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Lord Whitty: My Lords, as the noble Baronesses have indicated, we have had some discussion that "equity" and "fairness" raised similar issues. I have some sympathy with the aim of the noble Baronesses. But I do not believe that writing "fairness" into the Bill in that form would achieve their aim.
It is important that we have clear duties and that those duties are put in a new context. The best value regime is designed to achieve that. It is also important that those duties are not so diffuse that they mean different things to different people. The noble Baroness is correct to say that the three Es are familiar to local government; and that there is a downside in that they have been familiar in the context of tight budgetary controls and CCT provision. But they are also clear within a regime which intends to take into account broader matters under the best value regime. Those are the guiding principles of delivery of services under the new regime. In so far as there is a downside, we are changing the whole context in which the regime operates, but we retain a degree of clarity.
We tend to go into semantics in these debates! However, fairness can relate to method and outcome. Does one treat people fairly in trying to achieve an objective; or is the objective fair? Those are two different concepts. They are perceived by different groups as being two different things. That is why we believe that fairness must be one aspect of effectiveness. An effective service must meet its objectives and satisfy the various groups' requirements. If services are good for one section of the community and poor for another, common sense dictates that, all other matters being equal, that would be unfair and the service cannot claim to be effective. On the other hand, in some instances all other things are not equal. Therefore if we allocate action and resources on the basis of need, those who receive on the basis of need may consider the system fair; those who have less need may consider the outcome unfair. To introduce "fairness" in this context is a somewhat confusing concept, although the ethos of fairness underlies the whole structure of best value.
The noble Baroness says that one cannot achieve these aims by guidance. But in reality the statutory guidance can relate the operation of those powers to specific outcomes and performance management structures. It also requires people to consult and deal with those groups which are judging whether or not
Best value indicators will include indices of fair access and customer satisfaction. All authorities will need to set clear targets in respect of both those dimensions in key service areas and will be held to account in achieving them by their annual best value performance plans. Detailed guidance will ensure that explicit consideration of fairness is placed at the heart of best value. We shall consult shortly on the draft indicators.
The noble Baroness related this concept to that of well-being. Fairness is one aspect of well-being. Well-being is a wider concept. I indicated in earlier discussions that the overall concept of well-being is not primarily for this legislation, which is about the management of local authorities, but may well arise in subsequent consideration of reform of local authorities. As noble Lords know, we shall have a debate next week to discuss the issue of well-being.
I believe that we have provided a flexible approach to the way in which the performance reviews will be conducted. We have given local authorities the ability to set priorities locally. But we have also made clear that we expect poor performance to be confronted promptly; and the performance framework is designed to assess authorities against common goals in a consistent way. That in itself is an element of assessing fairness.
Best value authorities which fail to apply that concept in a reasonable and fair way would be susceptible to challenge if they did so fail. Indeed, best value auditors and inspectors will be challenging authorities to comply with both the letter and the spirit of the legislation as part of their scrutiny of best value performance plans.
I hope, therefore, that the noble Baroness is reassured that the concept of fairness is central to the issue of best value. But its inclusion as one of the objectives in this clause, as she suggests, would confuse and could give rise to conflict in this area rather than helping to clarify how the best value regime should be delivered.
Again, one aspect of fairness is equality. It is our intention that all these matters should be subject to equality legislation, both current and potential, and that equality issues, whether of gender or race, will be part of the best value regime as well. However, that is not easily written into the Bill at this stage. It is clear that all best value authorities will be subject to those criteria as well.
I hope that our intentions are clear. I hope I have indicated enough to say that adding fairness to the criteria of the three Es would be more confusing than helpful. I hope that my indications of the Government's intention in this area are sufficient to enable the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I thank the Minister for the care he has taken over the reply. I hope that I may pick up the points he made. In doing so, I hope that I shall not sideline any issue of importance.
The noble Lord suggested that the term may be somewhat diffuse, and referred to "well-being". I do not suggest importing well-being. He mentioned that the three Es are familiar in financial regimes and argued that because the regime is changing the application of the three Es will also change. That is my problem. I am concerned that the three Es will not be seen or understood to be changing.
I do not believe that unless an authority articulates one of its objectives as being fairness the term "effectiveness" can apply. In other words, I do not think you can argue backwards from being effective to saying what the objectives should be: you have to sort out the objectives first. My concern is that if an authority does not particularly address itself to fairness it could be effective in achieving its own objectives, with that issue not featuring very highly. That is why I am concerned that one may not get as far as guidance and the performance indicators in the way the Minister mentioned.
He said, too, that sometimes what local authorities do is not equal in the way that different groups of people are treated. I accept that, but I would say that, for instance, it would not be fair if wealthy groups were treated in precisely the same way in certain matters as poorer groups of people. I do not think one would argue that the spread of council tax through bands was not fair. One could argue about the detail of it, but one would not say it was not fair that people who live in band H houses are paying more than those who live in band A houses. I do not accept that point from the Minister. I agree with him that fairness is, to use his words, "central to best value." I accept also that we are very close on the point of principle but I do not agree that including the term would lead to conflict and confusion.
The Minister said that the Government's intentions are clear. I would not wish, having moved this amendment--and I shall in a moment test the opinion of the House--to suggest that the Government do not believe in the importance of the concept. My concern is to get it into legislation and on the face of the Bill. I therefore seek the view of the House on this amendment.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.