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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Jon Owen Jones): I am afraid that I shall have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman. Amendment No. 35 is designed to add an additional factor by which a best value authority could satisfy the Secretary of State that it should not carry out a best value review of its functions.

Hon. Members will be aware that one of the fundamental requirements of the duty of best value is that authorities will have to carry out fundamental performance reviews of all their functions over a period, probably five years, so that we ensure that continuous improvements are made to all services, not just to those where there are serious shortcomings. That should apply to all local authorities across the board, so that a proper comparison of performance is made between authorities on a common basis. Neither local people nor the Government would be prepared to accept any exceptions.

The amendment has the potential to create a bureaucratic machinery for the Secretary of State, who would need to evaluate all cases made by local authorities, to satisfy himself that the reasons given for not carrying out the review were valid. We could not rule out some local authorities using that as a means of delaying or avoiding reviews, at least in the short term. That would be unacceptable to all concerned, not least to the local community, who would lose out.

Amendment No. 65 would remove the flexibility and discretion that the Secretary of State needs to specify functions to be reviewed in specified financial years, as circumstances may warrant. If, for instance, a local authority should try to delay or avoid conducting the reviews of some of its services, or should face some particular crisis in the way that it provides its services, it is essential for the Secretary of State to have powers to direct the local authority to carry out those services quickly and effectively. It would be the local communities who would be most disadvantaged if the amendment were allowed to stand.

Amendments Nos. 37 and 38 relate to the costs of best value performance reviews and local performance plans. The amendments recognise that some compliance costs are likely to be involved in best value reviews and local performance plans. However, the drive for continuous improvement will deliver efficiency gains of around 2 per cent, which would far outweigh those costs.

I have been asked to comment particularly on amendment No. 94, which would add to the work of the auditor in his audit of performance plans. In auditing a performance plan, the auditor is required to state whether the plan has been prepared and published in accordance with legislation and guidance.

Clause 6 sets out clearly that, in preparing plans, authorities must summarise their past performance with regard to performance indicators; compare their performance with previous financial years; summarise their success in meeting performance standards; and summarise their progress towards performance targets.

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An authority that has met the requirements of the Bill will have indicated the financial savings and the quality improvements that it achieved as a result of past plans, and those delivered by current plans. If the auditor is prepared to state that the plan has been prepared in such a way that it meets the requirements of clause 6, he will have ensured, by default, that financial savings and quality improvements are indicated.

The amendments are, therefore, unnecessary and I ask hon. Members to withdraw them.

Mr. Jenkin: I am not entirely convinced that amendment No. 94 does not add anything to the Bill. By specifying that savings might be made, it might encourage best value performance plans to produce savings, which would improve value for money--or best value, as the Minister prefers to call it. However, in the interests of brevity, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave withdrawn.

Mr. Jenkin: I beg to move amendment No. 68, in page 4, line 29, leave out from 'other' to end of line 30 and insert 'parties'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 69, in page 4, line 31, leave out from 'other' to 'about' in line 32 and insert 'parties'.

Mr. Jenkin: The amendments refer to clause 5, under which best value authorities must conduct best value reviews, and subsection (4) under which


The order that the Secretary of State may draw up must include the requirement to assess the competitiveness of performance against various other parties. Those parties are specified in the Bill as


    "other best value authorities and commercial and other businesses".

We suggest that an authority's performance should be measured against that of other parties, without those being specified. Similarly, in clause 5(4)(f), which sets out the obligation


    "to consult other best value authorities and commercial and other businesses",

we believe that the word "parties" should replace the word "businesses". I should be grateful for the right hon. Lady's comments.

Ms Armstrong: Amendments Nos. 68 and 69 betray a misunderstanding by Opposition Members. It was never our intention to make an exhaustive list of all the bodies that the Secretary of State may require best value authorities to consult, or against which they should assess their competitiveness. Any future order may go wider if there is a case for it to do so. However, to be useful and sensible, consultation must be meaningful. It may not be appropriate for it to include a wide range of bodies. There needs to be a link to those that can most usefully assist best value authorities in discharging the general duty.

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In clause 5(4)(e) and (f) we have listed the most obvious bodies against which a best value authority should compare its performance in exercising a function. Naturally, those bodies are other best value authorities and private sector bodies. Best value authorities should consult with such bodies and make comparisons in respect of their competitiveness.

It is difficult to see how the current description omits anything of substance. The term "parties", which is the subject of the amendment and a substitute for our definition, defines nothing in particular. I am told that it is not helpful in achieving what the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) is looking for. Using that term could send the wrong message about the breadth of consultation and mean that the essential link to those who can input most value to the process is lost.

The House will remember that, yesterday, hon. Members pressed the point that consultation, if undertaken too loosely, could be expensive. We are concerned that the consultation should be appropriate and that the authority should consult the appropriate people--those who need to be consulted--during the process. It is important that we restrict the duty to such people.

We would expect the existing definition to cover organisations such as chambers of commerce, about which the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) was concerned.

It being five hours after the commencement of proceedings, Mr. Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Order [24 March], put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Deputy Speaker then put the remaining Questions required to be put at that hour.

Clause 9

Response to audit


Amendments made: No. 16, in page 7, line 40, leave out 'as soon as practicable'.
No. 17, in page 7, line 42, at end insert--
'( ) A statement required by subsection (3) shall be prepared--
(a) before the end of the period of 30 working days starting with the day on which the authority receives the report, or
(b) if the report specifies a shorter period starting with that day, before the end of that period.'.
No. 18, in page 8, line 5, leave out 'as soon as practicable' and insert--
'(a) before the end of the period of 30 working days starting with the day on which the authority receives the report, or
(b) if the report specifies a shorter period starting with that day, before the end of that period.
( ) For the purposes of this section a working day is a day other than--
(a) a Saturday or a Sunday,
(b) Christmas Day or Good Friday, or
(c) a day which is a bank holiday under the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971 in England and Wales.'.--[Mr. Meale.]

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Clause 13

Reports


Amendment made: No. 7, in page 9, line 26, at end insert
', and--
(b) may publish a report and any information in respect of a report.'.--[Mr. Meale.]

Clause 18

Contracts: exclusion of non-commercial considerations


Amendments made: No. 8, in page 12, line 17, at end insert--
'( ) provide for a matter to cease to be a non-commercial matter for specified purposes or to a specified extent;'.
No. 9, in page 12, line 25, leave out
', by virtue of an order under this section, not a non-commercial matter,'
and insert
'the subject of an order under this section'.--[Mr. Meale.]

Clause 21

Audit Commission


Amendments made: No. 19, in page 13, line 12, at end insert--
'( ) The Audit Commission may delegate any of its functions under this Part to--
(a) a committee or sub-committee established by the Commission (including a committee or sub-committee including persons who are not members of the Commission), or
(b) an officer or servant of the Commission.'.
No. 20, in page 13, line 29, at end insert--
'( ) After section 75(1)(e) of the Housing Associations Act 1985 (Housing Corporation and, in relation to Wales, Secretary of State: general functions) there shall be added--
"(f) to provide on request, to such extent as the Relevant Authority considers appropriate, advice and assistance to the Audit Commission for Local Authorities and the National Health Service in England and Wales in relation to the Commission's functions under Part I of the Local Government Act 1999 (best value)."
( ) The Audit Commission may make payments to the Housing Corporation or the Secretary of State in respect of advice and assistance provided under section 75(1)(f) of the Housing Associations Act 1985.'.--[Mr. Meale.]

Clause 24

Guidance


Amendments made: No. 21, in page 14, line 38, after first 'to' insert 'or in respect of'.
No. 22, in page 14, line 38, after second 'to' insert 'or in respect of'.
No. 23, in page 14, line 40, after 'to' insert 'or in respect of'.
No. 24, in page 15, line 4, at end insert--
'( ) Before issuing guidance under section (Coordination of inspections, &c.) the Secretary of State shall, in addition to the consultation required by subsection (2)(c) above, consult the persons or bodies concerned.'.--[Mr. Meale.]

24 Mar 1999 : Column 478

Clause 25

Commencement


Amendment made: No. 10, in page 15, line 5, leave out '18 and 21' and insert
'19 and 21 to 24'.--[Mr. Meale.]

Clause 26

Order


Amendments made: No. 11, in page 15, line 16, after 'order', insert 'or regulations'.
No. 25, in page 15, line 20, leave out 'or 7' and insert
', 7 or (Coordination of inspections, &c.), and regulations under section 22,'.--[Mr. Meale.]

Clause 31

Finance


Amendment made: No. 12, in page 17, line 33, at end insert--
'( ) The Secretary of State may make grants to the Audit Commission, out of money provided by Parliament, in respect of expenditure incurred or to be incurred by the Commission under this Act.
( ) The National Assembly for Wales may make grants to the Audit Commission in respect of expenditure incurred or to be incurred by the Commission under this Act.'.--[Mr. Meale.]
Bill reported, with amendments.
Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to the Order [24 March], That the Bill be now read the Third time.--[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

The House divided: Ayes 319, Noes 170.


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