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

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Sir Paul Beresford: I am astonished that the Minister, having talked about removing bureaucracy, has gone on in the next breath to talk about the comprehensive performance assessment. That is bureaucracy itself, and goes further, because it removes any chance of or pressure for competition, which Ministers supported when the original Bill went through. It involves an assessment of process, not of outcomes, quality or value for money.

Dr. Whitehead: I imagine that the hon. Gentleman has looked at the proposals for the comprehensive performance assessment in the White Paper and seen that they are not concerned with grinding numbers or attempting to categorise or pigeonhole local authorities according to a particular series of numerical calculations. The assessment is designed to

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create a framework for the additional freedoms that local authorities might wish to take on in terms of type of work. It will be an encouragement to improve, and it will happen in collaboration with local authorities, not in resistance to them. The assessment will look overall at what a local authority is doing, its health and how it is performing.

Mr. Moss: The Minister has made great play of the introduction of the order, which, in his words, is designed to streamline the bureaucracy attached to best value for local authorities. Article 7 changes the deadline for the audit of the plan from 30 June to 31 December, but that is to allow for the new comprehensive performance assessment process. How is that streamlining things and lessening the bureaucracy imposed on local authorities? They are being given a changed deadline, but are being further imposed on with a completely new process. How will that help reduce bureaucracy?

Dr. Whitehead: Again, the hon. Gentleman seeks to isolate certain elements from the broad picture and claim that they are the whole picture. He will know that that is not an undertaking that he could defend.

The content of the White Paper is all about providing a changed balance between the central and the local. Local authorities will have greater freedom to operate, trade and take decisions about how money from fees and fines is deployed. In the past local authorities have complained, in many instances rightly, about all sorts of other areas in which elements of their activities have been unnecessarily constrained by inspection, central diktat or other limitations on their ability to operate in the best interests of local citizens.

As the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire will know, those freedoms are cast in two different ways in the White Paper. In terms of overall freedoms for local authorities, the White Paper will change a number of circumstances in which authorities operate. Those that are performing well may be given particular freedoms to add to the excellence of the services that they are already delivering. Providing a framework for greater freedoms cannot be described as adding to bureaucracy. That process precisely tackles the complaints that have been made by Opposition Members, and it is only by taking that out of context and concentrating on a small area—I have to compliment the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire, because he is a past master at that—that one can conceive of it as adding to bureaucracy.

Mr. Foster: The Minister has made great play of saying that the order will provide increased freedoms for local councils. I have some difficulty with that because, with the exception of articles 4(2)(b) and 4(2)(c) of the 1999 order, both of which are to be removed from the requirements and, as I have pointed out, refer to information that will have to provided to the Audit Commission anyway, I do not know what the increased freedoms are.

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Dr. Whitehead: The hon. Gentleman was not, perhaps, entirely following the drift of my exchange with the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire. I was talking about the overall effect of the increased freedoms set out in the White Paper, and the circumstances in which those greater freedoms can come about. Again, the hon. Member for Bath ought to listen to who is making what claim. The claim being made for the statutory instrument by the Government, as opposed to what is said by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire, is that it contains a number of modest changes to help streamline best value. They were trailed as one of many elements of the White Paper, and have been brought forward in a statutory instrument well in advance of a number of other elements of the White Paper, to make sure that the process of streamlining best value and reducing elements of the perceived bureaucracy around it, among other things, can be put into place at the earliest possible stage. For that reason, it has been widely welcomed by local government. The Government are not claiming that it is a complete response to the future of best value, and it is not the only thing that we are going to do.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the White Paper lists many things that the Government want to do. If he avails himself of the DTLR website—to include everybody in this, I must add that the hon. Members for North-East Cambridgeshire and for Mole Valley can do that too—he will see that a White Paper implementation programme, which sets out a number of those factors, has been published. He will see that it is a long implementation programme, which demonstrates the fact that the White Paper is packed full of goodies.

Mr. Moss: On the one hand, the Minister talks about modest changes, but on the other, the DTLR press release makes the claim that

    ''these changes will make Best Value Performance Plans more useful and promote more focused review programmes.''

The Minister says that the provisions will not make any change whatever. Which is to be believed—his words today, or the spin in the press release of 14 February?

Dr. Whitehead: The words ''will not make any change whatever'' are the hon. Gentleman's, not mine. I said that we are making modest changes so that we can begin to streamline best value processes, and that there will be other changes in the future. The provisions are modest; they are not earth-shattering. Nevertheless, they will make changes, as set out in the press release that the hon. Gentleman was kind enough to read out. They will begin to make a difference, but they are not the end of the matter, and overblown claims should not be made about them.

Mr. Moss: In the same press release, the Minister says:

    ''I am pleased that we are bringing in these changes—that local government itself wanted—so quickly after the publication of the White Paper.''

Is that a claim that he can justify? The press release suggests that the criticism from local government was such that the Government have responded to it. They

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have not responded to it at all, and the modest changes in no way reflect the criticism that has come the Government's way. Is he saying that his words on 14 February are accurate, or is he changing his mind?

Dr. Whitehead: Frankly, I am beginning to have a problem with the universe that various people in the Room inhabit.

Mr. Moss: Those were the Minister's words.

Dr. Whitehead: Indeed, and the points in that press release make perfect sense and are in good English. It is quite clear what they mean, which is that the Government have discussed the implementation of best value with local government, and have raised wider issues about the future of local government and the freedoms that it could have. Many of those wider issues have been responded to in the White Paper, but not in legislation. Some require primary legislation, and some statutory instruments. Where the Government could move along the road quickly via statutory instruments, they have done so. Far from denigrating that process, the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire—who is not listening any more—should welcome it.

To some extent, bureaucracy is inevitable in a local council's deployment of services under any scheme. We cannot have efficient organisations without efficient processes. Some councils had to set up performance management systems from scratch, more or less. However, some of the bureaucracy was self-imposed. Some reviews, for example, became bogged down in process. They were driven by compliance, rather than the desire to make a difference. Best value does not work if it is seen as just an add-on.

Sir Paul Beresford: Perhaps this is an add-on. The changes being made today are those that were recommended by the Opposition on the Standing Committee on the Local Government Act 1999. The Minister need only look at the record of that Committee to see a long list of changes that he could make—but I shall resist saying, ''I told you so.''

The Minister also mentions the comprehensive performance assessment. That is a bureaucratic imposition that revolves around a smash-and-grab raid carried out by six to nine auditors for some of the bigger councils over two weeks. Why does he not consider the matter more sensibly and give the freedoms to most councils, and pick only on those at the bottom?

Dr. Whitehead: I welcome that opinion, but the hon. Gentleman must accept that it is just his opinion. Not everything in the statutory instrument was miraculously presaged in debate on the Local Government Act that he mentions. He repeats his assertion that the comprehensive performance assessment is, of itself, a piece of bureaucracy. That is a miraculous transformation of opinion from his previous view that freedom should be given to all local authorities. The late conversion of the Conservative party to that view of local government is welcome, but it remains to be seen, in the Conservatives' summary of a summary of what they would do, whether it means

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that real action would be taken to address the concerns and the real life of local government.

Best value does not work if it is just seen as an add-on, or if it is used to justify existing services or cost-cutting. I accept that in some areas of best value we could lighten the burden: fewer more focused and more strategic reviews are more likely to deliver serious change than many little ones limited to service boundaries; inspections could be more integrated and constructive. We therefore intend to streamline the regime to help authorities focus more on priorities and outcomes, rather than processes. That will improve the efficiency of the policy. Streamlining best value must work for all authorities, not just for better performers.

''Changing Gear'' suggested that key differences existed between better performing authorities and those that performed less well. One difference was in the vision and will of the leadership, and the corporate capacity. Best value services are not just the responsibility of a particular department, but of the authority's executive and its senior management team. Where leadership and capacity are weak, best value—or any other regime—will fall short. That is why we have introduced comprehensive performance assessments. The CPA process will emphasise not only individual services, but the strengths and weaknesses of the corporate centre and how councils tackle their corporate priorities. That will help councils understand, and buy into, key changes that are needed to bring their organisation and services up to the best standards.

CPAs are not another rod with which to beat local authorities. Self-assessment and peer review will be a key element in the CPA process, which will be a more integrated approach to auditing and inspection, and will create more foundations for greater streamlining. In areas in which councils are effective, there will be less inspection activity. Councils will be given greater discretion to manage their affairs, inspection resources will be targeted more effectively on the areas most in need of improvement, and more support will be available to weaker councils. Reviews can be designed to tackle the more serious issues.

That is the context of the order, but what about the detail? I shall briefly explain the content of the order and its rationale, on which we have already heard some debate. Its effect is to change the deadline of best value performance plans from 31 March to 30 June. It also changes the deadline for the audit of plans from 30 June to 31 December. It reduces the required plan contents, and it removes the requirement for authorities to review all their statutory functions within a five-year period.

The changes to the best value performance plan will make it a better management tool by allowing for the inclusion of final outturn information rather than estimates. It will also allow incoming administrations to set out new policies and plans. The required content will be reduced further in future statutory guidance to focus on the most important elements, and to give more discretion to authorities on what it should contain. I hope that that is a substantive answer to

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the question about what the statutory guidance will do.

We consider that local people should continue to have access to performance information on their local authority in advance of local elections. However, that can be adequately covered by the performance summary in March. We are giving local authorities discretion about the contents of that summary and how it is circulated. The requirement to review all services in five years led to several authorities setting up a large number of service-based reviews, many of which were too small to deliver significant improvements. The removal of that requirement will allow them to concentrate on fewer, more strategic reviews for the most important or needy services. It gives discretion to authorities to decide what should be reviewed when.

 
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Prepared 17 April 2002