Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central): Like the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), I welcome what the Minister had to say this evening. She was helpful in addressing the genuine concerns that have been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House to the effect that the new structures for local government should be at least as open and transparent as they were in the past. We should all recognise that the Minister and the Government have moved very far from the Bill as it was originally printed and from the discussions in Committee that I read in Hansard. It is a tribute to the Government that they
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford that one or two matters still need clarification, and the hon. Member for Bath has identified them. It is important that any discussion on a key issue, whether or not a decision is to be made on that occasion, is open to the public and that they are notified in advance. That is what members of the public want. They want to see what their councillors say, how they address the issue, and on what information they base their decisions. Those are the determinants--not whether or not a decision is taken. I am sure that the spirit of what my hon. Friend the Minister said takes that into account. I hope that that spirit will be reflected in her reply and in the draft regulations. That similarly goes for the definition of a key decision.
There are greater difficulties in defining a key decision. It is difficult to define them, and in a way I regret that we are going down that path. I would like to say all important decisions--but perhaps "important" is equally open to definitional difficulty. I cannot say that I envy the Minister the job of wording regulation 15, but it needs to be wider, and we need to hear something in the spirit of what she said in opening the debate, but clearer and firmer than that.
There are still one or two further matters that need clearing up. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) raised the question of draft reports. I listened carefully to the Minister's reply, and she appeared to be making a different point rather than answering my hon. Friend's point about draft reports. Draft reports do not lead immediately to a decision, but they can be crucial. The drafting of an original report for a local authority will determine the tone and parameters of any important decision about, for example, the closure of a school or an old people's home, or anything else. So the issue of draft reports needs to be considered. I hope that the Minister will answer that point a little more clearly in her reply to the debate.
I agree with the hon. Member for Bath that, ideally, the provisions should be written into the Bill rather than into regulations, but perhaps that is difficult for the Government to accept at this late stage in proceedings. No one will press the Minister tonight to put the provisions in the Bill. The progress that we have made on the regulations is sufficiently encouraging, and it shows the spirit in which the Government are dealing with the issue. There are issues on which we need the greatest possible legislative clarity. This is a difficult area.
Most hon. Members are sympathetic to what the Government are trying to do, which is to release local authorities and their decision making from the impenetrable, slow and cumbersome committee structure. However, in doing so, the Government inadvertently went down a much less transparent route in the original Bill. The Minister has saved the legislation and the Government tonight from that unhappy and probably unintended route, and has retrieved the situation; but she must recognise that significant decisions will still effectively be delegated to members of the executive--cabinet members, as they call them in my local authority in Stoke-on-Trent--and made in conjunction with the chief officer. It will be difficult to achieve transparency
We are pursuing a difficult route which will lead the Government to keep a very close eye on matters. I hope that, quite apart from these regulations, the Government and the Ministers will revisit this piece of legislation over the coming months and in a year or two's time, to see how it is working and whether members of the public--and of the local press--are worried about a lack of transparency.
It was very encouraging to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Ms Moran) say that the local newspaper found that the present arrangements as demonstrated in Luton were actually more open than the legislation would require. That is to the credit of her local authority and the way its councillors and officers are operating in the spirit of the legislation, but we all recognise that it is perfectly possible to operate in a different spirit. Moreover, when decisions are very contentious and difficult, and a local authority feels itself beleaguered--as happens all too often--there is always a tendency for any local authority to smuggle things through and take decisions which, once they are a fait accompli, people will have to accept. Those of us who have been councillors in the past and have been chairs of committees understand that tendency only too well; it crosses all party divides and is simply a human tendency.
It is thus very important that we get this aspect right tonight, because whether we get it right or not along the lines that we are talking about, this will be difficult legislation to put into practice, and it will be difficult to ensure that there genuinely is openness; so the greater the clarity we get from the Government--in what the Minister says in winding up, and in the drafting of the regulations, and in the monitoring of the operation of the legislation--the better.
The spirit of what the Government are doing is right. Since Committee, the Government have moved an enormous distance in addressing these problems of openness and access to information, but we still have some way to go. I hope that, when the Minister winds up, she will recognise that advice in the spirit in which it is offered to her.
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): I very much agree with what the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) has just said. He summed up the problems that we face succinctly and clearly. Where I disagree with him is that I would not be so sanguine that we have found the solution to the problem--although he is cautious about it.
I always feel extremely wary when we send a Bill to the other place in a sense incomplete, with a key area of it lying around as draft regulations on which the Government will consult. Our final destination on this vital issue remains so uncertain.
We have been considering the Bill since April, when it had its Second Reading. We have had hundreds of amendments and here we are, in July, at its last knockings in this House, still fiddling with a vital section of it. That is a great indictment of the Government. The Minister, in
We are about to agree to the amendment--my hon. Friends would not wish to agree to it, but we are about to do so because the Government have a large majority on it--even though we still do not know the definition of the key word. What is a key decision? We still do not know that. We do not know what can be interpreted as a key word. As I understand the regulations, the decision as to what a key decision is will ultimately be decided by the local authority concerned, with some guidance from the Minister in some manner, which we have not seen--[Interruption.] I am sorry. It has been seen, but it has not been agreed. That is an extremely dangerous thing. I cannot believe that journalists and editors throughout the country will be satisfied by that.
The old committee system was described as slow and cumbersome. In many respects that is true, and those of us who have been councillors know what it is like to sit through some endlessly boring committee stages, but they are open to the public and to the press, and the arguments that flow back and forth can be heard by everyone. If decisions are not key decisions, but are nevertheless important decisions--the discussions before the closure of a school, perhaps--they will be taken in private and will not be properly explained and challenged until the scrutiny procedure starts, as I understand it.
I believe that we now have an intensely bureaucratic set of regulations, which are out to consultation. We do not know what they will be like in the final analysis. I believe that the House will be asked tonight to nod through a very significant provision that could bring about a substantial diminution of press freedom and public freedom--without our seeing the detail, which, in my view, should be in the Bill.