Local Government (Best Value) Performance Plans and Reviews Amendment and Specified Dates Order 2002

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Dr. Whitehead: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Cummings.

The order was put on the Order Paper by the prescribed procedure. If I had gone home this evening, the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) would have said that I had quietly slipped out of the building. He is rather over-egging the pudding by claiming that by acting entirely in line with the prescribed procedure and providing an opportunity for debate—an opportunity that he is taking—we are somehow slipping out material that should have been debated in other circumstances. As far as I am aware,

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the procedure for these changes, which do not require primary legislation, has been undertaken over time.

The aim of the order is to begin to streamline best value in sectors in which local authorities would welcome that in the current financial year. It is the first step in streamlining best value. The hon. Gentleman has set up a fantastic universe in which he has made the entirely spurious claim that the order is the Government's entire response to discussions about best value.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley): The Minister—like at least two other hon. Members present, including me—was on the Standing Committee when this provision went through. I hope that this is a beginning, and there is a long way to go, but day after day in that Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) and I warned him that the provision was bureaucratic, a load on local authorities and a waste of finances. Can the Minister explain why the measures were put there in the first place, only to be taken away?

Dr. Whitehead: As the hon. Gentleman will recall, a key purpose of best value was to replace the thoroughly discredited system of compulsory competitive tendering. As I recall, when he was a Minister he strongly supported that system as a way of organising the deployment of services in local authorities. He will also recall that, in contrast to the few criticisms that arose as a result of the implementation of best value—some of which the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire has mentioned—there was a systematic torrential rain of criticism about the destructive effects of compulsory competitive tendering on local authorities, and the Conservative Government did nothing about it. The purpose of best value was to ensure that although there would be a quality framework for encouraging and assessing improvements and ensuring that good quality services were provided, the destructive elements of compulsory competitive tendering, including the idea that local authorities would have to outsource work on the opening of an envelope, were removed.

Sir Paul Beresford: I have heard this before, and it is not the answer to the question that was asked. It was recognised by at least two of the Conservative Members on the Standing Committee that CCT was something of the time and had done its job, and that we were moving forward. The Government stressed the idea that competition would still live. This order, along with other measures, has removed competition completely—but I return to my original question. Why were the provisions that are being taken away today put there in the first place, when at least two Conservative Members, and the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), carefully explained that they were unnecessary?

Dr. Whitehead: If the hon. Gentleman will be a little patient, I am just arriving at that point. It is important to place his question into a proper context. I am glad that he has heard this all before, and he must understand the context in which best value came

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about. Best value was regarded as a breath of fresh air in the life of local government compared with the stifling and stultifying atmosphere that even the hon. Gentleman admits existed with the compulsory competitive tendering regime.

Several provisions were made in the best value regime to ensure that it worked well as it developed and local authorities made the transition from organising council services by numbers according to Whitehall instructions, to having enormous choice in how they organised services and ensured best value. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has read the document, so he will know that the Audit Commission examined the implementation and effect of the best value regime in its best value annual statement in 2001. Once the regime was up and running, it was inevitable that there would be considerations about how it could be refined. The response to those considerations effectively forms the substance of this order.

Sir Paul Beresford: Let me pick on one thing. As I understand it, the best value performance plan and review will be published by 30 June instead of 31 March, so that it can include the final year-end results—although that requirement may be difficult to meet. That was pointed out time and again in Standing Committee, yet the Government still went ahead with their plan. The excuses that the Minister has come up with today in answering a broader question on the same theme have no substance. Will he answer this specific question: why did the Government take that action, if they are now accepting what was suggested by both Opposition parties and putting it in the form of the order before us?

Dr. Whitehead: Originally it was felt that estimates would be an appropriate way to undertake the reviews and inspections, but as the best value regime unfolds, outturns are believed to be a more complete way of doing that. That seems to be a straightforward consideration.

Mr. Foster: On that point, and following the comments made by the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), the Minister seems to be suggesting that the Government are at last moving towards something that was suggested in the Standing Committee on the original legislation. May I remind him that paragraph 3.73 of his Department's White Paper states:

    ''we will require publication of summary information targeted at local taxpayers and service users by 31st March.''

Even with the extension to June, the reality for local councils is that the pressure will still be on them and the problems will still occur.

Dr. Whitehead: The hon. Gentleman gave a clue to what my response would be by mentioning the phrase ''summary information''. That is not the same as what was previously required. The problem with the debate so far is that it is as if hon. Members had described the storming of the Bastille as the entire beginning and end of the French revolution, and that that was all there was to it. We are talking about a small element in the operation of best value—a statutory instrument. Local government has widely welcomed it as a means of

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refining elements of best value. Moreover, the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire said that his party wants to abolish best value, and that the statutory instrument is the Government's response to the ensuing criticism. However, it is clear to anyone that it is not. It is what it is: a limited number of changes to streamline best value.

Mr. Foster: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Moss: Will the Minister give way?

The Chairman: Order.

Dr. Whitehead: It is difficult for hon. Members to listen to this material being placed in context. They want to ask questions about tiny elements of best value, and then to build castles on top, as if best value as a whole were not working. Substantially, it is working, and the refinement that is being made this afternoon, as well as future refinements, will make it work better. It is not the failure that the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire, in particular, is trying to suggest.

Mr. Foster: I return to the Minister's response to my question. I said that it was clear in the White Paper that the Government expect local councils to be required to produce a summary by 31 March. The Minister just confirmed that. He said that that was not a problem because it was merely a summary. Will he give his definition of a summary? My definition is that a summary cannot be produced without the full document to summarise. The Minister says that the order makes a minor change—but it leaves us with the significant problem that he assured us he was solving, but in reality will not.

Dr. Whitehead: Perhaps I can give the hon. Gentleman an example of the parallel that one should draw. He claims that it is possible to produce a summary only when one has a full document to summarise. However, it is possible to produce a brief summary of something that one is intending to produce, to provide information about what will happen. I will give the hon. Gentleman a concrete example. In response to the statement made by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire that he wanted to abolish best value, I searched long and hard for a summary of the alternative proposals that the Conservative party want to make. As far as I can see, there are no significant alternative proposals—

Mr. Moss: Order, order.

The Chairman: Order. I will keep order.

Dr. Whitehead: I am merely using that as an example in response to the question that the hon. Member for Bath asked me—[Interruption.] .

The Chairman: Order. Will the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire contain himself?

Dr. Whitehead: As I said, I searched long and hard for a substantial document from which an alternative policy could be summarised. I have in front of me a summary of what the Conservatives might be thinking about, which makes very interesting reading. I shall not embarrass the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire—[Interruption.]

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The Chairman: Order. Will the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire please contain himself while the Minister is speaking?

Dr. Whitehead: I shall not embarrass the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire by reading out the thin waffle that is their alternative, but this demonstrates that it is possible to produce a summary without having the full document. It seems to me that what the Government have said in the White Paper is consistent with that view.

I return to the order. As I have said, among other things, it will complement the comprehensive performance assessment process being introduced this year. Streamlining best value is part of our wider approach to local government reform. Councils should be free to concentrate on serving local needs, but must also be accountable to local people and work to exacting performance standards. We therefore intend to replace a clutter of controls and regulations with an overall approach that recognises good performance and encourages improvement. Our proposals are set out in the White Paper ''Strong local leadership: quality public services'', to which the hon. Member for Bath, who has clearly read it, alluded.

Why do we want to streamline best value? We have evidence that best value works. The Audit Commission's report into best value, ''Changing Gear'', which I have already mentioned, was encouraging. Performance overall is up. Many councils and services were rated as good or excellent. As best value is driving up standards, they have the foundations on which to build.

However, some 60 per cent. of authorities were shown not to be performing so well. That figure covers several different performance levels, but those authorities can be said in general not to be using best value to deliver real improvement. We need to drive up the standards of all authorities to those of the best. I think that that is the only way to ensure that local citizens receive the excellent services that they demand and deserve.

We have also listened to councils. I have already emphasised the listening process that has happened over the implementation of best value. In particular, we have heard concerns about the cost of best value and the bureaucracy perceived to go with it. To some extent, bureaucracy is inevitable.

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