Select Committee on Regulatory Reform Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200-219)


20 MAY 2008

  Q200  John Hemming: Your interest, as LACORS, is more concerned with the impact on local government.

  Ms Martin: Yes, local government.

  Q201  John Hemming: Although you are not unconcerned about other things.

  Ms Martin: No.

  Councillor Sutton: There is definitely a timing issue here. We are in a very swift moving picture with a move from CPA to CAA, different indicator sets, driving away a plethora of over 1,200 performance indicators, which we slavishly do return on, based on 35 outcomes, for which local authorities will negotiate with government departments on why, and proving what those priorities are for local communities.

  Q202  John Hemming: Going back to the question of over-regulating the deregulation, was that something from the start, when it was in DTI, or did it come in at a later stage?

  Councillor Sutton: Formerly I was Chairman of the Trading Standards Qualification Council and four years ago we were having talks with DTI officials about having one set of indicator returns, the same set, for all government departments. Sadly that seems to have moved away. With this structure that you are looking at now, I hope that does not fall away to the wayside as well. I do not think you can underestimate the amount of local authority time costed. Sometimes we wonder why some of those returns are required, where we could shift those resources to delivering outcomes.

  Ms Martin: To follow up on the management of the REP, the prescription emanated really from day one. That was not something that the BRE imposed.

  Q203  John Hemming: The DTI brought it in but the BRE kept it.

  Ms Martin: Yes.

  Q204  Phil Wilson: The Department for Work and Pensions has claimed that it is already delivering reductions in data requests from local authorities. The target by 2010 is 30% and they think they are going to go beyond 30%. On the ground, what is happening in reality?

  Councillor Evans: In reality, no. I do not think it is being manifested at the moment. We have undertaken a survey of local authorities only last year. About 90% of them feel that there has not been any reduction in the information being requested by the departments. It is working well, I think, from the perspective of the local authorities in England in terms of the performance indicators, et cetera. We have seen that reduce from about 1,200 PSIs to 198 community outcomes. That is a step in the right direction. However, we do get asked still for a lot of ad hoc information from different government departments, et cetera, which is taking up a great deal of time and which has manifested itself in local authorities saying, "No, we haven't seen a reduction in the request for more information."

  Q205  Phil Wilson: You question that claim basically.

  Councillor Evans: Yes.

  Councillor Sutton: From my perspective, I definitely see a move towards that. Let us remember that CAA does not come in until 2010, so we are still in the throes of the old CPA inspection regime. We are only just starting to pilot through all the different agencies, the Audit Commission, HMIC, HMI, this new sort of single regulatory body which is going to oversee things but it has not yet transpired. We can see the process is being put in place. We can recognise those at a professional level. But, going back to the original question, how does it feel politically at the local level for local authorities, it is too early to say. It is something that I think needs constant watch.

  Q206  Phil Wilson: Do you think the better regulation agenda is starting to deliver a lighter regulatory burden on data requirements?

  Councillor Sutton: As far as the members are concerned, we have already alluded to the fact that 90% of member authorities do not think they see any reduction. Sometimes we question some of the returns that are required. Very often we are told that the detail and nature of the return required is driven by the EU. We do not know whether that is the case. Are you looking for a gold standard? Is it a statutory requirement to have that gold-plating return or can there be some reduction in the detail of those returns? Will the 198 local outcomes drive that process or not? A question for you: Do some of the departments need to have the gold standard EU return, which they purport to want, or is it necessary? That may well have quite an impact on addressing the regulatory burden.

  Q207  Dr Naysmith: All of you have said there are things that the department requires you to provide in the way of data and various other things but you are not sure of the relevance of it and you are not sure why it is required. Have you ever drawn up a list of these things on which you have questions and submitted it to the department? Or could you do that for us?

  Councillor Sutton: Yes. A lot of that has been—

  Q208  Dr Naysmith: I mean formally, demanding a response.

  Councillor Sutton: Yes. I am Vice-Chairman of the Safer Communities Board. We have central local partnership meetings quite often. Part of the outcomes of those was to drive down the number. It started with a number of performance indicators, convincing ministers that that these were resources that we were questioning. Why do you not trust locally elected politicians to deliver what local communities need? Then we got to the 198 indicators—which are not performance indicators, they are real measurable outcomes of how our communities feel about the way they are being governed, protected through consumer protection, through health and safety law, all those issues. Again, we are in this process. We perhaps need to have this discussion in 12 months time.

  Q209  Dr Naysmith: You know what you think is unnecessary. Do you get a reasonable response and a discussion about why government thinks they are necessary? Or do you get change without really knowing why it is happening?

  Councillor Sutton: I think we are very happy that we have gone from 1,200 performance indicators to various government departments, to 198 community outcomes.

  Q210  Dr Naysmith: You are saying that you have submitted these things, you have had a response, and you are happy with it, and there are still some outstanding areas.

  Councillor Sutton: We are in transition. We are probably going for the next 12 to 18 months, as we take this transition period from CPA to CAA, of perhaps feeding two different systems as they morph into the new system. That is a matter of concern for us.

  Q211  Dr Naysmith: But you are hoping that at the end of the process there will be a lighter burden.

  Councillor Sutton: Absolutely. We can see that. It is something that through the LGA we have lobbied for and we are quite pleased that we have had those changes, but they have yet to manifest themselves.

  Q212  Dr Naysmith: But you have had them, so they must be manifest.

  Councillor Sutton: No, we know what they are. The process is changing.

  Q213  Dr Naysmith: You are not there yet.

  Councillor Sutton: Keith was saying that 90% of local authorities feel that the demand is still the same. We need to have this conversation perhaps in 12 months, when we have done the transfer. We hope—we hope—that the answer will be positive: "Yes, there is a reduction."

  Q214  Judy Mallaber: You have another chance now because the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Bill is up in the Commons tomorrow, so this is rather on time. Can you tell us what your views are on the current format of the bill?

  Ms Martin: We have had a fairly standard position on the bill all the way through the Lords. There are a number of things that concern us in relation to the bill as a whole. They are, I guess, focused around two issues really. The key strategic one is the additional control mechanisms being put on local environmental health and trading standards authorities. The Government decided to set up the Local Better Regulation Office with a focus on improving controlling local environmental health and trading standards services. As an outcome of the Hampton Review, which was about helping businesses, we had always had the question about why all the focus on environmental health and trading standards. Whilst accepting improvements can always be made and burdens can always be reduced, there did not seem to be the same focus around that which research would suggest small businesses find more problematic, like VAT, tax, and employment law, so there was a concern about the need for this new body, with its budget of over £4 million a year, to do that specific thing. We have been successfully in discussions with the BRE, and this was part of the negotiating process, the fact that the engagement does work well around there was some discussion and move around the original proposals about the LBRO having much more directive powers over local government to say, "You must do this and you must do that." That has been negotiated to a much more reasonable position in our view. We still have concerns about new statutory processes being put in place, new arbitration mechanisms that we are not sure are necessary. One of the concerns, to which Andy alluded earlier, is that we are starting in a sanctioning regime of almost an agreed position. The BRE's position, government's position, was that they wanted local authorities to have a broader range of sanctions to be able to deal with regulatory breaches so it did not automatically mean having to take somebody to court. The local government perspective wanted those broader sanctions, but a range of amendments have now in our view meant that those sanctions are very difficult to use. The likelihood is, if the bill goes through as it is currently drafted, that local authorities may not use those sanctions now and will revert to the original position of their pre-existing powers. That is one of those difficulties that can occur, because there are different interests, different amendments put forward and debated, which is absolutely right, but the outcome sometimes means that the strategy we started off with clearly is not where we have ended up. That may change again as the bill progresses through the Commons. We have a whole range of debates happening now.

  Q215  Judy Mallaber: On the question of the powers, this is presumably what you put in your evidence about needing rights of audience for local authorities in the civil courts.

  Ms Martin: Yes.

  Q216  Judy Mallaber: You have said that through discussions there has been a change in what was being said about the relationship between the LBRO and local authorities and it was going to be less directive. Out of those discussions in the bill as it currently is, how would you see yourself working with the LBRO? Indeed, how should the BRE interact with LBRO? Can you give us a picture of how you see that working in the future?

  Councillor Sutton: We obviously come from the starting point of the Hampton Review. There were two, quite rightly, fairly high profile cases. We think there is the genesis for the LBRO to be put in place. For us, £4.5 million for this body, which has been eight months in existence, which has no statutory powers yet—from a local area agreement point of view has had no input, and has missed the deadline for local area agreements for local authority leaders to sign off with ministers—has missed the boat to some degree. We are not sure what the statutory powers will be, but they have yet to be decided. The LGA would take the view that this is a local issue. From two high profile cases nationally with the Hampton Review, was the LBRO the correct response, that £4.5 million, or would that be better invested into the local authorities to improve regulation. Those are the big issues.

  Q217  Judy Mallaber: You do not approve of the Hampton Review.

  Councillor Sutton: Yes, we do.

  Q218  Judy Mallaber: Or you do not think the LBRO should exist.

  Councillor Sutton: I think that those resources would have been better placed down to local authorities to make sure that those mistakes never happened again. But there were 400 and odd authorities. Two examples, although we recognise they were mistakes, perhaps we think the LBRO was an overreaction to some degree.

  Q219  Judy Mallaber: What do you think should be the level of involvement of the BRE or the BRE through agencies with local government on regulation? Or do you think local government should be allowed to get on with it? What do you think is the correct relationship between the BRE and local authorities?

  Councillor Sutton: I think local government should get on with it. I think the BRE have those excellent relationships with LACORS that we have described. LACORS is seen by local authorities across the UK as the place to go for information and advice. We see them as not only that but our improvement side for regulatory services through that advice. At the early stages of the LBRO, the LBRO positioned themselves as another improvement agency. We do not need that.

  Councillor Evans: It is another tier of bureaucracy where we could have used the mechanism in place to better effect.

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