Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Dixon-Smith: Does the noble Baroness consider that anybody who is paying business rates in a particular local authority area must by definition be a person either who uses or is likely to use services provided by the authority?

Baroness Hamwee: They do of course, which is one of the reasons why many of us would like to see business rates returned to a more local base. However the services which they use are sometimes different from those used by others who may or may not pay council tax. As a group, they deserve recognition. The representatives of people who appear to have an interest in an area in which the authority functions rather suggests that it is only people who pay council tax or preceptual levy who deserve to be heard. I cannot believe that that is, or should be, the case.

Lord Dixon-Smith: I must protest: the term "users of services" in local authority areas includes almost everyone by definition. There is no distinction in sub-paragraph (c) regarding that use. When you merely walk down the road, you are using a local authority service; if you send a child to school, you are using a local authority service; if you have drains with an outlet anywhere, you are using a local authority service. I submit that the definitions I have advanced are perfectly adequate and that the arguments advanced against me are somewhat specious.

Baroness Hamwee: It is precisely because someone is using the services that he or she should be fully consulted. Incidentally, these amendments do not address the issue of people who move across boroughs and have interests in different boroughs.

Turning to Amendments Nos. 17 and 18, I have no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, will not like the requirement in Amendment No. 17 for consultation with representatives of those who have an interest in a function exercised by an authority. That could form part of a consultation under one of the other headings, but it is worth distinguishing geographical interests from interests in particular services. After all, it is the essence of politics to set priorities; a local authority has to set priorities between its services, however they are delivered. That is an area for one kind of consultation; how a particular service is delivered, possibly as part of a reorganisation of priorities, is another.

To take an example, the recipients of domiciliary care and other care services, and the carers for those people, are likely to hold views on the delivery of those services. I partly have in mind the consultation that my own borough undertook with regard to this subject. It was not an entirely happy process. We heard things that we might not have wanted to hear. However, it was better that we heard them and that they did not remain unspoken.

The amendment would also require consultation with those who have a particular concern, such as voluntary environmental groups, possibly even the Government's

10 May 1999 : Column CWH33

own statutory environmental advisers such as English Nature and the Environment Agency--unless, of course, the Minister can tell me that those are covered by Clause 3(2)(d). Who will be covered by Clause 3(2)(d), and will there be any guidance on that?

Amendment No. 18 proposes that, for the purposes of consultation,

    "an authority shall not confine its consultations to representatives of formally constituted groups". There was a reference to this issue in the debate we had earlier on "equity". Noble Lords will recognise that good consultation requires a good deal of imagination. It may require the body consulting to facilitate that consultation, to assist those from whom it wants to hear to make their views known, perhaps even to articulate their views. It is hard work. I fear that those who are regarded as representatives may themselves quickly become regarded as a part of the establishment. The very fact that they are representatives to whom a best value authority will turn for a view, places them in a position that is not necessarily helpful to this process. I do not, of course, suggest that those who are good at responding to local authorities seeking views should be excluded. However, I make the serious point that though in a sense they may be representative, almost by virtue of that fact they may begin to become unrepresentative.

Lord Whitty: I am not quite sure whether the amendments put down achieve any of the objectives to which the Members of the Committee opposite have been so committed. I did think for a moment that we were about to see a little genuine non-adversarial discussion between the Opposition parties. The noble Lord's amendments on the one hand take people out who, as the noble Baroness has said, probably should be in, and then add to the list. It does not seem a particularly consistent approach. The intention of the noble Baroness, on the other hand, is to add specific additional groups, but in a way which in some sense narrows the authority's ability to consult on the wide basis I think she intended.

I am not attracted to these amendments but I am in sympathy with what lies behind them. Clause 3(2)(d) is important because it explicitly requires all best value authorities to consult with their local business community, for example in deciding how to fulfil their duty of best value. I do not regard that as a problem. I do not say that simply because businesses pay the non-domestic rate. It is not just a matter of businesses paying funds into authorities; they are also providers and users of those services.

We have consistently said that best value will involve authorities working in partnership with others, identifying new and better ways of fulfilling their functions, and ensuring objectives reflect local priorities. They are only able to do that if they have consulted the business community, for example, and the other groups to which these clauses apply. Categories do not readily accommodate other interested parties. For example, some businesses carry out work in the area but are based elsewhere.

10 May 1999 : Column CWH34

Categories do not readily accommodate professional bodies who often have a valuable perspective on local service delivery and, of course, there are the less well organised categories of person to whom the noble Baroness refers. That is why under Clause 3(2)(d) we have left it to local authorities to ensure that other interested parties are consulted. I refer in particular to the socially disadvantaged but also to others who are not covered by the earlier clauses. The duty of consultation needs to reflect the need to broaden partnership.

I now need to comment on Amendment No. 16 which relates to the consultation of employees. Of course we expect local authorities to consult their employees over the way in which they operate their services and the context in which they do so. Well motivated, well trained and involved employees are vital to the provision of best value services, and they are often best placed to suggest improvements. In the interim guidance we stressed the importance of the role that the staff of local authorities can play in reflecting customer perception and the areas for improvement.

The duty of best value is not owed to the employees and managers within local authorities, it is owed to local people. One of the fundamental tenets when reviewing these functions must be generally to challenge the status quo, which may mean provision by a local authority's own staff. It may also mean provision by contractors to local authorities but both have to be considered. I have to phrase this delicately because I have on occasion been on the other side of the fence on these arguments. All noble Lords who have had any dealings with local authorities will be familiar with situations where consultation has turned out to be consultation with representatives of your own employees. This perhaps applies particularly in education, but it also applies in other fields too. The duty to one's employees of involving and informing them and of learning from them is a different duty from the duty to consult over the users and others who will be affected by the provision of those services. The first is essentially an employer's duty and a good manager's duty; the second is a political and democratic duty. I therefore cannot accept Amendment No. 16 in the terms in which it is put forward.

Amendment No. 17 relates to Clause 3(2)(d). As the clause stands, it is deliberately very wide, which means that an authority would have to make arrangements to consult with representatives who have an interest in the area where the authority carries out its functions. That is a very wide requirement. Amendment No. 17 would qualify that and narrow the authority's ability to consult.

Amendment No. 18, on the other hand, seeks to widen the range of consultees to include representatives from non-formal groups. The subsection, as drafted, will already allow the Secretary of State and the National Assembly to consult with a broad range of persons representing the different interests of the community.

Subsection 3(3) goes on to define the meaning of the term "representatives" and does not confine the representatives of people to only those from formally constituted groups. Indeed, the specified categories of representatives in subsection 3(2) would suggest a very wide body of groups, some of which may be formally

10 May 1999 : Column CWH35

incorporated and others who will be informally set up as circumstances require. I therefore believe that those subsections, taken together, already achieve the aim of Amendment No. 13, and would therefore not consider it necessary to spell it out in the way the noble Baroness suggests. The subsection, as already drafted, provides for that wide range of consultees.

5.45 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee: Before the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, responds, perhaps I might have a further word on some of these amendments.

Taking the last point, I accept that Clause 3(4) allows for wide consultation, but I am concerned about requiring wide consultation. As to whether subsection 3(3) deals with the point I have made, I am not immediately convinced that it does since it defines representatives in relation to a group of persons. It may be worth coming back to that point.

As regards Amendment No. 17, which is intended to be additional, and therefore not to restrict what is already in the Bill, am I correct in understanding from one of the things the Minister said that the term "area" in Clause 3(2)(d) means more than the geographical area? In other words, is my concern about an interest in a particular service covered by the term "area"? Perhaps this is a matter the Minister would like to return to.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page