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Session 2001- 02
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Local Government (Best Value) Performance Indicators and Performance Standards Order 2002

Twelfth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 19 June 2002

[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]

Local Government (Best Value) Performance Indicators and Performance Standards Order 2002

4.30 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Local Government (Best Value) Performance Indicators and Performance Standards Order 2002. (S.I. 2002, No. 523)

May I have your permission to take off my coat, Mr. Atkinson, as it is rather a hot afternoon?

The Chairman: Indeed.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Thank you.

We prayed against the order, although I have no argument with the Minister because he has been in his post only a week or so. Frankly, if somebody had presented me with this document containing 24 pages of gobbledegook, I would have sent it back and given the person who drafted it a thick ear. Nine pages are spent virtually repeating the same set of authorities responsible for the different performance indicators. The same set could be listed once and the exclusions or inclusions listed underneath. That would have saved about four pages.

With that caveat, Her Majesty's Opposition do not oppose continually upgrading and uprating standards of performance in government, whether local or central. Indeed, in 1994, we introduced the compulsory competitive tendering regime. We gradually extended that across a range of local government services, including service provision, so I have no quarrel with the principle. Best value is inherently a Conservative principle.

Neither do I have a problem with the principle of the order, which reduces the number of performance indicators from 125 to 97, which we welcome. However, those 97 include some very bureaucratic and centralising performance indicators, an example of which is on page 13. Schedule 3 deals with education performance indicators and we have no problems in general with performance indicators. Indicator No. 1 is:

    ''Youth Service expenditure per head of population in the Youth Service target age range.''

It is clear, simple and straightforward, and something that every single local authority should easily be able to measure. Indicator No. 2 is:

    ''The percentage of primary schools with 25 per cent. or more of their places unfilled.''

That is also simple and straightforward. Every local authority should easily be able to come up with that.

As we go down the list, the indicators gradually get more bureaucratic and demanding. Indicator No. 10 is:

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    ''The percentage of pupils in schools maintained by the local education authority achieving Level 4 . . . in the Key Stage English test.''

That is reasonable, but they suddenly start to get more exacting. Although there is nothing wrong with that, when the indicators become so exacting, exclusive and inclusive of different aspects, it becomes so bureaucratic and time-consuming for people to work out what is required that it gets ridiculous. Indicator 11 is:

    ''The percentage of statements of special educational need issued by the . . . authority in a financial year and prepared within 18 weeks—

    (a) excluding exception cases; and

    (b) including those affected by ''exceptions to the rule'' under Special Educational Needs code of practice(a).''—

for goodness' sake. By the time someone has worked all of that out and filled in all of the forms, are we getting the benefit that the performance indicator is supposed to achieve?

The order is yet another example of a centralising Government taking power away from local people and putting it in the hands of distant London-based politicians and bureaucrats—[Interruption.] It is true. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) moans and groans like a cow with a sick stomach. If he kept quiet and listened for a little longer, he might understand what is trying to be achieved through the statutory instrument.

The red tape and bureaucracy of the regulations and performance indicators mean that good councils face additional costs and needless distractions. However, they do little to root out corruption and poor management in bad councils. Best value is yet another example of ineffective and expensive Whitehall red tape for local communities. The official Opposition have no problem with ratcheting up standards or with the Government setting standards to allow local government to do that. The question is how that is done and the benefit of what is laid out.

I quote Edwina Hart, who is the Labour Minister for Finance, Local Government and Communities in the National Assembly for Wales, which decided to abolish the best value regime. She said:

    ''Best Value inspection hasn't really worked . . . Local authorities have been fed up with the bureaucracy and the fact that they have reports telling them that they cannot improve when the whole purpose of Best Value is to improve.''

The Labour leader of the Welsh Local Government Association, Sir Henry Jones has stated that councils were spending more time on process than actual service delivery. Matthew Warburton, who is head of futures at the Local Government Association, has said that best value

    ''has led to a mountain of rules and guidance, which in turn has created an enormous paperchase as authorities try to justify their decisions to the inspectors''.

Best value—[Interruption.] I do not know why the hon. Member for Nottingham, North keeps interrupting. If he adopted a little more patience and courtesy, he might actually learn something. Yes, I am talking to the hon. Gentleman who turns his head away. You are achieving nothing by being discourteous.

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The Chairman: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman to talk through the Chair?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Certainly. I am sorry. No doubt you, Mr. Atkinson, noticed how discourteous the hon. Member for Nottingham, North was being.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I shall give way. I hope that the hon. Gentleman has noticed that I am being courteous.

Mr. Allen: I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not try to teach you how to do your job, Mr. Atkinson. I am sure that we are all very confident of your abilities.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: No doubt the hon. Member for Nottingham, North will want to be as courteous as possible.

Best value is proving enormously expensive and costly to local authorities. The Government have allocated £52 million this year for the best value administration. The Local Government Association has made the staggering estimate that it will cost an extra £175 million a year on top of that. I am glad that the Minister is listening carefully because a great deal could be achieved with £175 million. That is a huge sum and we want to ensure that we are getting best value from that money.

I shall cite examples of what other councils think about the best value regime. One of Suffolk's district councils, with which you are familiar, Mr. Atkinson, was forced to add £100,000 to its 2000–01 budget in addition to recruiting a best value planning officer. Wokingham district council added £85,000 to its 2000–01 budget. Chichester district council has added £80,000 to its budget and I could cite many other councils that have had to increase their budgets.

Bill Roots, the chief executive of Westminster city council states:

    ''It is overkill. The staffing costs of running best value will be''—

[Interruption.] Labour Members should want to provide the best service rather than making yah-boo noises all the time. That is what we are all about. We are providing a service for people and if that is not what we want to do as politicians, we should not be here. We should listen to somebody who knows how to run a local council.

Diana Organ (Forest of Dean): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I shall give way to my neighbour in a second, although I note that she was one of the people who made a noise. Perhaps I should start the quote again because I was interrupted. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) will have to wait a little longer.

Bill Roots says:

    ''It is overkill. The staffing costs of running best value will be disproportionate. All this money could have been used for service provision''.

I hope that the hon. Lady cares about the service provision of local authorities and economies in tax levels. The Government have introduced one of the greatest stealth taxes—an increase in council tax of

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many times the rate of inflation in the past three or four years. One reason why council tax has had to increase so much is to pay for the costs of the best value regime to which I referred. ''Will we get all this back in value-for-money savings?'' asks Bill Roots, ''I don't think so.''

Diana Organ: The hon. Gentleman refers to Westminster city council and best value. Does he believe that it delivered best value when it sold council houses under the right-to-buy policy?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Each local authority had the option of large-scale voluntary transfers. It was entirely up to each council whether to participate in the scheme. The right to buy was a supremely successful policy introduced by the Conservative Government and continued by this Labour Government, who obviously also believe that it is a supremely successful policy.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley): The earlier intervention was slightly misdirected, because right to buy was not the issue. On Westminster and quality, schedule 7, on page 17, refers to indicator No. 6. One of the most expensive local authorities in terms of waste collection is Westminster, because much of the waste in Westminster is collected daily, not weekly, or, as in Liberal Democrat-controlled Sutton, every second week.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I agree. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend says, ''Thank God for that'', sotto voce—I put that on record for him. If one walks around Westminster, as I do, one finds on the whole that the streets are clean and well maintained. If one walks, as I did for a recent debate on walking in our cities, over the bridge no more than 1,000 yd, one sees some examples of revolting rubbish that has been there not days or weeks but months, if not years. No doubt by many performance indicators Westminster is a flagship performing council in London.

The Minister might consider whether the best value regime might allow more flexibility in the scheme. We should not use a sledgehammer to crack a nut. We should allow efficient councils to get on with the job of running their own affairs while putting measures in place, perhaps through the best value regime, to tackle the inefficiencies of inefficient councils. If we were to do that and bring the worst councils nearer the performance of the best, we would achieve something.

Why should councils that are already highly efficient be forced to pay the extra costs that I cited of the auditing, inspection, red tape and bureaucracy of the best value and performance indicators regime? Is there any need for one-size-fits-all performance indicators when efficient councils already meet best value targets for efficiency and performance indicators? Performance indicators do little to raise sufficiently the standards of poorly performing or corrupt councils. As Councillor Jane Chevis of Chichester district council said:

    ''We already make sure we are a model of efficiency and quality. We don't think the £180,000 plus it is costing us to follow Best Value legislation will be recouped by the savings it will produce for us. We believe in the principle of Best Value, but not the bureaucracy.''

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I urge the Minister to introduce some flexibility into the scheme.

Best value, which replaced compulsory competitive tendering, has meant that there is no general requirement for councils to put their services out to tender. There has been a 66 per cent. drop in the number of contracts put out to tender since Labour came to power, according to the publication Local Government Tenders.

The Audit Commission found that 23 per cent. fewer contracts were being advertised since the end of CCT. Indeed, Gateshead metropolitan borough council took a schools catering target back in house without testing the market or even talking to the private company that had run the contract for the previous six years. It did so only a month after a quality audit had shown that more than 90 per cent. of head teachers in Gateshead metropolitan borough council were very satisfied with the standard of the external contractors' service, and despite a guaranteed offer by the external contractor to save £1 million on the contract. If that is not political correctness gone mad, I do not know what is. If we are to be constructive in a Committee such as this, those are the sorts of things that we should look into. They are also the sorts of things that this type of statutory instrument should address, instead of trying to be a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

The best value regime aims for efficiency savings of only 2 per cent. In 1993, the Inlogov report found compulsory competitive tendering had brought savings of 7 per cent. Therefore, I return to my earlier point: this best value regime is hugely costly, but it is saving very little in cost and time.

The Secretary of State has intervention powers and I want the Minister to tell me when they were last used. They include the transfer to a third party of the running of the service of a poorly performing council. That authority can also be required to take whatever actions are necessary to achieve best value. An authority can be directed to amend its best value plan and to conduct a best value review. The inspection service can be instructed to carry out an inspection. Those are the available sanctions. I wish to know when, and on how many occasions, they have been used, because unless they are used, there is no point in having a regime, as many councils throughout the country will not readily strive to meet the best value performance indicator targets.

Conservative councillors have always been natural supporters of best value regimes. It was Conservatives who first opened up local government to competition and thereby delivered greater efficiency. Through John Major's citizens charter, it was the Conservatives who first measured local government services, to ensure that the highest standards were met. Lord Hanningfield, the Labour vice-chairman of the Local Government Association, said of the best value regime:

    ''It will do nothing to help the best councils which long ago decided voluntarily to make themselves more efficient and to enable the best-placed providers to carry out the services their council

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    taxpayers required. For these models of efficiency and accountability, Best Value will only divert valuable resources.

    On the other hand, Best Value will fall well short of what is needed to bring the worst councils up to scratch.''

I remind hon. Members that the speaker is the Labour vice-chairman of the LGA. He continued:

    ''When the process reaches the external audit stage, this New Labour flagship will reach stormy waters indeed.''

That is why we Conservatives say, ''Little value, best forgotten.''

4.48 pm

 
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Prepared 19 June 2002