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28 Oct 2009 : Column 317

Mr. Denham: This is an important issue. In my area, people in Southampton would be able to have that discussion, but people in Eastleigh would not, as they do not have a university. People in Winchester could have that debate-they have a university, or bits of a couple of universities-but not those in Eastleigh. I think that the hon. Lady would accept that it is a bit of an illusion to think that having this information is particularly useful.

The right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) put forward a proposition: include the items in the figures somewhere and do not worry too much about where they are-Winchester has its prison and poor old Eastleigh loses out again-as long as they appear somewhere in the data. That is one way of approaching it, but I am honestly not convinced that this will prove enormously useful. I do not rule it out, as it might provide one way of dealing with some of this expenditure, but let us acknowledge that there are problems with it.

I shall move on to an example that might find more common ground. The Court Service is another example of spending that serves a wider area, as is spending on skills in association with FE colleges and training providers. Those examples might be even more challenging for this process, because spending on skills, or on the criminal justice service, is spending in just the sort of areas where localities often argue that different priorities might be set. I accept that excluding those areas of expenditure in the long term is inherently unsatisfactory, which I believe was also the right hon. Gentleman's point.

The second issue to deal with is that some categories of organisation do not hold their data in a way that easily relates to local authorities. If we are talking largely about capital spending, it switches location from year to year. For example, one particular year's report that included Highways Agency spending might not provide a great deal of information about the annual revenue flow or inflow from that organisation into a particular area. Again, we have to make a judgment about the value of information that comes in that sort of lumpy and essentially variable-over-time quantity.

Mr. Letwin rose-

Mr. Denham: I will give way one more time to the right hon. Gentleman, but then I must make some progress.

Mr. Letwin: I am grateful; the right hon. Gentleman has been extremely patient and considerate. What he has said throughout could be characterised in this way: he wants to manufacture information that he thinks will be valuable, but what we are arguing-collectively, I think, across the House-is that people as intelligent adults should be able to decide how to use the information in all sorts of ways that neither the right hon. Gentleman nor we can imagine. He does not need to worry about mollycoddling or nannying people into having the information that they "ought to have"; he needs only to provide such information as there is and let them get on with it.

Mr. Denham: I would make two points. First, I am not anticipating the next stage of the process in detail. I want to commit the Government to taking this process forward today, which is why I am approaching the issue constructively. Secondly, there are some real issues of presentation and understanding, and the sort of information
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that I am talking about is not hard to find. I am making what I think are reasonable points about the way in which we present data.

Mr. Dorrell rose-

Mr. Denham: No, I have already given way many times; I must make some progress.

Mr. Dorrell: I just want to be helpful.

Mr. Denham: None the less, why spoil the debate? Very well.

Mr. Dorrell: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for allowing himself to be persuaded. He has said twice that the information is available, and he is right about that. Someone who explores the internet and employs a researcher will be able to find a fair amount of it. Part of the point of producing a local spending report, however, is to invite those to whom the necessary resources are available to take action on behalf of the public, so that those who are interested can obtain the information in a more easily accessible form. Will the Secretary of State take that point on board?

Mr. Denham: I entirely take the point, but the Opposition are so determined to be cynical that they are suggesting that I am giving reasons for not providing data, whereas I am actually exploring real issues relating to the effective production of local spending reports.

A third problem is caused by data not being held in a way that correlates easily with local authority areas. Parties that wish us to cut our budget, as the Conservative party does, will recognise that a reasonable limit must be placed on the expenditure required to produce that data. That is precisely what the Minister said at the time of the debate that I mentioned earlier. Fourthly, as I also said earlier-I realise that this point is not a show-stopper, but it is important-the data that we are discussing give no indication of the quality of services or the outcome of public spending. I think it important for debate to focus on those issues at local level as well. Fifthly, as many respondents to our consultation on the next step pointed out, what people often want is much more "micro-area" data. Spending in local communities, rather than at an aggregate local authority level, can highlight disparities in investment and outcomes.

Finally, the procedures laid down in the Act restrict us, essentially, to publishing data prepared and validated in line with the principles of the Office for National Statistics, which means that data that may be held by Government cannot be published until they meet that standard and may therefore be published some time after the event.

One of the reasons why comprehensive spending reports have been published in Bournemouth, Cumbria and Birmingham, for instance, is that information has been made available by local partners who hold the information and are free to make it available. However, it is not produced to the same standard as the ONS statistics produced by Government. We are effectively limited. As has been pointed out, the quality of some of the local public spending picture is higher than we have been able to produce. The issue here is the necessary obstacle presented by the ONS standards.

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The consultation on the next stages received a somewhat disappointing response, mainly from local government. Only six non-governmental organisations responded, although they included Co-operatives(UK), the Public and Commercial Services Union and the National Housing Federation. However, there was a general desire for more information.

I suggest that we move forward in a number of ways. The first step will be to revisit Government Departments and agencies to find out what further information could be made available at reasonable cost to supplement the existing spending report. I hope to have completed that work by the time I report at the end of the year. Judging by today's debate, I think that it should include considering the issue of lumpy and localised spending, which is of national and regional importance. However, I have expressed concerns about the value of some of those data.

Secondly, we have received overwhelming support for our proposals to enable local authorities to scrutinise not just their own spending, but all local public service spending in their areas. Subject to detailed agreement across Whitehall, those plans will enable local authorities to scrutinise as much as £100 billion of public spending. Of course, they will be able to do so only if they have adequate spending information, and spending bodies will have to have a responsibility to co-operate with the scrutiny process. Local spending reports that we produce will support that process, but more and more immediate information should become available where it matters: in local areas. At present, because of the ONS issue, the sort of information that I expect to be made available to scrutiny committees may well be more up to date and comprehensive than any local public spending report would be at any particular time.

Thirdly-as has been recognised today-the Government have established 13 local authority-based Total Place pilots, which are examining in great detail current public spending across different agencies on particular services such as provision for the under-fives, drug and alcohol services and young people's services. That detailed mapping of public spending means that, for the first time, people can ask whether investing the money differently might produce not just better value for money, but better outcomes. They can consider the possibility that investment in, say, the prevention of unwanted teenage pregnancies might produce savings somewhere down the line in child care support, or that investment more generally in preventive health or substance misuse services might produce benefits down the line. We all want to see that happen.

Although Total Place is a pilot at present, many other areas are running similar initiatives. I believe that that approach-looking at every pound of public service spending in each area-is really gathering support. In many ways the Total Place was anticipated by the Sustainable Communities Act, but in many ways it is also potentially more comprehensive and more ambitious.

Part of our investment in Total Place is intended to enable local services to identify spending and outcomes at a much more detailed, and arguably more useful, level than the local authority level of local spending reports. It is often when one is able to identify the level of investment in a particular estate, community or target group of citizens that it is possible to identify whether public money is being used to best effect. One
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of the things that we will learn through Total Place is how data of that kind could be made much more widely available.

A number of Members asked earlier how it had been possible to make such information available in Bournemouth and in the Birmingham area, where I believe it shows public expenditure of £7.2 billion. First, we have provided extra financial support for the Total Place pilots to enable them to identify the data. Secondly, the data are not readily held by central Government in every circumstance. They are held by local partners, which is not a bad thing. There has been a general desire to reduce the level of reporting to central Government. However, I believe that that illustrates that we need to build on the Total Place pilots and see what lessons can be learned about making the data more widely available.

I think Members will agree that that local overview of public spending should be made available to professional managers of services and policy makers at local level, and to councillors who are involved in scrutiny. I also believe, as I said at the outset, that it should be made available to the public. The challenge that we face is to find a way of making these much more comprehensive local area spending data more widely available.

That is where the fourth strand of reform comes in. As the House will know, the Prime Minister has asked Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the original developer of the internet, to lead a project on making public data more readily available. The opening of his terms of reference makes the aim of that work clear:

The House will be pleased to learn that one of the key subsidiary aims of the project is to drive a culture change in Whitehall towards an assumption of total publication of anonymous data using open standards.

That work clearly does not just complement the local spending reports. I believe that it holds the potential to go much further, with Government and local government data becoming much more readily accessible on a much faster time scale and in a format that is more readily open to interrogation and investigation. That is relevant to a point made by the hon. Member for Meriden.

I have made it very clear that I want my Department and local government to participate enthusiastically in this important work. Sir Tim Berners-Lee is supported in it by Professor Nigel Shadbolt of Southampton university. I have met Professor Shadbolt, and hope to agree soon-certainly by the time of my progress report in December -on how we will participate.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): Is the Secretary of State telling us that local spending reports will be subsumed in the Total Place programme, or will they continue to have an independent life?

Mr. Denham: It would be premature to say that they should be subsumed into the Total Place report, but I think we should continue to publish and develop them, and to look at how they can be extended. However, it is only fair to say to the House that there are other processes of change around Total Place and the
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Government's drive to put data on to the web will take the process further forward than could have been anticipated at the time when the legislation was piloted through the House. I hope that statement is helpful. Let me make it clear that this is not an attempt to use the potential development of Total Place or other mechanisms as a reason for not progressing our current commitment to local spending reports. It is instead based on an optimistic view that we can go even further and do even better, particularly if at local level the data we have been talking about is more routinely available as a matter of course in the publication of data by local government and other agencies, rather than through the procedure we have for local spending reports, where all that information has to be reported up the line and go through the Office for National Statistics and then back down again.

Mr. Redwood: The Secretary of State has just said something very encouraging: he says he wants to publish more information than he is currently able to publish. Why then does he not just get on and publish all the information on the basis set out by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin)? Is the Secretary of State not aware that if he is given a "Yes Minister" script by his officials he should tear it up and tell us what he is going to do and provide some leadership?

Mr. Denham: It is a great shame that the right hon. Gentleman has clearly not been listening to the debate, because those of his colleagues who have participated in it have understood that I have been setting out precisely how I want to take us forward from where we are today, both in terms of local spending reports and in drawing to the House's attention some broader moves to make local spending data more widely available. I had hoped that the House would welcome that, and I should point out that these steps are very much in keeping with the spirit of the original proposals of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, you, at least, will be pleased to know that I have reached the point in my remarks that states: "So to summarise". Therefore, let me summarise for the right hon. Gentleman the points I have been seeking to make.

Mrs. Spelman rose-

Mr. Denham: I shall give way once more, but I would not mind being able to deliver one coherent set of paragraphs at some point in my speech; I have taken a lot of interventions.

Mrs. Spelman: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way, and I think this latter part of the debate has been interactive and interesting.

Does the involvement in driving the Total Place agenda of the Treasury, which is essentially the largest cross-cutting Department, make it easier both to extract the information and to extract more clearly on a comparable basis how much public money is being spent, because the Treasury has an interest in knowing, as do the public, exactly how it is being spent? Is that the key detail in persuading the Secretary of State that the Total Place pilots have the potential he has been outlining?

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Mr. Denham: I chair the cross-Government ministerial committee on Total Place. For me as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, it is enormously helpful to have the Treasury fully engaged in this project. Let me make the following important point, however. There are 13 formal pilots, but anybody who, like the hon. Lady, is out and about meeting people in local government or reading the local government press will know that many other projects are basically do-it-yourself Total Place pilots. That shows that the reality is that there is a deep understanding in many areas of the public services that the next great public service reform challenge is breaking down the barriers between different public services and then having the ability to switch investment from one area of spending to another in order to produce the best possible outcomes.

There is to some extent frustration. I can sense it from Opposition Members and I do not think it is misplaced. The frustration is that when partners voluntarily get together at local level, in the vast majority of cases they have the legal ability simply to share information-such as their current operating data, or their current financial systems-in order to come up with a total picture of what they are doing. We in central Government are constrained at present in respect of pushing out data because we all wanted ONS to be independent and our statistics to be verified and not to be used by Ministers for nefarious purposes-not that we would ever do so. Those partnerships are operating on real current financial operating data. At the risk of going slightly beyond any agreed Government policy, let me say that we must somehow find a way to get that much more timeous data out into the public domain at local level. I believe that in the time to come the framework we have for local spending reports will enable us to go further than at present, but I think we would probably all accept that in terms of the cutting-edge work that is taking place on mapping public expenditure at local level, some of the most interesting work is being done around the Total Place pilots. I am not putting Total Place to the House as an alternative to local public spending reports. I am, however, saying that we should acknowledge that there is some very interesting and exciting work taking place throughout the country which we should all want to build on in the future.

Let me now summarise. I share the belief that openness in public data is important to driving public service reform and improving the quality of local public services. We have made a good start in local public spending reports; I do not share the criticism expressed today of how far we have gone. I believe, however, that we can go further, even though there are some real issues to be tackled, and the Government amendment suggests I should report back to the House on this before the end of the year.

At the same time as reporting back on where we go next on local public spending reports, we should recognise three important developments since the passage of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 that have the potential to take this work much further forward: first, our proposals to extend widely the scrutiny powers of local government to cover local public spending areas; secondly, the development of Total Place, and the understanding it will give on how best to map spending and outcomes at local, including community, level; and thirdly, the Government's wider work to make public data available
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to common standards on the internet. Taken together, I believe those areas of work will over time produce an outcome that exceeds the original ambition of the Sustainable Communities Act, but also one that is very much in keeping with it.

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