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Third Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Wednesday 17 April 2002
[Mr. John Cummings in the Chair]
Local Government (Best Value) Performance Plans and Reviews Amendment and Specified Dates Order 2002
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Local Government (Best Value) Performance Plans and Reviews Amendment and Specified Dates Order 2002 (S.I. 2002, No. 305).
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship yet again, Mr. Cummings?
The order reduces the content that needs to be included in local councils' best value performance plans. It also removes the requirement for authorities to review all their functions within a five-year period. It is our view that rather than tinkering at the edges best value as a whole should be scrapped, as it is yet another example of ineffective and expensive Whitehall red tape on local communities.
The Opposition are not against the basic concepts behind best value but the scheme introduced by the Government under the name of best value is seriously flawed. The fact that even the Minister's own Department decided in October last year to launch a review of best value in England shows just how big the problem is. In the White Paper, the Government confirmed their intention to look again at best value.
In a press release in February this year, the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions claimed:
''the best value process is being refined to reduce the number of inspections, Audit Commission inspections are being streamlined and better co-ordinated and HM Treasury have reported on options for reducing the burden of external reviews.''
We contend that in all those statements and commitments the Government are endorsing the views of many in local government that best value is flawed.
Let us remind ourselves of some of the criticisms. In Wales, for example, the National Assembly has decided to abolish the regime. The Finance Minister, Edwina Hart, conceded that
''Best value inspection hasn't really worked . . . Local authorities have been fed up with the bureaucracy and the fact that they have reports telling them that they cannot improve when the whole purpose of Best Value is to improve.''
That was reported in Public Finance in November last year. In October last year, the Labour leader of the Welsh Local Government Association, Sir Harry Jones, was quoted in the Western Mail as saying that councils were spending more money on the process than on service delivery.
Matthew Warburton, the head of futures at the Local Government Association commented that best value
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''has led to a mountain of rules and guidance, which in turn has created an enormous paperchase as authorities try to justify their decisions to the inspectors''.
That was quoted in Public Finance on 22 March 2002. Tony Travers from the London School of Economics explained that best value
''has been bureaucratic and, more importantly, wholly removed from public involvement . . . the difficulty of seeing just how far service levels or quality have changed, or how far inspections have related to public demands, has challenged the credibility of the initiative.''
The measure is the Government's response to the huge weight of criticism that has come their way since the introduction of best value some years ago. The changes to the best value regime set out in the order will only scratch the surface of the inherent problems. Those changes were announced by the Minister in a press release on 14 February, which commented on the words that he used in a speech the same day. He claimed that the changes would help make best value ''more effective''. If he believes that, he will believe anything.
In the same speech, the Minister said that his changes were
''likely to be welcomed by local authorities''.
Hon. Members should note the use of the word ''likely''. The press release did not state ''it will be'' or ''are certain to be'' or say that the changes ''are meant to meet the criticism of local authorities'' but gave a limp, inadequate response to that criticism. Why was it announced in a speech and not to the House of Commons? Why, given the weight of criticism that has been levelled at best value was the order slipped through quietly under the negative resolution procedure? Important issues are involved.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead): Come on.
Mr. Moss: It is all very well the Minister saying ''Come on''. There has been a welter of criticism about best value and the Government have tried to slip through these changes, which are supposed to be the Government's flagship changes to best value to make it more effective.
The changes being introduced should have been debated properly in Committee and the Minister must tell us why they were slipped through quietly under the negative resolution procedure. Important issues are involved; our action in praying against the order is fully vindicated, given the need to the debate the issues.
The Minister said that changes to the best value performance plan would make it a more robust statement of performance because it is based on a final outturn of information, rather than on estimates, and it is covered by articles 6 and 7. The dates by which local authorities were to report have been moved, in one case from 31 March to 30 June. In article 7, the deadline for the audit plans has been moved from 30 June to 30 December.
I understand the Minister's comments in relation to article 6, as it may have been impossible for a local authority to have all the facts and details at its
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fingertips to report as at 31 March, so giving three months extra time makes sense. We would not argue against that, but we question why it was not anticipated when the Local Government Act 1999 was introduced and the original orders were set. Why has it taken 18 months to two years for those who write these things to realise that if the facts are to be available in the report the date should be at the end of the financial year and not at a few months' remove, to give the local authorities at least some time to get their act together? The Minister must explain why, initially, the Government did not see fit to give local authorities that breathing space.
The Minister said in his speech:
''We intend to consolidate this''—
''into new statutory guidance in the summer.''
Perhaps he will explain what that means. The order came into force on 8 March. Are the changes and amendments in the order not clear enough to local authorities for them to act on—making new statutory guidance, more paperwork and more directives necessary—or are other changes in the pipeline, with which the current changes will be consolidated later? I look forward to hearing the Minister explain what it all means.
Article 4 deals with the most fundamental change. It changes article 4 of the Local Government (Best Value) Performance Plans and Reviews Order 1999, which I have examined carefully. The change means dropping certain requirements that local authorities had to fulfil—certainly in 2000 and probably in 2001. Will the Minister explain why certain requirements and not others are being dropped? Sub-paragraphs (a), (d) and (e) of article 3 of the 1999 order are retained, but not sub-paragraphs (b), (c), (f) and (g), which are disappearing. The subsequent article 4 has eight paragraphs, none of which is being dropped.
Overall, it amounts to three measly changes, two of which—article 3(1)(f) and (g)—dropped out last year. Of those two subparagraphs, (f) is
''a summary of the authority's assessment of its performance in the previous financial year with regard to the relevant Audit Commission indicators''
and (g) is
''a comparison of that performance with the authority's performance of previous financial years.''
Surely Audit Commission indicators are important, so why have the Government seen fit to drop them out of the equation? I hope that they will be replicated in some other way or in some other part of the provisions, so that the Audit Commission continues to make a clear and influential input into these matters. Were these requirements dropped to make cost savings? If so, the Committee should know how much it is expected to save.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I am sorry to have missed the first couple of minutes of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Although those two items are being dropped, I presume that the same local authorities will have to provide the same information hitherto required for the Audit Commission in order to carry out their
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comprehensive performance assessments. If I am right, local councils will make no savings whatever.
Mr. Moss: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I do not know the answer, but he has put the question through me, so I hope that the Minister will answer it at the appropriate time.
Other changes under article 5 refer, of course, to article 5 of the 1999 order and the provisions on preparation of best value reviews and period of reviews are deleted. It is a hefty section in the original order and questions might be raised about why the deletion is necessary. Much of the 1999 order referred not just to local authorities, but to fire authorities. Article 5(2) stated:
''Fire authorities must conduct the first best value review of
(a) their communication control functions by 31st March 2001''—
which has doubtless been completed—and of
''(b) their procurement functions by 31st March 2002''.
This order comes into effect on 8 March 2002, so is all the preparation and work of the fire authorities to be dropped as a result of this order, or are they to proceed with best value reviews on their procurement functions, as suggested in the 1999 order? The article continued with reference to
''(c) their training functions by 31st March 2003''
''(d) all their other functions by 31st March 2005.''
Those are quite important matters, and it seems that training functions, certainly for fire authorities, are to be dropped under the proposals. Perhaps the Minister will explain why dropping those components will make an important saving in time and bureaucracy, yet other components, to which I have alluded, are still included.
This order seems to be the Government's response to the weight of criticism that has come their way, not just from Opposition Members of the House and the of Committee, but from people in local government across the board, and even from Labour-controlled councils and the Labour-dominated Local Government Association. They have all criticised best value in many ways. Certainly since last year, they have been seeking a significant move by the Government to lessen the bureaucratic burden. If this order is the Government's response to that criticism, it is totally unacceptable and the criticism will continue unabated.