Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 360 - 379)



  360. You say "decisions are set out". Will there be any opportunity for consultation to happen on those decisions or will they be final?
  (Mr Raynsford) As always, decisions are subject to review, because we publish our provisional assessment, as you know, and then accept representations on that assessment before we finalise it. In the case of next year when there will be the impact of this big review of SSAs, that will clearly be a crucial opportunity for authorities to see the impact of the new arrangement on their finances and to make representations. In the current year, because there are no changes in methodology, we do not see the need for an extensive programme of representations, but next year there undoubtedly will be.

  361. On the issue of the amount of money that is raised locally to fund local services, that is currently around 25 per cent, with 75 per cent coming from central government. The indications from the current Secretary of State are that there is a desire in Government to bring about a shift in that. Is that going to be one of the issues that is going to be dealt with in the White Paper? Are we going to see something quite significant there?
  (Mr Raynsford) We see this as a longer-term measure, because moving from the current framework to one where a significantly greater proportion of local revenue was raised locally would have very significant implications. We believe that should be considered further, and we will be setting out in the White Paper our proposals for doing that over the next year or so.


  362. Turning to council tax, in March £½ billion had not been collected. Has the situation improved now?
  (Mr Raynsford) The percentages in March were up by about 0.2 of a percentage point above the previous year's both on councils' collection and the business rate collection, but there are still a number of authorities that are failing badly. We have mentioned Hackney earlier where their collection rate of some 67 per cent is clearly wholly unacceptable and tough action is required to turn that around, but there are other areas too where performance could improve.

  363. Housing benefit administration has been a bit of a shambles, has it not?
  (Mr Raynsford) It is a difficult issue and one on which I have spoken frequently to my colleagues in the Department of Work and Pensions who, of course, have responsibility for that scheme.

  364. And?
  (Mr Raynsford) They are working on this matter. It is very much our objective to provide a framework that simplifies housing benefit, to make it easier to administer and easier for the public to understand, but it is not easy to do that because there are direct tensions between achieving a fair system that reflects the variety of different circumstances and allows people to get benefit that does reflect their circumstances, as against a simple system which is easy to administer. There is a tension between those two. I would not say that the Government believe we have absolutely got it right, but we are moving towards creating a simpler, fairer system, and equally we are trying to encourage improved delivery of service. I have to say, looking at local authorities, there are some exemplars, there are some that do an extraordinarily good job, but others find it more difficult.

  365. I think you were in the Committee in the last Parliament when the Deputy Prime Minister described the housing benefit system as "a shambles". That was about three years ago. Do you think that really it has improved since then?
  (Mr Raynsford) I think there is improvement in certain areas, but it is not necessarily good enough and there is a good deal more work needs to be done.

  366. How many statutory plans do local authorities have to produce?
  (Mr Raynsford) A very substantial number. In the White Paper we will set this out. It varies, of course, depending on the tier of authority, but around 60 to 70 is the overall figure and we are aiming to reduce that significantly in our proposals in the White Paper.

  367. So it is 60 to 70?
  (Mr Raynsford) Yes.

  368. Do you think they can have any coherence at all?
  (Mr Raynsford) That is one of the reasons we are seeking to reduce the number, and we will set out our proposals in the White Paper. The purpose of the plans is self-evident—that this is to focus attention on an important service, to ensure that the authority does act in a way which makes it likely to meet the objectives of efficient service delivery, but a proliferation of plans can be an impediment. That is why we are now engaged in a process of rationalisation and will announce our proposals in the White Paper.

  369. So we are coming down to about 30 plans, are we?
  (Mr Raynsford) I am not going to speculate now on numbers, but we are seeking a significant reduction.

Mr Grayling

  370. Of all the plans that local authorities submit, how many does your Department actually read?
  (Mr Raynsford) I have to say, there is a collective approach in the Government whereby individual government departments responsible for particular services take responsibility for looking at the plans in those areas, so I would expect all the education plans to be read not by my officials but by officials in the Department for Education and Skills.

  371. How many of those submitted to your Department are actually read?
  (Mr Raynsford) There are a significant number in relation to our Department. I think I am right in saying that there are about 17 currently. We hope to reduce those very significantly indeed, and that will mean less reading for our officials.

Mr Cummings

  372. Turning to safety standards, Minister, and the Health and Safety Executive, they are much higher in the railways than in some areas. How are you going to get the Health and Safety Executive to co-ordinate the standards of other bodies to ensure that decisions are taken to increase safety in this area and you do not have a worsening situation?
  (Mr Raynsford) We attach considerable importance to raising health and safety standards, and as a result of the Revitalising Health and Safety publication which came out a year or so ago we have set targets for reducing accidents and problems of ill-health, particularly in those industries where there are the greatest concentrations of problems. We have identified in particular construction and agriculture as areas with a particularly unfortunate record for accidents, and the Health and Safety Executive is focussing particular energy and attention on those areas. This is very much a response in relation to the level of risk in particular industries.

  In the absence of the Chairman, Mrs Dunwoody was called to the Chair

  373. What progress has been made in establishing a single transport safety regulator?
  (Mr Raynsford) I would have to say that the responsibility for transport matters lies with other Minister in my Department, and I cannot comment on that, but we certainly have taken very careful consideration of the recommendations currently reported, and I know that it is the intention of the Secretary of State to seek early legislation to give effect to Lord Cullen's recommendations.

Dr Pugh

  374. Can we turn to the question of local authorities' structure. Will every local authority be in a position to implement the new structures by June 2002?
  (Mr Raynsford) We have made very good progress. We have received new constitutional proposals from the overwhelming majority of local authorities. The timetable is such that we should certainly meet our target that every local authority should have reviewed its constitution and put in place appropriate arrangements by the end of 2002.

  375. Of the three models on offer, what proportion do you think will be chosen of each?
  (Mr Raynsford) The very large majority will involve a leader and cabinet model. We will have a certain number of Mayoral options. It is difficult to give precise figures at the moment, because there are some referenda that are pending and other authorities whose proposals have not yet been fully submitted or have not been fully considered.

  376. Why do you think the first model is so popular?
  (Mr Raynsford) I think the answer is that it is probably the closest to local authorities' existing structures; that the process of change is quite a painful one, and that people tend on the whole to favour models that contain familiar elements.

  377. You do not think it was an omission not to give the electors a chance to vote for the status quo? It has been put to me that many electors would prefer the system to stay as it was, and then you would have a comparison between the new system as well as the old one. What was wrong with that?
  (Mr Raynsford) The committee system is a system that has been around for a very considerable length of time. It was our view that there was a need for modernisation and reform. Far too much time under the old system was spent in the process of attending committee meetings; there was not often a clarity about decision-making, where the public were often left with little idea as to who was responsible, and where it was possible for the buck to be passed very easily between different councillors.

  378. Could that argument have been put in a referendum, with people being given the choice as to whether or not they wanted to keep what you clearly regard as an outmoded system? They did not get that choice. It has been put to me by many people that they would prefer, having experienced the new system, the old system, but that there are very few old systems around that the new system can really be compared with here.
  (Mr Raynsford) I have to say I do not regard the status quo, if it is not delivering a satisfactory outcome, as something that should be retained simply because it has been done for many years in the past. We believe it is right that local government should be changing its approach to ensure that it is delivering efficient services, that it is responsive to the public in this area and that is the whole purpose of the government's reforms. What we are doing is seeking an element of proper consultation between all local authorities and their electors before they finalise arrangements and giving electors the opportunity to have a say.

  379. Through a restricted menu?
  (Mr Raynsford) From a menu of options which will deliver efficient services and a proper framework of accountability.

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