Consideration Stage

Local Government (Best Value) Bill – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:30 pm on 4th February 2002.

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Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker 12:30 pm, 4th February 2002

I trust that Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of Amendments detailing the order for consideration and the amendments that I have grouped for debate in my provisional list. Members will note from the Marshalled List that the Committee for the Environment intends to oppose certain clauses of the Bill. That has been noted in the provisional grouping.

I propose two groups of amendments, which will be debated in turn. The first group consists of amendments 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6, and also the Committee’s opposition to clauses 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7. Members who wish to speak on any of those issues should speak during the first debate, albeit that the votes on each of them will come at the normal place. The second group consists solely of amendment 2, which is the new clause being proposed by the Minister.

If that is clear, we will proceed.

Clause 1 (The duty of best value)

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP 12:45 pm, 4th February 2002

I beg to move amendment No 1: In clause 1, page 1, line 13, leave out subsections (3) to (5).

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 3: In clause 8, page 5, line 16, leave out from beginning to end of line 17. — [Mr Foster.]

No 4: In clause 8, page 5, line 18, leave out "principal Act" and insert "Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972 (c. 9)". — [Mr Foster.]

No 5: In clause 9, page 5, line 21, leave out subsection (1). — [The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Rev Dr William McCrea).]

No 6: In the long title, leave out from "imposing" to "effectiveness" and insert

"placing on district councils a general duty to make arrangements for continuous improvement in the way in which their functions are exercised". — [Mr Foster.]

Before I speak on the group of amendments, I want to remind Members of the purpose of the Bill, and to explain the background to the amendments I am now commending to the Assembly. My objective has been to create best value arrangements that will deliver transparency, accountability and value for money in the use of council resources and in the provision of local services to council residents and ratepayers. It is, therefore, a Bill for local people.

Another important aspect of the Bill is the repeal of compulsory competitive tendering (CCT) of specified council services. As I said during an earlier debate, few Members will mourn the passing of CCT. I was one of its main opponents in my days as a local councillor. Best value is a much better process. Emphasis is placed on quality and level of service, rather than measured in cost terms alone.

It would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity to acknowledge the full and detailed consideration given by the Committee to my proposals. I do not deny that the Committee received significant reservations in evidence from local councils and other interested parties. However, as the debate unfolds it will become clear to Members that I have listened and reacted to those concerns. Throughout the consultation process I have taken account of constructive comments, and I have sought to introduce a best value process that best reflects the specific requirements and circumstances of local government in Northern Ireland.

The reduction of the Bill from 19 clauses to 11 recognises what is best for local government in Northern Ireland, and is balanced with the rights of local residents, ratepayers and users of local council services. Since 1998, district councils have been fully engaged in best value development through four joint working groups and a steering group. The working groups, each chaired by a council chief executive, were responsible for developing guidance, performance indicators, customer surveys, and so on. I am fully committed to that partnership approach to best value. I will ensure that it continues in the interest of all who are engaged in its implementation. I hope that the above demonstrates that neither the Department of the Environment nor I can be accused of "going it alone" on best value development, or of trying to rush through statutory provisions without taking into account the views and representations of consultees.

Concerns were expressed that a best value statutory framework was being advanced at a time when several reviews of best value were being undertaken in England and Wales. Departmental officials and I were mindful of those developments. My colleagues in GB assured me that none of those reviews would change the principles and broad framework of best value as contained in GB best value legislation. However, some of the detailed implementation requirements may change. My officials and I are monitoring that carefully in the interest of developing best value guidance for councils in Northern Ireland.

It has also been suggested that progress on best value statutory provisions should await developments in the review of public administration. No one knows what will emerge from that review. My firm opinion is that best value, as a process, can be applied regardless of the structures and responsibilities of local government.

Before addressing each amendment, I want to look to the future. I welcome the Committee for the Environment’s endorsement of best value as a process that is aimed at the interests of local people. I also welcome the Chairperson’s assurance that the Committee does not oppose a statutory framework for its implementation. In the future I will consider, with ministerial Colleagues and the Committee, the establishment of a full statutory framework. We will be informed in that by reviewing council performance under the voluntary arrangements and will take into account the outcome of the review of best value in Great Britain. Progress on the review of public administration will also be considered, as will developments arising from the procurement review.

I will now turn to the amendments. In my introductory remarks, I outlined my strong belief that best value is, first and foremost, for the benefit of local residents, ratepayers and users of council services. I welcome the Committee for the Environment’s endorsement of the best value principles of transparency, accountability and value for money. I assume that all Members support those key objectives for local council services. I am pleased that the Committee recognises the importance of placing a statutory duty on councils to deliver best value in consultation with local people. Such a duty exists in England and Wales, and will soon be introduced in Scotland. It would be a disservice to Northern Ireland citizens if the Assembly denied them the same rights that are being afforded to all other citizens in the United Kingdom.

Members know that I would have preferred to establish a full statutory framework for best value, which would have given local people the assurance that councils’ implementation of best value and service performance was transparent and subject to statutory independent audit. However, I have listened carefully to the concerns expressed by the Committee for the Environment, district councils and others regarding the introduction of the framework now. Consequently, in clause 1, I propose to omit subsections 3, 4 and 5, which provide for a best value framework. Importantly, however, councils are still required to make arrangements for continuous improvement having regard to economy, efficiency and effectiveness, and in consultation with local people.

It was important in my opening remarks to demonstrate the many and varied issues that I had to consider at this key stage of the Local Government (Best Value) Bill. The proposals in amendment 1 reflect a balanced consideration of those issues. Significantly, the amended clause 1 is critical to the whole Bill, as it determines the broad principles of the best value duty.

Clause 2, for example, makes provision for the Department’s input to the statutory framework, outlined in subsections 1(3) to 1(5). Under that clause, the Department would have the statutory power to issue guidance on matters such as public consultation, service reviews, performance improvement plans, performance indicators, standards, and so on. The amendment of clause 1 renders that clause superfluous. However, those matters are all key components of best value, and the Department will continue to develop them in partnership with councils, the Committee for the Environment and others under the non-statutory arrangements.

Clauses 3, 4 and 5 make provisions regarding the auditing arrangements and responsibilities that underpin the best value framework. As I said earlier, it is important that best value be transparent and accountable. An independent audit of best value would provide further assurances to local people in that regard. Without such a statutory framework, it is not appropriate to put in place a statutory auditing arrangement. In the absence of a statutory audit of best value, I will ask my officials to consider, in conjunction with all appropriate bodies, what auditing arrangements are suitable under the non-statutory framework and also to explore, with the local government auditor, what assurances can be provided with regard to the outworking of best value under a general statutory duty.

Clause 7 was originally intended to provide a power to except specific councils from specific duties under the statutory best value framework. However, no council would be excepted from the general duty of best value under the amended clause 1. Accordingly, clause 7 is no longer relevant to the Bill. In recognising the significant impact of amendment 1 on clauses 2 to 5, I am nevertheless content that the non-statutory arrangements for best value will still be in place to ensure that the momentum and development of best value continue. Consequently, I will not be opposing the removal of clauses 2 to 5, or clause 7, from the Local Government (Best Value) Bill.

Amendment 3 to clause 8 would omit the interpretation provided for "the principal act", on the understanding that the reference to the Local Government (Northern Ireland) Act 1972 would not be required in clause 9, if amendment 5 were carried. In accordance with my earlier conclusions on the statutory framework as it relates to the audit of best value, I will not be opposing amendment 5.

Amendment 4 is a further amendment to clause 8 that would remove the reference to the "principal act" in line 18, in keeping with amendment 3. Amendment 6, which amends the long title, makes provision for a general duty on councils

"to make arrangements for continuous improvement in the way in which their functions are exercised."

The duty is further clarified in clause 1, subject to amendment 1.

I commend these amendments to the Assembly.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP

On behalf of the Environment Committee, I ask the House to support the amendments put forward by the Committee and the Minister. I take the opportunity to thank the Minister for his kind words, which are appreciated by myself and, I am sure, by the Committee members.

I suppose that even as recently as two weeks ago, no one on the Environment Committee would ever have imagined that I would rise to support the Minister. At the same time, we never imagined that the Minister would support the Committee’s proposal for this Bill. However, a week is a long time in politics and where there is a will, there is often a way. I thank the Minister and his officials, some of whom are present, for their willingness to consider the propositions, proposals and amendments suggested by the Committee.

It is important at this stage to clear up any misunderstanding that Members or others outside this House may have about the stance of my Committee towards best value. We do not oppose the principle. We support the work carried out by councils over the past three years on a voluntary best value basis, and we desire to see that work enhanced and continuing.

Paragraph 52 of the Committee’s report on the Bill states

"This Committee does not oppose a statutory framework for the implementation of Best Value within Northern Ireland and readily endorses the Best Value principles of transparency, auditability, accountability and value for money for Council services."

The ratepayers and residents of Northern Ireland deserve the best possible framework appropriate to Northern Ireland. It is clear to all that its development will require proper consultation achieved by genuine listening to all key stakeholders.

The councils and other interested bodies expressed concern and opposition to the Bill as originally proposed, because they believed that it was flawed and that many of its proposals were premature. We are delighted that the Bill before the House today has taken into consideration many of the concerns of elected representatives on district councils and other interested bodies, and especially those of the Environment Committee.

However, the Committee consistently opposed what we saw as a flawed and premature attempt at a Bill to legislate for a prescriptive best value framework. Some might suggest that the members of the Environment Committee are merely putting forward their own views or pursuing their own interests on the issue. Nothing could be further from the truth. I contend that few Committees in this House have consulted as widely and as fully as my Committee did on best value.

Why are we convinced that the Bill brought before this House in July 2001 was flawed, premature, and overtly prescriptive, and did not deserve our support? I wish that I could give one simple answer, but that is not possible. At this stage I am not inclined to deal in any depth with the reasons of the Minister and his officials for thinking that the Bill deserved our support at that time.

In its comprehensive report, the Committee disproved every argument that was put forward by the departmental officials. For example, the Department already has sufficient legislative authority to empower the local government auditor to carry out value-for-money audits. The Committee’s report provided overwhelming evidence that, if the Bill had proceeded as it was originally presented to the House, it would have been a serious mistake with far-reaching consequences.

The Committee supports the Minister’s amendments to clause 1 and the long title. In particular, the Committee is pleased to note that in clause 1, subsection 2, the Minister intends to introduce a general duty for best value, along with a requirement for consultation with ratepayers and others. He is content not to proceed with the rest of clause 1. That significant change has also been reflected in the changes to the long title.

I ask the Assembly to join the Committee in opposition to clauses 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7 standing part of the Bill. Those clauses were originally included to support a detailed statutory framework for best value, and are no longer needed. The Minister has indicated that he will not oppose such amendments, and I once again put it on record that the Committee appreciates and welcomes the Minister’s response.

It is proposed that clause 6 remain in the Bill. It is an important enabling clause that will allow for amendments to the current list of non-commercial matters in the interests of councils promoting key policies. The Committee has scrutinised and consulted on the clause, and asks the House to support it.

The Minister has proposed a minor consequential amendment to clause 8. The Committee has no hesitation in supporting that amendment, and I ask the House to support it also.

The Committee has proposed a relatively straightforward amendment to clause 9. It is necessary in the light of the removal of the statutory framework provisions for best value. The remainder of clause 9 is important because it repeals compulsory competitive tendering, which all Members will welcome. That amendment has the Minister’s support, and I ask the House to support it.

Before us today is a clear demonstration of what can be achieved when a Minister and his officials work closely with the Statutory Committee. We have all seen the benefits of co-operation to arrive at a mutually accepted solution, and it must be recognised that both interests have done what was needed to achieve that end. For example, not only did the Committee give over a significant part of several recent meetings to scrutinising the Minister’s proposed amendments, but, as the Minister knows, his officials attended an extraordinary meeting last week to accommodate an urgent presentation by his Department. The manner, spirit and content of that presentation were most helpful.

I must recognise that the Minister has moved considerably to reach the point we are at today. Up to last Thursday, he had given written assurances to the Committee on several fronts. For example, guidance to district councils on the Bill will be developed by the Department through full consultation with the Environment Committee, employment representatives, district councils and other local government interests. It will include references to other issues, such as environmental considerations and other relevant statutory provisions.

While the Minister has indicated that he will review best value in the future, he has said that any substantive development will be brought about only through primary legislation before the House.

I will not pretend that working on the Bill has been an easy road for the Committee, the Department, the Minister or his officials. However, the experience has been worthwhile, because the Bill will be in the interests of the ratepayers of Northern Ireland.

I place on record my thanks and appreciation for the diligent work of the Committee members, especially the Committee secretariat and all those who responded to the Committee. I thank them for their assistance, application and, on some occasions, their patience. Again, I thank the Minister and his officials for the manner in which we were able to conclude work on the Bill. I urge the House to support the amendments.

Photo of Mr James Leslie Mr James Leslie UUP 1:00 pm, 4th February 2002

Like Dr McCrea, I welcome the Bill in its amended form and support the amendments and the negativing of certain clauses which were necessary to reconstruct the Bill in a manner that makes best value less prescriptive than originally intended.

I fully support the principle of best value, which is well communicated by both the long title and clause 1. This will not be the end of the matter, but I trust that it will not and should not be revisited until the completion of the review of local government and the implementation of the forthcoming new Government procurement policies. Until we know where we stand with those issues, we cannot reasonably address changes to the way in which councils conduct their affairs.

I particularly welcome subsection 2 of clause 1. That is an important part of the Bill, for a slightly unsatisfactory reason. Subsection 2 of clause 1 asks councils to take account of the views of persons who appear to the council to be representative of ratepayers; persons who use or are likely to use services provided by the council; and persons with an interest in the council district. In effect, this suggests in part that the membership of a council may not accurately reflect all those views. If we ask ourselves how often a council seat in Northern Ireland has changed hands because of a ratepayer issue, the answer is almost never, so we can see the potential significance of this part of the Bill.

This has a real resonance at present in the Moyle district, in my constituency of North Antrim. I regret that the Bill is not law now, because clause 1, subsection 2, could have a considerable bearing on the outcome of the current heated debate about the future of the visitors’ centre at the Giant’s Causeway.

I support the amendments.

Photo of Mr Arthur Doherty Mr Arthur Doherty Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will speak in general terms about all the clauses and amendments. I have been on the horns of a dilemma for a considerable time, which is not a comfortable place to be. The dilemma arises from the fact that I — and I hope all Members — want the principles of best value to be adapted and implemented economically, effectively and efficiently, with full regard to equality and, where appropriate, to the environment.

It must happen in every arm of public administration, including local government. My dilemma was that I was not convinced that the Bill as first proposed would achieve what the Minister hoped it would achieve, and what we had the right to hope it would achieve. My dilemma has not been lessened by the fact that I come to this debate as a ratepayer and a taxpayer, an SDLP member, a member of the Committee for the Environment and, for many difficult years now past, as a district councillor. All those factors have coloured my understanding of how best value might be achieved in public administration.

I was struck by a statement that I read recently that has been attributed to the President of the United States, George W Bush:

"I have opinions of my own — strong opinions — but I do not always agree with them."

Hail to the chief. On reflection, I must say to myself and others: if the cap fits, wear it. How many of us have strong opinions that have been formed sometimes for the right reasons and sometimes for the wrong reasons that have been influenced by our background and experiences? On more mature reflection, we may have to acknowledge that some of our deeply felt opinions are flawed, that perhaps we should not agree with them and that it might be right for us to change or at least moderate them. All that takes courage.

The relevance of that point to today’s business is that the Bill has reached this stage as a result of a long, hard process that involved much discussion and debate. It has been acknowledged that, although there have been hiccups, the voluntary arrangement of best value is a concept worth developing and that it must have proper safeguards and effective monitoring and guidance. However, that must arise from genuine consultation between central Government, the councils and the other stakeholders in the process. Such partnership is at the heart of true democracy.

In Northern Ireland politics, the SDLP created the partnership principle. It introduced that principle to the councils, and steered them and the country along the painful road to the point where partnership is now almost universally acknowledged in principle, if not always in practice. It is right that partnership should be the cornerstone of best value and that best value should be an evolutionary process that takes account of the considerable differences between councils and between the communities that they serve. Best value must not be too prescriptive, particularly at the initial stage. That would stifle its natural growth and development and smother hardworking councillors and their officers in a welter of red tape.

Of course, rigorous monitoring and auditing are essential, and there must be provision for stringent reviews as and when necessary. That will be welcomed if it is seen not as "big brother" watching you, but as "big brother" working with you.

The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment has affirmed the Committee’s collegiate acceptance of the Bill as proposed today. After giving it careful consideration, the SDLP is also prepared to give it its blessing. We know that it is not a final solution — we must be wary of them. We know that there will be difficulties ahead, but we have confidence in the good intentions of councillors and their staff. We know that they will give it their best shot and that the country will benefit from it.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Although "process" is a much-used word, it is appropriate to frame comments on this matter in the context of its being a process. The establishment of the Assembly, the Departments and the periodic monitoring rounds — when significant sums of money can sometimes be found — show that the concept of best value must be comprehensively applied.

Indeed, the important and valuable work of the Public Accounts Committee demonstrates that there are issues of accountability and transparency that affect more than the local government arena.

As someone who has considerable experience of working on a council — although I am no longer a councillor — I was concerned at the initial approach. Local councils, which are an important local democratic forum, account for 5% of the overall public expenditure programme. Clearly, a prescriptive statutory approach to best value, directed only at local government, would not have addressed how we most effectively and efficiently apply the resources to hand.

It was an interesting experience working on the Committee. It took some considerable time to get through the various issues. However, there was a consistency in our focus that eventually commanded the attention of the Minister. I want to join with those Committee members who have acknowledged the responsiveness of the Minister and his advisers once we got down to the issues. That was an important learning experience all round.

My party will support the Bill as presented. I want to support the expert and comprehensive summary of the Committee’s deliberations given by our Chairperson, and also to commend the staff who, throughout the process — and sometimes under extreme pressure — provided expert and technical advice that helped all concerned, including the Minister and his advisers. There is no such thing as a perfect result. I argued, as did other parties, for the inclusion of references — the five Es. We thought that references to equality and the environment in clause 1 would be important.

However, that is not to cavil about what I believe was significant, important and constructive work, and a constructive engagement between the Department, the Minister and his officials, and the Statutory Committee, which has demonstrated in this case its primary purpose and reason for being. Before us today is the amalgamation of the collective experience of the Assembly, and it deserves collective support from the Assembly. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance 1:15 pm, 4th February 2002

I want to add to this overwhelming feeling of consensus. It is such a relief after all the weeks the Committee spent on this Bill, and it is a great pleasure. The Bill, as amended — and it appears from the speeches this morning that it is likely to be amended — will leave this session in a far better shape than when it first came to the Committee. Indeed, it will probably leave here in better shape than when it left the Committee Stage. In the spirit of this growing consensus, we should accept that the Minister’s amendments have improved on that which the Committee sought to do during its deliberations over the Bill.

This has been a two-stage process that fundamentally shows the value of devolution. In particular, it shows the value of a Committee that engaged seriously on this issue — at great lengths, and over many sittings — and arrived at a unanimous position. We owe some credit to the Chairperson of the Committee for this. Others have already praised him, and I add my praise, both of him and of the staff who ensured that all the representations made were taken into account.

There is no doubt that this is what devolution has achieved. Had we still been under direct rule, this Bill would have gone through the House of Commons some time in the early hours of the morning as an Order in Council — unamended and unamendable — on the nod, even though we believe, and it appears that the Minister has accepted our point, that its provisions, as originally proposed, were not appropriate to the sort of councils we have in Northern Ireland. If anything, we should learn that devolution has proved that we no longer need to take the "one size fits all" approach to the governance of the UK.

There are four different regions with four different needs. Thank goodness we have managed to get this one right. We welcome the abolition of compulsive competitive tendering, and this Bill takes us beyond that, a situation which was clearly long overdue. That sets the tone for how best value can continue to operate on a voluntary basis and for how full consultation can take place in order to decide on the statutory measures that are needed in the future.

I wish to highlight a couple of points. Arthur Doherty and Mitchel McLaughlin have made the first one, and I regret that we could not persuade the Minister to add environment and equality to the three Es of economy, efficiency and effectiveness in clause 1, subsection 1, but I do welcome his written assurance to the Committee last week that they will be included in the guidance. At least it shows that we sought to co-operate. I also welcome the Minister’s assurances about consultation between the Committee and councils and their staff as guidance is developed. However, I hope that we can see some more innovation from the Department as guidance is developed further now that they have started to step outside the English model.

Would it not be nice if councils were given a really challenging task when reporting on best value instead of ticking several hundred boxes on a form, which means little to the council officers who tick them and absolutely nothing to the residents? Why not set them a real challenge by asking them to produce a report on their achievements in one year, in simple language, on two sides of an A4 sheet? That would be much more creative and much more difficult, but much more meaningful to residents.

A few weeks ago the Assembly inflicted something of a defeat on the Department of the Environment over the Game Preservation (Amendment) Bill. I am delighted that the Department has learnt from that and that we have managed to seek consensus and work together on the Local Government (Best Value) Bill. I do not need to repeat the points that have been made by other Committee members. We must build on the approach of consensus, and I hope that the Department, in conjunction with the Committee, district councils and their staff, continues to make progress in the kind of genuine partnership that best value should really be about.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I support the Bill as amended. I am pleased that we have reached this stage and that we are in a position where the Committee and the Department are singing from the same hymn sheet and agreeing on this. As a district councillor, I should declare an interest in the matter.

One of the original concerns was that councils would be laden down with paperwork and would not be able to deliver best value. Fortunately, we have moved to a position where real best value can be achieved because of the amendments that have been made, particularly to the massive audit trail that was requested.

The comments from the leader of the Alliance Party were interesting, particularly his remark about the two sides of an A4 sheet filled with achievements in a local council area. I am sure that the people in Antrim are glad that he is no longer a councillor there, if the council could fill only two sides of an A4 sheet with its achievements. I am sure other councils wish to achieve much more.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

The record will show that I said that it would be particularly challenging to put them on only two sides, and, obviously, that was a reference to Antrim.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

It might be a challenge for Antrim, but I am sure that other councils would have no problem filling considerably more than two sides of an A4 sheet. Nevertheless, I welcome the progress that has been made. Perhaps it will send a signal to Ministers and Departments that they must take notice of what Committees say and do.

The Bill, as it stood, did not have the support of local authorities, unions and, ultimately, the wider public, although it is not a major people-related issue. Nevertheless, we have achieved a broad consensus, and all parties have given support to the amended Bill. In that respect it is important that Ministers pay more attention to what the public and civil servants say. When looking for new Bills — and there should be more Bills — Ministers must look at what people want and not at what civil servants believe they want and not at what has been picked up from England and Wales and handed straight to Northern Ireland.

Let us look at each Bill as it stands, and let us represent the views of the people on each of those Bills rather than simply follow Civil Service-speak laboriously.

I thank all those involved for their efforts to reach this point, and I commend the Bill.

Photo of George Savage George Savage UUP

In my opinion, best value has always seemed not only logical but something that ratepayers and electors expect councillors to do as a matter of course. What else would a council do but seek best value and test the market? This is a great opportunity. It would seem indefensible if someone were to stand up to speak in favour of anything other than best value in the spending of taxpayers’ money. That person would not have much of a future in politics and the modern world. This Bill is an honest attempt to secure best value, and so deserves the support of the Assembly. The Minister has been accommodating and has taken account of the representations made to him on the Bill. He has listened, and has been a reasonable and responsible Minister.

Securing best value keeps Northern Ireland in line with other parts of the United Kingdom such as England and Wales. The Bill will be an important benchmark for the local government auditor. It will be an invaluable tool for measuring councils’ performance. An important function of the Assembly is always to seek best value. We must become the advocates of local government and all its trimmings — efficient, effective and simplified government. I stress the importance of simplified government, of which the Bill is a linchpin. For those reasons I support the Bill and the Minister’s efforts to bring it forward.

Photo of Mr Eamonn ONeill Mr Eamonn ONeill Social Democratic and Labour Party

I should perhaps declare an interest; as everyone knows, I have been a councillor for some time.

I have often heard it said that the only thing that is worse than no law at all is bad law. Through the approach that we have taken on this issue, I have a small fear that we could be getting close to making a bad law. It is important that we get best value right, because it is a vital area for us all. However, I welcome the Bill, and I will support it, if for no other reason than that it is an alternative to compulsory competitive tendering. Like many Members, I have witnessed the damage that that policy has caused both to the delivery of services and to the rights and welfare of employees. I will be glad to see it removed.

Why am I concerned? Best value must be applied in statute beyond district councils. That is the truism. Councils spend only 2·8% of the block grant. The 5% referred to earlier by Mr McLaughlin also includes money raised through rates. The interesting point is that boards, bodies and quangos in Northern Ireland spend approximately 65% of the block grant, yet they are not being subjected to best value rigour.

I am aware of the nature and content of this piece of legislation; a much more comprehensive approach is needed to ensure that best value is introduced properly.

I still have concern about the level of consultation with district councils, particularly because of what happened in the preparation for this legislation, and I wonder if that is an indication of the level of consultation that will surround its implementation. I hope not. There is an opportunity for guidance to be drawn up in consultation with all the participants.

Conversely, there is little evidence of opportunity for scrutiny and control in what I have read surrounding this Bill. How will it be done? Will the guidance provide it? Sometimes pundits like to take a poke at Government and local government, and they may be critical of some Members expressing concerns about best value in councils. However, they do not understand that councils want to see scrutiny and control with best value. They want to ensure that everybody is working at the same level. They do not want to see a system in which one council applies the rigours of best value completely and another council goes through the motions. We need scrutiny and control, and that is what councils want. They do not want a flabby system of best value.

I regret that we are not in a position to benefit from the experience of best value in England. That research will be available in the next few months. I do not take the view that I heard expressed in the Chamber earlier that the Department simply lifted the legislation from England. Had it lifted the legislation from England, some of the amendments that have been made would not have been needed.

That policy was introduced in England about four years ago, and there is a wealth of experience there. While our system is patently different, and while our needs and situation are also very different, it strikes me as sensible to wait and take advantage of that experience. Why should we run the risk of making mistakes or reinventing the wheel? However, I concede that within the Bill and its preparation, and as expressed today by the Minister, there is a clear understanding of the need to monitor closely all those developments and a willingness to incorporate change where it can be proven to be wise. I welcome that commitment from the Minister and rest my hope on it for the future development of best value.

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP 1:30 pm, 4th February 2002

I thank all the Members who participated in the debate for their undoubted interest and support for the best value principles. I thank the Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment for his supportive remarks. I also thank the Committee and its officials for the way in which they have responded to the arguments that I have put forward in seeking to have a statutory duty on best value. The Committee and the Department conducted business on best value in a very positive manner, which we must encourage for future issues.

Dr McCrea said that the Local Government (Best Value) Bill, as originally proposed, was flawed. I regret his use of the term "flawed", because the Department and the Committee worked together in a spirit of co-operation to reach a balanced approach to best value. However, as I said in my opening address, we must now look forward to the future rather than dwell on the past.

Mr Ford made a point about making best value reporting more user-friendly to local people. I share that view and have always contended that I do not wish to make best value cumbersome or over prescriptive.

I have committed the Department to work in partnership with local government and the Committee for the Environment to develop further guidance. I am confident that our guidance will help councils and will be in the interests of local people.

Other representatives have spoken out about different public service issues. My responsibility is to deliver a best value framework within local government — my remit extends no further than that. The Departments of Central Government operate under a value for money or best value framework. Elements of that include a Government accounting manual and accompanying financial regulations, a requirement to produce resource accounts and to operate a resource budget, a detailed Programme for Government incorporating departmental public service agreements, corporate and business plans, internal audit and Northern Ireland Audit Office scrutiny, and the Public Accounts Committee of the Assembly. We must accept that we are all under scrutiny.

The Assembly is, rightly, concerned about standards of transparency and accountability throughout the public sector. That is vital. As a local Minister, it is my duty to further promote transparency and accountability in the use of council resources and the provision of local services.

I have listened carefully to Members’ representations and to the concerns expressed by the Committee about the timing of the implementation of a statutory framework for best value in Northern Ireland. I am pleased that we now have a basis on which to agree a way forward that maintains a statutory best value duty in the interests of local people.

I thank the Committee, its support staff and my departmental officials for their unstinting endeavours in recent weeks to secure an agreed strategy for developing best value. I also thank those who contributed to the further consultation process, and in particular, my own staff, who worked diligently to put the Bill together.

I am committed to work in close consultation with the Committee for the Environment, district councils and other local government interests to further develop best value guidance under the voluntary arrangements. That guidance should benefit councils in their pursuit of best value, providing the necessary consistency of approach and enabling councils to learn from one another. In the Bill, I have responded to the representations made to me and have sought to balance those representations with a firm commitment to pursue high standards of transparency and accountability in local government. That is vital to all Government Departments. Local people require and deserve no less.

Amendment No 1 agreed to.

Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

No amendments have been put to clauses 2, 3, 4 and 5. However, some Members, and the Committee, have indicated their intention to oppose the question that those clauses stand part of the Bill. The question for each being the same, I am minded to group them, by leave, en bloc.

Hearing no objection, I put the question that clauses 2, 3, 4 and 5 stand part of the Bill.

Question,

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

A number of Members have listed their intention to oppose clause 7. I put the question that clause 7 stand part of the Bill.

Question,

New clause

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

I beg to move amendment No 2: After clause 7 insert:

"Power to modify statutory provisions and confer new powers

(1) If the Department thinks that a statutory provision prevents or obstructs compliance by councils with the duty under section 1(1), the Department may by order make provision modifying or excluding the application of the provision in relation to councils.

(2) The Department may by order make provision conferring on councils any power which the Department considers necessary or expedient to permit or facilitate compliance with the duty under section 1(1).

(3) In exercising a power conferred under subsection (2) a council shall have regard to any guidance issued by the Department.

(4) An order under this section may—

(a) impose conditions on the exercise of any power conferred by the order (including conditions about consultation or approval);

(b) amend a statutory provision;

(c) include supplementary, incidental, consequential and transitional provisions.

(5) No order shall be made under this section unless a draft has been laid before, and approved by resolution of, the Assembly.

(6) Before the Department makes an order under this section it shall consult—

(a) persons appearing to it to represent councils; and

(b) such other persons as appear to the Department to be representative of interests affected by the proposals.

(7) If, following consultation under subsection (6), the Department proposes to make an order under this section it shall lay before the Assembly a document explaining the proposals and, in particular—

(a) setting them out in the form of a draft order; and

(b) giving details of consultation under subsection (6).

(8) Where a document relating to proposals is laid before the Assembly under subsection (7), no draft of an order under this section to give effect to the proposals (with or without modification) shall be laid before the Assembly until after the expiry of the statutory period beginning with the day on which the document was laid.

(9) In preparing a draft order under this section the Department shall consider any representations made during the period mentioned in subsection (8).

(10) A draft order laid before the Assembly in accordance with subsection (5) must be accompanied by a statement of the Department giving details of—

(a) any representations considered in accordance with subsection (9); and

(b) any changes made to the proposals contained in the document laid before the Assembly under subsection (7)."

This amendment proposes a new clause to the Bill in recognition of further representations made to the Department during the consultation process.

This clause has two prime functions — to enable the Department to change a statutory provision that, in the Department’s opinion, prevents councils from delivering best value under the duty described in clause 1(1) and to enable the Department to pursue the granting to district councils of more wide-ranging powers exercisable in the interests of delivering best value. Such powers are granted to local authorities in Great Britain under sections 16 and 17 of the Local Government Act 1999. I believe that similar powers are also proposed in best value legislation planned for Scotland. The powers provided in this clause are exercisable through subordinate legislation, requiring a draft to be laid before the Assembly and its approval sought under affirmative resolution.

In taking forward such proposals the Department is required to consult with district councils and all other appropriate bodies. The proposals will also be subject to the consultation procedures laid down by the Assembly for major policy and legislative proposals. In conclusion, this amendment is proposed in the interests of district councils and has the support of the Environment Committee. I commend this amendment to the Assembly.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP

I rise to speak on behalf of my Committee and ask the House to support amendment No 2, as proposed by the Minister. This is an entirely new clause, which arrived with the Committee in the Minister’s proposal of 24 January 2002. The Committee had previously raised with the Minister the possibility of such a clause being included in the Bill, following representations from various councils — notably Belfast City Council and Antrim Borough Council. At the time, the Minister dismissed the inclusion of such a clause, as it would require extensive consultation. The Committee has now scrutinised the proposed clause and consulted on its terms. It is an important enabling clause which, for example, has the potential to allow councils the flexibility to develop those partnerships that may be vital for them to deliver the optimum solutions for all ratepayers.

Members will note that the clause has wide-ranging powers. However, the Department must consult widely, with any orders under this clause being laid in draft and needing to receive the Assembly’s approval. Furthermore, any forthcoming departmental guidance on this clause must be agreed with the Environment Committee. The Committee is therefore satisfied that the clause merits inclusion in the Bill and asks that the Assembly support amendment No 2, as proposed by the Minister. We thank him once again for his consideration.

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

I thank the Committee Chairperson for his remarks, and I thank everyone for their help and co-operation. I have nothing further to add to my earlier comments, only to thank the Environment Committee for supporting the amendment.

Question

New clause to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8 (Interpretation)

Amendment No 3 made:

Amendment No 4 made:

Clause 8, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 9 (Amendment and repeals)

Amendment No 5 made:

Clause 9, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 10 and 11 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Long Title

Amendment No 6 made:

"placing on district councils a general duty to make arrangements for continuous improvement in the way in which their functions are exercised". — [Mr Foster.]

Long title, as amended, agreed to.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Local Government (Best Value) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.