Fifth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Monday 2 December 2002
[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]
Local Government Finance (England)
Special Grant Report (No. 107) (HC 60)
on Special Grant for Activities Undertaken
by Beacon Councils
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Christopher Leslie): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 107) (HC 60) on Special Grant for Activity Undertaken by Beacon Councils.
We shall be debating a special grant report that allows the distribution of £2.2 million to beacon councils. In a number of ways, those councils are already showing others their best activities and all local authorities will have the opportunity to learn from that and thus improve their services. The special grant is the Government's contribution to the cost of those events.
The effective provision of quality services, whether central or local, is central to the Government's modernisation agenda. Many examples of excellence in service delivery exist across local government, and we should be proud of them. The beacon scheme identifies and celebrates that excellence, and enables others to learn from it. The main aim of the scheme is to ensure that examples of excellence reach a wider audience, so that local people everywhere can benefit. That is a key part of raising the standards of service delivery, and it is vital to achieving best value.
Each year, local authorities are invited to apply to become beacon councils under a range of specific service themes. The themes vary from year to year, but they are chosen because they are things that matter to local people. For example, round three, which we are discussing today, has 11 themes. Those themes are: adoption; better access and mobility; community legal services; crime reduction in rural areas; fostering business growth; improving urban green spaces; libraries as a community resource; neighbourhood renewal; promoting racial equality; tackling fuel poverty; and transition in education. As well as demonstrating excellence in the service theme under which they apply, successful applicants must also show good general performance across the whole of the council and demonstrate they have effective plans for the dissemination of their best practice.
The programme of dissemination events is co-ordinated by the Improvement and Development Agency, and it began in April this year. In the first two rounds of the beacon scheme, showcase events for each theme and subsequent open days hosted by individual authorities have been attended by almost every English council. That is another clear indication that local government is keen to be involved in the
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scheme and to learn from the best. Beacon status is awarded not only for excellence but for the ability to communicate that excellence to others. As well as events co-ordinated by the agency, beacon councils provide other ways to learn. Secondment, work shadowing, networking opportunities, one-to-one and site visits, websites and printed documents are among the forms of dissemination on offer.
None of that dissemination could take place without the councils' willingness to dedicate some of their own resources to fulfilling their duty as beacons. Although the recognition and respect that they receive from their peers is valuable, we intend to give direct support to them to offset the costs incurred. We promised £2.2 million to the beacon councils, and we are delivering on that promise through the special grant report. It will be a major contribution to the costs of being a beacon council. Those costs can include expansion of websites, publicity material, travel and subsistence for staff. Councils also have the opportunity to raise income for themselves through open days and consultancy work.
The special grant report sets out how we plan to distribute the £2.2 million for the third year of the scheme among the 52 successful bids, which were made by 46 councils. Some of the language in the report may seem a little technical, but the purpose is straightforward.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I may have misheard the Under-Secretary. Did he say that there were 44 councils and 46 applications?
Mr. Leslie: In round three, there were 52 successful bids from 46 councils, although there were applications from some 130 councils.
A council applies for a special grant by first submitting to us a formal dissemination plan, setting out what it will do to share good practice—such as events that are to be held and publicity material that is to be produced—and showing the costs and the income involved. The plans have been approved to ensure that all costs will be relevant expenditure towards which the grant will be paid.
The amount of grant awarded in respect of each beacon application will be equal to the net relevant expenditure incurred by the council up to a cash limit. All the costs incurred by a council under its dissemination plan will be covered by grant up to the cash limit for that council. We have specified cash limits of £42,115 for each single beacon award—those cases in which one council has received one award in one theme—and £52,115 for each joint beacon award; those given to two or more councils that applied jointly. In the case of a joint beacon award, the grant will be paid to the lead authority. A council that holds beacon status in two themes will be entitled to £42,115 for each theme, so it will receive £84,230. There are 44 single beacons, 8 double beacons and one joint award in this round.
The money will be paid to councils on their submission of a claim, which will be subject to audit, showing the relevant expenditure incurred. We expect claims to be made before the end of February and payment to be made before the end of March.
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The report makes the arrangements for the third year of the beacon council scheme, which is clearly well established and part of the local authority improvement agenda. The scheme gives all councils an opportunity to improve and to deliver quality services, and councils are already benefiting from the learning experiences that the scheme offers. I commend the report to the Committee.
Mr. Pickles: It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. O'Brien. The Under-Secretary did well to introduce the report, as he must have had to hide his intense disappointment in the scheme.
I have checked the numbers. There is a steady decline in the number of councils applying for a beacon council grant. When the scheme started there were 269 applications from 211 councils. The following year, the number dropped to 179 from 123 councils. Now we are down to some 56 successful bids from 44 councils, out of about 150 applications. That is a bit strange, considering that the number of areas has increased over the years. It seems like an enormous amount of bureaucracy for a relatively small amount of money.
There also seems to be a lack of co-ordination with regard to beacon councils. I have noted from recent reports that the advisory committee wanted to award beacon status to various councils, but this was turned down by Ministers because of problems in other Departments.
The list of councils that appears in appendix A does not seem to be a fair reflection of the general make-up of councils. Of all the councils in the country, 27 per cent. are controlled by the Conservative party and 29 per cent. by the Labour party. Yet only 11 per cent. of beacon councils are Conservative, while 63 per cent. are Labour. Labour Members might feel happy about that now but, unfortunately, the Audit Commission will produce its comprehensive performance assessment in just over a fortnight.
Mr. O'Brien, you and I share the same county of birth—Yorkshire—and Yorkshiremen are not known for throwing their money about. However, I am prepared to bet a sizeable sum that few of the beacon councils that make up that 63 per cent. will be among the Audit Commission's top ten authorities. Therefore, we want an explanation of how these beacon councils have been selected.
The Under-Secretary said that the performance of beacon councils had to be good across the whole council. A beacon council must be good in more than a specific sense; it must be a good council in general. Will he give us his assessment of Northamptonshire county council—[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary is right to grimace. Northamptonshire is not my idea of a beacon council, and I would very much like to know what it is doing.
Another of the authorities before us is Rotherham metropolitan borough council. I had the honour of being in Rotherham last week towards the end of a massive corruption trial, at which the council's former Labour deputy leader, Mr. Gavin Reed, was sentenced
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to three years' imprisonment for massive corruption against the council. He worked on anti-poverty matters, which are covered by annex C, but squandered the council's money on expensive hotel bills, gambling, horse racing and prostitutes.
Such pursuits are not restricted to members of the Labour party; they are a reflection of human vice. If people engage in them—I say this to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), who has strong views on such things—it is a matter for their conscience, their maker and their family. However, if they use ratepayers' money to bet on horse racing, to hire prostitutes and to stay in expensive places, I want to know about it. Clearly there must have been a complete breakdown of Rotherham council's auditing function for £172,000 to go astray. What is the Under-Secretary doing to ensure that the council gets a special audit to so that its money is spent sensibly?
Given that we are talking about £2 million, the scheme seems over-extended, and we have an enormous amount of bureaucracy to deliver very little. I commend to the Committee the words of Sir Jeremy Beecham, the Labour chairman of the Local Government Association, who warned of
''the strange death of local democracy''
''belittling of the role of local councillors''
under Labour. He also noted that moves
''towards ring-fencing of resources are pushing relentlessly in the direction of greater central control''.
Finally, when the Under-Secretary discusses annex A, will he be kind enough to give an estimate of the numbers of high and low-performing authorities on the list? That would give us an indication of how much merit we should see in beacon councils.