HC Deb 17 December 1998 vol 322 cc639-40W
Mr. Watts

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions what plans he has to allow the Audit Commission to fulfil its proposed role in relation to best value; and if he will make a statement. [64789]

Ms Armstrong

The Audit Commission has a key role to play in our agenda for modernising local government particularly in implementing our proposals for best value.

We are to give new audit and inspection powers to the Commission as part of our proposals for best value. The Local Government Bill, currently before Parliament, provides for this. The Commission will arrange for the annual audit of Local Performance Plans, and for the inspection of local authorities' activities in areas other than those which are the responsibility of the existing specialist Inspectorates such as OFSTED, SSI and HMIC. The Commission will, however, work closely with these Inspectorates, as they do now, to ensure that all the necessary skills are brought to bear in securing best value.

The Commission will also be given powers to recommend action by the Secretary of State where an authority fails to achieve best value.

To ensure that these new functions are fully co-ordinated with the work of the other Inspectorates, I confirm both our commitment to establish an Inspectorate Forum to discuss common inspection interests, and our intention to take a power in the Local Government Bill to enable arrangements to be made where necessary to ensure the smooth and efficient operation of the inspection process.

Our work on ensuring proper co-ordination between the Commission and other Inspectorates in relation to best value and local government will fulfil the principal recommendation of the Prior Options Study of the Financial Management and Policy Review (FMPR) of the Audit Commission, which I am publishing today. Copies of the Report have been placed in the House Library.

This study, concluding that the functions of the Commission are necessary and best carried out by that body, proposed a study linked with best value to put in place a framework of working arrangements to provide a means of resolving differences between the various audit and inspection bodies involved. Our proposals for the Forum and new power will ensure such arrangements are in place.

We will now also be proceeding with the second stage of the FMPR. This looks at the detailed organisation and procedures which will be best suited to the Commission as it continues its traditional audit functions and embraces its new roles within best value. To lead the Audit Commission through this period of significant change, my right hon. Friends the Deputy Prime Minister and the Secretaries of State for Health and for Wales, have today appointed Helena Shovelton as its new Chairman. It will be for her and her fellow Commissioners to ensure that the highest standards of professionalism and objectivity—for which the Commission has been known—are continued, not only in its traditional audit roles, but also in its new tasks in the best value framework.

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