My Department has received papers from the Welsh Office on the best value process in Wales, including details of the plans to review that process over the next few months. I have also spoken to my counterpart in the Welsh Assembly, Edwina Hart, the Minister for Finance, Local Government and Housing, to learn at first hand what the review is likely to address. My understanding of the position is that the principles underlying the statutory framework for best value in Wales are not being questioned. Rather, the review will address details of its implementation and arrangements for its scrutiny. The broad objective of the review is to provide a workable model for best value in Wales that will give practical effect to the existing framework within current statutory provisions. Following a consultation process, the review group aims to have revised guidance in place by 1 April 2002.
The Local Government (Best Value) Bill currently before the Assembly includes five clauses that provide for a basic framework in the interest of council residents and ratepayers.
I hope that, after his consultations with his Welsh counterpart, the Minister will take this issue seriously and reconsider the process of introducing statutory best value to Northern Ireland, which he is currently engaged in. The Bill appears to be inappropriate at this time, and it does not have the support of the local authorities or the unions that represent those working in local authorities. It has already cost local authorities an immense amount of money. Much valuable staff time has been tied up in the operation of voluntary best value, and much more of that time — which could be put to better use — will be tied up in the operation of statutory best value.
Best value is designed as a framework within which councils should deliver local services according to the wishes of residents and ratepayers, at a price that they are willing to pay. People are entitled to know how their council is performing, how well their money is being spent and what future plans the council has for local services.
I am committed to avoiding the imposition of unnecessary bureaucracy on councils, but their views should not be given precedence over the rights and needs of ratepayers, residents and users of council services. Equally, the Assembly, with its preponderance of district councillors, should not allow its judgement to be clouded by the wishes of councillors at the expense of the views of local people, who deserve value for money and who are entitled to transparency and accountability in local service provision. Openness and transparency are vital elements of the Local Government (Best Value) Bill.
As Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee, I am aware of the issues relating to accountability. Does the Minister agree that there should be a robust public accountability framework for local government, as there is for central Government? I declare an interest as a councillor, but I speak as Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee.
I acknowledge the fact that the Member has declared an interest. I agree that there is a need for a robust public accountability framework for local government, but the application of best value across the wider public sector goes beyond my remit as Minister of the Environment.
Central Government already operates a type of best value framework. Indeed, in many ways, it is more rigorous than the best value framework that I propose for district councils. It includes the Programme for Government, public service agreements, published departmental and agency corporate and business plans, the work of the Northern Ireland Audit Office, value for money studies and the work of the Public Accounts Committee and other Statutory Committees of the Assembly. That accountability framework was designed for central government, and it would be too burdensome for local government as presently structured. The Local Government (Best Value) Bill, on the other hand, is designed to fit the specific circumstances of the local government sector.
I am aware that proposals for regulating best value in housing and education are being considered and that the Department of Education is drafting legislation covering the application of best value by education and library boards. Similarly, the Department for Social Development is examining proposals to formulate best value in the housing sector. My ministerial colleagues in the relevant Departments are responsible for the detail of those proposals, but I can assure Mr Bell that best value and accountability are seen as an absolute necessity.