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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?
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.
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.
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. 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.
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 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:
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.
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.