as appropriate.
(Mr Raynsford) I think it is right that the executive should be focussing on strategic decisions and should ensure that it is able to shape the future development of its area in a way that meets it objectives.
(Mr Raynsford) Of course. People will have opportunities. The important distinction is that the cabinet should be acting on behalf of the authorities as a whole and pursuing its strategic objective in conformity with its community plan, which will have been the subject of detailed discussion and consultation with the public. The public will have an opportunity to express a view on key decisions like that before they are taken and then the detailed mitigation can be considered.
(Mr Raynsford) I hesitate to go on too much on planning because I am not the minister now responsible for that, but I was trying to illustrate there is a distinction to be drawn between the executive role of the cabinet in pursuing the strategic objectives of the authority and doing so within a framework which is allowed proper consultation with the public as against the more detailed scrutiny of the implementation which can best be carried out by a planning committee.
(Mr Raynsford) No, I am not. I am saying that best practice will always involve consultation before decisions are taken.
(Mr Raynsford) I said that the executive should be taking decisions in conformity with a community plan which would have been developed in consultation with the community.
(Mr Raynsford) Not at all. What we are seeking to do is to create a more effective framework for decision making in which the responsibility of decisions is clear and those decisions are taken by people who have a clear responsibility to pursue the strategic objective defined for that authority.
(Mr Raynsford) I do not know.
(Mr Raynsford) No.
(Mr Raynsford) All I know is that on the day before, 10 September, I had seen papers relating to the consultation on councillors expenses and allowances and I cleared those for publication.
(Mr Raynsford) I had no particular reason to want to hide it.
(Mr Raynsford) I think probably 10 per cent or 11 per cent in the Sunderland referendum on a mayor, if you treat that as a local election. If you define that as part of a local election that would probably be the lowest turnout. I cannot off the top of my head give you absolute chapter and verse.
(Mr Raynsford) I think there are some very interesting lessons to be learned from the New Deal for Community elections and indeed some of the mayoral referendum, which have also produced higher turnouts than local government elections. The conclusion, the first one, is that where the local population feels it is more likely to effect their lives and have an impact on them they are more likely to be involved
(Mr Raynsford) I am not sure that is necessarily a corollary, it depends entirely on how the councillors act in pursuance of those freedoms and flexibilities. We are intending to give them those freedoms and flexibilities.
(Mr Raynsford) We will be announcing the Fire Authority budget this afternoon in the statement. We have taken account, obviously, of representations relating to the requirements of the fire service and special arrangements have been put in place by my colleagues in the Home Office in relation to policing requirements as well.
(Mr Raynsford) The Home Secretary is responsible for chairing the Civil Contingency Committee which overseas this matter.
(Mr Raynsford) I chair the sub committee which deals with London resilience and it reports to the main CCC, which the Home Secretary chairs.
(Mr Raynsford) Not for other cities in the regions specifically, but there is a United Kingdom Resilience Committee which covers the country as a whole, which Christopher Leslie chairs.
(Mr Raynsford) The evidence is pretty conclusive that where there is more extensive use of postal voting this has had a positive impact. The indication of pilots are that while the public welcomed alternative options, such as location of polling stations and the ability to vote on days other than the polling date itself, the impact on overall turnout was probably marginal, whereas with postal votes, certainly where all postal ballots have been conducted, there has been a significant increase in the level of turnout.
(Mr Raynsford) That I have to say I do not know. Prosecution is not a matter of my responsibility. What I can say is there are obvious questions about potential for fraud in all types of elections and it is important that we maximise the safeguards against that. Many people find the requirement to return their postal vote in a sealed envelope inside another sealed envelope where there is a reference to their own name as an over-complex system and it does deter some people from postal voting. That is a necessary safeguard against the kind of abuse that you have described. There is always a tension between achieving a system which is easy for people to operate and achieving a secure one. That will be very much part of a pilot that we are hoping to run next May, in which we have invited bids from local government for schemes involving electronic voting and telephone voting, as well as postal voting and other schemes which have also been tried in the past.
(Mr Raynsford) This would ultimately be a matter for the local electoral registration officer working on guidance issued by the Electoral Commission. Certainly I would expect the Electoral Commission to give a lot of attention to the safeguards that will be built into the various new types of voting which will be trialed this May, and subsequently, if we carry forward, trials on electronic voting and other innovative types of voting. It is essential to get the right balance between ease of voting and safeguards. The Electoral Commission has come into existence in order to oversee this. We have established a good relationship with them but they do have an independent existence and you would expect them to look at these issues and make recommendations.
(Mr Raynsford) I discussed this with Sam Younger, who indicated that he was happy to work within the budget he had got and he was able to meet his responsibilities. Obviously this is a developing situation where we will need to come back and look at this again. We have no reason to believe he has not got an adequate budget to fulfill the responsibilities of the Electoral Commission.
(Mr Raynsford) There is an element of responsibility on all sides.
(Mr Raynsford) The local authority is responsible for the handling of local elections and parliamentary elections and other elections in their area and their electoral registration officer will seek to do their best to encourage participation and promote high turnout. The Electoral Commission has been established to review arrangements and to offer advice. It has produced, in my view, a very useful report on the General Election of this year which did suggest various innovations which might help to increase turnout. That is their role and I think they are performing that role very well and I am sure they will want to go on doing so. Our Department has now taken over responsibility for electoral responsibility for electoral law from the Home Office. We want to talk to the Electoral Commission about its proposals, some of those we will want to give effect to, we will therefore need to bring them to this House, we well discuss them with local government and we will discuss them with the political parties before coming forward with recommendations.
(Mr Raynsford) We hope to publish the national strategy in the early part of next year. It has been a very successful programme to date, where there has been very extensive local government response, where they are implementing electronic government plans, we are very pleased with the progress.
(Mr Raynsford) I have to say this is an issue on which there is on going discussion and I would not want to give a definitive answer at this stage. I think it is important.
(Mr Raynsford) I try not to on things that I cannot. I think it is important to try and encourage people ---
(Mr Raynsford) We have no plans to do that.
(Mr Raynsford) On elected mayors, it is right to say about 15 have been held so far.
(Mr Raynsford) The wording is set out in the framework which is provided by the government to local authorities.
(Mr Raynsford) Legislation which governs this indicates the format for the referendum.
(Mr Raynsford) I will give you a written answer on that
(Mr Raynsford) At the moment I am not absolutely certain on that one.
(Mr Raynsford) Our objective is the Electoral Commission as an independent body should determine the wording of referenda questions.
(Mr Raynsford) Of referenda relating to national government and, therefore, the European issue.
(Mr Raynsford) Yes.
(Mr Raynsford) At this stage I could not give you a firm answer on that.
(Mr Raynsford) We want to ensure there is a framework in place that does ensure that parties can fulfill their obligations in a fair way and that funds are erased in a way which does not bring political parties or the government into disrepute.
(Mr Raynsford) This is a matter the Electoral Commission will be looking into and we will obviously look closely at their conclusions.
(Mr Raynsford) There has been a recent judgment in the Robertson case which obviously has a considerable impact on that process. We are considering the judgment and will be responding appropriately in the near future.
(Mr Raynsford) As far as the sale of election registers are concerned we were planning to issue regulations with effect from the compilation of the next register, however the Robinson judgment does impact on that and we want to consider the judgment fully before we announce our intentions.
(Mr Raynsford) Yes.
(Mr Raynsford) That is not part of my remit.
(Mr Raynsford) That would not be a matter for me as an English minister.
(Mr Raynsford) I obviously will on behalf of the English constituency as and when any proposals are put forward, but I would not see it as my role to initiate that.
(Mr Raynsford) We do not plan to introduce legislation, not because we do not regard the issue as important, we regard it as very important, but because there is not the same relatively easy response as there is in the case of gender imbalance, where one can see very clearly if there is an imbalance. Measuring whether there is appropriate representation of sub-sections of the population in particular areas is more complex. What we are trying to do is encourage local authorities to ensure that they are, wherever possible, responding to the needs of different communities and giving opportunities to representatives of different communities to stand and be elected as councillors.
(Mr Raynsford) We are very satisfied that the proposals contained in the legislation will allow political parties to introduce positive action measures in the United Kingdom that will help to redress the gender imbalance. It will be for the political parties themselves to satisfy themselves that the particular mechanism they adopt is appropriate. We obviously expect them to take legal advice, a point I made frequently during the parliamentary passage.
(Mr Raynsford) It is permissive legislation which does not require political parties to do anything, it gives them the opportunity to do so. We, obviously being prudent, suggest that they should consider carefully whether the remedy they are proposing is proportionate to the problem and, therefore, whether it is likely to withstand any potential legal challenge.
(Mr Raynsford) Yes, indeed
(Mr Raynsford) Our conclusion was that the framework we put in place in that legislation was likely to be successful in allowing political parties to ensure the selection of more women candidates without the risk of legal challenge.
(Mr Raynsford) The world is a litigious place and I cannot guarantee the likelihood of their not being a challenge to a specific proposal coming from a political party.
Mrs Dunwoody: Do you remember the time we used to produce legislation which we assumed was not going to be open to challenge? Never mind, that is a rhetorical question.
(Mr Raynsford) There are a number of specific issues relating to the social services body which have been raised and these are all being considered very carefully as part of the review that will continue through until next year and will form the basis of our proposals for the new social services formula as part of the new framework for grant distribution.
(Mr Raynsford) I can write and let you have the full detailed figures.
(Mr Raynsford) I will certainly do so.
(Mr Raynsford) I had a useful meeting with the Welsh Assembly members, and specifically the member responsible for local government, just over a week ago who described the way they were introducing a new arrangement in Wales which would, in their view, have the same effect as best value via a different route.
(Mr Raynsford) They are using their freedom as a devolved body to approach this problem in a slightly different way. The Assembly made clear their view that this was about achieving the same objectives that we have.
(Mr Raynsford) The impression I received was that while there would be differences it would not be as fundamentally different as some commentators have suggested.
(Mr Raynsford) As is appropriate in a devolved framework.
(Mr Raynsford) I am satisfied the new scrutiny system for local government will help to improve local government efficiency and effectiveness.
(Mr Raynsford) Thank you.