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Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan): I very much welcome the changes that have been made to the Bill in regulations. We have moved an awfully long way from the first drafting. As I said, that is a tribute to the work that has been done by Members on both sides of the House and by other organisations.
The Government had to balance the need to allow councils thinking time to get together with their officers and discuss things that are in the air before they take key decisions, with the need for a clear, transparent, decision-making process. We now have what is probably approximately the right balance. I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) on the need to monitor the working of the legislation. The regulations are obviously quite complex and will be difficult for authorities to operate. We need to monitor, to ensure that the regulations are complied with. There is a clear need for Government, and for ourselves as Members representing people, to ensure that our councils do the proper thing.
We need to be aware that the legislation is only part of the process of modernising local government; the other part was the Local Government Act 1999, which provided for the creation of community plans. The community plans involve the community in the way local government takes its decisions. The regulations make it absolutely clear that the community, local businesses, voluntary groups and individuals must be involved in that process. When those elements are combined in the decision- making process, the result will be that the transparency, the openness and the involvement of the public in local government will be very much better, once the Bill becomes an Act.
Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills): I share some of the reservations that have been expressed by my hon. Friends about the journey that the Bill has made on openness and on its provisions for access to information. I gladly pay tribute to the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which has been a beacon of light, has monitored progress, and has demonstrated benchmarks.
In an earlier reading of what seemed to be almost another Bill from another world, one took the view that it had been drafted by the Home Office. It had all the magnificent over-defensive reactions that reflected the thought that dangerous talk cost lives and that local electorates should not have the same standard as is suggested for the Bill. It seemed inconsistent that a Government who were taking steps to advance open government were also permitting a situation that denied the residents of my local authority, for example, the access to information that they had traditionally had. The fact that the regime is now looser than was originally conceived in the Bill is to be welcomed.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central made two valid points. First, if terms such as "key decision" are not properly defined, that gives rise to anxiety. The standard in one place may well be different from that in another, and I know that the Minister is mindful of that fact. However, if a constituency covers two local authorities, two different standards of access to information might apply. That would give rise to conflict and would reduce our ability to participate. After all, openness of information is the greatest incentive to participation and to involving people in local government. They feel more involved if they know what is going on and, if they are sufficiently interested, they may participate in the process.
All political parties are trying to reach out and increase participation and the sense of validation of the decisions taken. I am naturally cautious about executive-style mayors such as we have in London, but I am a Conservative and one would expect me to view change with caution to some extent. Therefore, the first point that the hon. Gentleman raised was the variable standard between authorities.
The hon. Gentleman made another important point on the issue of regulations. The House drowns under regulations and we have very little say over them. They are not even properly scrutinised. I was going to whisper, but I do not have to do so in the House because most of
For many years, we have had to sit--I certainly have--in our surgeries wondering how such an outcome could have come about. It is difficult to put right a wrong. Although regulations have the effect of primary legislation, they are not primary legislation in the sense that we can take up the House's time to try to satisfy ourselves--this is what the process is about--that they are fair and reasonable.
The hon. Gentleman said that he was bit cautious about regulations, but that he accepts the good intent of the Government. I am very concerned about regulations, however, because 2,500 of them flood through as statutory instruments each year, and that is in addition to the 2,500 pages of legislation that existed even before the Home Secretary announced yet another Bill for this Session. I hope that the Government take that point on board, because it is disappointing to think that we shall not see the regulations before the Bill is returned to the House of Lords.
I want to give a cheer to amendments Nos. 82 to 87, which were tabled under a distinguished collection of names, to which mine was also appended. I commend to the Government a more vigorous approach when the matter is considered in the Lords. I hope that they will enable us to discuss the regulations in detail without the constraints that apply to most regulations.
Dr. Whitehead: I shall add my brief comments to those who have said that the measures that the Government have introduced on Report will lead to a culture of openness in the new form of local government. That is important, because when we consider the past and the future of local government we should be honest. The idea that there was a golden age of openness in local government that the Government first ignored, and then had to be dragged kicking and screaming back towards, is not true.
In the past, local government has, in some circumstances, operated in admirable conditions of openness. However, there have also been instances in which local authorities have operated in shocking conditions of secrecy. There have also been occasions, even after the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 was passed, on which local authorities subverted the requirements of such legislation by various means, including caucuses, pre-meetings, half-group meetings and half-group and officer meetings and so on.
In circumstances in which it is clear that a major decision is to be made, a seamless web of information should be made available to the public before it is made. That is the order of the day when that decision is being entertained and discussed and once it has been made and implemented. The Government have suggested changes to the Bill. I was a member of the Joint Committee of both Houses that scrutinised the draft Bill and, as hon. Members have reflected today, it is right that considerable moves have been made from some thoughts that came before that Committee.
The circumstances that will exist after the Bill is enacted will be a challenge to any local authority that wishes to pursue its activities in secret. The assumption will be that a good reason must be put to the public if items of any major importance to that local authority are to be decided in private. That does not mean that there are not circumstances in which certain decisions should be discussed in private. Certainly, there are circumstances in which decisions should be taken privately, such as those relating to tendering of contracts, in which a third party can get an advantage from those contracts, or cases relating to employees or disclosure of information which, in certain circumstances, may be prejudicial to individuals. However, I can think of only a few occasions when that is relevant, and there is an overwhelming case for openness in local government, which the changes will advance. I commend the Government amendments for the way in which they engender that culture.
Finally, there is now an onus on those in all political parties who purport to speak for local government at national level to make sure that excuses are not made for local authorities that are run by their parties in a majority, if those parties fail to live up to the culture of openness that the Bill will introduce. I certainly hope that what the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) said and what Conservative Members said in support of that greater openness will be backed by action in future. If local authorities do not do that, those parties should take action themselves.
Mr. Shepherd: The hon. Gentleman said that he could see good reasons why certain matters are confidential, and cited tendering as an instance. That relates to the commercial confidentiality argument which goes right through whole areas of British government. Why should a tender, which is an open market transaction, be protected by secrecy? In the United States, that would considered an outrageous suggestion, as people, including the public at large, want to compare open tenders. One might not take the cheapest tender, but one is forced to give the reason for that, such as quality of goods, service or reliability. I am nervous about starting to cocoon areas on the ground that they may require confidentiality.