HC Deb 04 December 1991 vol 200 cc250-1
8. Mr. Cryer

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the efficiency of local authority professional and technical services.

Mr. Key

The Government believe that competition is the best guarantee of efficiency. That is why we are consulting on our proposals for extending compulsory competitive tendering to professional and technical services carried out by local authorities. These are set out in "Competing for Quality—Competition in the Provision of Local Services", published on 5 November.

Mr. Cryer

Does the Minister accept that the vast majority of professional and technical officers in local authorities are providing a devoted, decent and efficient service for the benefit of local communities? Does he recognise that his proposals are a kick in the teeth for that devoted service and an invitation not to services that are democratically accountable to the local community, but to the spivs of the free enterprise service sector such as Mr. J. G. L. Poulson, the well-known Tory who demonstrated what sort of corruption can be applied to private enterprise competitive local authority services?

Mr. Key

It is always a pleasure to reply to the beguiling and dulcet tones of the hon. Member for Bradford, South (M r. Cryer). I seem to recall that a gentleman called T. Dan Smith was also involved at that time and that he was not a Conservative.

As I said in Chester to the Society of Chief Architects of Local Authorities, I greatly admire the work carried out by local authority professionals. It is precisely because the best is very good that we want to make it apply to everyone.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes

Does my hon. Friend accept that in many authorities the work being carried out by professional and technical officers is of a high standard and very cost-effective? However, that is not universally the case. Do we not owe it to community charge payers in each of those areas to ensure that the best value is obtained for their money and that they get the most efficient service? The only way to do that is to make sure that they have the fresh air of competitive tendering.

Mr. Key

My hon. Friend is right. I would add just one other factor. On performance standards, under our proposals in the Local Government Bill which is going through another place, the Audit Commission will issue directions whose effect will be to define yardsticks against which local authorities will report their performance. That is not a retrospective or prescriptive but a descriptive process and will allow the citizens of this country to measure the standards of service that they receive from their local authorities.

Mr. Gould

Now that the extension of compulsory competitive tendering has been rejected by the professional bodies, by the whole of the local government world and, most recently, by their Lordships, why will the Minister not admit that the game is up, that the consultation paper will have to be withdrawn, and that the Government must abandon their dogma-driven obsession with privatisation in favour of our insistence that quality and value for money must be the sole criteria?

Mr. Key

Like the hon. Gentleman, I read the Association of Metropolitan Authorities press release calling for withdrawal of the consultation paper. It is astonishing that the Opposition should ask us to legislate without consulting on this very important issue.

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