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Audit (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill

5.53 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Earl Ferrers): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

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Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.--(Earl Ferrers.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Dean of Harptree) in the Chair.]

Clauses 1 to 4 agreed to.

Clause 5 [Publication at direction of either Commission]:

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 4, line 5, at end insert--
("( ) The relevant body may publish the information in accordance with a code of practice issued by the Secretary of State under section 2(2) of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980.").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 2 to 5. Clause 5 is concerned with the publication of performance indicators. It is not easy to make the Committee feel that performance indicators are the most exciting thing imaginable. But they are important and they are important because they enable local authorities to demonstrate to their electorates how the local authority has been performing.

Given the fact that the majority of local authorities in this country are now Labour, the performance indicators, when published, will reveal a record of first-class performance for local people. Therefore, I am delighted that in bringing forward this Bill, the Government will enable the many efficient and effective Labour authorities up and down the country to demonstrate how well they are doing in serving their local people.

I turn now to the amendments. Amendment No. 1 seeks to introduce a code of practice in order to give wider discretion in the publication of performance indicators. The amendment seeks to permit the Secretary of State to issue a code of practice to determine how that may be done. There are precedents for that under Section 3 of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980. The Secretary of State may make regulations to enforce the provisions of a code of practice to cover such matters as annual reports by local authorities. It seems to me that given that there is such a precedent, it would not be a very major step to have also a code of practice governing the publication of performance indicators. There is a precedent for it and it would be a helpful way in which to proceed.

Amendments Nos. 3 and 5 seek to achieve a similar end by different means; that is, they seek to permit a local authority to publish information about performance indicators possibly in its own publication or periodical if it has one. That would enable the information to be published not merely through free newspapers not owned by local authorities but through free newspapers owned by local authorities. It seems to me that that is quite a sensible step and I do not know why the Minister resisted such a suggestion on Second Reading. After all, private companies publish information for their shareholders in their own

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publications--in their annual reports and so on. Provided that the publication produced by a local authority reaches sufficiently widely, I cannot see why that is not a proper way in which to publish its own information. I cannot see that there would be any hint of bias in such a local authority paper as regards publishing performance indicators. That would seem to me to be an extremely cost-effective way of ensuring that voters are given information. After all, local authorities do their best to ensure that their own newsletters or publications reach every household, which is more than can be said for the other methods of publication.

Therefore, I should have thought that if the aim is to ensure that performance indicators economically and efficiently reach all people in a local authority area, where the local authority has its own free newspaper or publication which it distributes, that would be an excellent means of achieving that.

Amendments Nos. 2 and 4 are concerned with a slightly different matter. In Clause 5, conditions are imposed on free newspapers before they qualify for having performance indicators published in them. Those conditions are somewhat more onerous than those imposed on paid-for newspapers. There is not a distribution condition which applies to paid-for newspapers but such a condition applies to free newspapers in that they must have a circulation sufficient to reach the majority or all of the people in an area.

Therefore, a free newspaper would have to be extremely well distributed whereas a paid-for newspaper would not have to be. The point of Amendments Nos. 2 and 4 is to achieve similar distribution conditions for free newspapers as for paid-for newspapers. That merely levels the playing field as regards those two sets of publications.

I hope that the Government will consider the earlier amendments. It seems to me that having established a basis for distributing performance indicators to local people, it would be sensible to adopt these amendments as an improved way in which to achieve such distribution if the local authority has a newspaper and chooses to use it rather than choosing the other methods suggested in Clause 5. I beg to move.

6 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: I apologise to the Committee for not being in my normal place. I broadly support the amendments which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has brought forward, and I do so for two main reasons. First, it seems to me impossible for any local authority to exercise any power over a newspaper, whether free or not, to distribute its product anywhere that it does not wish to distribute it. Therefore, I do not see how you can exercise upon a free newspaper any kind of means to ensure that it reaches, as it says in the Bill, each household, each dwelling.

In fact, I would like to ask the noble Earl the Minister what he considers to be the reasonable steps which local authorities should take to ensure that newspapers are delivered to each dwelling. I would also like to ask him what the Government suppose the criteria for a local

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authority's success in this matter would be. Would the local authority be proved to be successful if the free journal reached 70 per cent. of dwellings, 50 per cent. of dwellings, or 30 per cent. of dwellings? What is the criteria for success and, if the Bill goes through, will we be leaving it to the courts?

My second point relates to what I take to be the main aim of the amendment, which is in one way or another to achieve the ability for local authorities to use their own publications to circulate information about performance indicators. I believe that would be an excellent idea for the following reasons. First, it is one way to ensure that the publication actually does reach each dwelling, and I believe it is the only way of doing so. Secondly, legislation already exists and the code, if that is the method that we adopt, could reinforce this to prevent such publications from taking on a party political tone. Thirdly--this is something people have not talked about before--in those areas, at least, where a two-tier system has persisted despite the Government's best efforts and where the responsibility for allied services are divided, the publication of a joint publication by both county and district authorities could reduce the total cost of informing local people and contribute to the enhancement of the two-tier system which the Local Government Commission recommended.

I support these amendments and I suspect that, even if the Government reject them today, the ideas that they represent may appear sooner or later in the legislative process.

Earl Ferrers: First, let me say how distressing it is to see the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, sitting where she is and not in her normal position on the Liberal Democrat Benches. I thought for one moment that she might have left them behind but, no, she has not; she merely finds herself sitting in a wheelchair as opposed to on a seat on the Bench. I am sure that the Committee would extend their sympathies to the noble Baroness for her indisposition.

I enjoyed listening to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, as one always does. Then, all of a sudden, he went off and he banged the drum for the Labour Party in the most astonishing way in an extraordinary extravaganza of imagination. He was saying that he was looking forward so much to reading of all the wonderful work that the Labour Party has done and the local authorities have done--let it all be published and then everyone can see how good they are. That is a very good thing and, of course, it is exactly what we want to see as a result of this Bill.

The amendments which the noble Lord has put down do not come as any great surprise to us because, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, will no doubt be aware if he read the proceedings in another place--I have no doubt that he did--they were put down in another place, too. However, I am bound to reiterate the argument which my right honourable friend the Parliamentary Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment put forward in another place.

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The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and, indeed, the noble Baroness, and I share a common objective in this matter. The objective is to ensure that local authorities publish information about their performance in a way which is unbiased and which informs the people in their area. We think that the Bill as drafted at present achieves this by providing that the publication must be subject to independent editorial control.

The suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in his Amendment No. 1, that the Secretary of State should issue a code of practice for the publication of performance information, might be used to the same ends, but we must consider what would be involved in that kind of measure. First, it would land local government and the Government with more regulation. That would mean more intervention; we would need yet another code of practice, and that would mean more bureaucracy. I do not know whether the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, likes that kind of thing, but I doubt that she does. I am quite sure that her party does not, either. Of course, the party of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, loves that kind of thing, and that is probably why he put down the amendment. However, we do not agree with that, and I am bound to say to the noble Lord that it does not attract us very much.

The code of practice would need to specify not just what information should be included, but also what information must not be included. One might ask, for example: how would a code deal with the Government's concerns that the indicators should provide independent information about an authority's performance? One might ask also: would a code allay the suspicions which the public may have about statistics which councils publish in their own publications? Would the publication need to be what one might describe as a stand-alone document? That would mean more expense for local authorities.

I have no doubt at all that the Government's way is better. Local authorities and Parliament will be in no doubt whatever about the publication requirements and they will not face the possibility of changes to those requirements from year to year. I do not think that we wish to increase the level of interference.

Of course, the remainder of the noble Lord's amendments are closely tied to the first one. The removal of the distribution requirement in subsection (3) and the independence requirements in subsections (3) and (5) could mean that local authorities could publish performance information in an in-house newspaper, which not only was editorially biased, but which might also have only a very limited distribution. That would entirely negate the whole purpose of what we are trying to achieve.

We believe that, whatever forms of publication are chosen by a local authority, the information about its performance, as measured against the Audit Commission's indicators, should at least be available throughout its area in a publication which is wholly independent of the authority. We attach considerable importance to that information being readily available to all those who wish to obtain it, and to it being available in a context where an authority cannot seek to

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put its own gloss on the results of its own performance. Of course, it is entirely open to the authority to publish this kind of additional information about its performance. In addition to publishing it in a newspaper of independent editorial concept, it can also publish it perfectly easily in an in-house journal which is delivered to the public. Some authorities have produced their information in a very good and a very understandable way, and I congratulate them on that. The point is that that should not be the only way in which to transmit the information.

The picture which emerged from the second national publication is one in which many of last year's worst performers have risen to the challenge of improving the services which they provide. That is the purpose of publishing the information, and I congratulate the local authorities on that. Perhaps those were the local authorities which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, had in mind--the ones that had done so well and had made such an improvement on last year because, perhaps, they had not done so well in the previous year.

The increase in flexibility in the minimum publication requirements--in other words the ability to publish in a free newspaper--which is contained in this Bill is intended to assist local authorities in the publishing of their performance indicators, and members of the public in having access to them. One of the reasons for that is that free newspapers often reach more people because they are free than do paid for newspapers which have to be bought.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, asked how an authority could know whether the free newspapers would reach people. The authority has to check with the editor of the free newspaper to ascertain whether the paper is distributed throughout the area--that is the important point. If the authority is satisfied by the editor's assurance that the paper is distributed throughout the area, and if, subsequently, the paper fails to be delivered, or some houses do not receive it by mistake, or there are publication difficulties, the local authority cannot be criticised. The noble Baroness asked about publication in areas which have retained a two-tier system. The performance indicators demonstrate local authority performance against a decision by elected members. The county and district each have a duty to report separately to their electors, but the two authorities could share the cost of publication by, say, taking out an advertisement together.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, was worried that the distribution requirements for free newspapers could be more onerous than for newspapers for sale. I do not think that one can have a distribution requirement for newspapers for sale. The public make a choice when they buy a newspaper. The point about buying a newspaper is that it is independent of a local authority. While I understand the concerns of the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, I hope that they will agree that all

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those concerns can be met by the local authority publishing its information in its own paper, provided that it also publishes it in an editorially free newspaper.

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