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Dr. Whitehead: Of course that must be constrained very scrupulously, but I am concerned that the playing field might not be level. If a private company wants to gain some advantage, for example, in a land transaction and the local authority is required to give it access to information that enables it to take advantage of the tendering process, the public might be deprived of money that might otherwise have gone their way if that information had not been available to the private company.

Such a requirement would be necessary if we had a regime in which everyone--whether a public, private or voluntary body, or whatever--were always required to disclose exactly the same information. Unfortunately, private companies have been able to take advantage of the openness of public bodies to make deals to the disadvantage of the public interest. We should be aware that that is possible and ensure that, in that instance and that instance only, the public interest is not compromised by the fact that the playing field is not level in those circumstances.

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I hope that the spirit of openness heralded by these amendments is made a reality. One political party has recently introduced an ethics committee to its own internal proceedings. I imagine that that party would want to ensure that its ethics committee looked into any local authority, on which its representatives were in a majority, that proceeded secretively. Hon. Members from all parties have signed up to an important principle tonight. We should now ensure that, in future, the reality of local government conforms to the principles that we have enunciated.

Mr. Waterson: Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, the Government have got themselves into a terrible mess. They have twisted, turned and tried every way to save their face, but it will not wash. We have heard all the usual guff about openness, transparency and so on, and we must all learn a new theology about key decisions. The Minister had the temerity in her opening remarks to boast about the fact that the draft regulations were put out for discussion. Yes, they were, but only since yesterday--talk about legislating on the hoof. The Government have rushed out the draft regulations. [Interruption.] I shall take no lessons from Ministers; they have the great panoply of the civil service at their disposal and have been preparing all this stuff for years.

We are having this discussion only because we pressed the matter in Committee, because the Minister has been greatly embarrassed in the media--we know how important they are to the Government--and because a bunch of brave Labour Back Benchers have tabled amendments.

The Government have rushed out the draft regulations and guidance because they are in an absolute panic, trying to buy off a Back-Bench rebellion--apparently, successfully for the moment. They have made an embarrassing climbdown, but to avoid the appearance of having done so, at least to anyone below the age of five, they have produced an incredibly contorted system of new regulations and guidance on key decisions that hapless local authorities will have to work their way around--as if they have not got enough on their plates with best value, cabinets and all the other weird and wonderful stuff, and with the odd directly elected mayor thrown in. It is as if Ministers' memories have been erased. If all that is so clear, obvious and straightforward, why did not they do it at the outset?

Why were these proposals not in the Bill when it was printed? Why were they not set out in the 400-odd amendments that the Government tabled in the other place? Why were they not in the nearly 400 amendments that the Government tabled in Committee? Why have they appeared only in the 115 amendments that the Government have tabled at this late stage of the Bill's progress through the House?

9.15 pm

If everything was so clear, obvious and self-explanatory, why did the Government resist the Opposition's amendments and the amendments tabled by other parties in Committee? Our proceedings this evening have turned into a face-saving exercise. There has been the occasional coached intervention from trusties on the Government Back Benches to make it seem that we are engaged in a natural, organic process. The Government's

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first instinct at all stages of the Bill's passage through the House has been to resist a movement to keep the regulations, rules and practices that applied under the previous Conservative Government. That has not been a movement towards greater openness.

Let us leave all that to one side, however. Let us take it that we are where we are. If these matters are so important and significant, why are we debating regulations in a vacuum? My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) made the point clearly. There will be consultation and eventually regulations will be produced. One wet afternoon, they will pass through some part of the House. By then, the spotlight will have turned on something else. Who knows in what form the regulations will eventually appear? If these issues are so important, they should be set out in the Bill.

By way of semi-explanation, the Minister responded to the old adage that the best line of defence is attack. She made the usual attack on the committee system. She alleged that the committee structure excluded people. No, it did not. People had a right to go to council meetings and committee meetings except where there was something properly confidential to be discussed. That is the point.

The clear purport of the Opposition's amendments has not changed throughout the progress of the Bill, as the Government have twisted and turned. It has been straightforward. We wish simply to ensure that the position that applies to council meetings and committee meetings will apply to meetings of executives or cabinets.

The Minister derided a phrase that I used in Committee, but I make no apology for using it again. We have been seeking throughout to hold the line. The right hon. Lady said that that was not good enough. That is absurd. She went on and on about the moribund committee system and the status quo, for example. However, our position could not have been clearer, simpler or easier to understand for those in local government.

Baroness Thatcher, as she then was not, introduced a private Member's Bill that set out the original provision of openness. It became an Act in 1960. We opened up the meetings of councils and committees to the public and the media. Further legislation was introduced, not least the measure that was brought before the House by my former hon. Friend, Robin Squire, which cemented the approach of openness and introduced some details, quite properly. I see no reason why that system--it was simple to understand and was operated over many years--cannot be applied to the Government's proposals.

The Minister mentioned scrutiny. What relevance does that have? We are talking about meetings of cabinets or executives and whether they should be in public. In a desperate attempt to solve problems of their own making, the Government have produced an intensely complex and bureaucratic regime, against which I would happily contrast our common-sense approach, which is based on experience. That is why I shall invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against Government new clause 9.

Our two amendments are straightforward, and they were debated in Committee. One refers to part I of schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972, which enshrines the rules that I have already discussed, which currently apply. The other would amend clause 21 and put the onus on an executive which wants to meet in private.

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Not surprisingly, the Liberal Democrats, as is their wont, are trying to have it both ways. They are trying to run with the hare and the hounds. They push for amendments, but are happy to accept the bizarre results that the Government have come up with. It is no surprise, therefore, that last week at the local government conference, when the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) was asked whether he was optimistic or pessimistic about the future of local government, he replied, "Both."

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): As the hon. Gentleman will recall, I said that I would be optimistic, were the Liberal Democrats in government.

Mr. Waterson: I am not sure that I remember the hon. Gentleman's comment quite that way, but let us not fall out about it.

If the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) can engage in drafting on the hoof, let me do the same. I shall provide the clause that Ministers are looking for. They do not need a lot of clever parliamentary draftsmen. The wording, subject to all the confidentiality provisions that ordinarily apply, should be something like this:

Is that simple enough for Ministers?

I do not understand the logic of producing all sorts of regulations, under which one must first establish what is a key decision. A series of criteria must be met. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), or possibly my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge- Brownhills, pointed out, the same people must make the decision as to what a key decision is, but let us leave that on one side for the moment.

When it has been decided what is a key decision, which must be discussed in the usual way in public. Fair enough, but why not apply that to all decisions, key and non-key? Why not continue the present practice, whereby a council meeting or a committee meeting has a full agenda, and apart from items of confidentiality, which are usually taken at the end of the meeting, the meetings are open to members of the public and the media?

I do not understand the problem that Ministers perceive, except that they are trying to pretend that the current proposal was the idea all along, and that they have not been driven to that expediency by pressure from the Opposition, the Liberals and their Back-Bench colleagues.

Let me give the Minister a warning. Why does she think that her cabinet ideas have been embraced with such alacrity by certain Labour-run councils, even before the Bill passes into law? Does she agree with Councillor Brendan Bird of Hammersmith and Fulham, a leading member of the Labour Campaign for Open Local Government, and someone who may be advised not to walk in any dark alleys on his own at present? With reference to the Government's proposals, he asked:

I will tell him. For many of them, the secrecy was the attraction--the ability to hold meetings behind closed doors, as they did in the past, but to be approved for doing it and seen as part of the modernising agenda.

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I warn the Minister that some of her dwindling band of supporters in local government may well melt way if the attraction of being able to meet in private--in secret--without public or media being present, is not available to them.

On the mechanics of the Government's proposals, we received the draft regulations only yesterday. Of course, I was grateful for my copy. Is it not remarkable how fast a Government can move when they are up against a Back-Bench rebellion? The accompanying letter makes the obvious point that the draft does not incorporate any comments received in consultation. That would be an achievement, given that that started only yesterday.

Regulation 15 contains the definition of a key decision. Such a decision must be an executive decision which,

that may be somewhat subjective--

something that


We discussed in Committee how one would define those terms and the incurring of expenditure. I wonder whether that definition includes decisions about councillors' expenses and allowances, for example. There are other cases involving special urgency and other ways in which one can avoid the strict requirements of the regulations.

At the end of the day, there are still three major objections. One is that these are regulations; they are not in the Bill. Secondly, they still require people in a given authority to put decisions into a particular category, and it is for them to interpret those regulations. Thirdly, as I have already indicated, the problem is much simpler to resolve than that.

The House does not need to be reminded at too great a length, but it may need reminding to some extent, of the problem we have been trying to address. It took up quite a bit of time in Committee. It seemed to me that the burden of proof was firmly on Ministers who wanted to change the existing system, which seemed to me to work well, and that they should make a good and convincing case if they felt that there was any reason not to apply the regulations to the new cabinet system. We wanted to stop the Government effectively retreating from the Conservative legislation that I have already described.

Mr. Andrew Ecclestone of the Campaign for Freedom of Information put it rather well when he said:

That is absolutely spot on.

Perhaps the most appalling example of the kind of thing we are trying to tackle was described in an article in The Guardian by Mr. Peter Hetherington, referring to Cardiff council where fat-cat councillors gave themselves huge pay rises. They included the then lord mayor, who was initially paid a package of £58,500. The local council was so irritated by media criticism of that that it decided to cancel all council advertising in the local press and set

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up its own 140,000-circulation newspaper. The really awful part of it is that those decisions were made by the cabinet in secret.

I have a final illustration of why I think the Government are trying to persuade us that they have throughout had a certain mindset which is simply wrong. Very recently, as Mr. Hetherington pointed out, the Labour national executive described current campaigns against the cabinet system as "naive, misinformed or mischievous". The fact is that a whole range of people have come forward to oppose the Government's proposals: Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Charter 88, newspaper editors, main television channels, the National Union of Journalists, the Council for the Protection of Rural England--the list goes on and on and on.

But the reason we are here today discussing these tortuous amendments is very simple. It is nothing to do with any of those organisations, or even with me or my hon. Friends. It is because Labour councillors and Labour Back Benchers were not prepared to put up with what the Government are trying to impose. I say, "Good for them!" I do not mind their having the credit if that is where the credit is due. Good for them, if they are heading in the right direction. We could be dealing with this problem in a much simpler, clearer, crisper way. That is why we shall vote against the Government's new clause.

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