Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)|
MONDAY 8 JULY 2002
60. If you have absolute transparency does that
not make it easier for authorities to manipulate the results so
that you get a good result rather than perhaps reflect reality?
(Cllr Bruce-Lockhart) No, I do not think so. I think
the key issue is about transparency and therefore having credibility
within local authorities. I think anyone who is inspected will
do their best, so I think that will apply anyway.
61. Do you know in Kent how much all this inspection
(Cllr Bruce-Lockhart) Much too much. That is why I
started off by saying that local government is in favour of total
deregulation, including the 66 plans, including the variety of
Government guidance and the inspection systems as well. Mr Kinghan
may know the figure, the Audit Commission, over £100 million?
Chairman: I was just after Kent. I was wondering
whether you could have told me what you thought it really cost
in Kent, including officer time, and then given us an example
of what you could have provided with that money in Kent.
62. Over to the brave new world of total deregulation.
You do not like the rules on trading and charging altogether,
do you, you would like to see further deregulation there. What
kind of changes would you like to see? Trading and charging seem
to be too restrictive.
(Mr Kinghan) Our main point here is we are concerned
about the procedures that some of the changes may have to go through.
The super-affirmative procedure, which I will not pretend to understand
in great detail, appears to take almost as long as primary legislation
and if the intention is to provide for a simpler system of deregulation
then something simpler than that would be desirable.
63. There must be some regulation.
(Mr Kinghan) I think we would accept that Parliament
will want to approve changes that are made. This procedureI
am sure you know more about it than I dodoes apparently
take nine months and that is a long time to make change if there
is a regulation which could be made relatively simply. There are
quite a lot of areas where local authorities are restricted in
their ability to charge at the moment. We have a list, which I
could make available to the Committee if that would be helpful,
which we think it would be helpful for local authorities to be
able to make charges for. I quite see that Parliament would want
to approve where those areas were to make sure that there were
not things you did not approve of, we just think the procedures
being proposed here are more cumbersome than they need to be.
64. Okay. At the risk of sewing discord between
the two of you, I think you have got different views on whether
or not elected members should be given voting rights on scrutiny
and review committees, is that correct? Would you like to enlarge
on that? Harmoniously.
(Cllr Bruce-Lockhart) I think the view of the LGA
is broadly in favour. Speaking personally, I think that the accountability
should be the democratic accountability and therefore I think
it is probably not helpful, therefore I think I differ from the
Local Government Association speaking for myself.
65. So basically you think if you have knocked
on all the doors then you should have more rights than people
who have just turned up?
(Cllr Bruce-Lockhart) No, I am saying if you are scrutinising,
let us say you are scrutinising the NHS which is one of the new
powers given to local authorities, then I think it is right that
you are democratically elected, it is a very important role. That
does not mean that you do not have other people on the committee
and listen to their advice.
66. That is a very encouraging ringing endorsement
for democracy. Can we now go on to the subject of the polls. You
are allowed to conduct polls on financial matters but on very
little else. Do you wish to see that power extended? If you do
not, why would you not?
(Cllr Bruce-Lockhart) I think that whole clause is
confusing because quite a number of authorities have already gone
down the road of having referendums on financial issues, council
tax, options, so I think there is a question about how far the
Bill needs to go. If a local authority wants to have a referendum
I think it should be allowed to do so.
67. A general power?
(Cllr Bruce-Lockhart) Yes.
68. There was one issue in the previous conversation
that still worries me. To what extent do you think the new freedoms
on the ability to borrow will affect the use of PFI in local government?
Do you feel in the end you will get back to Government getting
its own way through the back door by saying "you can build
a new school by borrowing, you can build it by PFI, but the preferred
option is PFI"?
(Cllr Bruce-Lockhart) I think that PFI, although it
seemed a good idea in the first place, is immensely slow. It takes
at least three years to get a PFI scheme together. It is an immensely
bureaucratic and costly process for the local authority. There
may be some advantages for the Government in that it does not
feature, I believe, in the general public sector borrowing requirement
but, from the local authority point of view, it would be much
better to have prudential borrowing. Having said that, when we
talk about prudential borrowing taking over from PFI and other
forms, we would not want to see the present amount of capital
grant reduced. Prudential borrowing would have to be an increase,
we would not like to see prudential borrowing increased which
capital grant is decreased.
69. Is not the danger you are going to have
freedom to decide how you want to pursue the capital side of these
ventures but the grant which goes with it will be tied to particular
forms of capital arrangements and the freedom will not be there?
(Mr Kinghan) On the specific question of whether it
will make much difference to the PFI, I think we are not clear
is the honest answer. In due course we will need to see how much
freedomgoing back to our earlier discussionreally
does come with the prudential system. If, contrary to Sir Paul
Beresford's view, there is rather more freedom to borrow as a
result and local authorities are able to use that in a way which
begins to satisfy the sort of local needs that Sandy referred
to earlier, then perhaps over time the PFI will reduce. Certainly
it is the case that if the Government carries on funding PFI schemes
then that will in itself provide an incentive for authorities
to use them. Sandy said, also, it is pretty cumbersome at the
moment and if authorities have a route which they see is simpler
and is not as constrained as some members fear it might be then
actually over time that may change.
70. You welcomed the freedom and flexibility
promised to local government in the White Paper. What would you
like to see changed in this draft Bill to bring about that freedom
(Cllr Bruce-Lockhart) I think the plan side is extremely
important. There are 66 plans which local authorities have to
complete at the moment which are immensely time consuming and
become immensely bureaucratic. Reducing those down from 66, some
pilots are going ahead to reduce those just down to three but
certainly reducing those down to less than ten I think would be
Sir Paul Beresford
71. What about best value, could that be streamlined?
(Cllr Bruce-Lockhart) It could certainly. I think
most local authorities feel that best value has become extremely
bureaucratic. Probably most successful local authorities in any
case were conducting what many of them called 20 per cent reviews,
simply as a normal course of practice. Having a regulatory regime
which forces you to do that I do not think personally has added
a great deal.
72. What about spending priorities? Does local
government have enough freedom to set its own spending priorities?
(Cllr Bruce-Lockhart) I think that comes back to the
issue of specific grant. Specific grant has increased from four
per cent five years ago to 14 per cent at least now and one of
the most important things we would want to see is that reduced
right back down to four per cent or so. That allows you to put
forward local priorities.
(Mr Kinghan) That does not require legislation, of
course. On the whole the increases in specific grant have come
about as a result of the Government choosing to do things differently
rather than legislating. What we have suggested is that one of
the outcomes of the spending review, which will be announced we
understand next week, ought to be a commitment on the Government's
part to reduce specific grants or ring fencing, as Sandy said,
back to where they were when they took office.
73. How important is it that an amended Local
Government Bill becomes law? Does it matter?
(Cllr Bruce-Lockhart) Yes, I think it does. I think
things such as prudential borrowing and other freedoms and flexibilities,
if this is, as the Government says, as the White Paper introduction
says, about decentralisation and deregulation and giving freedom,
and against a background of greater trust between Central Government
and local government, then it is a step in the right direction.
74. Is it urgent that the change happens?
(Cllr Bruce-Lockhart) Indeed because I think it is
right back to where I started, if you want to improve public services
and increase local democracy then that deregulation and decentralisation
must take place.
75. How soon do you need it to be on the Statute
Book to affect spending in 2003?
(Cllr Bruce-Lockhart) I think it would be helpful.
No, it is unlikely to be there in time, is it not.
(Mr Kinghan) It is not for us to determine the Queen's
Speech obviously. If the Government is not going to introduce
the Bill until the next session of Parliament, which is, we understand,
what they intend, then I think it will be well nigh impossible
for it to affect the financial year 2003-04 because it probably
will not even be law by then. We said last year that we would
have liked these provisions, or at least the ones we like out
of these provisions, to be part of the legislative programme in
the present session, in which case it could have been in place
76. As I understand part of the argument that
is going on in Government is that there is a possibility of it
being the first Bill in the Queen's Speech, if there is not too
much that is controversial in it, it could be in place to affect
the spending for 2003-04. So that means you have to have a fairly
simple Bill without too much controversy in it. The alternative
is that you have a bonfire of regulations, you have a whole series
of other measures in it, the Bill expands and the opportunities
to get it for April 2003 disappear. Which is better to get a big
Bill that solves a lot of your problems or this relatively minor
Bill through quickly?
(Cllr Bruce-Lockhart) If you are asking whether we
need a greater move towards deregulation and decentralisation
then the answer is yes we do. We would like, certainly, to see
the Bill going further than it is going now.
77. Yes. That might mean then that you do not
get it for April 2003, is that a price worth paying?
(Cllr Bruce-Lockhart) I think you are asking whether
a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush really.
78. I am.
(Cllr Bruce-Lockhart) I think that is hard to judge.
If you were confident that greater freedoms are going to come
forward then it would be worth waiting for.
79. I believe that this Bill is a Bill of such
magnitude, the likes of which perhaps we have not seen since 1974.
I cannot recall in my time in Parliament such a far reaching Bill
in its effects upon local government. Is there any reason why
the Local Government Association has not submitted evidence or
suggestions in relation to the local councillors' allowances,
their severance pay or indeed pension provisions?
(Cllr Bruce-Lockhart) I thought they were largely
dealt with in the Local Government Act 2000, perhaps I am wrong.
(Mr Kinghan) I am not an expert on those issues. I
think our approach has been to argue that a Bill of this kind
should be introduced as soon as possible. Going back to the questions
the Chairman was just asking, there is always a balance between
how much you try and add to a Bill and whether or not you try
and get it through quickly. There are a number of things we would
like to see in the Bill