HL Deb 27 January 2005 vol 668 cc1432-8

1.50 p.m.

Lord Rooker rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 10 January be approved [4th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this order disapplies seven statutory plan requirements for local authorities that are rated "excellent" under the comprehensive performance assessment. The order was introduced by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister following consultation both with external stakeholders and other departments that have responsibility for legislation that is amended by the order. It was laid before both Houses between 30 June and 8 November 2004, along with documents containing an explanation of the policy proposals and details of the consultation.

No representations were received during that period. Some slight changes were made subsequently to the draft order, following amendments to the Children Bill and discussions with counsel to the Chairman of Committees in another place, resulting in the draft order that is now before the House. The changes were fully discussed with departments in the lead on the relevant legislation. I shall explain these changes shortly.

It might be helpful to the House if I summarise the background and purpose of the order so that there are no misunderstandings. It is part of a package of freedoms and flexibilities for excellent local authorities. In our White Paper, Strong Local Leadership—Quality Public Services, published in December 2001, the Government

announced their intention to increase local authorities' room for action, giving them the powers and freedom that they need to innovate and shape services in ways that respond to and meet local needs. Among other things, the White Paper highlighted that the plethora of central controls had at times become counterproductive, with councils having to produce some 66 separate plans and strategies. We promised to cut the number of plans for all authorities by 50 per cent, and to provide further cuts for the highest performing authorities identified under the comprehensive performance assessment. Cross-departmental agreement was reached subsequently in November 2002 to cut the separate number of plans by a further 75 per cent, and to reduce to the absolute minimum those that excellent authorities would need to produce.

The reduction in plans has been facilitated by various means. Some plans have now been subsumed within wider overarching strategies, and departments are using other mechanisms for monitoring authorities' performances and assessing funding bids. Other plans have been removed under recent Acts of Parliament. For example, the majority of plans for children and young people's social services and education will be removed on commencement of the Children Act 2004. That will repeal seven statutory plans, including the adoption services plan, which was in the previous draft of the order and has now been removed, and it will remove several non-statutory plan requirements for all children services authorities. It will introduce an overarching children and young people's plan. However, excellent authorities will not be required to produce the plan.

It is not always possible, however, to find a convenient Bill as a means to remove a plan that authorities are obliged to prepare because of a requirement under primary legislation. So where it had been agreed to remove certain other statutory plans, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister thought it appropriate to use the powers under Section 6 of the Local Government Act 2000 to do so; hence the present order.

The order applies to local authorities categorised as "excellent" under the comprehensive performance assessment by an order under Section 99(4) of the Local Government Act 2003. It disapplies seven separate obligations to prepare, produce, or publish, as the case may be, the following plans and strategies: the publication of homelessness strategies, required under the Homelessness Act 2002; submission of home energy conservation reports, required under the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995; preparation of youth justice plans, required by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998; preparation and publication of rights of way improvement plans, required under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000; preparation of local transport plans and bus strategies, required under the Transport Act 2000; and preparation of plans for air quality, required under the Environment Act 1995.

I emphasise, for the avoidance of any doubt, which I am sure will not occur in this House, but might outside, that the order does not remove the requirement for excellent local authorities to continue to plan effectively in all those areas with their partners, but it provides flexibility for them to plan in a way that suits their purposes, allowing them to focus on local priorities. So the work carries on; but the requirement for the publication of these plans has been removed. Indeed, exempted authorities may continue to produce plans or strategies under statutory processes as if they were not exempted, if they choose to do so. It is up to them; that is they key point. The work must carry on; if they want to produce a plan it is up to them, but they no longer have to do so.

The order also provides transitional periods for authorities that cease to be rated "excellent" under the comprehensive performance assessment. Those authorities will have at least a year to try to recover their "excellent" rating before the various statutory plan requirements re-apply. In most cases, statutory guidance or timetables will inform them when the next plan should be finalised or submitted to Government. Those transitional arrangements are among the changes added to the order following consultations, and they have been agreed by the relevant departments.

The order was the subject of consultation carried out between November 2003 and January 2004. We received 74 responses to the consultation, including from the Local Government Association. There were replies from 22 excellent local authorities, 12 other local authorities and 40 other organisations or individuals. Most local authorities and the LGA supported the proposals. Several excellent authorities noted that the proposals demonstrated an increased level of trust between central and local government. They welcomed the freedom to plan in a non-prescriptive manner that focused on local priorities and cut out wasteful bureaucratic activity. Their concerns centred on the limited impact of the proposals if prescriptive practices imposed by central government, such as the linking of funding to plans and centrally-imposed targets, remained. Some asked that authorities that wished to continue to produce plans within the statutory format be given the power to do so.

In general, most non-local authority respondents were not in favour of the proposals. There was some acknowledgement that the cumulative plan burden on local authorities had been too great, but these respondents did not want the specific requirements in which they had an interest to be disapplied. Several respondents were concerned that exempted authorities would not continue to consult or plan for services for which statutory plan duties were removed. Others were concerned that information vital for their own or for central government purposes could be lost. There was also some concern that services would lose out in terms of local priority and funding if plan requirements were removed.

The Government have made it clear from the outset of plan rationalisation that removing requirements to produce written plans for central government should in no way detract from the importance of effective planning for the delivery of services. We still expect authorities to consult with partners and ensure the participation of the public and service users. The removal of statutory plan requirements simply gives authorities and their partners more flexibility to decide how they go about the process.

As a result of responses to the consultation, we made a number of changes to the order. I have already mentioned the addition of transitional arrangements and the removal of the adoption services plan. To clear up any uncertainty, in response to concerns about ongoing consultation on improving rights of way, we have also added a requirement on authorities not producing a rights of way improvement plan to consult the bodies listed in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 when formulating their rights of way improvement policies.

To sum up, we trust excellent authorities to plan well. That is one reason why they are excellent. If they do not carry on performing in an excellent way, they risk losing their "excellent" performance status and are then back to having to produce the plans. We are sure that the freedom to plan without obligatory adherence to prescribed frameworks will only assist in the process and reduce unnecessary burdens on authorities. I commend the order, including this bonfire of controls, to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 10 January be approved [4th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Rooker.)

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the statutory instrument in the way in which he did, and for giving details of the consultation. It is amazing how few responses come in to what one might expect to be a major issue. We have had debates about consultation before on some of our legislation from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and it always astonishes me how little people wake up to the fact that something will have an influence.

This is a pretty mixed bag of issues. The plans look as though they have been plucked at random from various Acts which impinge on local government from across government. The Minister said that they have been carefully thought out, but how did the particular plans come to be selected? What rational thought lies behind the choice of the plans that the Government are producing?

One of the Government's promises, on the introduction of the comprehensive performance assessments in 2002, was that high-performing or excellent councils would have the number of plans that they had to produce cut back, and this is a start on that. There was also a promise that the number of inspection regimes would be reduced. There has been an unfulfilled expectation that the promise of a three-year inspection holiday for good councils would be implemented. Neither the full holiday reduction in inspections nor a significant reduction in plans has been carried out. I am bound to say that I do not think that the very small tranche of plans in the order contributes much to improve that situation.

It is argued that the comprehensive performance assessment is a blunt weapon to keep local government up to standard. It is evident too, from the expectation in the order, that some of those councils considered at the moment to be high-performing or excellent and thus able to dispense with having the plans in written form—may fail on the way. They may bounce back up again, however, before having to start thinking about putting together the plans from which had they not lost their status they would otherwise be exempt.

This is a strange way to run business. Let us be frank—either statutory plans are necessary or they are not. If they are a necessary requirement, they are necessary for everyone. If they are not a requirement, they should not be a requirement for any authority— good, bad or indifferent. The only rationale that there can be for having the written plans is for the Government to follow what is going on across the country, if they insist or think that there is a reason for them to do so.

We do not oppose the order, although we are slightly bewildered by it. However, I want to ask the Minister a couple of questions. Why is it relevant for some authorities and not others to produce the plans? Why was this tranche of plans dusted out of the cupboard? When is it intended that others will follow? Why are any plans at all still being sought from excellent councils, in view of the Government's pledge in 2002 that that requirement would be removed from the greater majority? When will the Government admit that the comprehensive performance assessment policy, with its expensive and still extensive inspection regimes, is an albatross round the neck of local government?

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

My Lords. I thank the Minister. On this very cold day, I got little warmth from the bonfire of regulation that he set forth—it was a pretty paltry bonfire. Local authorities were promised that, when the comprehensive performance assessment came in, they would receive all sorts of freedoms and flexibilities. As a local authority councillor, I know that we held our breath and waited and waited. All sorts of freedoms would have been very useful to local authorities—freedom from ring-fenced grants and the raft of inspection regimes, and so on.

When the freedoms and flexibilities came through, those freedoms were for only the very few excellent authorities, not the very many that are good, for example. All sorts of financial freedoms simply did not come forward. There was very much a sense at the time that the Government were having to cast around pretty quickly for some freedoms that they could give at relatively little cost, so they came up with the idea of freedom from plans. I share the noble Baroness's slightly perplexed attitude—plans are either necessary or not, and were either necessary or not. Some of them have been relatively recently brought in, such as right of way plans, which were brought in in 2002. One has to ask why on earth they were brought in in the first place if they could be so easily dispensed with.

The Minister is right to say that the work carries on regardless. He went on to say that the policy gave excellent authorities more flexibility to respond to local needs. On these Benches, we argue that all local authorities should have the ability to respond flexibly to local needs, not merely the very few that are excellent. I hope that the Minister might consider at least extending some of the flexibilities to the good authorities, which have demonstrated on the whole that they are doing a good job. They have been externally assessed. Perhaps the Government should consider the default position to be that government intervention and a requirement for rigid planning should be restricted to those authorities that have been assessed and found to be weak. The default position should be that local government should be trusted and allowed to get on with the job.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I confess to some astonishment at the less than full-hearted support that the order has received. There are some really poor local authorities—weak and poor, as classified by the Audit Commission, not the Government. I am not sure that either noble Baroness is saying that we should let them have their bonfire as well. You cannot treat authorities all the same, because they are not. I take it that there is a fair case to be made for authorities that are good, bordering on excellent, because they are obviously striving to be excellent. However, there are plenty of excellent authorities. We have to say, "You've got to prove yourself as an excellent authority, and we—the Government—won't put all this red tape and these extra burdens on you because you've shown that you can do the job". Removing the requirement to produce the plans does not in any way alter the requirement to do the work and provide the services to people. If authorities do not, they will lose their "excellent" classification and it will put them back to "good". Then they will be required to have more red tape and do things in a very prescriptive way. I made that point.

The order is not a mixed bag. I explained the seven plans by saying that there has not been a suitable legislative vehicle around to act in this way. We wanted to fulfil our commitment and have the reduction as soon as possible. Lots of other changes have been dealt with as Bills have gone through; they have been wrapped up in various clauses and schedules. If you like, the order is a residual bag of those matters with which we have not been able to deal by any other means, which is why we decided to go for the order.

We are providing further freedoms. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, mentioned ring-fenced grants. I am not sure—perhaps it is in the notes—but, to the best of my knowledge, there are virtually next to no ring-fenced grants for local authorities any more. We have cut back massively on ring-fencing over the past few years. I am not saying that there is now none at all but it is at nothing like the level that it was seven, or indeed five, years ago. So we are providing further freedoms for the highest performing authorities. We want authorities to strive to become highest performing authorities because they then get more freedom to deliver the services in the way they want. If they are not high-performing authorities, it is our duty as government to ensure that services to the public are delivered in the best way possible—hence, the central government controls.

With regard to a reduction in the number of inspections for excellent authorities, there will be virtually no compulsory inspections. The order concerning the power to trade for fair, good and excellent authorities came into effect on 29 July last year. We have streamlined the requirements on best value performance plans for both good and excellent authorities, and we are currently consulting on provisions allowing good and excellent authorities to spend, on any service, income obtained from fixed-penalty notices for dog fouling and litter.

So there are some areas where we can claim movement in the right direction—perhaps not a massive amount but movement none the less. This order is basically part of a wider package because we could not find another parliamentary way of decreasing bureaucracy. The number of inspections in councils during 2004–05 will fall by more than 30 per cent compared with 2002–03.

There is more freedom to borrow and invest. The new prudential borrowing system began in April 2004 and authorities are free to borrow for capital projects without government consent. Councils have also been given increased freedom to invest.

We have deregulated 63 consent regime powers. Through new powers, we have provided all authorities with greater flexibility and opportunities to charge for discretionary services. We simply cannot say that all authorities are to be treated the same—they are not, and I think we have to appreciate that that is the case. There are a limited number of cases where we consider central government have a legitimate need for formal plans. Even in those that are not required to submit plans, they must still do the work.

I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, about the number of responses to the consultation. This House is not too interested in the work of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I can tell that from the number of parliamentary Questions that I get and also from the number of debates initiated and so on. That is not to say that that work is not important but there are other matters which the House considers more important. There is a mechanism for responding to the consultation and we have taken on board the points raised.

This issue has been in both Houses for quite a while. There has been no parliamentary pressure to deal with it because there has been no pressure from outside. I think we have satisfied the voluntary sector and the pressure groups which wanted the plan to continue because they have a role in it. We have convinced them that the work must continue in the excellent authorities. They are not to use the fact that they are excellent authorities as an excuse not to participate and consult their partners. We have every confidence in them and trust them to carry on the work that they were doing previously as excellent authorities. We are saying that part of the price for that is less bureaucracy from Whitehall. I think that that is a good thing.

On Question, Motion agreed to.