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Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply, which goes a long way towards answering most of my worries. However, the last paragraph of Annex E of his letter to my noble friend Lady Hamwee clearly states:


I shall read carefully his reply in Hansard and, if necessary, return to the issue at the next stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 38:


    Page 13, line 42, leave out subsection (13).

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 20 [Access to meetings and information etc.]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 39:


    Page 14, line 1, at beginning insert ("Subject to Part VA of the Local Government Act 1972,").

The noble Baroness said: In moving the amendment, I speak also to Amendments Nos. 40 and 41. Amendment No. 42 is the Government's proposed replacement for Clause 20 to which my amendments apply. Amendment No. 44, which stands in my name, is an amendment to government Amendment No. 42. The points in support of my amendments relate to Clause 20 as it stands at present, and are in opposition to the Government's amendment.

There are two issues in connection with openness and access to information: the openness, transparency and accountability of decisions of the executive, including meetings of the executive and extending to notice of decisions that are to be made and the papers relating to them; and decision making by individuals including elected mayors, and the framework for openness and advance notice.

Clause 20 does not seem to meet the requirements. It leaves access to information to be dealt with by regulations. They may maintain current levels of access. They may allow new executives to meet in private without prior notice of what will take place. Amendment No. 42 makes the situation worse. It spells out that executives can meet in private. It gives the power of decision on that to the executive, and not to the full council.

The access to information relates to records of decisions. There is no framework for agendas and papers to be made available in advance.

There is a provision for publication of information but only on decisions after the event in the case of the "strong mayor" model. There is a requirement that a written record has to be kept. But there is no longer any reference to the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985. I accept that the current Clause 20 could have allowed the Secretary of State to issue regulations bringing executives within the provisions of the Act. It is now clear that the Government do not intend to do so.

We on these Benches are extremely disappointed at the route the Government are taking on the issue. Other debates have expressed disappointment about

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the tentative and unambitious nature of the Freedom of Information Bill. In this Bill, we are going backwards. The clause would mean losing prior information about decisions to be taken. That would affect non-executive members of the council, the media and the public. As we have stated in previous debates on this and other issues, the non-executive members of the council have an important role as a conduit to the public, and in expressing what the public would say were they in a position to do so.

It is sad, too, that we have the provision in the Bill so close to the new provisions on probity and ethics. Greater secrecy and more ad hoc decision-making will make it harder for the monitoring officer to regulate. It will make it harder for the overview and scrutiny committee to exercise its functions and it will be harder to scrutinise declarations of interest, the award of contracts, and the appointment of other bodies and so forth.

No doubt the Minister will defend his proposed new clause and will promote it. We shall hear the reasons why in a moment. If I can amend it and oppose it in advance, that is what I am doing. However, the procedure means that what I am doing is moving that the current Clause 20 is made subject to Part VA of the Local Government Act 1972. I beg to move.

10.45 p.m.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, at this stage, I am speaking primarily to my Amendment No. 42. In Committee, I promised that we would look at whether we needed to set out the key principles underpinning our policy for accountable decision-making. Amendment No. 42 replaces the previous Clause 20.

As I made clear in Committee, the Government's starting point is to be transparent and accountable The principles are that a council's policy development must be inclusive, allowing the local community to make its input. It ensures that local people know who the decision takers are; what the decision takers are planning to do; what they have done; and why they have done it. Our system is based on those provisions.

The new structure we are putting forward in its totality will provide both accountability and transparency and, to some extent, set out the provisions for meetings of the executive which need to be seen in the wider context. Those arrangements cover the inclusive process of formulating policy; the identification of individuals who are personally responsible for implementing the budget and its framework; the accurate recording of decisions and their timely publication together with background and factual papers which were made available to the decision makers; and the vital role of the overview and scrutiny committees, meeting in public, to discuss and make recommendations on the development of policy and to hold each executive member responsible for what he or she has done, or the executive as a whole has done.

This is a whole new structure of accountability and transparency and will open the door for wider engagement in the council process. The executive will

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need to make clear from the outset what it plans to do; who on the executive takes particular decisions; and how it is intended to involve stakeholders and the community. There will be a continuous dialogue between members of the executive and the relevant overview and scrutiny committee. It is through that process that local people will discover the background as well as the individual decisions.

Amendment No. 42 puts those arrangements in place. It spells out the key elements of our policy. Coupled with Clause 19 on the role of the overview and scrutiny committees, it sets out the totality of the approach to transparency and accountability. An executive may choose whether or not to meet in public. Whichever decision it takes, it must ensure that proper records are taken and executive decisions, whether made by individuals or the executive as a whole, made publicly available together with all the background reasons and so forth. We intend by regulation to make failure to make or publish such records an offence. That arrangement would ensure that the executive is, in reality, not a small committee. It comprises several people, each with personal responsibility for delivering publicly aspects of the council's agreed policies. An executive will discuss such issues, but it will often be the individual who takes the final decision. Obviously, that will be the case particularly where there is a directly elected mayor.

If one applied the traditional access to information regime or made the executive in some way subject to that regime, as the noble Baroness's amendment attempts to do, that would fail to recognise the nature of the executive. Amendment No. 44 does not recognise that either. The amendment at least concedes that policy formulation needs to be carried out away from the public gaze, but it still does not recognise that the key role of the executive is to make and report those decisions. If other councillors are allowed simply to attend the meetings of the executive, that fails to recognise the reality of the executive as a group of accountable individuals. That risks sending back decision-making into entirely private, unaccountable and unrecorded meetings.

I believe that what we have provided more effectively meets the reality. Indeed, Amendment No. 43 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, recognises that the key is not whether meetings are in public or in private but whether they are accountable. That is the key point of our whole operation. His amendment seeks to extend the duty to record decisions to those meetings where the executive chooses to meet in public. It has always been our intention that, where the executive chooses to meet in public, it should be subject clearly to Part VA of the 1972 Act. They are public meetings of the full council and council committees and they include meetings of the executive. There is little value in allowing the public to attend a meeting if they are not told in advance the subject of the meeting. To that extent, I share the views of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. I can confirm that it is our intention that Part VA

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should apply to all meetings which are open to the public, subject to any necessary modifications of those provisions under the new structure.

I believe that our amendment puts the whole issue in the framework of enhanced accountability, whereas the noble Baroness's amendment attacks one particular aspect of the new provisions; namely, the issue of public or private meetings. As I said, I believe that the issue is not whether meetings are held in public or private; it concerns accountability. We believe that our provisions and the regulations that could flow from them will ensure accountability. Therefore, I hope that the noble Baroness will not pursue the amendment.


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