Previous SectionIndexHome Page

8.58 pm

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong): I am pleased to speak in this debate and to follow the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) who, I understand, has just been appointed to the Opposition Front Bench. In those circumstances, he will have to read his brief rather better than he did this evening. Indeed, he will have to understand the interaction between local government and the health service a little more effectively than he seemed to understand local government in his remarks.

Much of what we heard from the Opposition was a bit disappointing. I felt that the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) was simply playing politics rather than seriously trying to see how we can move forward on the issue.

I appreciated, however, the comments of the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). I am aware of his consistent interest in the issue, and I assure him that the overall regime that we are introducing will be far more demanding on councillors than any previous regime. I assure him also that some of today's malpractice will not be possible under the new regime. I shall deal with the latter point in more detail later.

23 Jan 2001 : Column 884

I am happy to say that the regulations will have to be considered regularly. Ministers will have to examine both the regulations and the guidance to ensure that they are achieving our overall aim of introducing in local government a new culture of openness and public accessibility. We want the public to know that their council is acting for them and on their behalf, and to see that in the way in which the council works at every level. That objective underpins everything that we are seeking to do.

The issues dealt with in the regulations are important and difficult. However, throughout the process of working out the detail of our policy we have been consulting widely, including with the Campaign for Freedom of Information. I do not think that the hon. Member for Eastbourne properly reflected the campaign's views. However, such representations are a part of debate and I do not object to that.

We have discussed, both in the House and with all those involved, precisely what details should be included in our access to information regime. I know that there have been concerns, including among my hon. Friends, about access to information. Those concerns are quite understandable: the regime is central to the success of our policies to make council decision making more efficient, transparent and accountable. However, we have listened carefully to the concerns and we have acted on them. At the final stages of our debate on the Bill, which is now the Local Government Act 2000, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes) explained in detail our proposed access to information regime. These regulations put that regime in place.

The regime applies to every council once it has adopted an executive constitution. It is a regime of greater openness. I happily accept that we have been helped in putting together the regime by the contributions of the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). I remind the House that he is on record, in the Local Government First magazine of 6 January, as saying:

As the hon. Gentleman has recognised, we have delivered much more openness. Other Opposition Members, however, argue that the regulations will shut out the press and the public from the council chamber and say that that might create a breeding ground for corruption and inefficiency. They argue also that we somehow sneaked out the regulations, just before Christmas, when no one was looking. They have also talked great nonsense about key decisions. I shall deal in turn with each of those points.

As for the old regime, it is nonsense to say, as Conservative Members do, that the regulations will shut out the press and the public from the council chamber. I accept that, in the past year, regardless of political persuasion, some councils have become far too secretive while purporting to be moving towards new constitutions. Such councils have not done a good job of making the case for local democracy. However, let there be no doubt that the Government deplore such behaviour regardless of which party is in control.

It is woolly thinking to relate that increase in secrecy to the regulations that we are now considering. All those councils are operating under the old regime which

23 Jan 2001 : Column 885

Conservative Members have been extolling. It is under the so-called part VA provisions that councils have shown that they can become more secretive. Yet Opposition Members want to retain those provisions. That is an example of the Tory hypocrisy that the hon. Member for Bath outlined.

The world has moved on. If, as Conservative Members suggest, we overturned the regulations, we would be in an even worse predicament. Once a council adopted a new constitution, we would not return to the Opposition's beloved but flawed part VA. We would not revert to the status quo. If councils so chose, there would be total secrecy and the regime would lack even the flawed safeguards of part VA. No hon. Member supports that.

Our regulations provide greater openness, transparency and accountability. They will deliver a regime under which people know what the executive will be discussing, who its members are, and therefore whom they can hold accountable. People will know to whom they are talking, and they will see the papers that the executive is considering. They will also be able to see key decisions being debated and taken collectively. Under the new regime, no significant decision will come as a surprise to anyone. No one can say that with confidence about the current regime.

The new regime is the antithesis of the breeding ground for inefficiency and corruption that Conservative Members pretend the regulations will create. People will have far greater knowledge of, and access to, decision makers than they have ever had in the past. They will also be entitled to greater advance notice of decisions than under the old regime, and they will have access to papers that cover a much longer period.

I shall now deal with the view that we sneaked out the regulations. When we published the regulations, I wrote to the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman)--perhaps he does not communicate with the hon. Member for Eastbourne--and to the hon. Member for Bath and told them that we were laying the regulations. My noble Friend Lord Whitty wrote to the Front-Bench Members in another place, and we announced the regulations in a parliamentary answer. That is usual practice, but we went way beyond it. We wrote to the Newspaper Society, the Society of Editors, the editors of all the leading regional papers, the Local Government Association and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives. Of course, everybody who has a copy of our guidance pack was sent an automatic update including the regulations and revised guidance. No one can claim that that constitutes "sneaking out" the regulations.

Let me respond to some of the specific points that other hon. Members made. I accept that, under our regime, there are circumstances in which an executive can meet in private to think the unthinkable away from the public glare. I make no apologies for that--such meetings have always happened. Indeed, as long ago as 1986, shortly after the part VA provisions were enacted, the Widdecombe report to the then Secretary of State stated:

23 Jan 2001 : Column 886

As hon. Members on both sides of the House know from experience, the choice is either to bring such meetings within a formal framework and properly record them or, as under the current regime, which is so popular with the Conservative party, for them to be informal, unrecorded and unaccountable. As a woman, I might say that women are excluded from many such meetings, but I shall not stoop to that. We have chosen the former course. The Conservative party prefers the latter--informal, unrecorded and unaccountable meetings.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne referred to remarks made by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston: "There are no fantasies. This is an open regime." Her remarks happen to have been misquoted by the hon. Gentleman. I hope that he recognises that.

Thinking the unthinkable perhaps, the Conservative party asks why we cannot have a regime that requires that every decision-making meeting be open. The answer is simple. If two members of the executive got together and decided that they wanted to switch on a light or switch on the central heating, in law, that would be a decision. If a mayor and her or his deputy met to go to a function and decided to use the official car, that, too, would be a decision. No one would want such a situation to be dealt with in the way suggested by hon. Members--recording and publishing the fact that a decision is to be made, giving three days' notice. We must achieve sensible government while making the regime as open and accountable as possible.

Several hon. Members referred to key decisions. We consider them to be ones that would involve significant expenditure of taxpayers' money or otherwise have an impact on the local community. As our statutory guidance makes clear, they are the decisions that councils often took to a committee. Although I accept that some people are concerned that too many decisions were delegated, we want to achieve continuity. Under the old regime, councils were not obliged to take such decisions to a committee, but they must now make them in public, although they were not previously obliged to do so. Councils can and do delegate such decisions to officers. Where that is the case, no one knows when or how the decision was taken.

I agree that the precise definition of such decisions is difficult, but, for the first time, we have tackled that. I accept that we may not have got everything right, but we have produced a definition that nearly all the bodies involved--for example, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, which the hon. Member for Eastbourne prayed in aid--helped to us to construct. Under our regulations, for the first time, even when decisions are taken by officers or individual members, they will be open. People will, for the first time, have advance notice of those decisions.

The definition in the regulations is clear and practical, and I do not accept some of what Conservative Members said. I cannot believe that anyone would say that a decision to close a small school with three pupils was minor or did not involve major expenditure. In any case, such a decision would have to go to the Secretary of State.

23 Jan 2001 : Column 887

We are being perverse. We must have a regime that makes it clear that the way in which councils operate has to be open, but we must also allow them to continue to govern. We must proceed by getting that balance right, and the regulations and the guidance seek to strike the right balance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) asked what would prevent a local authority from taking a restrictive view of the regulations. The regulations will go a long way to preventing those who have been involved in malpractice or poor practice from continuing such practice. We now have definitions and, if the regulations are implemented alongside the guidance, I do not believe that their effect can be as perverse as the effect of some regulations under current legislation.

Why is it not possible to provide standard or minimum guidance for local authorities to follow? I think that that is what the guidance does: it sets out what we would expect the minimum to be, and what would happen in the event of restrictive behaviour. A citizen could go to the ombudsman, and, as my hon. Friend said, could take his case to judicial review; but we would expect value inspectorates looking at corporate governance to look at that as well. If we see it in context, it is clear that the regime will be far more rigorous and demanding, from the council's point of view, than it is now.

I have not been able to deal with all the matters that have been raised because, with the leave of the House, the hon. Member for Eastbourne wants to speak again. I hope, however, that I have assured Members on both sides of the House that the regime will be more open. We are having to introduce definitions that have never been introduced before, and councils are able to make decisions completely.

I could have given many examples of Tory authorities that have been involved in extremely bad practice, but that is not what the debate is about. It is about how we achieve the right balance to bring about the greatest possible openness. We want to do that without preventing councils from making everyday decisions--decisions that are not particularly significant, other than in that waiting to make them might prevent those councils from governing effectively.

Next Section

IndexHome Page