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Lord Woolmer of Leeds: I agree with my noble friend that the new structures and the distinction between executive responsibility, scrutiny and overview are more radical than the Opposition amendments. My noble friend's approach offers a more substantial way forward.
There is a need for a considerable degree of openness and transparency in decision-making and accountability. My noble friend's way forward is a new regulatory-making power to deal with access of information, rather than put those principles in the Bill. The Government may take the view that provisions requiring detailed amendments to existing legislation are best be dealt with by regulation. However, there is a case for ensuring that enhanced accountability is enshrined in the Bill, not left to regulations that could be changed or overturned in future, with a return to what some might regard as the bad old days of local government.
The key principles of the new access to information regime should be in the Bill. Chapter 13 of the guidelines points the way, so I hope that my noble friend will consider the merits of my suggestion when he responds.
Lord Peyton of Yeovil: The Minister said the other day that he was unabashed at the way that the Government are handling the Bill. That frees me to say one or two things that I would otherwise hate to say, as I would resile sharply from the slightest risk of saying something that would upset the Minister. However, as he declared himself totally unabashed, I presume that his feelings are well anaesthetised by now and that he has given up any nonsense about having regard for what is said in Parliament. I understand that he has that habit of mind from the Government of whom he is a member, who find it much easier to ride roughshod over Parliament than pay undue regard to the foolish assembly that Parliament is in their eyes.
There are 51 pages of amendments--almost all of them government amendments--to a 51-page Bill. It is quite a feat to have rewritten the Bill to that extent. The Minister ought to have at least a teaspoonful of gall before he gets away with that. I should like to ask a question. Why was this amendment not part of the original Bill? It could have been thought of before. Furthermore, when the noble Lord says that it will introduce a wider degree of democracy, I pause and wonder how he can make such comments when this seems to me to be a most undemocratic procedure. As I read the whole of Amendment No. 151, it states that the Secretary of State will have power to make regulations. Those regulations will not be effectively reviewed by Parliament and it is a nonsense to pretend that they will be.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: One reason why I feel that Amendment No. 129 is especially important returns to the point of why we are here today to consider this new Local Government Bill; namely, because both the Government and most Members of the Committee wish to tie the interests of the public more closely to what takes place in local government. However, without Amendment No. 129, it is hard to imagine that in the future the public will feel any more interested in local government than they do now, before this Bill is passed.
While it is all very well to say that, after the event the scrutiny and policy committees will be open to the public and the press, what both the public and the press--who form the main connection between the council and the public--are mainly interested in are the big decisions and all the attendant background papers and proceedings that surround those decisions. That enables the press and the public to understand how such decisions are made. Anything that disconnects the public and the press from the very heart of the decision-making process, which, as we have often been told, will be based in the executive, will weaken one of the fundamental intentions behind this legislation. The Government have stated that they want to see local government become more open to the public and to encourage the public to become more interested in the workings of local government.
Baroness Hamwee: The noble Lord, Lord Woolmer of Leeds, made an important point. We are dealing here with x, y or z district council, county council or perhaps unitary authority, not with "South Wessex plc". This is not the equivalent of a corporate board making decisions in quite the way that I believe the Government would like to happen. We risk losing an important element of democracy and direct accountability here, which counts for more than the accountability of a company as between its directors and its shareholders.
Will the Minister tell the Committee whether I am right in thinking that, with the provisions the Government are proposing, a member of the public will have no right to be informed of the background or of any other matters to be taken into account in any
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: First, I should like to add my support to the comments made by my noble friend. A county council often needs to take planning decisions which may involve a wide range of issues and the extensive granting of permissions. In the past--I suspect that this will be so in the future also--there has been suspicion over exactly how such decisions were taken because of the size of the private interests with which the council was dealing. It is extremely important that there is no opportunity for anyone to be able to say, "Oh, they took that decision in secret. We do not really know what took place while that decision was taken", on, for example, the granting of a licence for waste disposal.
Secondly, I am worried that even the members of an authority may not understand the implications of such a decision and how that decision came about. At this point perhaps I may ask the Minister to confirm something for me. I am ashamed to say that I have now lost touch with whether, under this new legislation, members will retain their right to attend every meeting of a local authority.
First, I should like to confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, that the point on which I was unabashed was that, having taken into account the views of local government and the Joint Committee and having examined in more detail how these arrangements will work, the Government were prepared to bring forward a significant number of amendments. I have pointed out that that is not particularly unusual at an early stage in the progress of a Bill. However, in light of the new procedures for scrutiny and consultation, a number of amendments are likely to emerge as a result of that pre-legislative period. I am unabashed about that.
However, that is not to say that in the course of our debates on these and other amendments I may feel that perhaps we need to change our minds if a good case is made by a Member of the Committee. For that reason, I do not think that the noble Lord is correct to say that this is an example of the Government disparaging the role of Parliament in either House. It is most certainly not my wish or intention to do any such thing. I trust that the manner in which I conduct the proceedings on this Bill in the Chamber, and other Bills, indicates that the Government take note of all concerns raised.
As regards the specific point made by the noble Lord on new Clause 151(1)(e), this has been partly touched on in the draft regulations. Those draft regulations are available to Members of the Committee as the first House to consider the Bill; they are probably available earlier than many local government legislative initiatives have been. The offences referred to would be offences which an executive would commit if it failed to make a record of a decision or if the relevant officer
We are bringing in measures that will require all the relevant information to be made available, along with a basic and fundamental structure that will enable scrutiny committees to interrogate and comment on the decisions of the executive in a way that the present confused situation does not. Currently, back-bench members of executive committees do not have such rights because they are party to the decisions.
Therefore, the issue of where responsibility lies is given greater clarity. I had believed that Amendment No. 151 made clear that it is intended to provide that degree of clarity. However, I recognise that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and my noble friend Lord Woolmer both raised the question of whether we could identify more clearly where the responsibility lies, perhaps bringing in guidance on the face of the Bill. Although I may be reluctant to go too far down that road, I understand the basic point in terms of identification of accountability. I accept that we should look at the issue again in that light and, having considered those points, I hope that I shall not offend noble Lords if we bring forward a relatively straightforward amendment which I hope will meet the main concerns.
With regard to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, and others on her Benches, it seems to me that if we make available in the guidance and under the aegis of this new clause all the background material to the press and to the public, we shall enhance the quality of debate and therefore, it is hoped, the degree of seriousness with which the public in general regard local government.
We must also avoid the presumption that at present the press is able to find out the background material on decisions under the present committee structure of local councils. That is far from the truth. We all know that in practice decisions are made in the vital exchange of information and that the balance of argument is faced up to in areas which are not open to the public and certainly not open to the press. That would make meetings slightly more open and significantly more detailed, while at the same time retaining the right of the executive to organise its own affairs in the way it deems most appropriate. One will know who makes a decision, which individual is responsible and what meeting of the executive was responsible at that level.
Therefore, I believe that some of the fears expressed that the new structure of meetings will reduce the openness and availability of information, as compared to the present situation, are seriously misplaced. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, for example, referred to planning decisions. Planning committees will not be affected in the same way as other decisions under this
Therefore, I believe that we shall have a more robust system of openness and accountability than we have now and that the anxieties that have been expressed are misplaced. I hope that the House will recognise the Government's intentions, if no more, in putting forward the amendments in this form and providing as background the guidance which will be triggered by the amendment.
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