Examination of Witness (Questions 360
TUESDAY 4 DECEMBER 2001
360. You say "decisions are set out".
Will there be any opportunity for consultation to happen on those
decisions or will they be final?
(Mr Raynsford) As always, decisions are subject to
review, because we publish our provisional assessment, as you
know, and then accept representations on that assessment before
we finalise it. In the case of next year when there will be the
impact of this big review of SSAs, that will clearly be a crucial
opportunity for authorities to see the impact of the new arrangement
on their finances and to make representations. In the current
year, because there are no changes in methodology, we do not see
the need for an extensive programme of representations, but next
year there undoubtedly will be.
361. On the issue of the amount of money that
is raised locally to fund local services, that is currently around
25 per cent, with 75 per cent coming from central government.
The indications from the current Secretary of State are that there
is a desire in Government to bring about a shift in that. Is that
going to be one of the issues that is going to be dealt with in
the White Paper? Are we going to see something quite significant
(Mr Raynsford) We see this as a longer-term measure,
because moving from the current framework to one where a significantly
greater proportion of local revenue was raised locally would have
very significant implications. We believe that should be considered
further, and we will be setting out in the White Paper our proposals
for doing that over the next year or so.
362. Turning to council tax, in March £½
billion had not been collected. Has the situation improved now?
(Mr Raynsford) The percentages in March were up by
about 0.2 of a percentage point above the previous year's both
on councils' collection and the business rate collection, but
there are still a number of authorities that are failing badly.
We have mentioned Hackney earlier where their collection rate
of some 67 per cent is clearly wholly unacceptable and tough action
is required to turn that around, but there are other areas too
where performance could improve.
363. Housing benefit administration has been
a bit of a shambles, has it not?
(Mr Raynsford) It is a difficult issue and one on
which I have spoken frequently to my colleagues in the Department
of Work and Pensions who, of course, have responsibility for that
(Mr Raynsford) They are working on this matter. It
is very much our objective to provide a framework that simplifies
housing benefit, to make it easier to administer and easier for
the public to understand, but it is not easy to do that because
there are direct tensions between achieving a fair system that
reflects the variety of different circumstances and allows people
to get benefit that does reflect their circumstances, as against
a simple system which is easy to administer. There is a tension
between those two. I would not say that the Government believe
we have absolutely got it right, but we are moving towards creating
a simpler, fairer system, and equally we are trying to encourage
improved delivery of service. I have to say, looking at local
authorities, there are some exemplars, there are some that do
an extraordinarily good job, but others find it more difficult.
365. I think you were in the Committee in the
last Parliament when the Deputy Prime Minister described the housing
benefit system as "a shambles". That was about three
years ago. Do you think that really it has improved since then?
(Mr Raynsford) I think there is improvement in certain
areas, but it is not necessarily good enough and there is a good
deal more work needs to be done.
366. How many statutory plans do local authorities
have to produce?
(Mr Raynsford) A very substantial number. In the White
Paper we will set this out. It varies, of course, depending on
the tier of authority, but around 60 to 70 is the overall figure
and we are aiming to reduce that significantly in our proposals
in the White Paper.
367. So it is 60 to 70?
(Mr Raynsford) Yes.
368. Do you think they can have any coherence
(Mr Raynsford) That is one of the reasons we are seeking
to reduce the number, and we will set out our proposals in the
White Paper. The purpose of the plans is self-evidentthat
this is to focus attention on an important service, to ensure
that the authority does act in a way which makes it likely to
meet the objectives of efficient service delivery, but a proliferation
of plans can be an impediment. That is why we are now engaged
in a process of rationalisation and will announce our proposals
in the White Paper.
369. So we are coming down to about 30 plans,
(Mr Raynsford) I am not going to speculate now on
numbers, but we are seeking a significant reduction.
370. Of all the plans that local authorities
submit, how many does your Department actually read?
(Mr Raynsford) I have to say, there is a collective
approach in the Government whereby individual government departments
responsible for particular services take responsibility for looking
at the plans in those areas, so I would expect all the education
plans to be read not by my officials but by officials in the Department
for Education and Skills.
371. How many of those submitted to your Department
are actually read?
(Mr Raynsford) There are a significant number in relation
to our Department. I think I am right in saying that there are
about 17 currently. We hope to reduce those very significantly
indeed, and that will mean less reading for our officials.
372. Turning to safety standards, Minister,
and the Health and Safety Executive, they are much higher in the
railways than in some areas. How are you going to get the Health
and Safety Executive to co-ordinate the standards of other bodies
to ensure that decisions are taken to increase safety in this
area and you do not have a worsening situation?
(Mr Raynsford) We attach considerable importance to
raising health and safety standards, and as a result of the Revitalising
Health and Safety publication which came out a year or so ago
we have set targets for reducing accidents and problems of ill-health,
particularly in those industries where there are the greatest
concentrations of problems. We have identified in particular construction
and agriculture as areas with a particularly unfortunate record
for accidents, and the Health and Safety Executive is focussing
particular energy and attention on those areas. This is very much
a response in relation to the level of risk in particular industries.
In the absence of the Chairman, Mrs Dunwoody
was called to the Chair
373. What progress has been made in establishing
a single transport safety regulator?
(Mr Raynsford) I would have to say that the responsibility
for transport matters lies with other Minister in my Department,
and I cannot comment on that, but we certainly have taken very
careful consideration of the recommendations currently reported,
and I know that it is the intention of the Secretary of State
to seek early legislation to give effect to Lord Cullen's recommendations.
374. Can we turn to the question of local authorities'
structure. Will every local authority be in a position to implement
the new structures by June 2002?
(Mr Raynsford) We have made very good progress. We
have received new constitutional proposals from the overwhelming
majority of local authorities. The timetable is such that we should
certainly meet our target that every local authority should have
reviewed its constitution and put in place appropriate arrangements
by the end of 2002.
375. Of the three models on offer, what proportion
do you think will be chosen of each?
(Mr Raynsford) The very large majority will involve
a leader and cabinet model. We will have a certain number of Mayoral
options. It is difficult to give precise figures at the moment,
because there are some referenda that are pending and other authorities
whose proposals have not yet been fully submitted or have not
been fully considered.
376. Why do you think the first model is so
(Mr Raynsford) I think the answer is that it is probably
the closest to local authorities' existing structures; that the
process of change is quite a painful one, and that people tend
on the whole to favour models that contain familiar elements.
377. You do not think it was an omission not
to give the electors a chance to vote for the status quo? It has
been put to me that many electors would prefer the system to stay
as it was, and then you would have a comparison between the new
system as well as the old one. What was wrong with that?
(Mr Raynsford) The committee system is a system that
has been around for a very considerable length of time. It was
our view that there was a need for modernisation and reform. Far
too much time under the old system was spent in the process of
attending committee meetings; there was not often a clarity about
decision-making, where the public were often left with little
idea as to who was responsible, and where it was possible for
the buck to be passed very easily between different councillors.
378. Could that argument have been put in a
referendum, with people being given the choice as to whether or
not they wanted to keep what you clearly regard as an outmoded
system? They did not get that choice. It has been put to me by
many people that they would prefer, having experienced the new
system, the old system, but that there are very few old systems
around that the new system can really be compared with here.
(Mr Raynsford) I have to say I do not regard the
status quo, if it is not delivering a satisfactory outcome, as
something that should be retained simply because it has been done
for many years in the past. We believe it is right that local
government should be changing its approach to ensure that it is
delivering efficient services, that it is responsive to the public
in this area and that is the whole purpose of the government's
reforms. What we are doing is seeking an element of proper consultation
between all local authorities and their electors before they finalise
arrangements and giving electors the opportunity to have a say.
379. Through a restricted menu?
(Mr Raynsford) From a menu of options which will deliver
efficient services and a proper framework of accountability.