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Local Government Bill [H.L.]

3.9 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

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Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.--(Lord Whitty.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 87:

    Before Clause 12, insert the following new clause--

Local authority executive: responsibility for functions

(" .--(1) This section makes provision about the way in which, under executive arrangements, a local authority executive which takes the form specified in either section 10(2) or (3) or (4) above is to be responsible for its functions.
(2) The decisions, proceedings, reports and documents of the executive shall be subject to the provisions of the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985.
(3) No function may be discharged by or on behalf of the executive unless an officer appointed by the head of paid service of the authority is present to record the decision, those present taking the decision and to record any advice given or relevant background papers.
(4) No decision which would result in expenditure may be taken unless it is consistent with a scheme of delegation approved by the authority.
(5) All records about decisions of the executive shall be reported to the next meeting of the Council.").

The noble Lord said: It will become a fact of life that a local authority that chooses to run its affairs through executive arrangements will discover, certainly initially and perhaps always subsequently, that the executive of the authority is clearly under the public eye. It must create great public interest. In future, if the executive chooses to adopt executive arrangements that will be the body or group of people who undertake most of the actions on behalf of the particular local authority concerned. That being so, it is inevitable that one would wish to see the highest standards of probity, openness, and security of the public interest by that body. The interests of the staff of the authority need also to be protected. If the executive were to behave in the least way in an improper fashion, that would not help the staff's good reputation.

I believed it necessary, therefore, to table Amendment No. 87. I am pleased that government Amendment No. 151 is grouped with it. While that amendment does not cover the same points as Amendment No. 87, it is directed towards the same intentions. The subject is further confused. In order to find out what is to happen one has to refer to draft regulations. I emphasise that those are in draft form and not regulations. Therefore the issue is not straightforward.

I am pleased to find--it occurs from time to time and is always a pleasure--that the principles which persuaded me to table the amendment are those which the Government accept and agree with. I hope that I may be permitted a slightly tart comment: that it would have been better if neither the Minister nor I had had to put forward an amendment on the subject. The provision could have been in the original Bill.

I look forward to hearing the Minister's remarks on the government amendment. I beg to move.

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3.15 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee: I had expected the Minister to leap in to defend the Government's position by speaking to his amendment. He indicates that he gives way.

Amendments Nos. 129 and 130 which stand in my name are grouped with Amendment No. 87. I suspect that the real debate needs to be on government Amendment No. 151, which stands more than a sporting chance of appearing in the final version of the Bill rather than the amendments in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. Therefore, I shall comment on that amendment first.

We welcome a government amendment on access to meetings and provision of information. However, I confess that I would wish the Government's new clause to go somewhat further. Chapter 13 of the guidance on accountable decision making is passionate in its advocacy of transparency and accountability--and who could argue with that? It also comments that the traditional access to information provisions require material to be available only three days before the date of the relevant meeting. The draft guidance describes the desirability of wide consultation before decisions are made. Again, I do not quarrel with that. I am concerned, however, that in most cases it will be voluntary good practice rather than a statutory right for citizens or other members of the authority.

I am particularly concerned about the provision in paragraph (a) of the proposed new clause which provides for there to be regulations about,

    "access of the public to meetings of executives or committees ... (including provision enabling such meetings to take place in private)".

The obvious implication is that executives can choose to meet in private and that there will not be prior access to information but that decisions will be provided to be published as soon as practicable after the meeting. We see that language from the Government. There has been much talk about recognising that an executive will at times choose to meet in private. The truth is that one can never avoid off-the-record discussions between members of an executive or any group which chooses to talk privately beforehand. We on these Benches feel strongly that the Bill should go as far as possible in a direction other than that of enshrining private meetings as part of a formal process. Information must be made publicly available at a stage when an input can be made by members of the public, interest groups and other councillors.

My noble friend Lady Thomas of Walliswood spoke at an earlier stage about the importance of councillors who are not part of the executive or administration making their contribution to the processes of local authority. She spoke powerfully--and may choose to do so again today--about the importance of information being made available to back benchers. Many of us have sought to avoid using that term because it seems a little pejorative although that is not the intention. Back benchers, in particular those of the party running the local authority, need their

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opportunity to make a constructive input. Today may not be the day to choose the term "a critical friend of the administration" but that is the role of many back benchers. That is how they like to view it. We welcome such a provision and hope to strengthen the Bill in order to contribute to the development of scrutiny, enhance the role of non-executive members, public participation and consultation and real freedom of information, and bring about the improved ethics and probity that we all seek.

The two amendments in the group would strengthen the requirements on access to information and decision-making. The first would maintain current levels of openness by applying the 1972 Act. Although there would be no restriction on members of the executive holding discussions in private, the amendment recognises that formal decision-making should be in public. The second amendment provides for agendas and papers to be published in advance, and for there to be advance notice of decisions. I look forward to hearing the Minister's explanation of his amendment.

Lord Whitty: I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, if she thought that I would speak before her. I thought that it would be for the convenience of the Committee if I heard debate on the other two amendments and therefore could place my amendment in context. I shall speak to that amendment and pick up some of the points raised.

The Government's starting point is that to be transparent and accountable a council's decision-making arrangements need to satisfy a number of fundamental principles. The first is that a council's policy development must be inclusive and involve the key stakeholders, and so forth. Secondly, the community needs to be able to make its input into the decision making. Thirdly, and most importantly in this context, local people need to know who are the decision takers, what those decision takers plan to do, what they have done, and why they have done it. Amendment No. 151 meets those criteria.

The right approach when judging whether decision-making arrangements are transparent and accountable is to look at how they meet those principles in practice. Although there has been some formality of openness in the past, it has not in all cases met the principles of transparency and accountability. Traditional arrangements do not meet them. Committee meetings are in public, but frequently that is not where decisions are made. Local people can be present but that does not mean they know who is the real decision taker.

Under the present system, papers must be presented to a committee three days in advance, but that is no substitute for the proper involvement of local people. Minutes are made available after the meeting but there is no way of scrutinising them and getting behind the formal decisions. Access to papers and minutes rarely helps to identify the real issues.

The present structure can embrace committees that do a good job of meeting transparency and accountability and go beyond the minimum in

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providing information to the public and interest groups. The new executive arrangements will provide the clarity, transparency and accountability that we all want and are set out in Chapter 13 of the draft guidance. They include an inclusive process of formulating the policy framework and budget; publicly known and identified individuals who are personally responsible for implementing the details of that framework and budget; accurate recording of decisions and reasons; timely publication of those reasons and of the background and factual papers available to decision makers; and the powerful overview and scrutiny committees--which will meet in public and discuss and make recommendations on policies, holding each executive member to account for that which he or she has done or is planning to do.

Those arrangements will open the door to a wider form of democracy and a greater degree of information for the public. The executive will make clear from the outset what it plans to do, who on the executive will take particular decisions and how it is intended to involve others in those decisions. There will be dialogue between members of the executive and the relevant overview and scrutiny committees. The public and local people, through those committees, will have a guarantee of knowing the executive's plans, what it is doing, and what it has done and why.

Amendment No. 151, together with the guidance, allows those arrangements to be implemented. Coupled with Clause 15 on the role of overview and scrutiny committees, the amendment should lead to proper transparency and accountability. The amendment, taken together with the draft guidance, meets those objectives but the three Opposition amendments would not. They are closer to replicating the access to information regime that applies to the current committee system, which misses the point. An executive is not the same as a small committee but comprises several people who, individually and personally, have responsibility for delivering aspects of the council's agreed policies.

An executive will of course discuss many issues but final responsibility for a decision will often rest with an individual, particularly where there is a directly elected mayor but also in other models of executive structure. The individual will be responsible to the overview and scrutiny committees in terms of what was available before making a decision, why the decision was made and the decision itself. Such decisions may frequently be made in their final form by the executive in private but the background, responsibility and precise form of decisions will be subject to public scrutiny. Amendment No. 151 covers that objective in a way that the other amendments do not fully address.

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Although there is some overlap of what is desired by members of both Opposition Front Benches, their amendments address something more akin to the present situation than the new structure, so I hope that they will not press their amendments.

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