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

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Sir Paul Beresford: It will be a constructive intervention. One problem with the hon. Gentleman's position is that a competent, even excellent, local authority in the housing sector can guarantee that any attempt to use large-scale voluntary transfer will be a failure because the competence of the authority will be such that the tenants will vote against it.

Mr. Foster: I accept the hon. Gentleman's point, but I am sure that you, Mr. Atkinson, would not want us to embark on a detailed debate of the merits of large-scale voluntary transfer.

I hope that I have already made clear my concerns about several of the indicators—some added, some dropped. I could cite other examples, but I do not want to bore the Committee rigid by going through a list of further points. The Government have marginally reduced the number of indicators, but I see no clear logic behind some of the changes. We still end up with a highly bureaucratic, cumbersome and, perhaps most worryingly of all, highly centralised system. Central Government are determining the decision-making process about whether a council is considered a good one. My party believes that local people should take that decision and should determine the criteria by which any judgments on authorities are made.

Mr. Sanders: One of the classic examples is planning performance indicators. Indicator 1 is the percentage of new homes built on previously developed land—a wonderful aspiration nationally and one that a local authority would wish to achieve. However, it says nothing about whether the homes being built truly meet local need. That is the real issue in new house building. Local need is more important than what type of land is built on.

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Mr. Foster: My hon. Friend is right. We all know that we have the lowest number of new housing starts since before the 1930s. One of our main problems is the lack of availability of affordable housing. We all want to see the development of brownfield sites for such housing, but local authorities face many constraints, which make it difficult. You would rule me out of order, Mr. Atkinson, if I went into further detail, but it could lead us on to debate greenfield development tax, the powers available to local authorities to specify amounts of affordable housing and the final decision on 50 per cent. discount council tax for second homes, which I hope to hear about in the comprehensive spending review. I could go on. My hon. Friend certainly makes a fair point.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, North gets fed up with hearing clichés from the hon. Member for Cotswold. My cliché would be about rearranging the deck chairs on the proverbial ship, but I shall not say it because it would be too naff.

I hope that the Minister, who is new to his brief and will have studied these matters in great detail, will address my point about environmental indicators. Do the eight environmental indicators before us mean anything whatever to him? Is the English and grammar used in the indicators correct? Without reference to his officials or without waiting for a note, will the Minister tell me what is meant by

    ''The percentage of the total tonnage of household waste arisings which have been land-filled''?

What are these arisings? I am totally confused.

5.7 pm

Sir Paul Beresford: I am delighted to serve under you, Mr. Atkinson, and I welcome the Minister to his new position. I hope that he enjoys it, but anticipate that he might find it difficult at times, particularly if he has to promote a cause such as the one before us today. I welcome the participation of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North. As Government Whip he had a fascinating time when the Local Government Bill 1999 went through. As his Ministers were being minced, he left and sat outside because he was too embarrassed. As I cast my eye over today's list of performance indicators, it is clear that the Government have not learned much.

When debating the 1999 Bill, the Opposition, including the Liberal Democrats, accepted that best value was a good idea that followed on from competitive tendering which, when it became compulsory, tightened the thinking of many local authorities, brought them into line, took the steam out of the argument and produced better services for many authorities. It also introduced opportunity for artful dodgers who, unfortunately, have continued under the present system. Perhaps that explains why the Government are adding bureaucracy to bureaucracy.

Many of the indicators do not make sense, are counter-productive and will not work. Yesterday I attended a large meeting of the Surrey police authority at which not only the top people in the police authority, including the chief constable, were present, but most of the chief executives of most of the local authorities in the area. When I informed them about

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this Committee and the promised new series of indicators, the groan from the whole room was phenomenal and the look of dismay was incredible. It was not because they did not want new incentives to produce a decent service: every chief executive present, regardless of the political affiliation of the authority, wanted to achieve that.

The Surrey police authority is certainly providing a good service: although it receives the lowest funding per policeman per head of population, it manages to achieve some of the highest standards in the country. As the motto goes, Surrey is the safest place in the country, notwithstanding being next door to London and the additional pressure the police authority faces from the Met getting heavy with London criminals. Its success is built on the freedom it used to have to think laterally, to approach matters differently and not to be tied down by central bureaucracy. The arrival of a wheelbarrow-load of bureaucratic nonsense is rather sad.

We had an indication of that nonsense a week ago when I asked the Prime Minister—in spite of a few interruptions and although he was not really listening—to explain why the paedophile unit at Scotland Yard had been drastically reduced. Under the Conservative Government it had a staff of 17—which is still too low—and when Labour came to power that figure dropped to 15 and then 13, of which eight are operatives. That reduction took place in a climate in which, as recent BBC2 films have shown, there is a bigger demand and a greater work load. When one asks the police about that they say, ''Well, when we slip on any of our targets we have to take policemen from somewhere to try and meet them''. As a result, they cannot act in an area that they believe is important because they are squeezed on finances, on the number of policemen and policewomen and on the number of operatives who are computer specialists, for example—they have all been taken off to meet those blessed targets.

Exactly the same happens in Surrey, where policemen have to think laterally to provide the services that they believe necessary for the area while trying to meet the nationally developed targets.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I simply want to ask the hon. Gentleman whether he wants to give the power of the chief constable to transfer officers from a paedophile unit to other operational areas—if it is true that that is happening—to someone else? Who does he think would be better placed to make such operational decisions?

Sir Paul Beresford: I am rather disappointed that the hon. Gentleman cannot see the point. Perhaps it is the fact that English is a second language for me, nevertheless I am sure that he could understand it. The chief constable is being forced to make operational decisions to meet targets that have been imposed on him. I endorse the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold for authorities, whether health, police or local authorities, to have greater freedom to meet the targets that they feel are appropriate in their local area and which local people support and have based their voting decisions on. Surrey is a classic

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example of that lack of freedom; we have a strong Conservative council that is having financing and targeting decisions imposed on it by national Government. That is not correct and it should not happen. That even happens in other tiers of local authorities. Some heavily Conservative central London authorities—I can think of one obvious example—are under the squeeze from the Greater London authority, with the Mayor above it and central Government above that.

The ludicrousness of such situations can be seen from some of the indicators that we are discussing. I mentioned the one about the cost of waste collections per household. Westminster decided some years ago that it would have an improved service; its service is now probably better than that of any other local authority in the country. It collects waste centrally more often than anywhere else in the country—which means, under indicator No. 6, that the cost of waste collection per household would be very much higher. The indicator would go against the council.

Several other cases interest me. I shall pick a few, from schedule 6. Indicator No. 1 concerns security and

    ''whether the authority has a written and pro-active strategy for combating fraud and error'',

and so on. Everyone is in favour of stopping fraud and wants a proactive strategy, but the Government's thinking is all about process rather than results. It would be more sensible to look at results because if they are positive, the local authority would have a proactive strategy—whether written or not. The thrust of most of the indicators encourages local authorities to spend all their time finding ways around the targets. Some indicators are counter-productive for individuals. One indicator is:

    ''The percentage of applications determined in line with the government's new development control targets''.

One of the problems with that is that a decision, whether right or wrong, is a decision and it will help local authorities meet their targets. As they come to the tail end of the year, one can imagine them rushing decisions merely to achieve the targets.

The indicator on the elderly at home relates to:

    ''Older people (aged sixty five or over) helped to live at home per 1,000 population aged sixty five or over.''

English was mentioned earlier and although it is my second language, so to speak, I know that the grammar presents problems—or at least in this case the repetition. The main point is that local authorities want to ensure that the figure is higher so that they achieve their targets and the Government's aim, although it may not be appropriate for their population. Why should they do that when they could provide a home help service for people in their homes? Some individuals may be better off, for example, in sheltered accommodation. The incentive is to make care of the elderly meet the targets, not to fulfil the needs of elderly people. That disturbs me, so I support the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold. I did not know that he would make such a proposal, but I have been thinking along the same lines. The armies of auditors throughout the country that work for local authorities and the Audit

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Commission should be targeted at the bottom echelons of local authorities.

Some local authorities are appalling and offer a derisory service to their local people. Their charges are outrageous and they spend too much time trying to get round regulations and efforts by any Government to progress. The Government have occasionally moved in on those authorities. I believe that action has been taken in, for example, Walsall. It was long overdue and it is not the only local authority that requires such action.

The Government should use the expensive armies of bureaucrats and auditors to target those at the bottom of, for example, local and police authorities and let those above off the hook to get on with the business that is appropriate for their area. However, they cannot do that. The Government have to stand on everybody, impose a central direction and drive, and take a Stalinist approach.

I know that the order will be accepted and I am saddened by that, but only half as saddened as are the local authorities, police authorities and people throughout the country who will have to implement it.

5.18 pm

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Prepared 19 June 2002