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Mr. Bercow: I note the hon. Gentleman's point about the Liberal Democrats' determination to force a Government rethink but, in view of the fact that his party prides itself on its grounding in local government, why--and it is a simple point--is he not accompanied by a single colleague from his own party as he eloquently makes his points this evening?
I wish to discuss the key points of the debate. I said that I was delighted that the Government were prepared to move forward. Given the assurances that were given during the passage of the Local Government Act 2000, Liberal Democrats were prepared to support the Act at its final stage. Therefore, I want to put it firmly on the record that we will not support the Government's regulations this evening. The regulations are deficient in several respects and fall short of the assurances that were specifically given in debates on last year's Act. I shall come to those assurances later.
However, we are genuinely concerned that the regulations could lead to the some local councils returning to the dark ages if they wish to do so. They could hold many more of their deliberations in secret.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne has dealt with the three key concerns. The first is the issue that was touched on by the hon. Member for Buckingham. What exactly is a key decision? The Government's proposals will, in effect, leave it to local authorities to decide what the definition should be. That could lead to authorities being secretive if they so wish.
We are also concerned about aspects of the regulations. The use of the get-out clause on draft papers could determine what types of information would be prevented from being made available. Like the hon. Member for Eastbourne, we are also concerned with the new provision that has suddenly and rather mysteriously appeared. It will allow executives to meet in public when discussing key issues, but will enable them not to do so if the executive itself asserts that the main purpose of the meeting is simply to be briefed by officers.
The definition of a key decision is pivotal and the regulations have two approaches to it. One definition is that a decision is likely to be a key decision if it involves significant expenditure or savings in relation to the council's budget for a service. The problem is that it is then left to the individual council to decide what constitutes a significant expenditure or a significant saving. Those authorities that wish to be secretive could set a high figure, but those that wish to be fairly open could set a low figure. That would lead to the problem that councils across the country could set very different standards. Surely freedom of information is a basic right to which all citizens are entitled regardless of where they live or by which council they are served.
The second part of the definition allows people to consider how many wards in a council area are likely to be affected. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) raised an interesting point when he said that an incinerator in his area would be sited in just one ward. That is an important decision but, under the regulations, a key decision must affect two or more wards. The hon. Gentleman would be well advised to consider his example more closely, because the council's expenditure on the incinerator would be almost minimal. Therefore, the decision would come under neither of the two categories and the council would be entitled to determine that the matter was not a key decision, so it would be able to discuss it in private.
Mr. Foster: I am grateful to the Minister for that strongly expressed response. She is helping us to begin to tease out, and has put on record, her understanding of what will happen if the regulations are accepted unamended.
I have another example from my constituency. The local council had to decide whether to close a small school for infants that serves the people in only one ward. According to the officers' report, only a small saving would be made, so they argued that the decision was being taken for purely educational reasons. Therefore, the decision affected only one ward and only a small sum of money was involved. That means that, under the regulations, the decision could have been taken in secret by the executive.
Mr. Bercow: I very much agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. In the type of case that he has described, surely the only circumstances in which a debate on the decision would automatically be held in public would be either if the school building--by extraordinary serendipity--happened to cross a ward boundary and/or if parents from more than one ward sent their children to that particularly small school. Neither of those circumstances can be assured.
Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is right. One could start to develop all sorts of complex examples that involve bringing in pupils from other wards or show that a couple of bricks lie outside the ward in question. However, the case that I have described is a good example of the problems that could occur if the council shows no good will and does not want to be open with the people that it seeks to serve. When the council clearly intends to discuss matters in secret, the regulations will make it perfectly possible for it to do so.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne also briefly touched on the issue of whether it would be possible to avoid making information available to members of the public by keeping a report in draft form and by continuing to keep it in draft form up to the last minute. I raised this issue several times in the Committee considering the Local Government Act 2000. In response to one of my points, the Minister said:
Mr. Foster: I have looked very carefully at the regulations, and I shall refer my remarks to regulation 9, the definition of report as it appears in regulation 2 and the guidance itself. However, I am totally unconvinced that the concern that I expressed has been covered. Indeed, the Minister wanted to take the matter further. She also said:
The Campaign for Freedom of Information, which has also studied the regulations and the guidance in considerable detail, is not convinced on this matter. However, if the Minister is convinced that all is well, perhaps we could consider whether it is possible to abuse what she seeks to introduce.
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): Before the hon. Gentleman moves on from regulation 8, can he tell me where the Secretary of State has published guidance on the meaning of the word "significant"? That is an absolutely crucial consideration. The regulations say that a council must have regard