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Baroness Maddock: My Lords, I wish to add my strong support to the case so ably made by my noble friend Lady Hamwee. I sincerely hope that the Government will be able to respond because, at the moment, they are party to new arrangements which will mean that more issues will be discussed and decided in secret in councils up and down the country.
My main purpose in speaking is to emphasise the importance of openness and access to the democratic process. At a time when we can see clear evidence that the public's trust in politicians is at a very low level, it must behove us all to do nothing to add to that mistrust. It is clear that the Government understand the concerns expressed by Members of another place, by Members of this House and by people in the wider world. We know that the Minister gave promises during the passage of the legislation last year, and we find it regrettable that the regulations are not as strong as those promises.
As matters stand, I believe that we have now a combination of local discretion and loose definition which will mean that the public are unlikely to become aware of many decisions affecting them until those decisions have been made. We are all rightly concerned about the low turn-out in elections and the lack of interest in local government. Recent government announcements have emphasised--and we agree--that there must be a bottom-up approach.
In short, openness and access assists people to participate in the local democratic process. That is at the heart of what we are discussing today. I fought with others in the 1980s for open government. I never thought that at the beginning of the next century I would be fighting that battle again. I hope that the Government will see the error of their ways, answer some of the questions raised today and do something to improve on their promises of last year.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, I am grateful for the interest shown in the debate. I recognise that there has been concern around the country and that noble Lords in the Chamber for the debate reflect some of that concern. I am prepared to respond to those concerns. I am particularly gratified to see the noble Lord, Lord Harris, in his place tonight. I think that the whole House will share that sentiment.
The Government absolutely agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, said about transparency and accountability, and with what the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said about the need to ensure that the public have faith in these processes. However, we are facing an argument from the Opposition Benches and, perhaps, to a certain extent, from the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. It is argued that these regulations will lead to greater secrecy and less accountability, whereas the opposite is the case. It was also argued that the annulment of these regulations, as proposed quite explicitly by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, would lead to a better situation, whereas I would argue the exact opposite.
Let me make three initial points. First, if these regulations are annulled, the position will be simply that there will be no requirement whatever on councils to be open. It is not the case that without these regulations councils will be unable or prevented from adopting executive arrangements--of course they would not be. Parliament has given them the powers and the duties to do so. Nothing we do today will change that. Removing these regulations in the way suggested by the Prayer of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, would simply have the effect that, when councils adopt executive arrangements, it would be left entirely to them and their executives to decide what is open and what is to be done in secret, thereby maximising the possibility of abuse and secrecy.
Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I am absolutely fascinated. The Minister appears to be implying that if the Prayer against these regulations succeeds, the Government will then do nothing. I find that remarkable in the light of the unanimous view around
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am simply pointing out that the effect of the noble Lord's amendment would be a reversion, a regression, to the status quo; and the status quo is not appropriate for the new structure of councils. In other words, what the noble Lord seeks is impossible within the provisions of the Act. In so far as we were to go down that road, it would lead to fewer requirements on councils to pursue their decisions openly and to greater abuse. What the Government did in such circumstances would obviously be a matter for us; we should have to consider the situation. But the straightforward effect of what the noble Lord intends to do tonight will lead to more secrecy and more abuse.
We recognise that there is anxiety around the country, some of which is reflected in the House tonight. The reason is that some councils--councils of all political persuasions; I am not trying to make a party-political point--during the transition to the new arrangements, in trying to find new ways of working within the existing laws, have frankly become more rather than less secretive. We deplore that. The Government have consistently condemned such behaviour, whatever political party is in power in the town halls and county halls. But it has happened--and it has happened under the existing law, the very status quo to which the noble Lord wishes to return.
Thirdly, throughout the preparation of the regulations and the guidance on which we are now working, we have been careful to consult people widely and to listen to people's concerns and ideas. We do not pretend that what we have got is perfect. We have been grateful for other people's advice. We have been grateful that we have been able to discuss with our Liberal Democrat colleagues. Contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, suggests, we believe in discussing these matters with political colleagues. In this context I am prepared to regard the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, as a colleague; however, he and his noble friends did not seek to discuss ways through this, whereas the noble Baroness did. As a result, I believe that we have reached some understanding as to how the guidance should be drafted, which is a sensible mode of carrying on consensual democracy. If the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, wishes to stay outside that consensual democracy, that is a matter for him and for his party. It is all very well for his colleagues in another place to take votes on these matters because the consequences of what they do do not matter. The consequences of what is done here, were the noble Lord to win this vote, do matter. It is important, therefore, that posturing should not be undertaken. We believe that as a result of discussions with the Liberal Democrats and with others we have reached a more sensible outcome.
Part of that is to indicate that if we have not got the matter right, we have a mechanism for looking at it again. We shall review and consult on the operation of the regulations and, as appropriate, amend them
The regulations provide the regime of openness and they provide for the executive arrangements. I remind the House that there are certain areas around the country in which anxieties have been expressed and which are not covered by these arrangements--the quasi-judicial functions of the council, in deciding planning applications, for example, are not matters for the executive and are therefore covered by the existing arrangements. There is no change in that situation.
What will happen under these arrangements is that, for the first time, decisions will be notified well in advance. For the first time, papers relating to key decisions will be available as soon as they are finalised and, in line with the current regime, they will have to be available at least three clear days in advance. For the first time, key decisions to be taken by officers will be subject to the same access to information requirements as decisions to be made by members under current arrangements. For the first time, the legislation includes an explicit requirement that substantive discussion of key decisions to be taken collectively is held in public as well as at the formal decision-making meeting--in the past, in councils of all persuasions, this may occasionally have been a rubber-stamping operation. That is an extension of openness. It provides access to information; it is not a restriction.
The noble Lord made much of the fact that on occasions an executive can meet in private. He seeks to contrast that with the position under the existing Part VA. But that is not a direct comparison. Such meetings can take place and, by the noble Lord's own admission when he referred to the current practice of secret councils, they do take place. Under Part VA it is entirely possible for there to be private meetings. But what we are trying to ensure is that key decisions are subject to public meetings. The decisions that are not key decisions under the new arrangements and the new guidance are decisions which officers routinely make, currently without any public papers and without any record of those decisions.
The noble Baroness raised a number of points. We share her aim, and I understand some of her concerns. She raised, for example, the question of financial thresholds. I want to make it clear that we shall, as soon as reasonably practicable, be consulting on our definition of appropriate thresholds. We intend now to revise our guidance and make clear our intention to consult on thresholds and, in the light of that, to include the guidance indicating the thresholds for service or function budgets above which any likely expenditure of savings would make a decision key.
The noble Baroness made a point about one ward making a significant decision rather than two wards; and she mentioned the issue of draft papers, briefing meetings with officers and decisions which alter policy or established council practice. We understand and sympathise with those concerns. We believe that the
The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, raised the issue of draft reports and claimed that the regulations make it possible for reports never to see the light of day simply by keeping the reports in draft form. That is not possible under these regulations. Regulations 9(1) and 11(3) require papers to be made available at least three clear days before a decision is taken. That cannot be got round by claiming that a decision was made on the basis of a draft report.
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