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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 600 - 619)



Christine Russell

  600. Minister, I think you will be aware of a Treasury document that came out last December on the cost of all the different inspectorates and the lack of co-ordination between them, and it certainly recommended that they should work more closely together. Have you got any evidence that the inspectorates are beginning to work more closely together?
  (Mr Raynsford) Yes. The inspectorate forum is doing a very good job in trying to ensure that there is greater consistency and better understanding between the different inspectorates. Certainly we want to see that achieved and that is the purpose of the forum.

  601. We are told there is some duplication at the moment. Is there any opportunity for joint working between some of those different inspectorates?
  (Mr Raynsford) I think there may well be an increased opportunity for inspections to cover wider areas than just the rather narrow service areas that have been the focus in the past. We certainly are encouraging local authorities as part of the best value process to undertake reviews that cover wider services rather than simply within individual silos, and that does point to a case for the inspectorate following similar patterns.

  602. When the comprehensive performance assessment is introduced, do you foresee that there will be compensatory savings in other inspectorates?
  (Mr Raynsford) One of the great advantages will be a light touch inspection regime where authorities are demonstrated to have done well and, again, this is a further example in response to Mr Bett's question, that those service areas where the performance is high will be specifically subject to a lighter touch inspection regime in the future.


  603. Does that not imply that the others are going to be heavy handed?
  (Mr Raynsford) It implies that one is focusing the inspection where it is felt there is the greatest need—not that it is heavy handed but it is targeted towards those areas where performance could perhaps be improved, and that is the thinking behind this whole comprehensive performance assessment process. Each assessment will lead to an action plan which will set out what is necessary to improve those parts of the authority's performance that are felt to be less satisfactory than others.

Christine Russell

  604. Can I ask you to respond to the argument that has been made by some council leaders that the whole concept of assessment will undermine their role in providing local leadership?
  (Mr Raynsford) I take exactly the opposite view: I took a lot of heart from the local elections this May where I think there was quite clear evidence, and it is probably the first time in my political experience that that has happened, that the electorate reached decisions in individual areas on the basis of an individual authority's performance. Traditionally in the past local councillors have rightly complained that whether they held their seats or lost them often depended on whether their party was popular nationally or not. There is quite a wide variation this time in terms of the performance of individual authorities in the same region, some of whom clearly got a much better response from the electorate than others, and if you look at those in relation to the evidence we have got of the performance of authorities, there is certainly a quite strong indication that good performance was rewarded and poor performance was punished. I think that is terribly encouraging and I think any council leader should look with enthusiasm at the comprehensive performance assessment as a way of trying to ensure that their authority is performing well and reaps the rewards.

  605. And how do you answer some criticism which has been levelled at the new process that it is going to be a long time before it is fully implemented?
  (Mr Raynsford) We are always in a difficult position because for most of the past nine months I have been pressurised by local government to slow down the implementation of the comprehensive performance assessment but to speed up other parts of the package. I am trying to move ahead as far as I can on the whole White Paper package. We think that the timetable for the comprehensive performance assessment is achievable; it is demanding but to slow it down in our view would be a mistake.

  606. Finally, this morning we were given evidence by the Commission of Local Governance that claimed that the comprehensive performance assessment contravenes Article 8 of the European Chapter of Local Self Government. How do you answer that accusation?
  (Mr Raynsford) I have absolutely no evidence to suggest that is the case and, if people allege that, I think they should substantiate it with hard evidence but I have to say I do not believe that is the case at all.

Mr Cummings

  607. It is not clear to me how helpful it is to classify and publish councils as being "weak" and "failing". How do you believe classification of "weak" and "failing" by itself will prompt improvement by those particular authorities?
  (Mr Raynsford) Perhaps I can give one illustration. Over the past year when I have been Minister for Local Government I have spent a disproportionate amount of my time wrestling with the problems in Hackney. Those are deep-seated and go back a long time. Had there been a proper comprehensive performance assessment framework in place to identify those weaknesses at an earlier stage, I think that authority would have avoided getting into some of the very real problems it has, which makes the recovery a much longer and more painful process than it needs to be. Earlier identification of weakness and action through the action plans which are an inherent part of this process to tackle those weaknesses will, in my view, help to ensure we have less unfortunate stories such as Hackney in the future.

  608. I am wondering how you can justify denying communities the benefits of the new powers and freedoms in the Bill because of the failure of current council leadership.
  (Mr Raynsford) If a local authority is in serious financial difficulty and cannot manage its affairs it does seem to me a rather odd proposition that they should be given additional spending freedoms.

  609. It is also very hard to deny communities their spending powers.
  (Mr Raynsford) The whole purpose of the comprehensive performance assessment is to ensure that local authorities deliver high quality services to their residents so those communities do get the benefits of efficient administration by their local council.

  610. So what you are saying is you have learnt from intervention in Hackney and Walsall councils. Do you believe government has all the necessary skills it needs for effective intervention?
  (Mr Raynsford) We will be publishing a further paper in the near future about how we intend to carry forward our intervention role spelt out in the White Paper.

  611. The question was whether you believe the government has all the necessary tools and skills?
  (Mr Raynsford) What I was about to say was that we are obviously learning from our experience in Hackney and Walsall. With Hackney we have intervened: with Walsall we have been advised by the Audit Commission that intervention might be appropriate but we have allowed the authority an opportunity to respond to the Audit Commission's criticisms before we decide whether or not to use our intervention powers. That is the position at the moment. We are taking stock in the light of those two cases, and also our experience elsewhere, and will be publishing in the near future our proposals of how we want to use the intervention powers—


  612. Could you give us a definition of "near future"?
  (Mr Raynsford) I would hope this would be within the next two months.

Mr Cummings

  613. Is it correct that the social services joint inspections show that 60 per cent of councils are weak or failing?
  (Mr Raynsford) The individual inspections carried out by specific inspectorates are the responsibility of the relevant departments, so for the Social Services inspectorate you have to seek the view of Social Services ministers. Since I am overseeing the comprehensive performance assessment that will judge the overall performance of all authorities, building on those individual subject inspections, I have no reason to form a view at this stage that any particular percentage of local government would fit into any one of the categories.

  614. The evidence submitted to the Committee indicates 60 per cent. Would this not suggest some form of national crisis that would require a nationwide response rather than local measures?
  (Mr Raynsford) I think it is fair to say as you have highlighted the Social Services area, which is the responsibility of the Department of Health, that there are real social service needs that are not being adequately met for a variety of reasons—some of those are to do with organisation, some may be to do with finance. As we discussed earlier, we know about financial pressures on social services. What I am trying to do is get in place a framework which assesses in a rigorous but firm way the overall performance of local authorities to improve that performance and to ensure that people locally get a higher standard of service from their council.

Sir Paul Beresford

  615. So 40 per cent of authorities in contrast to this 60 per cent can expect this famous light touch in social services?
  (Mr Raynsford) The overall approach that I have spelt out is one in which we will be tailoring the level of inspection to the performance of individual authorities, and that will both reflect individual service areas but also the overall corporate performance. I have no reason to believe that a particular percentage of local authorities will fall into any one category.

Christine Russell

  616. Minister, you have just told us you have the overall responsibility. What are you going to do when you do get provided with the evidence, and we are obviously using social services in this context, that well over 50 per cent of social services departments are failing or weak? Who is then going to take action? What measures are in place for you to encourage your colleagues in the Department of Health to do something about failing social services?
  (Mr Raynsford) I do not think they require any encouragement to take action where they believe that social service departments have not been achieving sufficiently high standards. Our concern is to ensure that the overall corporate health of the authority is also taken into account because in some cases that could be a major contributory factor to a particular failing in one service area. That is my overriding priority, to ensure we have an overall picture of the performance of the authority as a whole, taking account of its performance in individual service areas which, as you all know, can vary. Some can be very good, even if the authority as a whole is not doing well.

Mr Betts

  617. Would it surprise you, Minister, that there has been widespread opposition in the evidence we receive to the proposal to merge the revenue streams from the national non domestic rate with the revenue support grant. Given this measure, as I understand it, has not been trailed at all before or consulted on in any formal way, have you decided definitely to do this or is your mind in any way open to listening to views? Is it generally a draft Bill or is it set as a policy?
  (Mr Raynsford) It is a draft Bill for consultation and obviously we will take full—

  618. Some Bills are slightly less draft than others?
  (Mr Raynsford) We will take full account of the views expressed on it but I have to say this is not a major policy change. All we are doing is seeking to pull together two separate streams which currently provide a grant to local authorities through two separate channels. Our view was it would probably be an administrative improvement to put the two together, but I have heard the fears and anxieties and we are particularly conscious of the wish to maintain transparency. So can I give you an assurance that we will be maintaining an absolutely transparent structure so people will know exactly what sums are attributable to which of the two streams, though we still believe there are benefits in administrative terms of merging the two together.

  619. One of the issues raised with us is that there was quite a lot of interest around, and some degree of pleasure, that the government have recognised that the balance of funding that local authorities could raise themselves as against that which came from the centre was not right, and the government were prepared to look at a review of this. Yet at the same time it was seen that the proposal to merge the business rate stream with the revenue support grant stream effectively killed off any prospect of business rates going back to local authorities, which some people think is the only realistic way to deal with the imbalance between central and local funding at present?
  (Mr Raynsford) Let me reassure you that is not the consequence of the changes we are proposing because, as I have indicated, we will be separately identifying what comes through each of the two streams, and therefore there is no consequence from this proposal that would prevent a future government, if it so decided, to restore the national non domestic rates to local discretion. However, I must make it clear we do not believe that is appropriate. We have set ourselves against doing that and we have no reason to change that particular stance.

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