Local Government (Best Value) Performance Plans and Reviews Amendment and Specified Dates Order 2002

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Mr. Foster: The Minister just said that requirements would be made of local authorities in respect of the summary, to which I have already referred. Can he confirm that the order does not include reference to that summary, and that a further order will be necessary to require its publication by 31 March?

Dr. Whitehead: As far as I understand it, the order does not include a reference to the performance summary—but it is important that that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned that, to put the order in context.

The removal of the requirement that I mentioned concerning the five-year period for reviews will allow authorities to focus reviews on national and local priorities and deliver real changes in outcomes. The delay in the audit period follows the change to the performance plan deadline and the introduction of the forthcoming comprehensive performance assessment programme. It is intended to consolidate the changes in the instrument with other work on new statutory guidance in the autumn.

We have further reduced the burden of best value by cutting the number of statutory best value performance indicators.

Mr. Moss: I asked the Minister a specific question, if not two, about article 5 in relation to fire authorities. Will he use this opportunity to answer those, or will he answer other questions later?

Dr. Whitehead: It is best that I write to the hon. Gentleman on that particular matter because the detail of the questions that he asked is slightly beyond the ambit of the statutory instrument. I shall be happy to do that.

Best value is a key part of our reform agenda for local government. It can, and does, drive up the standards of local authority services. However, we are prepared to listen to the concerns of local government. We are streamlining best value in a way that lessens the burden on local authorities, but maintains its effectiveness.

Sir Paul Beresford: I shall repeat the question that I have already repeated twice. In essence, the Minister said that the Government were prepared to listen to

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local government. Why did he not listen to local government when the Bill that introduced best value was going through? Why did he not take all the points that were made about bureaucracy, cost, time and so on? We would not need to be sitting here today if he had listened then.

Dr. Whitehead: I have attempted to explain the process to the hon. Gentleman. Obviously I did not explain it carefully enough, because he does not appear to have understood it. The process should be set in the context of the need, which he has admitted, to sweep away the previous regime of compulsory competitive tendering and replace it with the best value regime, which received the overwhelming support of local government. It is absurd to say that because every point raised by everyone in all circumstances at that time was not accepted at that moment, the thrust of that process is somehow invalidated.

As a result of the implementation of best value, and an examination of how it was realised, how it delivered what was expected of it, and how that process can be continued, a number of modest but significant changes are being introduced by this order. That is the claim, and what the hon. Gentleman says does not invalidate that process in any way. The provisions of the order are widely supported by local government. We are giving more discretion back to local authorities, and the order begins that process.

5.23 pm

Mr. Foster: I am delighted to serve under you, Mr. Cummings, and I apologise to you and the Committee for being a couple of minutes late at the start of our proceedings.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire quite rightly used the debate as an opportunity to make some general comments about best value. The Minister criticised the hon. Gentleman for not furnishing the Committee or the public with a detailed analysis of his party's alternatives, but I do not think that invalidates in any way the criticisms that he made on behalf of local government of all parties about the problems that beset the arrangements for best value.

I would be the first to acknowledge that best value is an improvement on compulsory competitive tendering, which was introduced by the previous Conservative Government. However, the hon. Member for Mole Valley acknowledged that his party was minded to see changes in those arrangements. I am prepared to acknowledge that some improvements to the best value regime have been made by the present Administration. For example, the Minister referred to the reduction in the number of performance indicators. The Minister did not boast about that reduction, so I will boast about it for him. It is a very significant reduction of more than 23 per cent.

I am more than happy to acknowledge that the underlying principles of best value are of enormous value to local councils and, more importantly, the people whom they serve. To cite a study other than the one that the Minister referred to, analysis of survey

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returns for a recent review carried out by the Association for Public Service Excellence found that

    ''82 per cent. of councils believe that Best Value has created increased focus on service delivery, 62 per cent. increased focus on quality over cost and 67 per cent. suggest more focus on delivering tangible benefits to the community.''

That comes about because local councils are reviewing much more systematically their work, the services that they offer, the quality of those services and the value for money that they provide. I am sure that all members of the Committee welcome such activities.

Nevertheless, the report, which has much praise for the underlying principles of best value, stated:

    ''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.''

There is a great deal of hope that a significant review of best value will go a long way to removing some of the concerns.

Unlike the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire, I do not necessarily believe that one should talk only about the abolition of best value. However, it is important to have in place a clear requirement for a systematic review along the lines of best value in each of our local authorities. As is pointed out in considerable detail in our documents on the future of local government, we believe—the Minister will be pleased to know—that the process should be locally determined and accepted by the people who are served by the local councils.

Perhaps it is more important to ask whether the proposals in the order improve the situation in any way. The Minister acknowledged that the order does not really lead to any of the increased freedoms that he said the Government are keen to provide to local councils. At first sight, several changes seem to increase freedoms. For example, the order removes the requirement in article 4 of the 1999 order for local authorities to provide:

    ''(b) a comparison of that performance with the authority's performance in previous financial years;

    (c) a comparison of the authority's performance as summarised in accordance with paragraph a) above, with the performance of other best value authorities in previous financial years''.

I have asked the Minister indirectly on several occasions but now will ask him specifically whether he will confirm that, although those two requirements will be withdrawn from the best value performance plan, precisely that information will have to be provided to the Audit Commission when it undertakes the comprehensive performance assessment. I hope that the Minister will give a clear, precise answer to that specific question.

The Minister makes great play of changing the date from 31 March to 30 June. To some extent, I welcome the change, although I believe that it will leave many councils in considerable difficulty. I ask the Minister another specific question: if the plan is now to be produced by 30 June and based on actual information from the preceding financial year, what period is it intended to cover? After all, it is intended to be not a summative plan of what has happened in the past but a plan for future action. For what period of time is it

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intended to operate? If it is to be till the end of the next financial year, it is a plan for only nine months, which seems somewhat bizarre.

Extending the period to 30 June gives councils an extra three months to analyse the information at the end of the financial year rather than using estimates, and I welcome that change, but can the Minister explain why it is necessary for the auditors to have not three but six months before they carry out their work? It seems that there is a specific, tight time constraint on local authorities that does not apply to the auditors and their work.

The Minister kept suggesting that increased freedoms would be given to all councils. I have a confusion on that, which I hope that the Minister will clear up. Paragraph 3.66 of the Government's White Paper says:

    ''High-performing and striving councils will have greater flexibility to determine their review programmes in the light of our intention to remove the requirement to review all of their functions over a five year period''.

The implication of that is that only two of the four categories of council will have those increased freedoms, which is a pity, because all councils should have increased freedoms. Am I correct in assuming that the Government have had a change of heart since the publication of the White Paper? Very specifically, the requirement for all functions to be reviewed over a five-year period is deleted in the order, so, presumably, it is deleted for all councils, not just the two categories referred to in the White Paper.

I was surprised to hear the Minister say that he would have to write to the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire in reply to his question on fire authorities. He implied that that was not particularly germane to the order, but that is not true. The order specifically includes the deletion of article 5, which relates to the work required of fire authorities. It says:

    ''(2) Fire authorities must conduct the first best value review of—

    (a) their communication and control functions by 31st March 2001;

    (b) their procurement functions by 31st March 2002;

    (c) their training functions by 31st March 2003;

    (d) all their other functions by 31st March 2005.''

One has to assume that all fire authorities have already carried out the requirements up to 31 March 2002.

Let me put the matter in a slightly different way from the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire. As the article is now being deleted, perhaps the Minister will answer some specific questions. What plans are there for fire authorities to conduct a review of their training and other functions? By what dates are they now required to do that? Since that section is now being deleted, are we to assume that fire authorities are now off the hook in respect of all but their communication and control and procurement functions? Fire authorities will certainly want a clear answer to those questions.

The Minister has alluded to several forthcoming freedoms. His remarks so far have made it quite clear that, although this order does not refer to the introduction of a requirement that a summary be

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produced by 31 March, the Government intend to introduce such a requirement. What is the Government's intention on the introduction of an order for that requirement, and by what date will local authorities be required to comply with it? In other words, will local authorities, having felt that they have got off the hook a little this year, now find that they still have to do the work by 31 March 2003?

I said that local authorities might feel that they have got off the hook this year but although they are now being told that they do not have to complete their work until 30 June 2002, they will already have completed it, because we are debating the order after the deadline of 31 March. Since we have not yet agreed the order, it has not yet come into force.

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