HL Deb 10 May 2001 vol 625 cc1069-72

Lord Bowness asked Her Majesty's Government:

What impact they expect local public service agreements to have on the best value regime for local authorities.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the Government expect that local public service agreements will complement the best value framework in improving the quality and responsiveness of our public services. They will do so by testing the extent to which extra funding and regulatory freedoms can help stretch performance beyond the standards already achieved under best value and will inform best value policy development ill the future.

Lord Bowness

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Perhaps the noble Lord recalls telling the House during Second Reading of the Local Government Bill that, Best value is about improving local services. It is about local government providing high quality services at reasonable cost that match local people's needs … No longer will they be able to provide minimal services at minimum cost … Best value rings a death knell for that approach".—[Official Report, 12/4/99; col. 572.] Is the noble Lord saying that best value has not delivered those objectives and has been a failure? Can the Minister tell the House whether the inspection of the system is costing more than the £50 million that he estimated it would cost?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I recall every moment of the passage of the Local Government Bill. Best value, which is a major feature of that Bill, is being adopted by all authorities across the whole range of service delivery and is achieving significant results. The cost of inspection is a relatively small figure compared with the benefit which we expect to achieve from the continuous improvement through best value. At that point in the Bill I was contrasting that output and performance-related approach with the heavy bureaucracy of the CCT regime which it replaced. As to additional funding and the relaxation of the regulation of local government, local PSAs will provide a further incentive to look at novel and better ways to deliver services.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

My Lords, does the Minister really believe that the imposition by central government of hundreds of performance indicators and targets does anything to create local authorities which are accountable and responsive to local needs? Can the noble Lord tell the House what plans the Government have to monitor the burgeoning best value bureaucracy to see whether the process itself is delivering best value?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the monitoring procedure to which we have already referred is intended to ensure that delivery meets expectations. Inevitably, within the system there is some resistance to the new process, and occasionally there are bureaucratic difficulties. But best value is related to output and performance. How output is achieved is up to the management of individual local authorities and their services. There is a great incentive for innovation and improvements in efficiency in local authorities, and that is what the whole best value regime is about. The regime is not an imposition but an opportunity for public services.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House whether what he has said is affected by the recent decision by the European Commission to outlaw gap funding which has brought considerable benefits to various local authorities within which approved schemes lie? Is he aware that report HC 714 of the House of Commons Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and the Regions shows in detail how perverse (to use its own word) and unwarranted is the Commission's decision to disallow this in future?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, at first sight the implications of that decision would appear to be as my noble friend indicates. However, we are in constructive discussion as to how best to meet the needs which that funding previously met to conform with the Commission's view of the European regulations in this matter. I do not believe that it will have the devastating effect that my noble friend suggests or the Select Committee indicates.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is rather euphemistic to say that this is being adopted by local authorities? As I understand the position as set out by the noble Baroness on the Liberal Democrat Benches, local authorities have no choice. Can the noble Lord clarify whether, although compulsory competitive tendering has gone, competitive tendering can still be part of the best value process, or has tendering gone altogether?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the legislation may oblige local authorities to adopt best value, but the majority of local authorities do so enthusiastically. Therefore, I do not believe that it is a euphemism to say that local authorities are adopting it. As to competitive tendering, the previous very restrictive rules under CCT have been removed, but in order to deliver under the new system local authorities have the freedom to decide whether or not to go for competitive tendering. Many do so; others consider that either their existings contractors or in-house arrangements can deliver best value. It is that choice which is now available to local authorities.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, at the close of Parliament, does the Minister agree that today's suggestion put forward by the Conservative Party that local authorities would be required to undertake a local referendum if they wished to raise the precept by more than the rate of inflation will greatly further undermine the independence of local authorities and add a huge amount of additional bureaucracy to administration?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, yes, indeed. I am always amazed at the schizophrenia of the Conservative Party in this respect. They turn up in this House and in another place and complain about the imposition of centralisation by central government on local government. Sometimes I have some sympathy with them, as the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, knows. But then on the first day of a General Election campaign the party turns to local authorities and says, "You will have no choice. If you want a little bit of flexibility on your budget you have to go through this referendum process". If local authorities wish to go through that process, that is a matter for them, it is not a matter for imposition by central government.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that Blackburn is one of the most outstanding progressive local authorities in this country? For some time it has adopted the principle of best value. May I invite my noble friend and any other noble Lords who want to see the benefits from best value to come to Blackburn and look at what we are doing there?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, my noble friend has made me well aware of the virtues of Blackburn in this and many other contexts. So far as concerns an invitation to Blackburn, clearly I and my colleagues would be only too delighted to visit Blackburn, both in order to observe the best value and, indeed, the football.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that his eulogy of the best value system in the past is hardly consistent with that of his right honourable friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. He describes it simply and merely as a "useful set of arrangements". However, is it not remarkable that after four years of government, the Treasury is instigating a leap in the dark in management services based on the document Choosing the Right Fabric: The framework for Performance Information? That publication includes such cliché gems as, to develop an education strategy, information will be needed on how well the current system is doing, and likely pressures in the future, such as increases in the number of school age children". Anyone working in an education authority 30 years ago was familiar with that opinion. It also states: The cost of producing performance information should be balanced against the use of the information and how it will improve performance". Does the Minister really believe that we can develop a new and improved management system based on clichés that have been around for so long that most people in local government could teach the Government how to manage their affairs?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, sometimes in this House, and even in government publications, we have to point out the obvious. Best value is indeed a useful set of arrangements, but it is also, as I said, an amazing new opportunity for local government to deliver to the people.

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