Draft Local Government Best Value (Exclusion of Non-Commerical Considerations) Order 2001

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Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan): How many chief executives do they have?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I mean one of the directors. The council has one chief executive and only three directors, because it is well run and efficient. The chairman and one of the members of the committee that supervises the search department will also be involved in the investigation.

Two people from the best value directorate, three people from the council and two councillors will be involved. Those seven people will be tied up on an investigation of a tiny department that has a budget of only £80,000. That is bureaucracy gone utterly mad. I doubt whether more than a few hundred pounds, let alone thousands, can be saved from such a small budget, yet I would not be surprised if it cost £10,000. We shall be spending more on the best value initiative than could possibly be saved by making the council more efficient.

Mr. Waterson: My hon. Friend has shocked all Committee members with that vignette from the best value system. Is he aware that there is talk in the accountancy world—a concept with which to grapple in itself—of a national shortage of auditors, in large measure because of the audit culture that is developing under this Government?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: There has to be a balance between auditing and checking for improvements and efficiency—no one is against that. As a former member of the Public Accounts Committee, I know that the National Audit Office calculates a seven times ratio for operational costs and savings made, which is eminently sensible. I do not know whether the Audit Commission has a similar arrangement, but to judge by the way in which matters are progressing, the ratio seems to be the other way around: the best value initiative will cost seven times the amount that it will save.

Mr. Don Foster: I listened to the hon. Gentleman with interest and, like other members of the Committee I am taken aback, to say the least, by the example that he gave. Does he believe that this order—I presume that his remarks relate to it—will increase bureaucracy, or does he believe—as I do—that it is a permissive order that will give local authorities greater freedom in determining contract specification? He implies that it will add to the bureaucratic burden, but in fact it will ease the burden on local authorities and give them greater flexibility.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am not surprised to hear what the hon. Gentleman, as a member of the Liberal Democrat party, says. He made it clear in his opening speech that he welcomes every word in the order. I become worried when I read that certain matters ``may not'' be considered by councils, because that implies that other matters may be considered.

Mr. Foster: I, too, become concerned when I read that certain matters may not be considered. However, does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the 1988 legislation was prohibitive and that this order will remove some of those prohibitions? A Conservative Government established that certain matters could not be considered.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, although I was expecting the Minister to point that out. There is no doubt that an original idea has been hijacked and made more bureaucratic. It is necessary to rein it in, but it will take a little time to find out whether the order will achieve that. My suspicion is that an order that refers to ``matters that may not'' be considered will prompt many local government civil servants to say, ``Aha! This gives us a remit to do all sorts of things that we had not thought about.''

Under this best value initiative, those who make planning applications will have to fill in a huge form explaining their ethnic origins—not in generic but in precise terms. What on earth a planning application has to do with one's ethnic origin I cannot imagine.

Mr. Waterson rose—

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I just want to finish this point. I refer members of the Committee to paragraph 46—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful for your protection, Mr. Maxton. [Laughter.] I detect a certain levity in this Committee and I cannot understand why. These seem to me to be perfectly good, serious points. I would have thought that all hon. Members present would be grossly concerned to discover that the Government have tabled legislation that will increase costs to council tax payers in their constituencies. This year's increases in council tax will present a huge problem and I suspect that the Government are extremely worried about that. The best value initiative is one reason why council tax will increase, which may well be exacerbated by the order. I do not know why members of the Committee are treating that matter with such levity.

Anyone who submits a planning application to a local authority must complete a detailed form about his or her ethnic origin.

Mr. Waterson: I am sure that the levity to which my hon. Friend referred is explicable by some of us having escaped, albeit briefly, from the Standing Committee on the Homes Bill.

In line with his earlier remarks, when one is fortunate enough to visit one of our four excellent theatres in Eastbourne, one is asked to fill out a form to describe the experience that includes a question about one's ethnic origin. Does my hon. Friend find that equally bizarre?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I agree with my hon. Friend that that is another example of the Government's creeping political correctness.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: No, I want to complete my argument, which I have tried to finish twice, about planning applications and the need to complete a detailed form on ethnic origin. Clearly, that type of unnecessary adornment of necessary regulations will continue. I refer the Committee to paragraph 46, which contains the type of creeping bureaucracy that I described earlier. It states what councils may not do, and I assume that that will encourage civil servants to find things that they may do. In terms of ethnicity in planning applications, paragraph 46 states:

    Six approved questions were set out in Department of the Environment Circular 8/88. Authorities will continue to be able to ask the six questions specified in Circular 8/88 although they are no longer restricted to these six questions as the sole means of taking account of racial equality.

That gives a green light to every local authority civil servant to ask as many questions on as many forms as they like.

We must stop this creeping bureaucracy, but I do not know how we shall do it. Perhaps if we have fewer civil servants sitting in less heated offices they will think up less bureaucratic schemes. It is the real people in the real world who must pay council tax to fund those schemes. We cannot go on doing this, whether we have this Government or any other Government. The citizens of Britain must say, ``Enough form filling is enough. Let us go out in the world to do a real job of work, and stop the bureaucracy.''

Mr. Simpson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene on that point. Will he concede that one reason why local authorities have not complained is that the nature of the questions has allowed them to deal with serious allegations about de facto racial discrimination in the delivery of services? Following the introduction of the Race Relations Act 1976, every Government have stressed to local authorities that their duty is not only to deliver equality in access to public services, but to demonstrate that they are doing so. The underlying reason why local authorities have been keen to have a clear referencing process is that, in the event of a complaint that services are unavailable to specific ethnic groups, they will be in a position to demonstrate whether that is borne out by the evidence. Far from being an unnecessary burden, the process is an effective protection for local authorities that allows them to demonstrate that discrimination is not taking place.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful for that constructive and serious intervention from the hon. Gentleman. The solution to the problem that he outlines is to give local authorities general powers to do the work necessary in their area—and I stress in their area—when they think that they have a problem with racial discrimination, not to impose the powers on an authority such as mine, which hardly includes any ethnic groups and is extremely efficient anyway.

If the chief executive of an authority such as mine received a complaint from a Member of Parliament, or through the Commission for Racial Equality, or by any other method, he would be asked to undertake an examination in the first instance. If the examination were deemed unacceptable—insufficiently thorough or rigorous—the complainant could take his case to the local government ombudsman. That is the way to proceed.

The problem in this country is that we want to regulate for every eventuality. We must stop doing that, whether it is in tax, local authority law, or wherever. The Government are not doing that. Previous Conservative Governments were culpable in that respect too. That is a culture change that this place, our Ministers, our Government, and our civil servants have to make to their mind set. How much legislation civil servants produce is not a manifestation of how efficient they are. The efficiency of the civil service should be measured on how little legislation they produce, as long as that is compatible with local authorities and central government being effective and protecting taxpayers' funds. That is how we should measure the effectiveness of what we do.

The same message—with a vengeance—must be got across to the European Community. We find in the regulations that we are hampered in our legislation by the public procurement policies of the European Union. That is an additional complication with which we must start to deal. We must get the message across to the European Union that it too must issue regulations and directives only where strictly necessary and refrain from legislation that covers every eventuality in all the 15 countries, which otherwise becomes so complicated and burdensome.

I ask the Minister—and the civil servants—why not adopt our idea on EU regulations and directives and implement them only at the rate of the slowest EU country? In other words, we would not adopt any EU regulation until, for example, Greece—if it is the slowest member—had adopted it.

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Prepared 17 January 2001