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Grand Committee

The Committee met at two of the clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (LORD LYELL) in the Chair.]

London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Bill

(Second Day)

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 30:


"OPENNESS
Part 5A of the Local Government Act 1972 (c. 70) (access to meetings and documents of certain authorities, committees and sub-committees) shall have effect as if—
(a) the authority were a principal council, and
(b) any committee or sub-committee of the Authority were a committee or sub-committee of a principal council, within the meaning of that Part."

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 30 relates to the operation of the Olympic Delivery Authority. It would apply the local government model of meeting in public as a general matter and providing as much access to meetings as possible, subject to certain confidentialities or dealing with individuals, staffing matters, and so on. There is a presumption that meetings in local government are open, and this would be a good model to apply to the ODA.

I accept, of course, that a fair amount of what the ODA does, particularly in land acquisition, will be confidential, but what is treated as confidential should be kept to an absolute minimum. It is important that a public body is forced to examine whether there is a good reason for each item—indeed, each aspect of each item—to be taken in closed session. It gives me no pleasure to say it, but I am particularly conscious of this because of how the London Development Agency operates: in my analysis, its agendas start with quite a lot of items taken in closed session. My assumption is that these are the most interesting items—they look, from the headings, as if they are the most significant—and that they are at the beginning of the agenda because the LDA meets at 8 am and that is a convenient time for many of its members, who have other interests in business and elsewhere.

Local government takes only what bits it has to, not complete items, in closed session. The LDA seems to work on the presumption that items will be taken in closed session, with some exceptions. That has affected how the LDA works and, sadly, its reputation. I recall a number of my colleagues on the London Assembly, both Labour and Conservative, sitting outside LDA meetings in the early days to make the point that they were not allowed in.

This affects the whole ethos of the LDA. There is a mindset about its business not being open in quite the same way as local government is. This is so serious that
 
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the London Assembly has passed a motion making the point. I will say for the record, because the LDA will no doubt read this, that I accept that it has put some new standing orders in place but the way it goes about its business, taking confidential matters first, militates against this. For balance, I refer to the letter I received from the chair of the LDA, following the Assembly's motion, although I will not quote all of it, in the interests of time. She refers to information being on the website and meeting daily,

That is useful and welcome, but it does not meet the point completely. A public body should be public.

I would not lay money on the Minister agreeing with this amendment, but I hope that he will take the opportunity to explain how the ODA will operate in this regard and meet the kind of complaints that I anticipate, but which I hope never to have to voice, about the ODA. I hope that it will be a good, open and transparent body, whose workings are understandable to those who not only wish to follow things up after the event, but who also, where possible, want to sit in and listen to the debate, the discussions and the arguments. I beg to move.

Lord Dixon-Smith: I hope that the Minister will not assure us that the amendment is unnecessary and that he will agree to it. I have no brief for the London Development Agency—as far as I am concerned, it can do as it pleases, although I entirely understand the concern of the noble Baroness. However, here we are dealing with the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Bill. It is important to carry the public forward all the time through the development phase. That will not happen if the agency does not meet in public; it is as simple as that. There will always be a suspicion that something underhand might happen.

For a very long time, I worked in local government, as the noble Baroness still does. There are perfectly adequate protections within the Local Government Act definition regarding business that needs to be kept confidential for commercial reasons or private relationships with individuals where personal information might come out. That can all be kept perfectly secure. That is right and proper but the bulk of the agency's business will be to discuss a subject of fundamental interest not only to Londoners but also, we hope, to people across the whole country. I hope that the Minister will either assure us that the amendment is unnecessary or say that he will accept it. Otherwise, I can foresee a problem, however well intentioned and however honourable every member may be. That applied across the whole of local government long before such phrases were thought necessary in local government legislation. None the less, they finally became necessary, and we would not want that backward-looking situation to apply to this body,
 
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which has a very important task to undertake not only for London but nationally. It will be much easier for it if the vast bulk of its business is properly held in public.

Lord Davies of Oldham: I am glad to have heard those two representations. They were not unexpected. I believe there is a misconception of what the ODA is. The ODA is not equivalent to a local government body, as the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, indicated when he said that the body would be answerable to the nation. There will be widespread interest in what the ODA is doing and in its responsibilities. He is so right. That is why the model of responsibility for the ODA is to send an annual report to the Secretary of State, who will lay it before Parliament, which will decide the manner in which it will scrutinise the report. It is a non-departmental public body; it is not a local government organisation. It would not be appropriate for such an agency to act, or to be expected to act, as noble Lords opposite described.

I entirely accept the point that both noble Lords made that, in one very important planning area, the ODA takes on functions quite similar to what local governments do. In planning, we are making specific provisions. When the ODA planning committee takes on the responsibilities of the relevant local planning authorities for "development control" within the Olympic park, we see it acting in a specific relationship to local authorities. That is why we have imported the provisions of Part 3 of the Town and Country Planning Act so that the ODA, when acting in these terms, is required to publicise all applications for planning permission; invite comments and representations on those applications; take representations into account when reaching decisions; and place decisions in the public domain, on the planning register, for open inspection. That recognises that in the planning function there should be proper requirements that are applied to local government, which we have brought into the Bill to apply to the specific function of the ODA.

The ODA, in all other respects, such as its accounting records and its annual statement of accounts, is the responsibility of the Secretary of State and the National Audit Office—and, through them, to Parliament. The chief executive will be the designated accounting officer, in line with government accounting rules, responsible for ensuring that moneys are properly accounted for, and will be answerable to the Public Accounts Committee of the other place on that basis. As a body receiving grants from the GLA, the ODA will certainly be subject to the scrutiny of the London Assembly, which I know will exercise the interests of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I shall come to the details of that in due course; but the London Assembly can ask for the ODA to be present and to be accountable to it on certain occasions.

The ODA is not a local government body, nor is it in parallel with a local government body. It has functions with regard to planning which we recognise may be looked on as similar to how local government goes about planning, and we have made provisions in the Bill for that. But otherwise the answerability of this
 
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body is just as the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, argued—through the Secretary of State to Parliament and its committees.


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