Local Government (Best Value) Performance Indicators and Performance Standards Order 2002

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Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I am delighted to be serving under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I also congratulate the Minister on his new appointment and I wish him well in what will be a difficult time.

The debate is important and, as I intend to ask many questions, I apologise to hon. Members if I take some time. However, I am keen that my contribution should not be unduly long and I am conscious that in the past 18 months there have been several debates on various aspects of best value, which have been properly used by hon. Members of all parties to say what they think about the principles of that matter. Therefore, to save a little of the Committee's time, I refer hon. Members to the contributions that I made on best value on 17 January 2001 and on 17 April 2002, as they clearly set out my views on the subject, and those of my party.

Sir Paul Beresford: Having been on the same Committee as the hon. Gentleman, I just had to take the opportunity to thank him for enlightening us on the matter, particularly if it shortens his speech.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman intervenes in the same way that he always does on my speeches. He always adds to their length with his erudite contributions, to which I feel it necessary to respond. On this occasion, I am delighted that he is delighted. Let us therefore move on.

I should like to refer to the review made a few months ago by the Association for Public Service Excellence, which I have already mentioned, and its conclusions about best value. It acknowledges that many of the respondents had found best value helpful in principle. However, I shall repeat the conclusion, as it bears on what was said by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown). It said:

    ''Many commented that the existing system was too bureaucratic, resource intensive and time consuming and there was hope that the review of Best Value would address some of these issues.''

We are debating some of the outcomes of that review. We must consider whether it was carried out sensibly and whether it will make a big difference.

It is important to place on record that the Government were confident that as they moved forward in their review of best value they would reduce bureaucracy. That was clearly stated in paragraph 3.64 of their White Paper on local government. They say:

    ''Our recently published consultation on performance indicators for 2002–03 proposed a reduction in the total number of indicators from 123 to 95. This represents a reduction of 23 per cent. from 2001–02''.

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The first thing that any member of the Committee will do is add up the number of proposed indicators to see whether or not it actually comes to that wonderful 23 per cent. reduction that was being boasted about in the White Paper. Those hon. Members who have done their homework will have checked and discovered that there are significantly more than 95 indicators. In fact, there is a reduction of only about 12 indicators, which is 12 or 13 per cent. The reduction in indicators is not anything like proportionate to that which the Government had the temerity to boast about only a few months ago.

As the Government have spent so much time on the matter, have they sensibly decided to introduce some of the new indicators that everyone has been clamouring for, and have they decided to reduce and remove some of the indicators that people said were a complete waste of time? Was there any logic in their decisions? Those are my questions to the Minister. I have difficulty understanding some of the proposals in the report.

Let us take corporate health as an example. It is now proposed that a timetable be established for the preparation of a community strategy that replaces the old local Agenda 21 indicator. When I look at the details of that proposal, I cannot see any sign of whether the principles that underlay LA21 are to be continued and whether someone will check that they are. Nor can I see any reference to corporate crime and disorder reduction strategies, which used to be there. I should be interested to hear whether those two issues are being measured under the new indicator.

Given the concern of many of our constituents about the way in which their councils behave, I wonder whether the Minister could explain why it has been decided to drop the issue of maladministration. Why is it no longer considered a relevant measure of performance? We are all desperately concerned about turnout at local, and national, elections. Many members of the Committee will have made speeches that say that a real test of the health of local democracy is turnout in local elections. I cannot for the life of me understand why the Government have decided that turnout in local elections is no longer considered a relevant indicator of the corporate health of an individual council. That said, I welcome some of the new measures under corporate health, not least the measure on energy performance in council buildings, although I confess, as a former physicist, that I have some difficulty understanding the measure that was chosen.

On community safety—safety on our streets and so on—which the Prime Minister said is vitally important, and will be high on the Government's agenda, we look to see whether that is reflected in the changes being made to the indicators. I wonder, not least in respect of the recent report on the impact that speed limits can have on road safety, why information on road casualties has been dropped as an indicator of community safety, when I should have thought that it was crucial to it. Why are the Government no longer remotely concerned about safety in the premises and buildings owned by local authorities? That used to be a specific indicator, as one would reasonably expect,

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because they are the buildings and properties over which they have the greatest control. That indicator would show that they are taking seriously making their buildings and premises safe, yet it has been dropped.

It is strange that direct attention is drawn to violent crime. I welcome that new indicator, but any local authority following the Government's guidance on the new indicators would have difficulty knowing what they mean by violent crime, as no definitions are provided.

A bizarre set of changes has taken place for transport performance. The Government know that we all want a significant improvement in the use of public transport to solve congestion problems on the roads. A barrier to the use of public transport is the lack of information about it. For example, in the city of Perth, in Australia, when a relatively small sum of money was spent advertising what public transport services were available, the ridership went up by a staggering 14 per cent. without any change in the service or the quality of service provided, just as a result of making information about public transport available. However, for some strange reason, the indicator for people's satisfaction with public transport information has been dropped and I shall be interested to know why.

It is perhaps not surprising that the indicator for the satisfaction with bus services has been dropped, because the Government are clearly conscious that the latest figures show that not only are people increasingly dissatisfied with public transport and the railways, they are also growing increasingly dissatisfied with buses outside the capital city.

Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion): I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider not being quite so sweeping in his statements about buses. I draw his attention to Brighton and Hove where, for the past six years, bus use has increased by 5 per cent. each year, year on year. Despite there being a £1 flat fare across the city, it has not deterred people from using the buses. I ask the hon. Gentleman to refine his comments about their appeal.

Mr. Foster: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has had an opportunity to talk about success in encouraging the use of the buses, because the more we can promote those successes, provide information about them and encourage other local authorities and bus companies to follow the example, the better for all of us. I accept that good practice coexists with bad practice, and that we should share good practice.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that after the bus summit of November 1999 the Deputy Prime Minister set several targets for reliability and punctuality on the buses. The Government's own research now shows that we are nowhere near meeting them. Nationwide and on average across the country, satisfaction with bus services is declining, notwithstanding good practice in particular parts of the country. The issue of satisfaction is important.

The Government took a peculiar decision on housing benefit. Many hon. Members have complained about the enormous cost of

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administering the system. An indicator of councils' ability to control costs and ensure satisfaction has been in existence until now, so will the Minister explain why, bizarrely, it has been dropped?

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): Has my hon. Friend noticed the peculiarity that an authority that has not transferred its stock will be judged on the performance of its housing department, so the indicators could act as an incentive for an authority to transfer its stock? Frankly, authorities should not be placed in that position.

Mr. Foster: My hon. Friend is right. He would doubtless agree that the tables are strongly stacked against local authorities that want to hold on to their housing. All the incentives seem to be directed towards large-scale voluntary transfers. My hon. Friend will know that at the current rate, more than 50 per cent. of former housing stock will be in the hands of registered social landlords by 2004. The disincentives to which he referred simply add to the problem.

Sir Paul Beresford: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster: I should be delighted to do so.

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Prepared 19 June 2002