Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 720 - 730)



  720. You sound like a relatively happy bunny now?
  (Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) I am happier now than I was before the White Paper came through. I think there is a change and the White Paper does foreshadow a more constructive relationship between central and local government, a more positive attitude towards local government. The test will be whether other government departments actually sign up to it and share in the direction. That remains to be seen. The Education bill is not entirely consonant with that development. Even as we speak it includes a reserved power to ring-fence, to which we object.
  (Cllr Sir Harry Jones) The key word to me that is being signalled by Stephen Byers, and it is something that we have been pleading for for a long period of time, is the question of trust. One perceives at this present moment in time that for the first time there is a recognition of, and a move towards, an acceptance of trust between central and local government which, quite frankly, has been absent for a long period of time. I think a degree of willingness has been demonstrated, and I have not gone through the details of the new paper, but in terms of the generalisation of what I read it certainly seems to me there is a degree of letting go. In letting go there is an assumption there is an expectation of trust on their part for us that we will respond and we will match and meet that level degree of trust that is being given to us. That is welcomed, surely.

  721. Maybe the paper you submitted to the Committee and the one from the LGA is out of date because year zero is now defined by the publication dated the new White Paper, maybe the difference is so profound?
  (Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) We have succeeded partly in influencing the White Paper, or I hope we have. I am confident we have. One of the most symbolic things in the White Paper was the abolition of the Council Tax Benefit Subsidy Limitation Scheme, which was a covert capping mechanism, that has been abandoned, not without an intense struggle, and we pressed very hard for that. The fact that it has gone, I think, is symptomatic of a much more positive attitude of the kind that Harry Jones has described. Stephen Byers has been accessible and very forthcoming and has taken pains to consult and has gone round the country. He has been well received by people in all political parties. There is a real sense that a new chapter has started but, as I said, it does need other people to endorse it.
  (Cllr Sir Harry Jones) I mentioned a moment ago supporting areas, we got rid of that two years ago in Wales and we were able to say in a meeting with Stephen Byers that it is happening in Wales. We got rid of it two years ago and it has had no adverse demonstrable effect or consequence in any way at all.
  (Cllr Keymer) The ultimate test is what actually happens. While we hear these warm words I very much hope we are right. I have a lot of time for Stephen Byers, I think that he is keen, the big question is whether he can deliver and whether his views are shared across government?

  722. In the Local Government Association Paper, which was circulated to members of the Committee, there was great stress made of national standards and the difficulty of reconciling national standards with local democracy. Given this liberalisation which is in prospect, if all of these national standards came off, and we heard from Wendy Thompson a few moments ago, would local government still be able to deliver or does local government need, in some sense, a prescriptive central government in order to keep everyone on their toes?
  (Cllr Keymer) I am a great believer in the local mandate. I believe there is a bit of both. Obviously the government wants to see high standards, all governments do. I think there has been a move under this government with central local partnership working much more closely together. Ultimately I want to see local people consulting and that is what the local council are for. We talk about subsidiarity as being the European concept. There is a great danger we talk about it in the United Kingdom and we do not do that much for it and we are so strung round and hung round with these national standards that what is needed locally, because local people know best, really does not matter. All of us who have been in local authority for a long time know by discussing with local people what they want and we do our best to provide what those people want.

  723. You would let Ken Livingstone decide the future of London Underground?
  (Cllr Keymer) There you have a strategic problem and perhaps a tad financial. I think these issues should come down locally as far as possible. We have lost that freedom to operate locally.
  (Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) The term national standards is slightly deceptive. There are a number of areas where there ought to be a basic entitlement, be that an element of the provision of social care or education, or whatever, and what is interesting is that the government has accepted our suggestion that there should be nationally agreed PSAs. Last year we had a two level process, local PSAs and then you had to pick from a number of national PSAs, which the government had derived from a trawl round Whitehall for the three things they would like to be see in the national standards, it was as crude as that. They have now accepted our suggestion that we should try and agree a limited number of national objectives for PSAs, and that, again, changes the nature of the debate. This is now something agreed, not imposed. Hopefully there is a rationale based on objective analysis and then coupled with the more local approach which Gordon Keymer has referred to, the local PSA mechanism, which is rolling out to all 160 county level authorities and, hopefully, beyond that into districts. Going back to what was said before, if we are going to encourage public involvement we have to raise expectations and aspirations. You cannot do that if you have to publish every 31st March a best value performance plan with a couple of hundred performance indicators and a whole lot of meaningless statistics. You can only encourage debate if you select a few key issues, concentrate on those, get those into the public arena locally and then you have a real chance of moving the agenda on. You can drown in a mass of reports, drafts and peculiarly derived grids with coloured-blobs on demonstrating greater or lesser achievement which completely faze people.

  724. I would love to see a national standard for the inspection of food premises.
  (Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) I think with the Food Standards Agency and with Lacots we are looking to get a better approach to food standards. Again part of the problem is capacity and it is a question, very often, of having to ensure that lead authorities run particular areas. You may be familiar with some of these problems. It is a matter of choice. You can get to the level where the Department of Culture, Media and Sport start stipulating the amount of book stock that should be held by individual libraries, there has to some rowing back from this level of prescription, you have to concentrate on what is key. It may be that your example is a good one, I do not know whether that would be adopted, let us debate that kind of issue and see what needs to be done.

  725. It would if you had eaten a dodgy hamburger!
  (Cllr Sir Harry Jones) I think it is a fascinating question in terms of letting go and the implications in terms of standards. There is nobody in here that could possibly argue that you have to have standards, and there should be standards in terms of the expectations that the general public has. I think the difficulty we have had, and where we now see movement of the government in terms of letting go, is the means by which previously they always attempted to attain them was by the structures they put in place that drove us down. We spent that much time trying to respond to the structures that at the end of day we were losing out on the services. We were structure mad. The deliveries that you had to have coming from it were taking up more time than delivering the services on the ground. I think that until we can deliver the services on the ground in the way we should be able to achieve we are not going to obtain the standards that are set at the top.
  (Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) If you happen to have set the standards you could be criticised for that too?


  726. Is it not the case that all the representations that people like us get are of one kind. I have never had any letter at all saying, can we have more local autonomy? Can we have more local variation in services? We have overwhelming pressures that say we want the same education provisions they have in X, Y and Z, we want the same drugs being prescribed that they have in X, Y and Z. Then we have people saying, why can they have it in Scotland and we cannot have it here? We live in a tiny little island, do we not, and we have a culture which says we want the same thing everywhere. Does that not fundamentally go against what you are saying?
  (Cllr Keymer) X, Y and Z are the standards which other authorities try to get to. Z, Y and X is providing a good service. I think this "by comparison" we are talking about, the situation in league tables is where you get to that hype. We believe that what should be done is from the local level upwards. Certainly throughout Europe the strength of local government is in many cases stronger elsewhere in Europe than it is in the United Kingdom. I think that is an indication of where we should be going.

  Chairman: Europe is not a country!

Brian White

  727. We have been talking about standards and there is this culture round that which says, if all reasonable people are round a table with an independent inspector we can all get an equality of service, and the one thing that seems to be forgotten in all this is the electorate. How does local government with its partnership boards and its myriad of stakeholders deal with that contradiction between the managerial elements you have and the response to citizens through the ballot box?
  (Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) This is the plan before the process, which has now been in train for some time with many councils, devolving administration, and now they are getting people on board in shaping policy. It is quite interesting in some of the elections, for example, for the neighbourhood renewal process that they have produced significantly higher turnouts than local council elections. Whether that sustains itself remains to be seen. Essentially to make sense of that we have to build capacity in the community to understand the process and understand the choices that have to be made and to influence decision making. That in itself requires investment as well as a new approach, which I think is dawning in local government, a more receptive approach to that. It needs resourcing too and that is not easy, given the pressures that exist.

  728. You produce there a wonderful community plan, every body signs up to it, May comes along and the administration changes, a new council has come in with a completely different set of agenda and that community plans gets torn up, or does it impose on the incoming councils that they are committed to it and, therefore, their political manifesto does not match it?
  (Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) That would be a very interesting prospect. Gordon's council has just undergone a change of control, mine is a long way from change, so I am less qualified to talk about it.
  (Cllr Keymer) I think there is a continuity pattern in local government which perhaps was not there 20 or 30 years ago. Most authorities do have an opposition. There is a general consensus, and I would argue that annual elections do not help that consensus. I would say that four year elections are better for getting the sort of situation that you are talking about. I would suggest there is a lot of invested time and effort and I would be extremely surprised if an incoming administration would then tear it up.
  (Cllr Sir Harry Jones) We lost control for four years on one occasion and when we came back we took control. The only thing that we inherited that had changed from our original policies was the sale of land. That is a classic example of where at a local level I think politics has not necessarily had a great emphasis in terms of the service that you are providing because you are providing the best services for the people and any administration coming in of any political colour are pretty much bound about by those strictures that are in place. In terms of relating to the community, I honestly believe—I have to confess I cannot persuade my own council along these lines against the role and the new democratic arrangements that are operating at this present moment in time—the opportunity to go for area committees I believe is the keystone for the future in terms of relating with the communities and for councillors as individuals to relate to communities. Whenever you bring this situation up you always get told about Tower Hamlets. We have operated neighbourhood communities that cover every ward for the last five or six years and they are very punitive but beneficial. You have to come back the next month, the next month and the next month after that and many people feel you are putting your head on the block. If you are going to relate to the communities in the way you are describing I think the area committee model is one that eventually will come into more and more consideration as the understanding of how you can do it. It really comes back to local government being prepared to let go also. If it is to be successful you need to devolve budgets down that will allow communities to influence the quality of life in the neighbourhoods in which they live. You are not going to be able to do that if you still have this dictat coming from the centre. What we are asking of central government we have to apply to ourselves at some time in the future.
  (Cllr Keymer) Parish councils are absolutely fundamental.

  729. We have been asking about public sector ethos, is there a different public sector ethos for the care worker or the councillor or for the senior civil servant or is it all just the same?
  (Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) It is difficult to speak for senior civil servants. I think some of the principles of decisioness and equity, and so on, apply. The caring services, wherever they are in the public sector, have a special feel. I think that is particularly relevant to the distinction between the profit making and not-for-profit sector. I think there may be a qualitative difference there that is valued. To some degree we are trading on that in terms of the pay and conditions of people involved in personal care, be it in nursing or residential services or whatever. I think that is not any longer acceptable. You have to treat people properly and to value them substantively as well as ethically.

  730. Everything we talked about this morning and all of the new good things that are happening, is it not all fig leaf because at the end of the day a Treasury which has an antipathy to local government and an antipathy to public service will still control the purse strings through Treasury rules and through PSAs and at the end of the day nothing will change because Treasury will not let it change?
  (Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham) I do not find that to be any longer an accurate depiction of Treasury. The Treasury has been a useful ally to the LGA over some of these discussions, quite apart from reasonably generous financial settlements, and they have strongly supported the PSA mechanism and they have supported the partnership condition for agenda and actually they are opposed to ring-fencing. We find the Treasury on the side of the angels, this may be the first time in history, but one that we welcome.

  Chairman: Unless colleagues have anything else to add I feel inclined to end on that, the Treasury being on the side of the angels, you have now generated the headline of the morning. It is extremely kind of you to come along, both for giving us your memorandum and for talking in the way that you have, we found it most useful. Thank you very much for your time.

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