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Lord McNally: The record of local government over recent years has been one of prising open council after council. I like to think that where Liberal Democrats have come to power they have played a large part in opening up some of the bad old systems of local government. Where local government has been opened up, people have found that the new openness has not caused the problems threatened. Many of the abuses hidden behind secrecy have been exposed or the practices abandoned. My favourite story relates to Newham Council in East London. It had 72 Labour members. By some accident, it elected a Liberal, and changed the standing orders so that every motion needed a seconder before it got on to the council papers. That situation is in extremis.
However, we know that the tendency to secrecy in some councils still exists. This will send a shiver down the spine of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay: the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors advises me that this is a sensible amendment that should be supported.
Lord Lucas: I certainly shall. I was interested in the main debate. However, if the Minister chooses to reply to my amendment at the same time, I shall be fascinated to hear whether he can find anything wrong with it.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: It is interesting that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, began with the digression about his times on Oban Council. When I first joined Brighton Council in 1983, I, too, recall a similar discussion with the Conservative members who then ran that council. I took the council through chapter and verse of the Public Bodies (Admissions to Meetings) Act 1960, promoted by the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, when she was first an MP. At that time half the committees of the authority were held in secret. They covered lands; there were many estate
In moving the amendments, the noble Lord was right to say that we need to move to an open culture. We need to have a pro-active approach towards the publication of information. We think that the scheme we have set out will achieve exactly that.
On Amendment No. 112, we think that the noble Lord's amendment is misguided. Publication schemes are published, as they should be. They are, therefore, exempt by virtue of Clause 19. But that merely avoids authorities being required to provide information under the Bill which they have already made available. Such information is not exempt in the sense of not being accessible to the public.
Amendment No. 111 returns to arguments debated by this House and another place during the passage of the Local Government Act 2000. Noble Lords will not be surprised to hear that I cannot accept the amendment. I do not think that these amendments fit comfortably within the Bill that we are currently discussing. They relate to requirements for access to information which will simply not be appropriate under the arrangements put in place by the Local Government Act 2000--old requirements which this House and another place have agreed are no longer appropriate.
It fails to recognise that the Local Government Act 2000 has moved local authorities on in terms of accountability. Under the new executive arrangements, people will have greater access to decision makers and to papers. They will know exactly who is taking key decisions in that authority and when they are planning to take them. The public will be given access to papers as soon as they go to the executive--the cabinet--and not merely three days before a meeting as has been the case in the past, although there will still be a minimum of three days between papers being made public and a decision being taken. So there will be a far more open approach to the publication of papers, the nature of the decision to be taken and the person or persons taking that decision.
Comments about past and future local government are based on a confusion about the Act. Of course it is the case that cabinets will wish to meet in private from time to time to discuss matters. But there is the expectation that they will meet publicly and take decisions publicly. Many of the complaints about local government in the run-up to the introduction of the latest local government legislation related to complaints about groups--perhaps cliques within groups--making decisions in private and translating them into decisions of the local authority. The new legislation will ensure that the actions and decisions of the local authority are transparently made and taken. But there is a different approach to accountability. Because it rests very much on individual decision taking, in particular with the directly-elected mayor model and where executive councillors have a responsibility, the way in which information is produced, the conditions under which it is produced and the way decisions are made will have to change.
There has been too much of a conspiracy theory attached to the new ways of working in local government. We are trying to put in place a new framework to deal with a new situation. It is not a case of the Government wishing to see local authorities hide away their decisions; far from it. This Government have a proud record of trying to open up the public service; and local government is an important element of that. We want to see those decisions taken publicly and transparently. That has to be in the best interests of democracy and public service.
Lord Lucas: Perhaps I may comment on what the Minister was kind enough to say about my amendment. I accept his stricture that I was thinking wrongly when I suggested that publication schemes should not be exempt documents. In like manner, I hope that he will accept my criticism that he was thinking wrongly when he said that the associated manuals, instructions and guidelines were a matter for the commissioner. They have nothing to do with the commissioner. They are documents created by the public authority to inform its staff how to deal with the publication scheme. They are not of the commissioner or under the control of the commissioner. The commissioner has nothing to do with whether they should be published. That decision rests with the public authority.
It is important that such documents should be available to the public. The public have to know how officials decide whether a document should be published and how to balance the public interest. It is very important that that mechanism is open to public scrutiny for the public to believe that it is fair. A local authority or other public authority that hid such
I hold by the essence of the second part of my amendment, which the Minister did not address. If he does not have an immediate answer, I shall come back to the issue on Report, but I should be grateful for any conversation that we might have before then.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am entirely happy with the suggestion that the noble Lord and I might have a further conversation about the issue. I thought that I had answered his point, but I am more than happy to try to dispel any confusion there may be. However, we may be talking at cross purposes. We both need to go away and reflect on that.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I listened to the Minister's assurances that our fears are unfounded and that there is no problem with cabinet government in local authorities because they will not take decisions behind closed doors. I am prepared to accept that the Minister thinks that he is entirely correct in all those assurances. But it is odd that so many local newspapers throughout the country, to say nothing of the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors, do not share the Minister's happiness and feel that there is something wrong.
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