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'--(1) Meetings of
(a) a local authority executive
(b) a committee of such an executive
(c) a sub-committee of such an executive
(d) a joint committee
(e) a sub-committee of such a joint committee
shall be open to the public subject to the provisions of Part VA of the Local Government Act 1972.'.

Amendment No. 19, in page 16, line 5, leave out "or held in private" and insert--

'unless necessary to exclude the public for individual items of business on the grounds that they involve the likely disclosure of exempt information as defined in paragraph 1 (all reports) of Part I of Schedule 12A to the Local Government Act 1972.'.

Amendment No. 83, in page 16, line 6, leave out subsection (2).

4 Jul 2000 : Column 244

Amendment No. 20, in page 16, line 7, leave out from "decide" to end of line 9 and insert--

'which parts of its meetings, and which part of any committee of the executive are to be held in private.'.

Amendment No. 84, in page 16, line 11, leave out from beginning of line 11 to end of line 12 and insert--

'any meetings referred to in subsection (1).'.

Amendment No. 85, in page 16, line 20, at end insert--

', and where such reports, background papers or other documents relate to a decision which is to be taken they must be made available at least five clear days before the date on which the decision is to be taken'.

Amendment No. 86, in page 16, line 21, leave out subsection (7).

Amendment No. 87, in page 16, line 25, leave out subsection (8).

Government amendment No. 111.

Amendment No. 88, in page 16, line 42, leave out subsection (9)(a).

Government amendment No. 112.

Amendment No. 89, in page 17, line 20, leave out subsection (10).

Government amendment No. 220.

Amendment No. 90, in clause 99, page 74, line 25, after "10(5),", insert "21,".

Amendment No. 91, in schedule 4, page 87, line 34, at end insert--

'. In section 100A of that Act (Admission to meetings of principal councils), in subsection (6)(a), for "three" there is substituted "five".'.

Amendment No. 92, in page 87, line 34, at end insert--

'. In section 100B of that Act (Access to agenda and connected reports)--
(a) in subsection (3), for "three" there is substituted "five"

Amendment No. 93, in page 87, line 34, at end insert--

'. In section 100D of that Act (Inspection of Background Papers)--
(a) in subsection (1) leave out from "members of the public--" to the end and insert--
"(a) a list of the background papers for the report or the part of the report shall be attached to or included in the report, and
(b) at least one copy of each of the documents included in that list shall also be open to their inspection at the offices of the council.",
(b) in subsection (2) omit the words "of the list, or",
(c) in subsection (2) after "included in the list" omit ",".'.
(b) in subsection (4)(a), for "three" there is substituted "five"'.

Amendment No. 94, in page 87, line 34, at end insert--

'. In section 100I of that Act (Exempt information and power to vary Schedule 12A), after subsection (2) insert--
"(2A) The Secretary of State may by order substitute for the reference to 'three clear days' in sections 100A and 100B such greater number of days as may be specified in the order.".'.

Government amendment No. 205.

Ms Hughes: Throughout this Bill's passage through the House, the issues relevant to these amendments have been the basis of an informed and constructive debate on access to information. I am sure that that will be the case this evening, too.

4 Jul 2000 : Column 245

I hope that both sides of the House will agree that we all start with one aim in mind--to ensure that the new structures are as accountable and transparent as possible. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that the third aim of the executive arrangements, as identified by the Joint Committee, was to improve efficiency and establish a more modern approach to decision making. The debate has been concerned with how we strike that balance.

During debates in Committee, we identified that the central issue to ensure access and transparent decision making is public access to information. First and foremost, local people need to know what decisions are going to be taken, and also when and how they are to be taken. They need to know what information, analysis and ideas will be available to decision makers, and what will influence them. Above all, local people need and deserve to know how they can make their input into the decision-making process. Decisions that affect people should not come as a surprise to those affected. Equally, once a decision has been taken, the public need to know what that decision was and the reasons for it.

It is through this public access that, to a considerable extent, the accountability that we all seek will be delivered. It is unfortunate that the Opposition should diminish the role of overview and scrutiny, as it is vital to this matter and to the proposed structures. All the new structures, with their separate, identifiable executive and powerful overview and scrutiny committees, will contribute significantly to ensuring that future decisions by the council are made in an open and inclusive process that involves local people in deciding local issues.

Central to building the framework to deliver that ready access will be a requirement for executives to maintain a public forward plan of decision making, as set out in our guidance. People will see what decisions are going to be taken over coming weeks and longer. They will also see how the executive is planning to consult and involve them, and how they can participate. Amendment No. 112 empowers the Secretary of State to make regulations requiring such a forward plan. For the information of the House, draft regulations were yesterday made available showing how we intend to use the powers, should clause 21 be amended as we propose.

I recognise that there remain genuine concerns about whether the access regime really will bring about a culture of openness and transparency. I accept that these concerns have been fuelled by recent experiences, referred to earlier by right hon. and hon. Members, of the experimental new working arrangements being tried by some councils. Councils are already making significant progress in trying new and innovative ways of working that will involve local people far more readily and significantly in their decision making, but not every experiment has achieved the kind of openness that we want to see and will be required under this measure. Indeed, some have fallen well short of the spirit of our proposals.

I remind right hon. and hon. Members that these shortcomings, where they exist, have arisen before councils can adopt fully the new structures that the legislation will put in place. They are, therefore, not yet compelled to adopt the regime of public access that we are introducing; they are instead using existing legislation not to promote openness but, on occasion, to increase secrecy.

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To achieve our aims, there must be change. Not only must there be a tough regime for access, there needs to be a culture of openness, and public confidence that such a culture exists. It is important that all right hon. and hon. Members accept that we are talking not just about structures but about mechanisms and levers to try and drive a new culture into local government. That is what we are putting in place, and the proposals need to be seen in that light.

We are therefore taking one further measure which I believe will dispel some of the proper concerns that have been raised and build that public confidence. Amendment No. 111 will allow the Secretary of State to specify in regulations the circumstances in which a council's executive must meet in public. If the House accepts that amendment, we intend to make regulations requiring that when a decision is being taken collectively by an executive, and is one of the key decisions that will be of the kind contained in the forward plan, the executive will have to meet in public to make that decision. The draft regulations placed in the House yesterday make that clear.

Mr. Waterson: What is the logic of having meetings in public to discuss key decisions and still having the possibility of meeting in private, or in secret, to discuss decisions that are not key and are, by definition, probably rather unimportant?

Ms Hughes: That is no different from what happens currently. I do not think that anyone would argue that every decision, such as those currently delegated to an officer, for example, should have to be taken in the formal arena of a public meeting. That is not in the spirit of the point that I made at the outset of my speech about the balance that needs to be struck between openness and transparency on the one hand and efficient decision making--which is also in the interests of local people--on the other.

As I was saying, the draft regulations will make it clear that such decisions will have to be made in public. In addition, to ensure that openness and accountability are a reality, we shall make it clear in our guidance accompanying the Bill that it is not just when a formal decision is being taken that the meeting should be in public. People should not be able to get around our clear intentions for access by, for example, questioning officers in private about their advice one week and, the following week, formally taking the decisions without a debate in that public arena. One could argue that that has been one of the problems with the committee system, and it should not be carried over into the new regime. We shall therefore make it clear that we expect that when the executive is having a collective discussion with officers, pertinent to any key decisions, the public should have access to those discussions.

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