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Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 7:

Page 2, line 40, leave out subsection (5)

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 7 seeks to delete from the Bill Clause 2(5). This is a provision to which reference has already been made this afternoon in connection with the de minimis provisions which were the subject of the first amendment.

I have tabled this amendment in order to ask the Minister to give us some explanation of the basis on which individual authorities may be exempt from the provisions we are discussing, and to explain to us which authorities comprise authorities of a particular description. The term "description" seems to me to be quite wide. I am aware that there are provisions in the Bill to deal with authorities which fall within particular categories. Amendments which we shall discuss later seek to insert the word "category" at a number of points in the Bill. However, the word "description" to my mind seems to imply something more than a category. I take an absurd example; namely, that authorities which are on sufficiently obsequious terms with the Secretary of State may fall within a particular description. I hardly believe that the Government intend that that is the standard to be aimed for. However, the matter is not clear from the way in which this provision is drafted.

I have made this point frivolously but there is a serious point behind it; namely, there is a natural anxiety within local government that we may be moving towards a premier league and other divisions of local authorities. Beacon councils which wish understandably to be given the opportunity to show what good local government can do could too easily fall into what I have described as the premier league in terms of favourable treatment. This is a move which has to be viewed with considerable care and sensitivity. I do not suggest that particular authorities should be reined back; quite the contrary. However, I express the concern that those authorities which have not managed early on to achieve the high standard that we hope to see right across local government may be treated less favourably. Therefore I hope that the Minister can explain what is intended by this subsection. Will it allow exemption in respect of specified functions, which seems to be what is intended? I find that a little puzzling as it appears to allow preferential treatment. In terms of providing for best value that seems a little odd as those which achieve a high standard should not have a problem with the best value duty. I beg to move.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I hope to be able to reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, on one point at least. I have met few people in my political career who would recognise, and not have high regard for, obsequiousness more readily than my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister. By removing Clause 2(5), Amendment No. 7 would remove the capacity within the Bill to allow the Secretary of State to vary the duty of best value in respect of individual authorities and categories of authority.

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I must make it quite clear that the Government's intention is that the duty of best value will in general apply to all local authority functions. Clause 2(5) does not detract from that general principle. However we believe that it is important that the duty can be applied in an appropriate and sensible fashion and not as a straitjacket. This means that, if necessary, it should be possible to make different arrangements to reflect different circumstances. The point is that the full duty of best value may prove to be too onerous or impractical in certain circumstances. For example, it might be sensible to make different arrangements in respect of certain services provided by town and parish councils or the emergency planning functions of other authorities. Clause 2(5) allows us to deal with such cases in a flexible and appropriate manner; for example, to set a threshold so that the framework takes account of the circumstances of the smaller town and parish councils. I hope that this reassurance is satisfactory and that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Hamwee: Can the Minister answer the short and direct point as to whether there is a difference between the term best value authorities "of a description specified" and best value authorities falling within a particular category?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I understand that it covers both. If one looks at the issue of functions and types of authorities providing those functions--for example, emergency planning functions--that would apply to categories of authorities as well as to their functions, and to individual authorities in the example of the very small parish councils.

Baroness Hamwee: I shall read that reply carefully. I do not believe I am convinced that it need be a different term in this clause from terminology we may want to use later, and which I have heard the Minister use on other occasions outside this Committee.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: It covers both. A description may be of a particular category of authority. I do not know whether that is helpful.

Baroness Hamwee: I shall think about that. Certainly, at this stage I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 7 not moved.]

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clause 3 [The general duty]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 8:

Page 3, line 6, leave out ("and")

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 7, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 9, 11, 12, 30, 31, 40 and 41. I can deal with Amendments Nos. 30, 31, 40 and 41 quickly by saying that they are consequential on the earlier amendments in the group. Amendment No. 9 is the first substantive amendment in the group. It seeks to add to the list in Clause 3(1) of the matters to which best value authorities must have

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regard. The clause as drafted provides for authorities to have regard to a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness. Those three "Es" which I said at Second Reading had a slightly 1980s ring about them, are important and remain important. However, I do not believe that they cover everything.

In particular, I do not believe that they necessarily preclude inequality of access-- access to services, for instance, because of the distance which the user may have to travel, or inequality of access because of disability on the part of the user. The term "effectiveness" should include and require an equitable approach, but I am not confident that that is how it would be interpreted. What is the harm in including equity? I would not even propose that it takes priority over economy, efficiency and effectiveness, but simply that best value authorities should have regard to it in combination with those other matters.

Amendments Nos. 11 and 12 refer to other best value criteria. The Government will be giving guidance, and the economy, efficiency and effectiveness criteria relate to financial performance. I am therefore concerned to be assured that guidance on other matters--sustainability, for instance, which is dealt with in a subsequent amendment, innovation and so on--can over-ride or even be given equal status with economy, efficiency and effectiveness. Will a court be able to have regard to equity--if equity is a criterion included in guidance--if there is a challenge, perhaps, by a group of council ratepayers who are concerned only with the rigour of value for money in its narrowest sense?

In another place, the Minister said that it is not the responsibility of national government to define everything that local government should do and to legislate for that. She said that is why we argue for flexibility. Amendment No. 11 is intended to allow for that flexibility. I have mentioned sustainability and I have also mentioned innovation, and this is perhaps the moment to pay tribute to the group of authorities in East Sussex. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, is here, because what they have been doing in connection with council tax collection is innovative; it is precisely what the Government want to encourage and what many of us would like to see.

Amendment No. 12 is almost consequential because it is so obvious. It provides that,

    "Before specifying matters which are to be permitted pursuant to subsection (1) the Secretary of State shall consult", in the terminology that legislation uses,

    "such persons as he thinks fit". That is on the basis that Secretaries of State always have a sensible idea of whom it is fit to consult. Consultation would be a prerequisite. I beg to move.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: These amendments go to the heart of what takes this Bill beyond simply being a replacement for CCT and indicate where we should be in examining best value. This weekend, I was interested to read Pollution Injustice by the Friends of the Earth, which makes the point about the links between economic development,

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social exclusion and environmental quality. It makes the point that you cannot categorise services, one from another. Certainly, all of those authorities which have worked on issues such as social exclusion, see that the measure of equity is very crucial. If the Bill goes through without these amendments, we will find that local authorities are forced into a position where they will follow the effectiveness and economic route as regards, for example, the question of equity.

Working on matters of social exclusion frequently means that you need to take a long-term approach. It frequently means that councils which were taking a very conscientious line in this would probably fail to reach some of the national performance indicators which were taking only the first of the three "Es" into account. The amendment to include equity in Clause 3 and in the performance indicators is crucial. I cannot conceive of performance indicators that will move the way that local authorities deliver their services onwards excluding something as basic as equity. That is one of the reasons why for too long we have had ghettos of inequality.

One of the points missed in the Bill is that as one has a bigger duty to consult people it becomes more crucial that those who are able to respond to consultation--middle-class people with word processors and those who are happy standing up in public and responding to questions that councils ask--will always be at the forefront of those consulted. Now a duty of equity puts a duty more plainly on the councils to make sure that they are consulting the people who are rarely heard.

Although I am sure the Minister will say that this will be addressed in guidance, it is not nearly a strong enough message. I believe that the amendments bring the Bill much more in line with what the Government were hoping for when they published In Touch with the People.

I should very much like to see those words included in both places. I cannot believe that we can move towards what we are calling "best value" while excluding such a basic idea as equity.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Tanworth: I, too, would have liked to see the words relating to equity and sustainable development included on the face of the Bill. However, if the Government intend to maintain the position that they should not be, will the Minister tell us when the guidance on that question will be available? It raises those questions which the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has raised about the relative priorities of the different objectives. Before the Bill completes its stages it would be helpful to see what guidance is being produced.

I hope that it is appropriate to raise an issue in respect of Clause 3 which has been omitted. Clause 3 relates to making arrangements to secure continuous improvement in the way in which local authorities' functions are exercised, and it refers to their current functions. Your Lordships will remember that in the In Touch with the People White Paper it was said that the Government proposed to introduce a new duty to promote the

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wellbeing of the community. That does not figure in the Bill and it is regrettable because, as paragraph 8.9 of the White Paper said,

    "This new duty will provide an over-arching framework for local government".

I have tabled an Unstarred Question, which I hope will be debated before the end of June or early July, and it may be that the Minister can add nothing at this stage. The proposed new duty does seem to me extremely relevant to best value legislation and it should form a central part of it. I hope that at some stage before the present Bill has completed its passage through the House we shall know a little more clearly what the Government's intentions are about the new duty.

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