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8.30 pm

Mr. Don Foster: The speech made by the Under-Secretary of State was a tour de force; it was remarkable. She accused the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) of wanting to hold the line. She said that the Government did not want merely to hold the line, but to move beyond it. To hold the line was not good enough, she said; they want better access. In effect, she accused the hon. Gentleman and his party of looking backwards, while the Government are looking forward. She said that the Government are making progress.

According to her pronouncements tonight, we certainly are making progress. Indeed, during the past few months, we have made much progress. However, it would be somewhat disingenuous of the hon. Lady to pretend that all forward movement has occurred so easily. Even her hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Hall) found out only a few moments ago that obtaining concessions from the Government on the issue is like getting blood out of a stone.

The hon. Gentleman pointed out--helpfully, his words planned and ready--that there were surely two improvements that we could make. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman knows that I too wanted to raise those issues. He asked the Minister whether it would not be a good idea to revisit both draft regulation 3 and the definition of "key decisions". All he needed from the Minister were two short words: "yes" and "yes". However, the hon. Gentleman did not receive those answers; instead, the Minister made a longwinded attempt to arrive at "yes" and "maybe"--even the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that.

Ms Beverley Hughes: Not fair.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman made it clear that a clear statement was needed in the regulations on the definition of a key decision. If the Minister checks the record, she will find that she referred only to what would be placed in the guidance. In a moment, I hope that she will confirm that she intends to ensure that the change of definition appears in the actual regulations.

For the many people who care about freedom of information and openness in government, a long and weary road has been travelled. Both sides of the House

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can claim credit for the progress that has been made. They share that credit with many organisations: the Society of Editors, the Newspaper Society and, not least, the Campaign for Freedom of Information, whose members have worked tirelessly on the issue. Credit is deserved by those organisations and Members on both sides of the House, including the hon. Member for Eastbourne, who is even now rising to his feet and to whom I give way.

Mr. Waterson: I am not so extravagant as to ask the hon. Gentleman to include me in his list, but he might think of including Baroness Thatcher.

Mr. Foster: On this one occasion, I am delighted to include the right hon. and noble Lady. The House will recall that she and another former Conservative Member of the House, Robin Squire, promoted measures on the matter.

Progress has been made. However, it is worth reflecting on the genesis of the matter. For example, when the draft Bill was considered by the Joint Committee, it recommended that

Advance publication of the agenda is hardly a major request.

However, paragraph 2.99 of the Government's response to the Committee, published in December 1999, stated:

At that time, the Government were not even prepared to consider advance publication of agendas.

That is where we started. Since then, with pressure from many organisations and from Members on both sides of the House, the Government have come to believe that we need the production of a forward plan that details

That represents good progress.

Furthermore, there must be three days advance access to reports, agendas, and background papers for decisions that will be taken at meetings held in public. The finalised reports on which decisions are taken by individual executive members must, apparently, be publicly available in advance. I should be grateful if the Minister clarified that point, as there is some confusion in the draft regulations that we saw yesterday.

Other progress has been made. After a meeting, individuals must produce a record of the decisions, including the reason for the decisions and the alternative options considered and rejected. The Government have agreed to undertake a review of the exemptions from public rights of access to meetings and information in schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972. They have also

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agreed to amend the Act to require officers to list the background papers to their reports in the reports themselves.

That is a pretty impressive list of the changes that we eventually managed to get out of the Government. I suspect that, tonight, all that many of us want to persuade them to do is to state categorically that they are willing to take one more, final step.

I should like the Government to do one more thing, although I accept that they are unlikely to do so--I should like many of the issues that we have successfully debated to be included in the Bill. I should prefer them to take that route instead of dealing with such matters in separate regulations. However, I accept that that is probably a step too far for the Government at this stage.

The hon. Member for Bedford identified the two key issues on which we seek a clear statement from the Government. The first relates to key decisions. We need to be clear that the Government are willing to reconsider and widen the scope of the definition of "key decision" and, after consultation, to ensure that it is included in the regulations. I hope that the Minister will give us a clear "yes" on that matter.

The second issue relates to meetings that may or not take place in secret. Currently, it is the Government's intention to allow a group of members of the executive, if they want to do so, to hold in private a meeting to discuss a particular issue before a decision is taken. As I understand it, we have tonight heard a clear intention to change that arrangement. Unfortunately, the current draft regulations state:

The important phrase is "at the meeting". There is a real possibility that members of the executive may meet--on an agenda item, with papers in advance--to discuss the pros and cons of a proposal, perhaps the proposed closure of a school. It may well be that the decision on the issue will be taken at a later meeting, or delegated to an individual executive member. In those circumstances, under the current draft regulations, it would be possible for the meeting to be held in private, if the executive so determined. That would mean that members of the press and the public did not have the opportunity to listen to the arguments for and against that decision. It is certainly my belief, and that of the Campaign for Freedom of Information and the other organisations to which I have referred, that that needs to be changed, so that there is a clear statement of what is meant.

Dr. Whitehead: For the avoidance of doubt, will the hon. Gentleman make it clear to me that, wherever his party forms the executive in a local authority, he will use the best endeavours of his national party machinery to ensure that that local authority abides by the laudable sentiments that he has expressed this evening?

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Mr. Foster: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making his comments in a non-provocative way. It would have been possible to have been slightly more provocative.

Mr. Waterson rose--

Mr. Foster: Now the hon. Member for Eastbourne is going to be provocative, just when I was hoping that for once we could all come together and agree to move forward positively.

Mr. Waterson: I am tempted to say, "You rang?" Does the hon. Gentleman not think that this is a problem that will shortly solve itself?

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman has now got me puzzled. The example to which I was referring was certainly one that would not easily solve itself. Perhaps he knows of another.

I take the spirit of what the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) says. He will be aware that it is very much the view of the Liberal Democrats that decisions that are entitled to be made at local level must be made by people at that level. It is not for those at national level to tell them what decisions they should take. I nevertheless give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that my party will take steps to encourage all Liberal Democrat councils to operate with maximum openness.

I suggest a form of words to the Minister for draft regulation 3. I shall read it slowly so that the Minister can take it in. It might say something like: "Subject to regulation 4, a meeting of the executive of a local authority, or of a committee of such an executive, shall be held in public if it is a meeting at which (a) a key decision is to be taken or (b) discussion is to take place concerning a matter about which a key decision is to be made or may be taken in the future, whether by the executive or by any other decision-taker." From what the Minister said in response to the hon. Member for Bedford, I think that that is in line with what she has in mind.

I seek a clear assurance about the definition of key decisions, and an absolute assurance that, where discussions about key decisions are taken in a meeting of the executive for which there is an agenda item and for which papers have been prepared in advance, the meeting will be held in public, whether or not the decision is taken on that occasion. If I can obtain those two assurances, I will not urge my hon. Friends to press our new clause and amendments to a vote, and we shall support the Minister's new clause.

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