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Baroness Hanham: I am amazed at the type of "patsy" council which the Minister brings to mind when he talks about how councils apparently behaved in the past. It is not a structure or way of behaviour that I recognise councils as having been guilty of in general; that is, not providing material or having it published.
My reason for rising is to press a little further on proposed paragraph (1)(e) in Amendment No. 151. As I understand the Minister's response, offences will be created. Offences are criminal matters. Is it right for the noble Lord to create a criminal offence if matters are not put into the public arena? Secondly, it has always been the case that councillors who are advised properly and who have taken proper advice from their officers are considered to have behaved properly and in light of the law. I wonder whether that is to change under the new system.
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: I must apologise. I misused the word "planning". I was responding to the debate and thinking on my feet rather than reading from a prepared intervention. I was trying to find a word for the major and expensive decisions which unitary authorities and county councils in particular have to make. With the greatest respect to the Minister, I do not believe that he responded to my point on the suspicion that arises when those major, expensive decisions--the implementation of a budget in large chunks involving deals particularly with the private sector--which are perfectly legitimate and right under the rules which govern behaviour of local authorities today, are taken in private. There is already enough suspicion about what goes on behind closed doors without adding to it. That is the point that I was trying to make.
Lord Smith of Leigh: I remind the Committee that I have an interest in terms of being a local councillor. I know that many noble Lords who have spoken in the debate also share that interest--at least in the past if not at present. In view of what has been said in this debate, I have some difficulty in recognising
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, commented on the present regulations. They have not generated the interest in local government decisions which we are trying to address in this Bill. The fact that access to information exists in its present form has not created a climate in which people show an interest in local government.
However, although we are creating new structures, in a sense the formal requirements of a public authority remain the same. Decisions are bound to be made in private if there are commercial sensitivities, particularly when dealing with more than one private contractor. Beyond that, accountability is achieved partly through access to information, perhaps in the press, and partly through the scrutiny processes of the council. As the Minister said, this is greatly enhanced by the Bill and, in addition, there are the normal safeguards which exist at the moment; namely, the monitoring officer and the audit arrangements. Those will still be in place to make sure that decisions are made in a proper manner.
I believe that all of us who have been involved in political activity where decision-making has taken place know that a certain amount will take place in private. Some matters involve certain sensitivities--sometimes commercial, sometimes in relation to individuals and staffing responsibilities, but often political. Those decisions will begin to be made privately, however formally the decisions need to be recorded. I believe that the Government have recognised the reality of that situation and have included provisions in the Bill to make it more accountable, more open than it is at present, and to provide the opportunity for greater scrutiny through the overview and scrutiny committees which can look at the way that decisions are made.
I believe that it is right that executive decisions should be made public. Normally, I believe that reasons should be given if executives want to meet in private, but we should recognise that those decisions are bound to arise. I believe that the changes in the nature of local government envisaged in the Bill require a change in the way we access information and the way that information is presented to the public. I believe that the Government have brought that about in Amendment No. 151.
Lord Whitty: I apologise for intervening once more. I believe that my noble friend Lord Smith placed this issue in the broader context of the effects of the change, compared to the present situation. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, I was not necessarily criticising the current practice of many local authorities. However, the point is that the system does not in any sense guarantee availability or accountability of either information or clarity of
As regards offences, under the present system offences already exist in relation to denying access to information and flouting the information regime which is required under existing local government legislation. This provision merely transposes that into the new regime. Some of that is spelled out--for example, the role of the monitoring office--in the guidance. So we are not creating a precedent. It has been the case for some time.
Perhaps I should say to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, that I recognise that major decisions will be taken on which one would expect there to be some public engagement. Those decisions should require the availability of some public information prior to the final decision being made. In terms of the major decisions to which she referred, that will inevitably the case. It will be the case also that the major role of the scrutiny and overview committee will be ongoing to assess the run-up to the executive reaching such major decisions. Therefore, it will not merely be a post facto look at how the executive has arrived at its decisions or an inquest into previous decisions. There will be ongoing assessment and monitoring of the way in which the executive is doing its job.
That is quite a novel concept in relation to local government. It is relatively new in relation to Westminster. But it is not unknown in constitutional arrangements elsewhere around the world and I believe that it is a major step forward for local government.
The issues relating to the budget or any alterations to it will be made in full council in any event. Therefore, we are not talking about the creation of new funds or new streams of funds, although, as my noble friend Lord Smith said, there will be occasions when the decisions on how those funds are dealt with, particularly in relation to public/private partnerships, must be reached in private and then explained because of commercial confidentiality or personal involvement.
Therefore, I reiterate that to an extent this regime builds on the best of the old system but it does that in a way which recognises the new structure. It provides greater and often earlier access to information. It provides also greater power both to the overview and scrutiny committees than accrues at present to back-bench councillors and to the press and the public as a whole. Therefore, through those measures I believe that we are enhancing democracy and accountability.
Lord Dixon-Smith: It was perhaps inevitable that this group of amendments would provoke debate because if a council elects to change to executive arrangements, that is a radical change in the way in which business has traditionally been carried out by local government in this country. It is right that the consequences of that should be looked at in some detail. I am grateful to all Members of the Committee
But we should just remember that the motivation behind the Bill is greater efficiency rather than greater democracy. The question then is how the need for democracy and greater transparency is welded on to that. That was the point at which the noble Lord, Lord Woolmer, was driving. That is what is in the back of the minds of everybody who has spoken in this debate.
The idea that local communities are intensely and passionately involved in the minutiae of many of the matters with which local authorities must deal so that they discuss them over supper when both husband and wife are at home--at least, if it is a traditional household and one must be careful how one says these things--is unreal. Equally unreal is the idea that we shall see policy development in public. If you do not have some idea of what your policy is and what the consequences of what you are saying will be before you start saying it in public, you are a very unwise politician indeed. I do not believe that the Minister has ever suffered from that failure, at least not since I have known him. We need to be aware of those realities.
We all need to study what the Minister has said. He has said that he will look at the question of information availability to the public. I am grateful to him for that. But we may well need to return to points of detail on this matter at a later stage in the Bill. But for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.