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Page 3, line 6, at end insert--
"( ) The duty arising under subsection (1) shall not apply to a best value authority when working in partnership with another public body unless that body is under a similar duty.")

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment No. 5 and my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer will speak to Amendments Nos. 6 and 10.

Amendment No. 5 seeks to provide that the best value duty will not apply to an authority,

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    We moved a rather different clause in Committee in connection with partnerships when we proposed that public authorities working in partnership with best value authorities should themselves be subject to the duty of best value. This amendment disapplies the duty when the authority is working with another public body unless that body is under a similar duty.

The Minister explained in Grand Committee what the Government are doing in various sectors to apply best value or something like it, but there will not necessarily be blanket coverage of the duty. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, in Grand Committee made some interesting points in relation to partnership working which increasingly local government is undertaking. He said that he could,

    "envisage all kinds of anomalies as to whether the principles of best value have to operate under those various sets of circumstances".--[Official Report, 10/5/99; col. CWH28.]

The noble Lord used examples of health provision; increasingly health trusts working jointly with social services, sometimes notionally under the aegis of the health trust, sometimes under that of the local authority which, as he rightly said, is often simply a matter of convenience. What prompted me to table the amendment at this stage was his comment that he would hate to see the structures determining which authority became the lead authority rather than what made sense for practical reasons in the subject area.

If the Minister can help us a little further in this area I would be very interested. I beg to move.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, first, I shall speak to Amendment No. 6 which addresses the question of formally constituted groups. It seeks to define who should be consulted under subsection (2).

Obviously the duty of best value depends on authorities consulting with their residents and the Bill defines those people who should be consulted. I have to make the point again that best value seeks to address in particular those authorities which are not performing well. We tabled this amendment because we fear that it could be easy for an authority which is not particularly keen to consult, to consult in a minimal way. As we know, it is much quicker and easier, and likely to produce more predictable results if consultation is confined to formally constituted groups. It is often known what those groups will say and who makes them up and therefore it is popular to stay within the parameters of groups whose make-up is known and whose representatives have the same view. In fact, in many councils, when representatives come from those groups, the mutter goes round, "It's the same old suspects".

Even with the advent of such things as public opinion panels, focus groups and citizens juries, all of which have a very worthy place, they still can become a "formally constituted group". I believe that public opinion panels are a very good thing. However, such people will be consulted year after year. Even if you roll on different people over time, they will, after they have been consulted a few times, become very familiar with the way that the council works. They will probably take a greater interest in what it does, and so on.

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Therefore, councils should have a requirement to consult those who are of no group--in other words, a very random selection of the population. For that reason, this amendment seeks to ensure that the temptation to take a quick and easy route of consulting only formally constituted groups would not be allowed under this Bill. Otherwise, as the Bill is drafted, a council could get away with only ever consulting formally constituted groups, which I believe would be most unfortunate and not really in the spirit of the legislation.

I turn now to Amendment No. 10, which seeks to include representatives of best value authorities when the Secretary of State wants to consult on what the performance indicators should be. Indeed, it is possible that it could be claimed that there were certain time constraints. Therefore, the differences of opinion between government and local authorities could lead to a disinclination on the part of the Secretary of State to consult.

Further, I can imagine the scenario, although perhaps not at the moment, where the Government would not want to consult on performance indicators. Perhaps I may draw on history for a moment. I am not sure that I could have imagined the government of the time consulting on performance indicators, for example, for poll tax collection, or on how to measure client views on the efficiency of the enforcement procedure for that tax.

Therefore, for all of those reasons, it is absolutely essential that the Secretary of State is required to meet and take the opinions of representative best value authorities. After all, they are the practitioners. There is no likelihood that their views would not be forthcoming in terms of much practical experience of what has happened on the ground. I believe that the fact that they are not included in the Bill might be an oversight. They are the obvious people to consult first; indeed, best value authorities are those which are already carrying out best practice. It is not as though representatives of local authorities which may not be practising best value would be consulted.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, once again, I should like to lend support to Amendment No. 5. I spoke to this in Committee and I also included it in my original speech on Second Reading. My concern all along has been that there are difficulties in partnerships anyway because different authorities approach their work in different ways. The different accounting, reporting and planning systems and the whole paraphernalia of best value that we see in Clauses 4, 5 and 6 could, if they were rigidly applied, have the effect of rendering some of the work which best value authorities do with their partners open to criticism by, for example, the Audit Commission. That was behind my support for our original amendment in Committee.

The phraseology of the current amendment is better. It is more practical in its approach and it would enable local authorities in particular, but also other best value authorities, to go into partnership with external authorities or external groups which are not liable to the same laws and audit processes.

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I am looking for some indication that the Minister understands the subtlety of the problem and that the Government have thought of ways, either through guidance or in some other way, of ensuring that this possible conflict does not arise. Alternatively, I should like an assurance that best value authorities acting in good faith in partnership with others cannot be criticised on the grounds that they have not in every detail followed best value codes in what is always a compromise arrangement.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, will not be surprised to learn that we are not attracted to Amendment No. 5. However, I am grateful to her for identifying some very important practical issues. The Government have consistently said that the duty of best value will be all-embracing. It will apply to all of the functions which best value authorities carry out.

Perhaps I may now correct what may have been a misunderstanding on my part as regards a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. Best value applies to all authorities and not just the worst, as I understood the noble Baroness to say. There were pilots from 1997, but the duty of best value is not merely for the worst authorities. It will apply to all of the functions which best value authorities carry out. Nevertheless, I appreciate that the noble Baroness may wish to probe further about how the duty of best value will apply in situations in which only one of the partners is subject to the formal duty of best value in delivering the function.

One of the fundamental questions which the best value authority in question will need to determine before entering into the partnership arrangement will be: will this arrangement deliver best value for local people? If the answer to the question is yes, and there is no alternative arrangement which offers better results, clearly the authority will be free to enter into the partnership and bound to meet the duty of best value while doing so.

Although the Government wish to encourage best value authorities to think innovatively about such partnerships, it makes no sense to exempt the best value authority partner from its statutory duties when it enters into a partnership. Local people are still entitled to expect excellence in the quality of services, regardless of which particular vehicle is used to deliver them. In the light of that explanation, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

I turn from the issue of partnerships to that of consultation. The statutory duty of consultation is clearly an integral part of best value. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for this opportunity to explain the Government's approach. I am sympathetic to what I believe to be the thrust of Amendment No. 6, although I do not believe it to be necessary.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, made the very fair point in Committee that we needed to ensure that all voices were heard during consultations, and not just those of persons or bodies who were the best organised, most articulate or who had access to the best technology.

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These are sentiments which I am pleased to embrace and endorse. I am confident that the approach that we are taking is most likely to ensure that consultation is all-inclusive. In our view, the requirement in the Bill that the authority should consult with those who are representative of a group is not merely confined to those who speak on behalf of others but will include those who are representative of a group in the sense that they are a good example or are typical of that particular group. Therefore, I am confident that the Bill already achieves the practical effect which the noble Baroness seeks.

However, Amendment No. 6 would place conditions upon the way in which best value authorities confronted a task which calls--and I believe the noble Baroness's contribution recognised this fact--for the maximum variety in terms of approach. Further, such conditions may well be inappropriate in some cases. Although I understand the thinking behind it, the amendment is viewed by us as being unnecessary. I hope, therefore, that the noble Baroness will not move it.

I am sympathetic to Amendment No. 10. I have given your Lordships assurances in Grand Committee about whom the consultation will include. I have said that it will include those known to the Secretary of State as representatives of best value authorities and specifically the LGA and WLGA.

However, my concern here is that placing this amendment on the face of the Bill will place the onus on the Secretary of State to identify all those bodies who claim to be representative of best value authorities. The wording of the amendment is concise; namely, that the Secretary of State shall consult with representatives of best value authorities. But the term "representatives" can be drawn widely. How will the Secretary of State know if he has included all ad hoc groups that claim to be representative?

I understand the intention behind this amendment and indeed support the principle, but the wording of the amendment could have the undesirable side effects which I have discussed. In the light of the noble Baroness's comment about not yet having become cynical as regards having any point that is raised accepted, I hope that she will not move the amendment on the understanding that we shall produce a suitably drafted amendment on Third Reading that will both meet the noble Baroness's wishes and address my current concerns.

8.00 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, perhaps we had better not divide the House on any more amendments as the result of not doing so is far more satisfactory! We thank the Minister for those remarks. As an amendment is to be produced for Third Reading I shall not make the comments that I intended to make in response to what the Minister had to say on Amendment No. 10, and on Amendment No. 6, the thrust of which is similar if not absolutely the same.

My noble friend Lady Thomas of Walliswood made the important point about the detail of the best value obligations in speaking to Amendment No. 5. Her

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concern--which is also my concern--is that the best value duty and programme could become too formalised, too cumbersome and too difficult to apply. The various public authorities which are the subject of the best value duty--and which may work in partnership with other authorities--have over the past few years adopted a partnership approach with increasing enthusiasm. I do not believe that any of us disagree about the value of that.

The Minister said that people are entitled to expect that their authorities will always be excellent. That is to be aimed at and to be hoped for but politics are about priorities. As my noble friend said, partnerships often have to embody compromise. That is why we wished to pursue the amendment. We shall consider what the Government had to say on this matter. I believe that they understand our concerns. We shall want to be sure that we have not made the situation rather worse--as one sometimes does--by exploring it in detail. For the moment I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 6 not moved.]

Clause 4 [Performance indicators and standards]:

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