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Mr. Foster: To be fair to the Minister, she has produced guidance that refers to the Government's understanding of the word "significant". Once the hon. Gentleman reads it, he will not find it especially convincing, but, more importantly, he will find that an individual council will be able to make one decision while another council makes a totally different decision based on the guidance offered by the Minister.
Mr. Foster: That is my concern, and I see that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Buckingham asks about the issue of a key decision. That is also a significant issue, hence the two are intimately bound together.
I am interested in whether there are measures to prevent abuse. The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes), said on Report:
The new aspect of the regulations is that they will allow executives to meet in secret when they claim that the principal purpose of the meeting is for an office to brief a decision maker, or members of a decision-making body, on matters that are connected with the making of an executive decision. A number of bodies are concerned about that. The problem is that if a small but key decision on a significant issue is to be discussed at the same time as other matters, it is perfectly possible that, because it is only a small part of the business in hand, the executive will ensure that it is discussed and dealt with in secret session.
I do not accept that all was well in the past, as the hon. Member for Eastbourne suggested. Progress has been made. Nevertheless, in several key areas, the regulations are genuinely deficient. I very much hope that the Minister will be prepared to think again and to take some of our significant and key concerns back to the drawing board, so that we will have another opportunity to consider them when hon. Members on both sides of the House might be able to give their support.
Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): I have only three questions for my right hon. Friend. However, before I put those to her, I should explain that we are discussing the regulations because a particular model of local government is being developed. If we go back half a century, it is interesting to note that the great reformist idea was to try to model central Government on local government. A great man, called Jowett of Bradford--my right hon. Friend will know of him--tried to persuade everyone that if we could transfer the committee system of local government to central Government, we would improve the way in which the Government worked. That is a very interesting idea.
However, we are now moving in the opposite direction. We want local government to adopt the Cabinet system, and that has implications for local government. One of the implications is that the way in which the Cabinet system works, within an envelope of secrecy, must be transferred to local government.
Important issues are involved, although this is not the moment to debate them. Local government needs radical reform. It should offer a diversity of models--it should not be a monolith. I hope that the Government's reforms will work out well. In some respects, I am agnostic about them, but I hope that they will produce the advantages promised.
I agree with what has been said about the provisions, but I shall not repeat all the good points that have been made. In some respects, what we are offered represents a gain on the existing situation--for example, with regard to access to papers when key decisions are taken. I pay tribute to the Government for that and for having listened to all the representations that were made.
There was considerable disquiet about the suggestion that there had been a decline in openness as a consequence of the larger changes being made to local government. The Government made a genuine attempt to listen to those concerns and produced the "key decision" formulation in response.
I shall set out my questions, which I hope my right hon. Friend will answer when she responds to the debate. What is to prevent local authorities from taking a restrictive view of the regulations? With respect to key decisions, the budgetary provision or the significant effects provision, what is to prevent individual local authorities from taking a restrictive view of those matters? No figure is specified in the budgetary provision, so radically different views could be taken about what counts and what does not. With regard to significant effects, the guidance refers to the traditional practice of local authorities as to whether they delegate such matters to officers or committees for decisions.
It would be odd if an authority that had traditionally been restrictive in such matters were allowed to continue to be restrictive. The question what prevents the regulations and the associated guidance from being interpreted in a wholly restrictive way by a local authority is important, and the Minister should answer it.
The second question arises out of that. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House why she felt that it was not possible or necessary to provide some kind of standard minimal guidance for authorities to follow? Despite celebrating the diversity of local government, as I have just done, there is an expectation that there will be a common minimal standard across the board.
We want the larger reforms to work and to carry people's confidence. If it came to be thought that the provisions were being used in a way that denied the access that the Government had intended, there would be an erosion and a corrosion of belief among the public in the Government's wider reforms. That would have extremely damaging consequences. Why do we not require some kind of minimal floor, so that everyone knows that there is to be a certain commonality of access across the country?
The third question follows from that. Can the Minister tell the House what can be done if restrictive behaviour occurs--if some councils abuse the provision to ensure sufficient access? What can people do? It has been suggested that they can kick up a fuss, but we know how effective that would be. There is talk of judicial review, but that is not an option in the vast majority of cases.
Will it be possible for people to complain to the local government ombudsman that their authority has interpreted the guidelines wrongly, or has given the guidelines a restrictive interpretation that was not intended when they were introduced? If my right hon. Friend could give an assurance on that point, along with the other two, that would help in considering the regulations.
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): Among Members of Parliament for my constituency, there has been a tradition of seeking openness in local government. My late predecessor, Michael Hamilton, in his early years representing Salisbury, introduced a private Member's Bill which allowed planning committees to sit in public for the first time. I feel strongly about the issue.
Members of the public do not realise the nature of the process that we are going through tonight. An official from a Government Department said to me this morning in a Committee that the regulations would be the subject of a statutory instrument and would therefore be approved by Parliament. I had to explain to the official that under the statutory instrument procedure, the question put by the Chairman of the Committee is not "Does the Committee approve?", but "Does the Committee agree that it has considered the proposition?" That is it. The Executive are simply informing the House what they intend to do. Then, through the usual channels, we have to fight like mad for such a prayer as this to be considered on the Floor of the House. Of course, the Government then use their majority to get their way. The negative procedure needs to be explained because it is widely misunderstood outside the House.
Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire): My hon. Friend is making a very good point. With such prayers, it is scarcely open to us to approve a measure, and if we find an error, we certainly cannot change it. That is one of the main shortcomings of parliamentary procedure today.
I was disturbed by the timing of the statutory instrument. It was cynically tabled within a day or two of the House rising for the Christmas recess and it cynically came into effect on 9 January--the day after the end of the Christmas recess. That is extraordinary, and it certainly does not show any noble intention on the part of the Government. Hon. Members may call me cynical if they like, but if I had tried that ruse when I was a local government Minister, I would not have got away with it.