Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, for the benefit of noble Lords, because the amendments are grouped, it may be helpful if the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, were now to speak to his amendment to Amendment No. 42.
Lord Dixon-Smith : My Lords, with the concurrence of the House, I am happy to deal with my particular amendment, which seeks to amend government Amendment No. 42. As the Minister has already said, my amendment seeks simply to ensure that where meetings are held in public, proper records are kept.
I found the wording of Amendment No. 42 to be somewhat different from the words that the Minister used in his description of the Government's intentions. I found the wording of the amendment quite curious. It refers to:
"Meetings of a ... authority executive, or a committee of such an executive, are to be open to the public or held in private".
It goes on:
"Subject to regulations under subsection (9), it is for a local authority executive to decide which of its meetings, and which of the meetings of any committee of the executive, are to be open to the public",
etcetera. Fair enough. Then it says:
"A written record must be kept of prescribed decisions made at meetings of local authorities executives, or committees of such executives, which are held in private".
Immediately I wondered what on earth happens to the bulk of the business of the body which is held in public.
I think the Minister has given me an assurance, for which I am grateful, that the old rules would apply. However, the old rules do not appear to apply in the amendment, as drafted. However it may be that they do because I see in Section 10 a mention of the Local Government Act 1972.
I shall need to study this and take advice on what the Minister has said. If his assurance is correct and the position is covered, he will hear no more from me about the amendment. I shall be happy not to move it at this stage. However, we need to consider this carefully to ensure that the position is properly covered.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne-Domer: My Lords, I rise briefly to express my disappointment that after all the discussions through the Nolan Committee and the
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Neill Committee, we now have on the face of the Bill the fact that the executive can meet in private. I accept the comments made by the Minister in Committee that if that were not the case such business would be conducted at group meetings, and so forth. However, surely it would be better at least to require the executive to meet in public, for a written record to be kept of group meetings and for whips to be declared.
This is not a step forward in openness, transparency and accountability, however often the Minister says it is; it is not. The effect will be that when a local authority has consulted the public, conducted its MORI polls and public opinion panels, the executive will be empowered to make policy decisions. However, the public will not know which decisions are being made. They will not be able to express any view to individuals of that executive before such decisions are made. Some of the people most disempowered by this provision are the minority groups which will probably not be picked up by MORI polls, public opinion panels and focus groups.
Earlier this evening we discussed equality of opportunity. Those with loud voices and word processors will not be too disadvantaged by this process. However, individuals with great interest in particular issues, or minority groups, will simply not know that quite often crucial decisions are being taken about which they can voice no opinion until after the event. They will be considerably disempowered.
Whichever way I see the amendment tabled by the Government I see it as a piece of disempowering legislation. I remain fundamentally disappointed that the Government have not gone the whole way and ensured that local authority meetings, whether executive, scrutiny committees, full council or whatever, should be held in public. As we move towards a new era of local government, I should have thought that would be the least we could expect.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. I should make clear that in speaking to my amendment to that tabled by the Government, I stated that I opposed the government amendment as it stood. My amendment is a bit of "tweaking". Frankly, I would rather not see this clause in the form in which it is proposed.
This is a subject to which we must return. The Government are badly letting down local communities and local government. The reputation of local government will not be enhanced by allowing private decision making, which has done so much in the past to bring down the reputation of local government in the eyes of the public.
I return to Amendment No. 39 and with considerable reluctance--I doubt that there are enough people present to vote on the matter--I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendments Nos. 40 and 41 not moved.]
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Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 42:
Leave out Clause 20 and insert the following new clause--
ACCESS TO INFORMATION ETC
(" .--(1) Meetings of a local authority executive, or a committee of such an executive, are to be open to the public or held in private.
(2) Subject to regulations under subsection (9), it is for a local authority executive to decide which of its meetings, and which of the meetings of any committee of the executive, are to be open to the public and which of those meetings are to be held in private.
(3) A written record must be kept of prescribed decisions made at meetings of local authorities executives, or committees of such executives, which are held in private.
(4) A written record must be kept of prescribed decisions made by individual members of local authority executives.
(5) Written records under subsection (3) or (4) must include reasons for the decisions to which they relate.
(6) Written records under subsections (3) and (4), together with such reports, background papers or other documents as may be prescribed, must be made available to members of the public in accordance with regulations made by the Secretary of State.
(7) Regulations under subsection (6) may make provision for or in connection with preventing the whole or part of any record or document containing prescribed information from being made available to members of the public.
(8) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision--
(a) with respect to the access of the public to meetings of joint committees, or sub-committees of such committees, at which decisions are made in connection with the discharge of functions which are the responsibility of executives (including provision enabling such meetings to be held in private),
(b) for or in connection with requiring written records to be kept of decisions made at meetings which by virtue of paragraph (a) are held in private,
(c) for or in connection with requiring written records falling within paragraph (b) to include reasons,
(d) for or in connection with requiring any such written records to be made available to members of the public,
(e) for or in connection with requiring documents connected with decisions to which any such written records relate to be made available to members of the public.
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(9) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision--
(a) as to the circumstances in which the whole or part of the proceedings at meetings mentioned in subsection (2) are to be held in private,
(b) with respect to the information which is to be included in written records kept by virtue of this section,
(c) with respect to the reasons which are to be included in any such written records,
(d) with respect to the persons who are to produce, keep or make available any such written records,
(e) for or in connection with requiring any such written records to be made available to members of local authorities or to overview and scrutiny committees or sub-committees,
(f) for or in connection with requiring documents connected with decisions to which any such written records relate to be made available to members of local authorities or to overview and scrutiny committees or sub-committees,
(g) for or in connection with requiring information to be made available by electronic means,
(h) for or in connection with conferring rights on members of the public, members of local authorities or overview and scrutiny committees or sub-committees in relation to records or documents,
(i) for or in connection with the creation of offences in respect of any rights or requirements conferred or imposed by virtue of this section.
(10) In this section--
"joint committee" means a joint committee falling within section 101(5)(a) of the Local Government Act 1972,
"prescribed" means prescribed by regulations made by the Secretary of State.").
[Amendments Nos. 43 and 44, as amendments to Amendment No. 42, not moved.]
On Question, Amendment No. 42 agreed to.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I beg to move that further consideration on Report be now adjourned.
Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
House adjourned at eleven o'clock.