Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham):
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way at this relatively early stage in his remarks. He will correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that under the proposed regime, only key decisions will have to be made in public. For my enlightenment and edification, can my hon. Friend offer any indication of what the definition of "key decision" is likely to be?
My hon. Friend has characteristically cut to the heart of the regulations. If he will bear with me, I will deal with his point in detail in a moment.
As the Local Government Chronicle put it recently, the cabinet system is failing to impress, let alone the regulations about secrecy in local government cabinets. It said that a survey of councillors by Bristol city council found that many were unhappy about the replacement of the committee system with five scrutiny commissions. Some 86 per cent. of the 22 councillors who responded said that scrutiny was less effective. No one thought that it was more effective. One councillor said:
Bring back the committee system. It worked and all members were involved in the decision-making process.
This is a two-stage problem. The Government are requiring the majority of councils to bring in an executive system which, in effect, banishes the majority of councillors from any direct input into decisions made by the councils. The Government's proposals to increase secrecy in local government then make that process even more of a problem. It is no wonder that many Labour councillors have expressed their concerns and opposition.
It is only because the Government were forced into a partial U-turn by the Opposition, the Lords and their own Back-Bench rebels that we have these new regulations and the concept of key decisions to which my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) has referred. Our position on key decisions has always been the same. How do we differentiate between a key decision and a non-key decision? Who is to choose what is a key decision? Even more importantly, why bother making that distinction? If matters are really important, they should be debated in the full glare of the public eye unless there is some circumstance of confidentiality, as is the situation now. If they are not that important, why should they be conducted in private?
The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong):
Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House who takes the decision now as to which decisions are taken in public in committee, and which are not?
As the right hon. Lady well knows, the majority of issues on a particular agenda are heard in
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public. Usually, at the end of the meeting there are items that may be subject to confidentiality. [Interruption.]
The right hon. Lady will have a chance to defend these bizarre and byzantine regulations in due course, if she can just contain herself. As she knows, most agendas have items at the end which are dealt with confidentially--and for all the usual reasons of confidentiality, quite properly.
The Government are in a real mess over secrecy in local government because they are not big enough to admit that they got it wrong and to return to the status quo. Let us remember what leading members of the Government have said in the past about secrecy and openness. The Prime Minister, no less, said:
We want to end the obsessive and unnecessary secrecy which surrounds government activity . . .
He also said:
The first right of a citizen in any mature democracy should be the right to information. It is time to sweep away the cobwebs of secrecy which hang over far too much government activity . . .
I wonder whether he or, indeed, the Minister, remembers those remarks.
Here is another interesting quote from the Minister for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher):
Labour believes that democracy and openness should prevail, not patronage, sleaze or secrecy . . .
I checked the last edition of the Evening Standard
when I was having a cup of tea, and I think that the right hon. Gentleman currently owns up to six homes, and who knows how many it will be by the end of the debate?
When all those worthy statements of intent actually hit reality, we found a different kettle of fish. Let us not forget the comments of the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes). In last December's Municipal Journal, the hon. Lady stated:
Let's have no fantasies about this being an open regime . . . this does not mean that the executive must always meet in public. Councillors must be able to meet in private to discuss broad options, to have their political disagreements.
The Minister for Local Government and the Regions--[Interruption.]
If the right hon. Lady wants to correct me, she can do so in due course. She, too, has made some interesting comments on these matters--not least during the Standing Committee of the Local Government Act 2000. She said:
We are attempting to change the structure in order to secure levels of accountability hitherto unknown in local government.
We agree with that statement. The right hon. Lady certainly has been trying to achieve levels of accountability hitherto unknown in local government; the trouble is that they are lesser levels than pertained in the past. She also said that
I am not at all convinced that we shall secure openness by requiring that all meetings must be in public.
What has the Minister got against meetings held in public?
Last May, in an interview with the Local Government Chronicle, the Minister mused on the purpose of her proposed reforms. I cited the interview during the Standing Committee. The right hon. Lady said:
It is not feasible to have effective decision making when all of the thinking is done in the glare of publicity, because then people will not be thinking the unthinkable.--[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 23 May 2000; c. 267-75.]
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There we have it. That seems to be the philosophy that has guided the right hon. Lady in producing the regulations and their recent predecessors.
In stark contrast, the official Opposition have a strong and consistent record on the promotion of open local government. In 1960, when Baroness Thatcher--as she then was not--was a new Back-Bench Member, she steered through a private Member's Bill that was enacted as the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960. For the first time, councils were forced to open up all meetings to the press and the public.
The Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985--also passed by a Conservative Government--allowed the public access to key council papers three days before meetings. It is no wonder that Mr. Andrew Ecclestone of the Campaign for Freedom of Information remarked:
We are now finding a Labour government removing the rights Mrs Thatcher gave us.
Is not that incredible?
Even in the teeth of such criticism, the Minister carried on. We heard comments such as those made by Sir Jeremy Beecham of the Local Government Association who talked of witnessing the "strange death" of local democracy. The Society of Editors noted that, as a result of the reforms, there would be a reduction in the flow of information to the public and to the media.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold):
During the John Smith memorial lecture on 7 February 1996, was it not the height of hypocrisy for the Prime Minister to say:
The first right of a citizen in any mature democracy should be the right to information--
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord):
Order. The hon. Gentleman might like to rephrase the remarks he used about the Prime Minister.
Was it not totally inconsistent and contrary to the high public standards that one would expect from the Minister who is first among equals in this country when the Prime Minister made the following comment? In 1996, he said:
The first right of a citizen in any mature democracy should be the right to information. It is time to sweep away the cobwebs of secrecy which hang over far too much government activity.
Labour purport to be the Government of openness and freedom of information, but the Prime Minister is trying to cloak local government in secrecy through this statutory instrument.
My hon. Friend makes a telling point. After four years, we are used to such hypocrisy from the Government.
Several independent organisations criticised the Government's proposals. The National Union of Journalists noted that cabinets or executives meeting behind the closed doors that are being imposed will deny basic access to local democracy. The Society of Local Authority Chief Executives also criticised the proposals. The list goes on: the Local Government Information Unit, Charter 88 and the Campaign for Freedom of Information all criticised what the Minister was about.
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There has not been much improvement. In the teeth of a Back-Bench rebellion--from the vast swathe of empty Benches behind the Minister, I assume that it has been seen off--the Government got themselves into a terrible mess; since then, they have been bashed from pillar to post trying to find a solution--to satisfy not the Opposition or local government, but the Labour rebels on the Back Benches and in local government. They rushed out draft regulations, relying on the bizarre distinction between key and non-key decisions.
Most of us will have received a briefing from the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which has a distinguished record on dealing with such issues over the past six to nine months while the legislation was going through the House. The CFI points out that
there remain serious concerns that the Regulations will increase secrecy in local government if adopted in their present form.
Because of the distinction between key and other decisions, the CFI is concerned that
There is no minimum standard of openness which would apply to all councils.
That is right. Such a provision is notably absent from the regulations.
The CFI also notes:
Where decisions are based on draft reports, no advance disclosure is required.
That provision seems to have crept in since our last debate on the proposals. The CFI states:
This is carte blanche to suppress embarrassing information.