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8.15 pm

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford): My hon. Friend has made an important and welcome statement that goes beyond regulation 3 on page 5 of the draft regulations to which she has just alluded. Will she confirm that the wording of regulation 3 will need to be revisited again to make it clear that a meeting of a council executive will have to be open when matters pertinent to key decisions are being discussed, not just when those decisions are being determined?

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Secondly, regulation 15 seems to leave the definition of key decisions to individual local authorities. Would it not be more sensible to have national parameters to help define key decisions?

Ms Hughes: I remind my hon. Friend of what I said. We will make it clear in the regulations that we expect that when an executive is having a collective discussion with officers, pertinent to any key decisions, the public shall have access to those discussions. The regulations will reflect that commitment.

On my hon. Friend's second point about the definition of key decisions, the draft regulations are, as he knows, out for consultation. What constitutes a key decision is a specific question that councils are being asked in that consultation. In fact, that was drawn to the attention of the local authorities when the draft regulations were published. We will take cognisance of the responses that we receive on that issue before firming up our views on how a key decision should be defined. Certainly, the responses of local authorities will be very germane.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): My understanding of the process that is being sought, and my view of an ideal process, is of a seamless mesh of access to information prior to a decision being made, while a decision is being made, and after it has been made via the scrutiny process when a key decision is in question. Is it the Government's intention that the new clauses will allow for scrutiny when a decision is being entertained but has not yet entered the decision-making process? That is what happens in Select Committees in this House, even though no legislative process is being undertaken at that particular moment.

Ms Hughes: We have already made it clear during extensive discussions in Committee that key decisions announced in the forward plan that we envisage will be weeks--possibly up to three or four months--in advance of a decision being taken, and that overview and scrutiny committees can call the executive members responsible to account before the decision is taken. That is already provided for in the draft regulations.

Mr. McDonnell: On the definition of key decisions, I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important to consult local authorities. Does that mean, therefore, that these regulations will be brought before the House for debate for potential amendment and approval?

Ms Hughes: In terms of the outcome of the consultation, there will be the opportunity to discuss the regulations.

We are very comfortable about moving in this direction and with responding to some of the issues that have been expressed. I hope that no one would argue that there should be no opportunity for early discussion in private among executive members about issues likely to lead to key decisions. It is in the interests of local people that members, with officers, are able to explore options and think through the implications of potential decisions before they make a decision.

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Certainly, in terms of the concerns that are being expressed, we are also clear that when an executive is meeting to discuss issues that are pertinent to key decisions with officers, those should be in the public domain. I hope that that reassures some of my hon. Friends and hon. Members about the concerns that they have raised.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I am grateful for that clarification, but will my hon. Friend confirm what will be covered as regards advance disclosure? The timetabling is not clear. How much advance disclosure should there be? Would draft reports be covered by advanced disclosure requirements? Technically, it would seem that under the regulations a draft report could be the subject of a subsequent decision without any advance disclosure. Is it clear that the regulations will cover draft reports as well as the formal reports?

Ms Hughes: Yes, I think that our policy is clear on that. Under the Bill as it stands, where a member of the executive receives officer advice the report must be disclosed at least three days before a decision is taken. We are not saying that an executive member must have officer advice before taking a decision, although, as the guidance makes clear, in most circumstances we would expect that to be the case.

Our aim is to start from the position that too many councils have excluded the public from decision making for too long. That is a hallmark of the committee system. The desire to change that system is at the root of our proposals. Public access must be the norm. If people are elected to represent their communities, they must be seen to be delivering the best possible deal for those communities and to be accountable for that.

We shall carry over into our new provision the existing concept that certain matters, such as those relating to individuals or commercial contracts, are exempt information, on which, notwithstanding any general requirement for open meetings, decisions should properly be made in private. While we will carry across that concept, as I said in Committee, we shall review those categories to find out whether they are too widely drawn and should be reined in. Again, we will be consulting on that.

Mr. Waterson: As it might save time later, will the hon. Lady explain now what is the difference between what she is proposing to accept and applying the existing system of openness, as contained in the Local Government Act 1972 and elsewhere--subject always to confidentiality--which applies to council and committee meetings, to cabinet or executive meetings? Would that not be far simpler and achieve much the same result?

Ms Hughes: No, it would not. We are talking about an entirely different system. The hon. Gentleman has a complete blind spot about scrutiny and cannot see the advantages of a separation between executive decision making and scrutiny. Precisely because that is the structure that we are talking about, which we believe is preferable to the moribund process of the committee system, we need different arrangements to ensure access to information. Those are the arrangements that I have put before hon. Members today in our amendments.

In Committee, the hon. Member for Eastbourne said that his aim on access to information was to hold the line and that is what he just said. He asked why things could

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not stay as they are. Holding the line is not good enough. We want to move that line decisively towards better access, greater openness and greater accountability for local people. The arrangements that we propose will achieve that aim much better than the present arrangements.

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South): On the issue of greater openness and accountability, I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that the media have expressed concern about access to information and the openness that the executive will allow for reporting. Is she also aware that at the first executive meeting of Luton borough council, Luton on Sunday, usually the scourge of the council, expressed amazement at the openness and accountability that is now available? It is far in excess of what was previously available. Also, the three days prior notice of information from the executive needs to be reconsidered if we are truly to be more accountable not merely to the media, but to citizens who want to be more involved and informed about the important work of the executive.

Ms Hughes: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am aware of developments in Luton because I was there last week to talk to council members, as she knows, and I was impressed by what they are doing and the spirit in which they are trying to implement their new arrangements in advance of the Bill becoming law. If she will bear with me a little longer, I will deal with the number of days notice.

In addition to our robust access regime, our amendment for open executive meetings and the review of exempt information--the outcome of which we can implement through an existing order-making power when the consultation is complete--we are also putting some other provisions before the House. New clause 9 will ensure that background papers are now listed with reports. New clause 11 will allow us to increase the minimum number of days that papers are available in advance of decisions, to which my hon. Friend referred, and we shall consult on whether we should use that power in the near future. Finally, amendment No. 112 allows us to make regulations for the forward plan.

In addition, we will for the first time bring key officer decisions into the access-to-information fold. All of those provisions taken together represent a considerable advance on the status quo that the Conservatives want so dearly to maintain.

On the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) and others, I am sure that the spirit of their and our objectives is the same. I believe that the regime and the measures that I have outlined will more than meet the concerns from which the amendments sprang. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that the regime that we are putting in place will ensure that decisions are not only taken accountably, following rigorous local debate, but that they are seen to be so taken, and that where an individual member of the executive is taking a decision, she or he does so after proper debate and only once people know all the facts. My hon. Friend's new clause 5 would achieve just that and our draft regulations deliver those aims. Therefore, I think that we are in agreement in wanting proper access and accountability. I hope that he shares my view that our package of measures will deliver that.

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Finally, the Conservative amendments speak for what they are. In contrast to our regime for access and for reforming, modernising and extending existing provisions and significantly improving public access to them, the Opposition's amendments reflect their stance of holding the line, staying put and not recognising that local government in this century is a far cry from local government two centuries ago when the system that we still have was designed. Indeed, it is a far cry from the local government of the 1960s, when the then Member for Finchley, now Baroness Thatcher, introduced her private Member's Bill. Time has moved on, we have moved on, local people have moved on in terms of what they expect, but the Opposition and their amendments have not. In short, I cannot accept the amendments.

We can all agree, however, that we want a proper, transparent and accountable system that really allows local people to know who is taking the decisions, and when and how they can influence those decisions. The framework put in place by our provisions will deliver that. I commend new clause 9 to the House.

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