Examination of Witnesses (Questions 181-199)
20 MAY 2008
Q181 Chairman: Could I welcome the Local
Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services to this session
and ask you what feedback you have had from councils on what it
is like to work with the BRE? Does the BRE talk to and consult
with local government sufficiently? Is it organised in a way that
is helpful to your members? Does it have the right people for
Councillor Sutton: Perhaps I could
deal with my experience as a local authority leader with the BRE,
and where they are on the radar with my colleagues around the
country. It is my experience that they are not high profile at
that level. There is a difference with the relationship, with
the central body of LACORS and the Local Government Association
very much at the technical level, but at the political leadership
level they do not seem to be of a high profile. One of the issues,
we feel, is that they are quite a process-oriented organisation.
There may well be some language differences, with the new way
that we are moving forward with local government, when we are
moving from the CPA system to comprehensive area assessments and
going away from this process of performance indicators to measuring
real outcomes for the communities that we are elected to serve.
As you will be aware, we are moving from 1,200 performance indicators
to 198 community outcomes. I do not think the language is there
from the organisation, the BRE, that is reflecting the way that
CLG are moving, and the central local partnership at the LGA is
talking with ministers to take the agenda forward. It may well
be it is a language thing. It may well be that the BRE would need
to look at what the 198 indicator sets are, although they have
five proposed in the 198. But of course the way that the relationship
with central government is going with local authorities, it will
be down to those local authorities to pick out 35 from those 198
indicator sets, via their Local Area Agreement, agree them with
government, and take that forward. Whether the five from the BRE
get into those 35 would be down to the way they are communicated.
There is a very, very healthy relationship at the technical level
with our senior directors within the LGA and LACORS, and they
do consult, but it is a constant battle with the language.
Q182 Chairman: Coming back to my
third question, does it have the right people for that, is the
language difficulty perhaps related to the absence of the right
Ms Martin: It is quite difficult
to judge around people. I think there is a lack of understanding
around how local authorities work at the ground level and what
they need to do for their communities, and particularly the regulatory
agenda: how one needs to deal with issues that happen in the locality.
But reinforcing Councillor Sutton's point, at the engagement level
it is very, very good. The BRE are almost in daily contact with
LACORS and the Local Government Associations about what they are
doing and wanting to talk to us and wanting to consult with us,
so at that level the relationship goes very well.
Councillor Evans: I think, in
fact, that is key to the relationship: the good working existence
that there is between us as deliverers, if you like, on the one
hand, and themselves in taking that forward. We need a bit of
pragmatism. We need to be delivering at the end. They seem to
be acting more like a think tank, if you like, in terms of taking
things through, whereas we, as local authorities, are wanting
to be there to be able to enforce and to have the grounding in
terms of the deliverables of such actions. We deal with things
at the coal face. Whether it is animal health or death or injury
at work, et cetera, we are involved more in the practicalities
of dealing with those kinds of issues.
Q183 Chairman: Let us follow up on
that last comment. Have you been involved in the review of health
and safety burdens specifically for SMEs? Have you been involved
in that? If so, perhaps you could tell us a bit more about it.
Ms Martin: LACORS has been. The
Executive Director of LACORS has been on the steering group. It
is not personally within my remit but colleagues that work on
health and safety have been very actively involved with the BRE
throughout that project. Again, the engagement has worked very,
very well throughout the project. I think there have been some
concerns that occurred in the last couple of days. In the draft
report, which I have not seen but my colleagues have seen, some
of the recommendations appear not to have been discussed by the
steering group. I know that has caused some concerns with both
the Health and Safety Executive and LACORS but is being followed
up with the BRE. But on the process itself, again very active
engagement from the inception of the work, and it just seems to
be that at this very last point there have been some sticking
points about drafting and certain recommendations. Other than
that, it has worked very well.
Q184 Dr Naysmith: Do you think the
BRE has a coherent strategy and a firm grip on its own objectives?
The reason I ask that question is that in the LACORS' memorandum
there was a suggestion that there is some overlap between BRE's
overarching strategy to deliver better regulation and the number
of individual regulatory reviews that are going on at the same
time. Does it have a clear grip on its own strategy to deliver
the best possible regulation?
Councillor Evans: The objective
of reducing the administrative burden is well understood by all
concerned and we certainly are well aware, going forward, of the
simplification plans in terms of reducing those burdens. The issue
for us really at this stage is that what is being delivered in
terms of outcomes. At the moment we get limited outcomes from
those simplifications. It seems to be that it is not getting through
the cut and thrust of what needs to be done in terms of seeing
the outcome at the end of it. Perhaps we do not fully understand
yet how long it will take for these issues to come to the simplification.
Currently, it does not seem to me that we are getting to them.
Q185 Dr Naysmith: What do you think
it could do better that it is not doing at the moment?
Councillor Evans: It depends how
much time it will take to go through the processes to make matters
more simplified. That seems to be a very long journey to get to
the delivery end at this time. Certainly the activities do seem
a bit incoherent in terms of the overall strategy. For example,
last week, part of BERR issued a consumer law review. That in
itself was quite confusing: part of it was focusing on simplification
of legislation, which is in line, of course, with what was being
instigated officially, but at the end of the day part of it is
also reviewing the enforcement regime. This runs against what
the LBRO is assumed to be doing. There seems to us to be confusion
around that one. I do not know if colleagues would like to add
Q186 Dr Naysmith: It is not necessary
for everybody to speak on every topic, but if you have something
to add that would be great.
Councillor Sutton: I think that
Q187 Dr Naysmith: I will switch to
my next question. You know that the BRE has moved from the Cabinet
Office to BERR. Do you think that is the right place for it? Is
the move a good one? If not, where do you think the BRE should
Councillor Sutton: For me, the
important factor is the outcome. I think there is a sense of feeling
that as it has moved form the Cabinet Office it may have lost
some of its perceived influence across all the government spending
departments and the issue is are they being effective as legislation
is being developed, are they being put in at the right level.
There are anecdotal issues, if we are talking about CLG, where
the BRE have done some development work which has been completely
opposed to some of the outcome that CLG want. If this is having
an effect in other government spending departments, are they best
suited where they are? That is probably an internal question for
you. I think there is a perception issue for local authorities,
how important are BRE looking in to central government. Why have
they moved? Is it the perception that sat in the Cabinet Office
they were much more influential?
Q188 Dr Naysmith: Do you think that
perception is shared widely, that being in the Cabinet Office
was more influential than in BERR?
Councillor Sutton: Amongst local
authority leaders that would have a resonance, yes.
Q189 Dr Naysmith: But no real evidence
that there is a difference.
Councillor Sutton: Speaking to
senior directors in the LGA and at LACORS, there are tranches
of work that do go on, and they go to some of the government spending
departments which just send them back and say, "This is not
the direction we want to be going." If we go back to the
move from performance indicators to outcomes, I think there is
some confusion there with the role of the BRE with LBRO as well,
but I would imagine you are going to ask about that later on.
It is a matter for you, I would say.
Q190 Dr Naysmith: You have thrown
it back in our court.
Councillor Sutton: Yes, but from
outside looking in there is the perception that if something is
sat at the corporate centre it is perhaps listened to a lot more.
Is that having a real effect on other government spending departments
in the way they want to change regulation?
Q191 Judy Mallaber: We have been
receiving evidence that the BRE puts too much emphasis on deregulation
and satisfying the business sector, and not enough on consumers
and users, for example. Your submission talks about the balance
between the two and others have been saying that the balance has
gone too far in one direction. Could you give us your various
perspectives on that issue.
Councillor Sutton: We feel generally
that there is an assumption, when it comes to regulation, that
SMEs need more hand-holding and more legislation than some of
the very large multinational companies. The realities are that
even the big multinationals in local authority areas do make some
big mistakes around consumer protection and health and safety,
and perhaps that is where the focus should be. Some of the big
multinationals of course have made successful lobbying through
the Lords as some of this legislation went through. Perhaps some
of the focus has shifted to SMEs but then there are instances
we can give outside of the Committee, to Committee members, of
some big multinationals making some big health and safety mistakes
and some big consumer mistakes within local authority areas. The
focus needs to be against the big multinationals and SMEs as well.
There is also this thing about regulators, "them and us"
in local authorities, being seen as inspectors, whereas our role
is probably more on the advice side at a very local level to fledgling
companies, to even multinationals operating in our areas, a supporting
role and an advice role.
Councillor Evans: We cannot really
overemphasise that point, that we are there to help the small
businesses as well in our communities to understand legislation
and understand what they need to be looking at.
Q192 Judy Mallaber: Local authorities
still have regulatory and inspection functions and trading standards
are very important. There have been areas in my neck of the woods
where I have felt that sometimes there has not been enough regulation,
particularly around meat hygiene. There was a national scandal
that we had which caused huge costs for the authority. Where do
you feel pressure from the BRE is coming on that side of the equation?
While you have said there are mistakes of companies, I am not
clear whether you feel they are getting the right balance in terms
of the emphasis on helping businesses or whether they have the
balance right between that and the needs of, say, consumers, the
environment, et cetera. Is there a LACORS view on where we are
at the moment?
Ms Martin: The worry is that there
seems to be quite a simplistic view in some of the discussions,
so that you have big business in one area, where all is fine and
everything is wonderful, and you have rogue traders somewhere
else. The classics being people who sell counterfeit goods, doorstep
traders or things like that. In fact there is quite a lot of grey
area in the middle, not just around individual businesses but
certain very reputable businesses who make active choices to do
certain things. Recently we have had a couple of examples that
are not local authority enforced but relate to consumer legislation,
if we look at what the OFT has done with high street banks, where
they have not really been putting the interests of consumers at
the top of the agenda over things like charging and that is going
through the courts at the moment. Also the recent findings on
big construction companies that have colluded to break the law
in and around price fixing and tendering for local authority contracts.
It is just a slight worry for us that it is seen as very, very
black and white: you have good traders and you have rogue traders
and all the activity should be on those identifiable rogue traders.
Our view is that local authorities do apply risk and they do use
intelligence around where the failings are, whether that is in
health and hygiene or in consumer issues. There is a worry that
the balance tips too far in assuming that you do not need any
focus on those which are generally seen as good big business because
they will just look after themselves and do everything right,
whereas there does need to be that safety net public enforcement
role to help if they need it but, also, so that if things do go
wrong they are appropriately dealt with.
Councillor Evans: Risk management
is key these days to local authority works. We have to assess
the situation at the local level, though we are well aware of
what is happening at the national level as well through bodies
Q193 Gordon Banks: I am interested
in the idea of enforcing and also trying to work with small businesses.
I run a small business. I started before I came into Parliament.
Do you think the BRE make it easier or harder for you to do that?
Councillor Evans: I think it is
early days yet to identify the outcome of that. It is meant to
be simplifying things. Time will tell whether that is the case
or whether it is going to frustrate even more small businesses.
I also run a small business and the bureaucracy involved in all
that, the red tape, is something that gets small businesses down.
Q194 Gordon Banks: If you find that
you have a barrier because of something to do with the BRE, do
you think that erodes that business's confidence in you as a potential
partner to work with in a whole lot of other issues as well, so
that it has a knock-on effect other than just in the area that
may be involved in the BRE?
Councillor Evans: No, I do not
think so. Local authorities at the local level have expertise
in dealing with small embryonic companies and they are able to
play the two roles simultaneously, if you like: they can be the
heavy hand or they can be the holding hand. I think it is very
important for small businesses that that role continues.
Q195 John Hemming: Obviously the
retail enforcement pilot is very much a local government thing.
You have said it is too prescriptive. What do you mean by too
Ms Martin: We always felt the
principles behind the retail enforcement pilot were very good.
But from the outset it was too prescriptive,and this was
before the time it was a BRE-sponsored project, in effect, because
retail enforcement pilot moved homes and on a number of occasions
Q196 John Hemming: Where did it leave
homes from and to?
Ms Martin: It started at the DTI,
then, when the BRE became part of BERR, the BRE took responsibility,
and I understand it may then be moving to the LBRO from September
time. I do not think that is completely agreed yet.
Q197 John Hemming: So it was not
with the BRE before they were BERR.
Ms Martin: No. It was started
by the DTI and a lot of work was done there. The fear we always
had was that it was focused completely on dealing with routine
planned inspections at a time when they were reducing anyway.
An awful lot of routine planned inspections that were done, particularly
in relation to trading standards and food, were done to meet the
previous performance indicator regime, where actually the DTI
had indicators that measured how good a trading standards authority
was by the number of inspections it did. The Food Standards Agency
did the samein fact, it still does, but to a lesser degree.
It was very difficult, therefore, for the pilot to measure outcomes
because it was on shifting sands, in effect. It was a pilot about
reducing inspections at the time inspections were reducing anyway.
It has worked very well in some areas. We have had very good feedback
in some of the pilot areas, but we also know some other areas
were unable to participate because they wanted to do something
slightly different. In one area in Wales there was a desire to
run the pilot but without the fire authorities, because the fire
authorities could not commit resource to it. Because it did not
fit into the framework of retail enforcement pilot they were not
allowed to try it out. We felt that would have been a valuable
trial area. There have been some other places in the East Anglia
area where they have wanted to do it, based more on data exchange
rather than a focus on planned inspections, and, again, it did
not fit the quite strict frameworks.
Q198 John Hemming: You are saying
they over-regulated the deregulation.
Ms Martin: Yes. It is too early.
Phase 2 has always been the phase where one needed to measure
properly the cost-benefits, not only to business but, from our
perspective, to local authorities. If it were to cost local government
far more to manage the process than it was getting out of the
savings at the other end, there would be question marks about
how it could be rolled out. We are looking forward to that evaluation,
which will be at the end of this calendar year.
Q199 John Hemming: At the moment
you are not sure as to what the cost benefit is for local government.
One of the estimates is about £10 million saved for business.
Is that fair, indifferent, high, low?
Ms Martin: To be honest, I would
probably have to follow that up with some written answers. I could
not comment on the details of how those figures have been arrived