Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Was there any press notice stating that the regulations were to come into force?

Mr. Key: Not that I saw, and I keep a pretty sharp eye on such things. My hon. Friend is right to draw the House's attention to the fact that we do not know what is happening. [Interruption.] I shall give way to the Minister for Local Government and the Regions if she wants. No doubt she will return to the point later.

One of the most extraordinary things about these extraordinarily prescriptive regulations is that, only a decade ago, the then Government--of whom I was proud to be a member, with responsibility for local government--was berated by the Labour party because we could not concede the principle of general powers for local government. Indeed, such arguments were frequently deployed by those then on the Opposition Front Bench, but we said that the tradition in this country was that local authorities operated under statutory obligations laid down by the House. However, as soon as the Labour party came to power, all the pious talk of general regulations went out the window, and we now find that we have to consider such incredibly prescriptive regulations.

The definition of the word "significant" matters very much indeed. I look forward to the Minister telling us where that word is defined. No doubt it has been defined

23 Jan 2001 : Column 881

if she says so, but it is certainly not helpful that the House does not know what the Secretary of State may think significant.

I have only one other comment to make, and it is in relation to regulation 12, which deals with publicity in connection with key decisions. Councils--and Governments--often resort to a practice that I find increasingly surprising. In my constituency, under the Liberal Democrat council, in coalition with the Labour party--each party is a tiny minority, and by far the largest number of elected councillors belong to the Conservative and Independent group, but the Liberal Democrats and Labour have a pact, which gives them control--it is extraordinary how often, when a tricky issue must be explained to the public, or an unpopular issue has been raised in committee and a difficult decision taken, it is not the chairman of the local authority committee who goes on local radio or does the interview with the local newspaper but the officers of the authority who are put up to defend the local authority's actions. That practice is much to be deplored.

I wonder whether my hon. Friends have come across such behaviour; perhaps they will give examples. We also see it in Government. From the top down, there is a culture of behaving in that way. Civil servants--or, in the case of the Ministry of Defence, senior officers--are asked to write letters to newspapers, or to appear on television to explain something that the Government have done.

Local authority officers are too often put up to speak for the councillors. The names of the officers of the district council in my constituency who do the explaining to the public are far better known than those of the councillors who take the decisions. If I were to ask my constituents the name of the chairman of the planning committee or the area committee, they probably would not have a clue, but they would know who the chief executive or the relevant officials were, because they are always turned out to make excuses for the councillors.

Ms Armstrong indicated assent.

Mr. Key: I am delighted that the right hon. Lady agrees with me, on that point at least.

I hope very much that that practice will not be used as often as it has been, so I am surprised that, given that the right hon. Lady agrees with me, there is nothing in the regulations before us, which stipulate in enormous detail what should happen, that defines the parameters within which elected district councillors or local authority councillors can choose whether to explain or to undertake the publicity in connection with key decisions, rather than the officers of the local authority. That is deplorable. It should be a matter of great honour to local authorities that the elected representatives of the people should explain their actions. That is what accountability is meant to be all about, but accountability is lacking in this instance, just as it appears to be lacking in the regulations that we are considering and in the Government's whole approach.

8.52 pm

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills): I am genuinely confused about the Minister's position. I cannot fathom why there would be an attempt to reduce the standards of openness that we have seen across the

23 Jan 2001 : Column 882

country, historically, since the days when Lady Thatcher opened up local government in many ways. I puzzle on that dilemma. I accept, as the Minister has said across the Floor of the House, that that is not the intent of the regulations, and yet the general conclusion of many hon. Members and the tentative questions of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) show that there is unease about the drafting of the regulations.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) made a pretty good fist of outlining the anxieties of the Campaign for Freedom of Information about the measure, and my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) did likewise by highlighting the detail of some of those arguments. I do not intend to read the Campaign for Freedom of Information briefing into the record because I know that the Minister has a copy, and that those in her Box are fully apprised of the arguments. However, too many people are arguing that, following the introduction of the regulations, the standards of access and openness will be lower, under the new regime, than they were before.

Ms Armstrong indicated dissent.

Mr. Shepherd: I see that the Minister disagrees, but because the argument about any of these things no longer lies in this Chamber but will be pursued in the other Chamber, I must tell her in truth that I support the arguments advanced in the Campaign for Freedom of Information brief. I believe that they are reasonable and must be addressed.

Consistency between local authorities is important. Why should one local authority have a lower standard than that of the local authority just across its boundary? In the concept of the financial quantum, what determines what is a "significant" amount? The regulations are detailed, so could they not try to identify that? The discussions must be open or public if they involve amounts above a certain figure. It is not a question of war or battle with the Minister; it is about trying to achieve an objective. I do not think that, as drafted, the regulations do that. There has not been an advance but a retreat.

I accept that that is a difference of judgment. However, in these matters, the devil is in the detail. Every Member represents local authorities to some extent, and Members on both sides of the House do not want access to local government information to be diminished. However, the regulations do that and should be withdrawn or redrafted and reissued.

8.55 pm

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): It is a great honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) who speaks with such authority on these matters. I have no such knowledge or authority; I am merely the layman fumbling through the devil of the detail in the regulations.

The Prime Minister told the Campaign for Freedom of Information in March 1996:

It bears repetition that, on the basis of that principle, the residents of New Forest district should, as a matter of principle, be entitled to expect greater scrutiny of and access to information after the regulations are passed.

23 Jan 2001 : Column 883

However, in my estimation, that is not the case. That is partly a consequence of the Local Government Act 2000 and the move from the committee system, and partly a conclusion that I reached having made my way through these rather detailed and confusing regulations.

Regulation 5 in part II states that documents will be made available only after a decision has been reached, and

My understanding is that, at the moment, my constituents can inspect such documents three days before the meeting of the council.

Ms Armstrong: I hate to tell the hon. Gentleman this, but councils still have to produce documents a minimum of three days before such meetings. They have to produce a list of key decisions several months before and then they have to report. The hon. Gentleman is talking about reporting arrangements on decisions that have been taken. I should hate him to continue to appear so confused before the House.

Mr. Swayne: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for straightening me out on that one. It is useful to hear her answer. Perhaps she can be as helpful about regulation 21(1)(c) in part V, which lays out the grounds on which the public can reasonably be excluded from a council meeting. It provides reasons and states:

There is a thing--the advice of a political adviser should be made known to the public. I should have thought that political matters were the one thing on which the public would demand scrutiny. Very often, that is what divides councillors, and it is only appropriate that the public should have access to that information. It strikes me as monstrous that they do not. However, time is short and I am keen to hear what the right hon. Lady has to say.

Next Section

IndexHome Page