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Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): From my hon. Friend's visits to Worcestershire, he will be aware that there are deep reservations in the county about all the proposals. I am particularly alarmed about the impact of key decisions. An enormous electoral ward such as Bowbrook or Inkberrow, where huge decisions could be taken affecting communities, will not be subject to openness under the proposals. Why are huge electoral divisions excluded in that monstrous way?

Mr. Waterson: My hon. Friend has made an important point to which I shall return in a moment. The CFI is also most exercised on that matter.

A new ground for secrecy has crept into the latest version of the regulations--it certainly was not included in the draft regulations on which consultations were held last summer. The requirement to meet in public when discussing key decisions can be got around if the executive asserts that the main purpose of the meeting is to be briefed by officers. I can think of no Conservative-run council which would stoop to such a base subterfuge, but I can certainly think of a few Labour or Liberal Democrat councils where that might be an attractive option.

The CFI is absolutely right in its comments on the definition of a key decision. The definition is to be made by the people who take the decisions in a council. The CFI states:

Mr. Bercow: Surely the whole issue of key decisions is pregnant with uncertainty and arbitrariness. The matters

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that are judged to be key decisions need not necessarily be of a party political character. Is my hon. Friend aware that I was a member of Lambeth borough council, as the councillor for the St. Leonard's ward from 1986 to 1990, and that there were members on both sides of the council who genuinely believed--I did not agree with them, but I respected their view--that the decision to allow a circus with performing animals to take place at a venue in the borough was the issue of the greatest moment that they had ever considered? Other members took a different view. Would we meet in public or in private? Would the decision be key or marginal--who knows? Will my hon. Friend advise me?

Mr. Waterson: I am aware of my hon. Friend's distinguished career in local government before he came to this House. He raises a good example of a key decision. I do not want to go into defining the fabled key decisions too much, as the Government have become so contorted in trying to do so that they are in danger of sucking some perfectly sensible people into the black hole that they have created.

The CFI has tried to fix a figure for the amount of money that would identify a key decision. It has suggested a national financial threshold, but we do not agree. That seems to us merely to pander to the absurdly complex and bureaucratic system that the Government have produced because they cannot bring themselves to say that they were wrong and that the previous system should be reintroduced.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Is not the kernel of the regulations that efficient councils such as my own Cotswold district council would want, wherever possible, to hold meetings and debates in public? Only inefficient councils with something to hide will hide behind these regulations and try and hold meetings and take decisions in private.

Mr. Waterson: My hon. Friend is right, and has touched on the whole point of the debate. Regulations that are too complex will cause ill-intentioned people to find a way around them. The simple rules about openness and disclosure in local government that obtained under successive Conservative Governments meant that all meetings--in council and committee--and the relevant agendas and papers were open to the public, except where there were legitimate reasons for confidentiality. It is much more difficult to get around a simple rule such as that.

I return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) about the key decision definition. The CFI stated:

How bizarre can one get? That must be wrong according to any view.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): In a county council area, one electoral division might include several different village communities. Does not my hon. Friend agree that a council decision with a serious impact on more than one hamlet or village in a rural area would therefore not qualify as a key decision under regulation 8 of the draft regulations?

Mr. Waterson: My hon. Friend is right. The provision is typical of the metropolitan liberal elite that drives

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Government policy in this and so many other areas. The Government assume that all wards are inner-city wards, with people crammed into a relatively few streets. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) said, some wards cover several different communities, with different needs and aspirations.

Mr. Luff: In Worcestershire, a critical decision must be made about the location of an incinerator. It will be located in one electoral division of the county, not more than one. No decision is more sensitive or more key than that, but it will not constitute a key decision under the rules, and meetings about it will be held in private.

Ms Armstrong: Yes, it will be a key decision.

Mr. Luff: The Minister, from a sedentary position, shouts that it will be a key decision, but she clearly does not know her own regulations.

Mr. Waterson: My hon. Friend gives an extremely good example. Few decisions could be more acutely sensitive locally than the siting of an incinerator. Under the definition of key decisions, because the decision that my hon. Friend describes would affect only one ward, that decision would not have to be subject to the requirements of the regulations. That makes no sense at all.

The CFI went on to say:

within the terms of the Local Government Act 1972--

Those Conservative Members who have been in local government will remember that. If the meeting decides otherwise, councillors can consider so-called exempt material in public. Under the regulations, that would not be possible.

The Minister does not need to take my word about the nonsenses that the regulations create. Only the other day, in an article in the Local Government Chronicle, George Jones and John Stewart, two leading professors of local government, wrote:

They also mentioned secrecy and key decisions. Of the latter, they wrote:

I refer the House back to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham. The authors of the article conclude:

They end with a crushing indictment of the Minister when they state:

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It is typical of the Government that their original intention was to reduce accountability and encourage secrecy in local government, and to create a new culture of concealment. They have been pushed from pillar to post by the Opposition in this House, by the Lords and by some of their own Back Benchers. The regulations are all about saving the Minister's face.

Ministers should admit that they got it hopelessly wrong on cabinet secrecy and revert to the clear position that existed under the previous Conservative legislation. The press and public currently have a right to attend council meetings and committees and to see council papers three days in advance of those meetings. The next Conservative Government will reverse any changes that are passed and will require all cabinets to be open to press and public, as was previously the case. We will promote openness and accountability in local councils, even if the Government will not, and we will seek to reinvigorate local democracy. Conservatives are now the party of local government.

8.18 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I was interested in an intervention made earlier by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) in the speech by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), asking the latter to deal with the important question of key decisions. It took about eight minutes before the hon. Member for Eastbourne got around to addressing that issue. After some introductory remarks, I hope to get to it rather more quickly.

During the passage of the Local Government Bill, Liberal Democrats here and in another place made it clear that we were worried about early versions of the Bill in respect of freedom of information. The hon. Member for Eastbourne rightly pointed out that the Conservative Members worked hard to persuade the Government to change their mind on the issue, but Liberal Democrat Members did too. We were delighted therefore that the Government were prepared, over time, to make changes in that regard.

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