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

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Dr. Whitehead: It is in force.

Mr. Foster: I apologise. However, because of the date when it came into force, local councils will not have had the opportunity to benefit from it this year.

Overall, we have been discussing, as the Minister rightly said, relatively small changes to the best value regime. In our discussions, a large number of questions have been raised that relate specifically to the order, and many other questions have rightly been raised about the wider concerns that local government, those who work in it, and those who are served by it, have about the best value regime. I suspect that many people who read our debate will be looking forward to the Government introducing rather more measures to reduce the bureaucracy and the difficulties associated with the best value scheme.

5.36 pm

Dr. Whitehead: The hon. Member for Bath raised some specific issues, which I shall attempt to address, although I think that he will appreciate that the order came into force on 8 March 2002; the prayer that led to our discussion this afternoon does not change that. Several authorities then decided not to undertake the processes before 31 March, so were this order successfully prayed against, that might cause them some difficulty.

Mr. Moss: Nonsense.

Dr. Whitehead: Far from it.

The hon. Member for Bath mentioned the requirements for fire authorities. I suggested that I might write to the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire about fire authorities, because in addition to the requirements that he mentioned, they are subject to other requirements about training, under the Fire Services Act 1947. They also have their own inspection regime, which operates slightly differently from the local government one. There are elements of those practices to which it might be appropriate to draw attention.

As for the fire authority programme that the hon. Member for Bath mentioned, the fact of the matter is that some authorities have already completed their reviews. The removal of the particular requirement means that it will be for the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and

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the fire authorities to decide what to review and in what order. Fire authorities are still required by the Act to review their functions. This removal puts into their regime the same flexibility that the statutory instrument gives to local authorities overall, but in the context that the Act still requires the fire authorities to review their functions.

The hon. Member for Bath asked why some performance indicators had been reduced when that information and data will be required to construct the approach to the comprehensive performance assessment. He ought to recognise—indeed, he has recognised this on some of the wider issues raised by the removal of performance indicators, but I am too modest to quote him this afternoon—that that process means that we are giving greater discretion and encouragement to local authorities to develop their own performance indicators, so that they can measure their performance according to indicators with particular local segments that are not required in national coverage.

In the context of how I have described the comprehensive performance assessment ceiling, local authorities may decide the information that they put in the comprehensive performance assessment as a result of the discretion on performance indicators. The information would not necessarily be the same as that contained in the performance indicators, which have been removed, as the hon. Gentleman has described. It will, however, inform the comprehensive performance assessment, although it will not be the equivalent that the hon. Member for Bath suggests, because it will be of a different order.

Mr. Foster: I understand the Minister's drift when he implies that there would be a greater opportunity for local authorities to determine the way in which they handle that freedom. However, such a freedom already exists under article 4(2)(a) of the 1999 regulations, which states that an authority must provide

    ''a summary of the authority's assessment of its performance in the previous financial year with regard to best value performance indicators''.

It is clear that authorities have a degree of freedom in deciding how to make that presentation. I understand from my discussions with the Audit Commission that authorities will be required to provide information assessing their performance in both the current year and previous years. If the Minister were saying that they did not have to do that, that would be a greater freedom—but my clear understanding is that they will be required to provide a year-on-year comparison. Will the Minister confirm that that is the case?

Dr. Whitehead: I was attempting to emphasise that the way in which authorities will be required to provide that information will be structured in a new way. As a result of the changes that the hon. Gentleman has talked about, such as the development of performance indicators, the information and comparison that local authorities will provide in order to inform the comprehensive performance assessment process will not necessarily be identical to what might have been required had those

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changes not been made. That was the central point that he asked me to elucidate.

The hon. Gentleman should also know that the requirement for a summary will be in the statutory guidance to which local authorities will have to have regard. That will not be an order in itself, but it will be statutory guidance. He also ought to be aware—indeed, he has effectively covered this point himself—that authorities are still required by the order to provide comparison information. That is not being withdrawn, and article 4(2) of the 1999 order remains in place.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman talked about the way in which performance plans will cover the previous year's performance and the current and future year's plans. The change in the date for that will do exactly what I have described. It will allow for outturn information rather than estimate information to inform the process from either side of the plan.

Under your wise chairmanship, Mr. Cummings, our debate has kept within the bounds of the statutory instrument, while covering a number of areas concerning best value. I have emphasised that the measures in the order do not have enormous consequences, but that they present a solid start in ensuring that best value works well and is streamlined. As authorities develop better ways of ensuring that best value works for them, their ability to make it work will be underpinned by these and other changes. I commend the order to the House.

Mr. Moss: The Minister made great play of the order having come into force on 8 March. Indeed, I alluded to that fact in my speech. It was laid on 14 February, three weeks before it came into force. It was subject to the negative resolution procedure and we prayed against it in March—it is sometimes difficult to pick up such matters in time. Even if we had picked it up before 8 March, the Government would not necessarily have made time for this debate in Committee, so it is spurious for the Minister to argue that we had plenty of time to address the issue, and to question why the debate is being held in April. That is the Government's timing, not ours. Our action in praying against the order has been vindicated not only by the length of the debate, but by the excellent contributions by my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley and the hon. Member for Bath.

The Minister claims on one hand that the changes are modest, and on the other that they have been widely welcomed. Perhaps he will write to me and other Committee members listing the local authorities that have widely welcomed his changes. Perhaps he would put their letters and communications in the Library, because it would be interesting to see them—[Interruption.] He is laughing; I suppose that that is because he does not have any. We must watch this space, but we will not hold our breath.

The Minister did not say that this was the start of a lengthy process to address all the issues and criticisms that have arisen. Perhaps he should publish those, because we know that there are many criticisms and, as the hon. Member for Bath said, they emanate not just from Conservative-controlled councils, but from

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Liberal Democrat-controlled councils and, most damagingly, from Labour-controlled councils. I quoted not from a Conservative-controlled council but from Labour people in Wales, where the regime was thrown out early because the nonsense of the weight of bureaucracy was apparent.

The scheme is not achieving the laudable aims that the Government set out. We are not against the concept of best value and we agree with the hon. Member for Bath that something is necessary, but the scheme is overpowering and a massive burden on local authorities. I hope that this is the first of many such orders that will come before the Committee and chop away at the edifice that the Government have created. It turns out that some changes in the order, which are widely welcomed, duplicate existing requirements.

The Minister was loth to respond to my point about fire authorities, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bath for raising it. It is germane to the order because it refers to article 5 in the 1999 order, and it is important that the Minister should address such points. It turns out that the fire authorities have their own independent inspection regimes, so why on earth did the Government load on them this best value regime, which they now appear to have removed in its entirety? The Minister did not respond to that question. This is an indication of the heavy-handed way in which the Government went about the matter, and they are now retracting.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley ask questions of the Minister, and the points were made time and again during the Committee stage of the Local Government Act 1999, but the Government decided to take no notice. Now they are reaping the reward for not listening when they should have done to comments from the Opposition—comments that were not made not for the sake of it, but were, as the Minister knows full well, fed in through the system from local authorities into the debate.

I do not think that the question about article 3(b) and (c) has been answered appropriately. It would appear that there is no diminution of the responsibilities imposed on local authorities because, as the hon. Member for Bath said, in the White Paper it is obvious that some kind of summary report will have to be given on the same issues, so where is the saving? I would be most surprised to see evidence of those changes being widely welcomed by any local authorities, but if the Minister means what he says in telling the Committee that this is the start of a long process of examining best value closely, to respond to the criticisms and hack away some of the overburdening bureaucracy, we will certainly be on his side in future.

No mention has been made of the cost. The Government gave £52 million towards it in 1999 or 2000. However, the Labour-dominated Local Government Association has estimated that the costs are about £175 million. Where is the difference coming from? It is coming from council tax payers' pockets. The burden of the bureaucracy—the Government's burdening of local authorities—ends by taking money from the pockets of council tax payers. It would help them if the Government reduced the burden of that

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£175 million, which has undoubtedly increased dramatically by now.

The Minister was not able to point out any cost savings. If they are there, he never quoted them. If there are any, I would be interested to know about them; perhaps he could write to me on that point. We are keen to see changes to best value. We want to see it eroded and changed dramatically so that the burden is lifted from local authorities. Any change is welcome,

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so we will not divide the Committee today, but we will revisit the issue every time the subject of best value arises.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the Local Government (Best Value) Performance Plans and Reviews Amendment and Specified Dates Order 2002 (S.I. 2002, No. 305).

Committee rose at eight minutes to Six o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Beresford, Sir Paul
Foster, Mr. Don
Godsiff, Mr. Roger
Hepburn, Mr. Stephen
Jones, Mr. Jon Owen
Mahmood, Mr. Khalid
Moss, Mr. Malcolm
Sanders, Mr. Adrian
Savidge, Mr. Malcolm
Watts, Mr. Dave
Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Woolas, Mr. Phil

 
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Prepared 17 April 2002