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

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Ms Beverley Hughes: Come on!

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Why not? If they are not considered necessary, why adopt some directives and regulations?

Ms Hughes: Why not?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister says, `Why not?' We are getting too much bureaucracy in this country, which is putting our people out of business, making our businesses less competitive and making ordinary people's lives more difficult.

Mr. Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is beginning to drift a little from the regulations.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to you, Mr. Maxton. The Minister wished to intervene, I think.

Ms Hughes: I simply want to reinforce what the hon. Member for Bath said and to ask the hon. Gentleman whether he believes that the order will eventually be a de-regulatory measure.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: As I made clear several minutes ago to the hon. Member for Bath, I do not know whether it is. The Minister tells us that it is a de-regulatory measure. I accept that on face value at the moment, but I suspect that it is not. As with so many things the Government do, it proves that there are unexpected consequences when they begin to interfere with something that is not working well already. My examples demonstrated clearly why the best value initiative is going awry. The initiative is good in principle, but a thorough examination should be made to find out where it can be improved as a whole rather than tinkering with bits of it.

I refer the Minister to the final line of the explanatory note. Why does the order apply to all best value authorities in England and to police and fire authorities in Wales? I am sure that there is a good reason. Perhaps, the Minister will tell us. To which authorities does the best value initiative apply? I should know the answer to that question, but I do not.

I am sorry to have tried your patience, Mr. Maxton. I think that, increasingly, the problem that I have described will be seen to require the attention of Ministers and civil servants, under both the present Government and the Conservative Government who will take office after the general election.

5.35 pm

Ms Hughes: I should begin by apologising. It is unacceptable that hon. Members have not received a complete copy of the draft circular. It may not help to know this, but paragraph 50 continues for only a few more sentences. However, hon. Members appear not to have received part IV, which makes the links between the order and other guidance, on fair employment. I made every effort to ensure the distribution of documentation. I stopped short of making photocopies myself and putting them in the pigeon holes, but I gave the instruction. I hope that the hon. Member for Cotswold was not questioning the sincerity of my comments when he said that if the material had been sent he would have received it by now. I assure him that, whatever has happened to it, and albeit that it is incomplete, it was sent. My instructions were that the material should be placed on the board for Members on Monday. We decided not to put it there at the end of last week in case, as the hon. Gentleman says, the board should be cleared and the documents sent to hon. Members' constituency offices. I know how annoying that is, so the material was put on the board early on Monday. I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman did not receive it. I shall investigate the matter of incomplete documents.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will the Minister give way?

Ms Hughes: In a moment. I just want to finish my point.

I accept that the benefit of receiving something in advance is weakened if the whole document is not received.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I was in no way impugning the Minister's personal sincerity in the matter. I have no doubt that, somewhere along the line, her instructions have been mystified.

Ms Hughes: I thank the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Don Foster: Perhaps I may suggest the cause of what has happened. It has happened to me. A member of my staff who opened my post took one look at the document, thought that it looked so boring and complicated that I would not be interested in it and put it in a separate box. It was only later this afternoon that I came upon it. Perhaps the same attitude to such documents can be found among the hon. Gentleman's staff.

Ms Hughes: That might be an explanation.

Having dealt with those problems, I can deal with the meat of hon. Members' arguments. Instead of dealing with the point of the order, both Conservative Members launched another attack on best value. I have several times told the hon. Member for Eastbourne that, every time they speak along those lines, they demonstrate that they have not understood. Best value is not the daughter of CCT. It is nothing like CCT. It is a completely different regime, with different principles and objectives.

Mr. Waterson: It is more bureaucratic.

Ms Hughes: I will get to the point that the hon. Gentleman makes from a sedentary position, and to related points, in a moment.

The hon. Gentlemen need to widen their horizons in attempting to understand what best value is all about. I want to deal with some of their criticisms, although the debate is supposed to be about the order. The extensive evaluations of best value that are now being done show examples of remarkable improvements in the way that local authorities provide services and remarkable reductions in cost alongside that effect.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I take the Minister's remarks with the sincerity with which they are meant. Will she in turn take my remarks with the sincerity with which they were meant, and undertake to investigate personally the example that I gave, so as to prevent such cases from occurring in future?

Ms Hughes: I shall come to that example in a moment.

In addition to some examples of good service improvements and cost reductions, we have also seen examples of some innovative long-term partnerships between local authorities, the private sector and, in some instances, voluntary organisations. They start from a contract, but they look forward developmentally to continuous improvement in service delivery and in driving down costs as a result of such an approach. Any cost reduction that authorities achieve through best value is theirs to plough back into further service developments and improvements.

We have no evidence of a fall in contracts between local authorities and the private sector, as was asserted by the hon. Member for Eastbourne. We want further development of the relationships between public authorities and good private-sector companies, as such relationships can inculcate further improvements and innovation.

We have always accepted that there would be up-front costs to best value in establishing the regime. The Government have supported our recognition of that fact with extra resources, directly and through the Audit Commission.

Mr. Waterson: I should have picked the Minister up on her previous point before she finished it. She says that she has no evidence of a fall in the tenders. Presumably, that also means that she has no evidence that there is not a fall in them. I think that I am right to say that she said that information was not collected centrally. Is she aware of the concerns being expressed? Will she find a way to see whether there is evidence to suggest a fall or otherwise?

Ms Hughes: We shall be monitoring that information in our evaluations. Based on the evidence that we have, our view is that competition levels in local authority contracts have remained the same. As I said, some interesting trends in terms of big contracts and long-term relationships are developing as a result of best value between authorities and private-sector companies. Those are beginning to change the overall picture.

Mr. Don Foster: Before the Minister leaves that point, will she accept that a slight reduction in the number of contracts with the private sector would not necessarily imply a diminution in the quality of service being provided to local people? Surely the point of best value is to ensure that high-quality, effective and economic services are delivered to local people, whether through a contract with the private sector or by other means. That is clearly what best value is all about. It does not have to ensure that we have more contracts with the private sector.

Ms Hughes: No, it certainly does not have to result in that outcome. The hon. Gentleman will know, because he contributed to the debate on the best value Bill and its subsequent Bill, that we see the role of competition in stimulating the achievement of the highest quality and the lowest cost as an essential part of best value. We expect local authorities to expose themselves to that competitive process. The outcome obviously depends on who can offer the best service at the best price.

The key issue about best value, which Conservative Members never mention, is the involvement of local people in the determination of priorities, the evaluation of services and best value reviews. That is crucial to the process of driving up standards of services, as we want to. Conservative Members have not sorted out their views about local authorities, as is evident in their contributions today about best value. They say that they do not want local authorities burdened by what they see as the bureaucracy of best value, but they criticise local authorities—rightly—when standards of service are poor.

Public bodies—as with all kinds of organisation—need a mechanism by which they themselves continually try to drive up standards and reduce costs. Best value offers the best opportunity to establish such a mechanism that local authorities have had so far. Certainly, CCT offered them nothing in terms of trying simultaneously to attain the two objectives of service improvements and reduction in costs. It was a rigid regime that required them to take the lowest price and hang the quality. That is not the way forward.

Let me respond to the point made by several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Bath. The way in which best value develops in local authorities is up to the authorities themselves. They can work towards a light-touch approach to their reviews and evaluations of specific services. If they build in good mechanisms, the amount of extra offices, time and financial resources that have to be devoted to the initiative will eventually be reduced. If they build into their routines new ways of thinking about improving services, and create an evaluation culture in their organisations, then clearly, the regime that they have to institute initially will become less burdensome.

The Conservative party needs to get its act together. It must decide whether it really is, as the shadow Secretary of State said yesterday, the new party of local government. It must decide whether it can trust local government to take on some of the powers that we are giving it through best value, and trust it to improve services and reduce costs.

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Prepared 17 January 2001