§ Order for Second Reading read.9.39 am
§ Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.'Publicity is the greatest and most effective check against arbitrary action.' That is one of the fundamental rights of the subject. Further, publicity stimulates the interest of local persons in local government. That is also very important.Earlier it had been said:The public has the right, in the first instance, to know what its elected representatives are doing." — [Official Report, 5 February 1960; Vol. 616, c. 1350–51.]Those are not my words, although I fully endorse them. They are the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoken during her maiden speech virtually 25 years ago to the day when she introduced the Public Bodies (Admission of the Press to Meetings) Bill which became the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960.
That Act opened up council meetings. It is of some interest to note that at that stage my right hon. Friend, as she now is, was worried about local government expenditure of what was then £1,600 million. I am advised by Ministers responsible that the equivalent figure now is some £33,000 million. That underlines, above all, the importance of the role that local government plays in the economy and the importance of ensuring that maximum publicity surrounds local government's activities.
The greatest opportunity should be given for local people to be informed about, and, if necessary, to talk to their councillors, before decisions affecting their lives are taken.
May I make my position crystal clear? I am an unrepentant friend and supporter of local government. That is based upon my 14 years as a local councillor. I found that, with all its imperfections, which have been detailed and documented, it still represents the most immediate form of accountability compared with any other structure of service. Indeed, I wish that certain functions, no longer the responsibility of local government, retained the same degree of closeness to the people they serve.
May I equally assure my many friends in local government, some of whom may be worried about the somewhat exaggerated reports of the Bill's effects, that I would not be sponsoring the Bill if I did not believe that it would benefit local government without impeding its ability to take necessary executive action on behalf of its electors. I have been heartened in that respect by the friendly discussions I have enjoyed with the various local authority organisations that, although worried by some of the clauses as drafted, have stressed their strong support for accountable and open local government.
It is becoming fashionable to talk about freedom of information and all that goes with it. Later speakers may, subject to your tolerance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, wish to speak on wider aspects on access to and freedom of information. I have no such intention.
My Bill seeks simply to tackle access to information in local government. I shall in no way be drawn on the relative positions of central Government, nationalised 521 industries, quangos or any other bodies. They all lie outside the scope of the Bill. All have differences in operation, which may strengthen or weaken their respective cases for change and, above all, would allow right hon. and hon. Members to be distracted from the matter under discussion, and might even divide what I otherwise hope would be a virtually united House.
The background to the Bill is, I hope, of some interest to the House. The measure was first introduced here in some form by the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) as an amendment on Report to the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980. I contributed to the discussion.
The first draft of the Bill was launched in December 1983 as the Local Government (Access to Information) Bill. It was circulated to 10,000 local organisations and individuals during the first half of 1984. It was also circulated to many authorities. Numerous suggestions were made by individuals and some local authorities, and detailed discussions were held with Bradford, Lewisham, Hillingdon and Derbyshire. The Bill was then presented and drafted by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes)—who is here today, as well as the hon. Member for Bootle—as a ten-minute Bill in June 1984.
Following that, further detailed discussions were held with the various local authority associations, and resulting papers were sent to those working on the Bill. On the basis of those papers plus further detailed papers from another 20 councils, the current Bill was drawn up.
I have held discussions with the district councils, the county councils, the metropolitan authorities, the Society of County Secretaries, the district secretaries and the London Boroughs Association. Seminars have already been held for senior and chief officers of Cambridge, Leicester and Cardiff and more are planned. Inevitably, some of the suggestions have taken time to summarise and analyse, and should the House feel able to give a Second Reading to the Bill today a further list of amendments will be sent for discussion to the various local authority associations.
I hope that that demonstrates two things to the House. The first is the wide-ranging nature of the consultation, which is continuing. That ranges from the large—the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, which represents some 18 million people—to little parish councils up and down the country. I quote from a letter from Idbury parish meeting in Oxfordshire with a village population of under 200:The Bill will have the unqualified support of the Idbury Parish Meeting. We would like to thank all concerned for the effort they are making on our behalf.The second matter that it demonstrates is my willingness to consider amendments which improve the Bill and clarify its intentions. At this stage it would be only proper if I paid full tribute for the real debt that I owe to Mr. Ron Bailey and all his helpers at the Community Rights Project. Without their untiring help and advice over many months, none of this would have happened. I hope that they will draw some genuine satisfaction from the further progress of this measure, although it will involve them in still more late nights.
By now, hon. Members may be wondering what matters are still unnecessarily discussed in private. The answer, I am afraid, is literally thousands and thousands. I shall take, just by chance, one small part of the country, 522 central east England. I could have picked on any other area of the country and found the same thing. I shall mention some of the sub-committees that are held in private. In Broxtowe the twinning sub-committee and the tourism sub-committee meet in private. In mid Suffolk the poultry meat sub-committee meets in private—that is a daring one. In north Bedfordshire the bottle bank donation sub-committee meets in private. In Nottinghamshire the residents' parking sub-committee—there is a lively issue — and the catering sub-committee meet in private. I assure the House that I could quote many other examples. On planning matters, many authorities, including two London boroughs, still hear all planning applications in private.
As for the issues discussed, you will be relieved to know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I do not intend to trot out an almost never-ending list, but let me take just one authority. My eye has fallen by chance on Stevenage, in Hertfordshire. I stress that it is no better or worse than many other authorities. The council's policy on removing or replacing storage heaters and a report on the Housing and Building Control Act 1984, and the Department of the Environment booklet "Your Right to Know" were privately debated by the housing committee. The colour of roses in the memorial rose garden was privately debated in the health and community services sub-committee, and the use of dyed maggots by anglers was discussed privately by the leisure and community services committee.
I hope that that demonstrates that we still cover issues great and small in private. In principle, the Bill is not solely about, so to speak, dyed maggots; it is about the important issues which are unnecessarily taken in private at the moment.
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
The hon. Member said, "unnecessarily taken in private". I am sure that he will confirm that there are some matters that it is still right to take in private—personal matters of confidentiality that arise in social services committees and that type of thing — and that in the Bill he is getting at the completely unnecessary privacy which continues in matters great and small. There are matters small as well as great which may need to be kept private because of their content.
§ Mr. Squire
I fully accept everything that the hon. Member has said. He anticipates me by five or 10 minutes, when I shall talk about the schedule to the Bill in which I have detailed the exemptions which, as he rightly says, must still apply on genuine grounds of privacy.
The best way to sum up the matter is to give the comments that were received from the solicitor to Ynys Môn council. When asked which matters were taken in private, he answered, "controversial issues". I am not sure whether my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment would wish a similar facility to be extended to the Government.
In various ways, the Bill introduces the best practice which is already followed in all cases in other authorities. The Bill has three main principles. The first is to increase the public accountability of councillors between elections by allowing the public closer and more detailed insight into their decisions. Councillors' performance can therefore be more accurately judged. Secondly, in order to improve the quality of decision making, the public will be able to challenge or add to information provided by 523 officers for councillors' decisions. Presenting alternative information or premises for an argument can only be healthy if it adds to the range of views and evidence available to councillors. Thirdly, the Bill will strengthen relations between councils and their electorate and will break down the traditional suspicion, hostility and alienation which local electors often express about local government.
Clause 1 makes two provisions. It opens up sub-committees to the public, in line with the recommendation in the Department of the Environment circular 45/75, while allowing for confidentiality for genuine reasons, as stated in schedule 1. It repeals the provisions of the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960, which allows secrecy for such non-specific reasons as confidentiality and public interest. Evidence of totally unnecessary secrecy is overwhelming. In future, specific reasons, which are laid down in schedule 1, will have to apply. Many authorities have already implemented that aspect voluntarily.
Clause 2 requires the minutes of all committee and sub-committee meetings to be publicly available. At present the public have a legal right to see only minutes of full council meetings and of committees with recommendatory power. They do not have the right to see the minutes of committees with delegated power — in practice most sub-committees and committees have that these days—or sub-committee minutes. The clause allows councils to publish the minutes of the confidential parts of meetings, as defined in schedule 1, in such a way as to preserve the confidentiality that the meeting has resolved to be necessary. Once again, numerous authorities already implement those provisions.
Clause 3 requires reports that are being discussed at meetings to be publicly available three days before the meeting, unless one of the reasons in schedule 1 requires the report to be kept confidential, and that reason must be stated. There are additional safeguards, in that reports that would otherwise have to be made available three days before the meeting need not be made available if the meeting is convened under the short notice procedure, if an item or report has been added to the agenda at short notice, or if the council's officer believes that a schedule 1 reason requires the report to remain confidential until the meeting takes place. That would be an exceptional circumstance, but it is an added safeguard to meet the sort of circumstances that may occasionally occur.
Clause 3(5) requires a reasonable number of the reports that are being discussed during the public part of a meeting to be made available for the public who are present, thus enabling them to understand what is going on. Many councils already operate in that way.
Clause 4 has attracted more comment than any other part of the Bill, and I hope therefore that the House will permit me to speak at length about it. The concept of the general public having access to certain documents is not new. At present, a variety of Acts grant such access under certain circumstances. The Local Government Act 1972 granted access for the inspection of payments and statements of account. The Town and Country Planning Act 1971 rightly laid heavy responsibilities on local authorities for planning matters. Anyone affected by planning decisions today can inspect the relevant file and the plans. Other Acts have covered such matters as the 524 inspection of councillors' expenses, of plans for sewers and even of records of common lodging houses. There are also many provisions which cover the purchase and renting of property. Therefore, the concept is not new.
The Association of County Councils, which otherwise presented a strong note of reservation about clause 4, pointed out that current good practice—the sort of thing that local authorities are advised to follow—enables a member of the public to have access to a background document that deals with a matter of fact and elucidates an issue discussed publicly. Clause 4 deals with research data, background papers, interim reports and other matters which relate to any item on the public part of the agenda of a council, committee or sub-committee meeting.
Clause 4(1) provides that after the agenda has been published but before the meeting has taken place the public can inspect such documents unless the council officer has reason to believe that any such documents should not be made public for any one of the reasons stated in schedule 1. The reason must be stated on the report or document in question.
Clause 4(2) provides that after the meeting has taken place the public can inspect such documents, unless the meeting itself has decided that any of them should not be available for any one of the reasons in schedule 1, in which case the reason must be stated.
There are, therefore, two safeguards to protect genuinely confidential information. The clause refers only to background papers relating to items under discussion in the public part of a meeting. Even documents relating to items being discussed in public can be kept confidential if a schedule reason applies to such documents.
The wording in clause 4 is based on that used by Bradford council, which is one of three authorities which have operated the entirety of the Bill for the past six months. Bradford, Brent and Derbyshire — two Conservative authorities and one Labour authority—are all happy and satisfied that it has caused them no problems. A further six authorities have publicly stated that they are in the process of changing to adopt the provisions set out in the Bill.
One of the best comments made about clause 4 comes from one of the operating officers. If the problems are as great as some critics of the clause imply, operating officers would feel the most stress. Mr. Jack Feather is the director of housing and environmental health services in Bradford. He said:I welcome the most contentious aspect of the Bill, public access to internal documents, because it forces officers prepairing agenda items to file all their relevant background papers carefully. While assisting the public, this is an aid to good management in that it allows committees and chief officers to have confidence in the reports put before them.I seek to do two things by clause 5. For councillors who are on the relevant committee, the Bill seeks to codify case law, in particular the Birmingham city council v. O case, and grants wide access to all background papers, not merely those which relate to an agenda—the thrust and subject of this Bill. For councillors not on the relevant committee, the Bill seeks to give statutory right of access to all papers relating to agenda items. To the extent that the clause, as drafted, may be imperfect in meeting those aims, I shall seek to make clarifying amendments in Committee.
§ Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)
For the benefit of the House, will my hon. Friend clarify 525 paragraph (g) of the schedule? Will he explain how he hopes a councillor might be able to prove the fact that informationin connection with his duties as a memberwas a reason why he might refer to documents covered by clause 5?
§ Mr. Squire
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for intervening. I hope that he will allow me to cover paragraph (g) when I reach it in my speech. I have received some comments about it and it deserves separate attention. I fully accept that everything in the schedule ultimately relates back to the Bill. If I have not covered his point when I have dealt with paragraph (g), I invite him to question me again.
The remainder of the Bill is relatively uncontentious and is widely practised. Scotland the Northern Ireland are currently excluded from the Bill because the appropriate wording to cover the relatively unintelligible activities of the north and west of England and Wales were not in my possession when the Bill was drafted. However, should the House see fit to give the Bill a Second Reading, I shall table appropriate amendments in Committee to extend the Bill to Scotland and, I hope, to Northern Ireland.
The schedule sets out clearly and, I hope, concisely a series of reasons why confidentiality should legitimately be preserved. I hope that it meets the point made by the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) about the understandable and justifiable need to retain confidentiality in some circumstances. Paragraphs (a) to (f) are self-explanatory and are based closely on the practices that have been followed by the London borough of Hillingdon since 1978. That authority confirms that they have posed few, if any, difficulties.
It may be interesting for the House to note that, regardless of the absence of legislation, several authorities have made considerable moves towards more public meetings and less use of the power to exclude the public. I give as examples two authorities, one Labour-controlled and one Conservative-controlled. In 1978–79, the London borough of Lewisham excluded press and public from its policy and resources committee on 81 occasions, and from its development control sub-committee on 31 occasions. The figures for last year are four occasions and one occasion respectively. Last year, the London borough of Hillingdon, operating the reasons for confidentiality that are found in the schedule, excluded press and public from its policy and resources committee on two occasions, from its education committee on two occasions and from its social services committee on one occasion. I hope that I have demonstrated that, in practice, such reasons tend to concentrate the minds of councillors and officers, who can then readily ascertain the matters that are genuinely confidential and the many issues that can and should be discussed in public.
§ Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)
A blemish on the record of the London borough of Hillingdon is that it refuses to send housing statistics to the Department of the Environment. One finds blanks in the return of housing statistics by that borough.
§ Mr. Squire
The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to comment in detail on the good and bad points of that borough, which I am sure is admirably run. If it is falling short in this respect, to the extent that even in Hillingdon there may be greater publicity in the future, I am sure that 526 more pressure will be brought to bear by the appropriate councillors to ensure that it complies with the intelligent requests of my hon. Friend the Minister.
My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) rightly highlighted paragraph (g). That paragraph was inserted initially at the request of some local authorities, in different parts of the country and controlled by different parties, which were worried about the need to protect advice given to political groups. I am conscious, from representations made to me, that much concern has been expressed about that paragraph and especially about whether it belongs in legislation at all — certainly whether it belongs in legislation of this nature. In Committee, I shall be willing to discuss the paragraph in detail, especially to satisfy myself that the original reason for its conclusions still holds true. I take very much to heart several comments that have been made about it.
What objections could be raised to the Bill? As I understand it, there may be three. The first is that the Bill will be too costly and that we cannot introduce such legislation at a time when local authorities are watching every pound and must meet targets. The chief executive of Bradford council, Gordon Moore, says this:Our three party group leaders have estimated the annual cost at around £2,000 — a minimal sum to pay for democratic accountability.I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House agree with that statement.
The Bill may be objected to on grounds that it is unworkable, impractical and impossible to put into proper effect. The chief executive of Brent council, Michael Bichard, has said:Since we have implemented the provisions of the Bill there has been no administrative difficulty or extra cost, and some initial fears of officers that it would inhibit written communication have not materialised in practice. If this system can work in Brent, where there is an extremely volatile political situation, then I believe it can work anywhere.That sounded like a call from the heart by the chief executive.
A third reason why the Bill might be criticised is that it goes too far too soon. It may be said, "You have the right ideas, but you are going too quickly and the Bill is too extreme." Three authorities have already written to me accusing me of being too timid: Brent, Hinckley and Bosworth, and Yeovil, whose chief executive says:I am sure you will know that in some respects we are going well beyond the policy proposed in the Bill.I am in danger of being tarred as a moderate because I am trying to steer a course between extreme councils pressing me to go even further, and those which say that I have gone too far.
The national support that has been gathered for the measure extends from the Confederation of British Industry to the National Council for Civil Liberties, and from the National Federation of Self-Employed and Small Businesses to the Consumers Association — all told, about 70 national bodies, most of them voluntary. They are supplemented by more than 1,000 local voluntary organisations and nearly 400 parish and town councils, while 47 local authorities of all colours have supported the Bill in principle. As I said, nine local authorities have implemented or are implementing changes that bring them fully into line with the Bill. Last year, 153 hon. Members from all parties supported an early-day motion on the subject, and during the last two weeks more than 100 hon. 527 Members signed a similar motion tabled by me. Few private Members' Bills in recent years can have come to the House with wider proven support in the country.
Ultimately, good practice cannot depend on legislation alone. It must be a shared responsibility of officers and councillors to ensure that their councils' affairs are conducted with a proper regard for the genuine interests of their electors. Most councils will rise to that responsibility, as they have responded to many other changes in recent years.
In her speech 25 years ago, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said:The paramount function … is to safeguard civil liberties rather than to think that administrative convenience should take first place in law."—[Official Report, 5 February 1960; Vol. 616, c. 1357–58.]This morning I have demonstrated that the Bill will not inconvenience administration, and that, at little cost and with minimal administrative reorganisation, a new era of openness can dawn, bringing with it the increased accountability that all of us seek, regardless of our political parties. I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ 10.7 am
§ Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)
In supporting the Bill, I, too, will try not to be too party political. The Bill has all-party support and was presented in that spirit. The hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) believed that he might be accused of being a moderate. I should tell him that I support the Bill as an extreme moderate, which is the political position that I have always held.
The media will not regard the Bill as meaty or sexy in the sense of legislation such as the Sexual Offences Bill that we debated last Friday, but I hope that the media will pay attention to the Bill because it is important, especially at this time in the history of the relationship between central and local government.
Like the hon. Member for Hornchurch, I do not wish to become too involved in some of the arguments about freedom of information in relation to other activities. I believe in open government not only in local authorities but in central Government, the nationalised industries, water authorities, health authorities, development corporations and quangos. It is no criticism of the Bill to argue that local government is more democratic than those other bodies anyway, and that we should have started to democratise water authorities, health authorities and development corporations before we turned our attention to democratically elected local authorities. That argument has been put to me by many Labour councillors. I sympathise with their view. Those other bodies should be democratised. Indeed, there may be a stronger case for democratising them than there is for opening up the functions of local government through the Bill.
That does not mean that there is not a strong case for the Bill or that local government should not be made more democratic. Indeed, the opposite is the case. Today, when local democracy is under attack from central Government, with rate capping and threats of abolition, democratically elected local government must gather strength unto itself to resist the efforts of central Government to interfere more and more in local affairs. The Bill will help local authorities in that process, for it will enable them to enter into partnership with the local electorate so that the voters, officials and councillors can resist the onslaught.
528 The Bill cannot be described as an attack on local government. If it becomes law, it will strengthen and support local government. No local authority officer or councillor can criticise the low turnout in local elections and at the same time oppose legislation of this kind. If decision-making is shared among all the local people, more of them will vote in local elections.
It has been suggested that if the local decision-making processes are opened up, councillors and officers will go into a caucus and meet at the Bull and Bush, Red Flag Arms or the local Margaret Thatcher coffee bar to discuss the issues and make decisions. That is a fair criticism. Whatever we do, we will not avoid that sort of activity. Nevertheless, much of the decision-making undertaken by officers and councillors — usually of the controlling group—which now takes place behind closed doors will be opened up to public scrutiny.
Nor will the Bill remove power from councillors. After all, knowledge is power. We want more information about what is happening locally to be given to the press and general public. We also want to give rights to councillors—not only those of minority parties, but even members of controlling groups in local authorities. Frequently councillors who belong to controlling parties cannot get information because the ruling members of their party do not want them to have it, and that has to do with power struggles in individual groups.
In that context, I am told that such struggles go on within the controlling Conservative group in Sefton, of which my constituency of Bootle forms part. Conflicts occur between Conservatives from Southport, Crosby and Formby. In Sefton, power is not just delegated to sub-committees. That authority often has sub-committees of one, and the leader of the council is usually the one who forms the sub-committee and takes decisions in secret.
The Bill will give councillors the right of access to information. Councillors will then be able to get hold of the background documents used by chief officers in making recommendations or policy reports to committees. That is particularly important in these days of corporate management. Elected councillors should have before them all the options and arguments and be able to reach decisions in the light of the best advice and alternatives available.
Under the system of corporate management, the chief executive may call together the chief officers, who can collectively discuss all the alternatives, based on the information in the background papers, hammer everything out among themselves and put forward just one recommendation in a report to the local councillors.
The trouble is that what went into the decision-making — all the information that was before that corporate team of officers—is not before the councillors, who are then, in effect, faced with a fait accompli. In that situation, the chief officers are doing the political job that should be done by the councillors.
I am in favour of corporate management. I am not a believer in the old type of all-powerful departments. It was wrong for individual service or spending departments to act on their own, almost without regard to the consequences for other local authority services. Corporate management can lead to efficiency, but without a Bill of this type, which will ensure that councillors have access to all the background information that is available to chief 529 officers, corporate management can remove power from councillors and place it in the hands of the officers in a way that is bad for local government and democracy.
I accept that some areas must remain private and confidential. For example, details about people's personal lives contained in social service files and so on should not, generally speaking, be made public. We shall need legislation in due course to give individuals access to their personal files, but that does not arise from this measure.
While I accept the need for confidentiality, we must be careful not to go too far in protecting it, particularly in relation to tenders and contracts. There must be some confidentiality to ensure that contractors do not get advance notice of certain facts. We must avoid fiddles occurring. However, we could have much more openness about the way in which tenders are awarded and contracts received in local government.
Had this measure been on the statute book at the time, the web of corruption that was revealed in the Poulson affair would not have been possible. A measure of openness such as this would have prevented the letting of contracts on the nod, time and again, to the same contractors. There would have been the necessary competition to protect local government.
When tenders have been received and studied, more information could be given about the awarding of contracts, together with the figures. Although the Bill allows for the exclusionof spending estimates for specific items … that … would be likely to benefit a contractor or supplier,we would have more information about the letting of contracts in a way that would benefit and be healthy for local democracy.
I admit to having been guilty of a degree of great openness when I was a councillor in the city of Manchester. When I was chairman of the housing committee I was often accused of taking too many decisions in public. People in the Labour group and others said that I was publicity-seeking and that certain matters should have been dealt with in private. My view has always been that politicians should not act in a stealthy way. As for publicity-seeking, a politician is failing in his duty if he does not receive publicity because the public have a right to know what he is doing.
I was a member of the sub-committee of the policy committee of that council. It was called the secretarial and services sub-committee and it consisted of every member of the policy committee. It met in secret and its title, "Secretarial and Services Sub-Committee," hid a multitude of sins. For example, it decided what civic receptions should take place and who should attend them. That is why its affairs were conducted in private. It was also why all the members of the policy committee wanted to be on it. If one belonged to the sub-committee that planned the reception, one was certain of an invitation to the reception. Although I have dealt with that point in a light-hearted way, it illustrates the need for this legislation.
The metropolitan district of Sefton, the authority in which my constituency is situated, is perhaps one of the worst offenders when it comes to secrecy. When the organisation concerned with freedom of information and community rights, Ron Bailey's group, wrote to Sefton asking for its views on the Bill — about access to information and the whole question of open government 530 —it received in reply a memo, signed by the chief executive and sent by mistake, saying, "Send the usual reply to this rubbish." Sefton refuses to give information over the telephone. It will not tell people how many sub-committees there are and whether they meet in secret. It has a system that denies information to the public and a system that denies the system for denying information. Sefton even has a book called "The Scheme of Delegation," which describes how to avoid enabling the public to find out what it does. The book runs to 50 pages and tells us that there are 14 sub-committees made up of just the chairman or the chairman and the vice chairman. It reveals that there are ad hoc committees and others which comprise the chairman, the vice chairman and the opposition spokesperson.
The list of committees that are closed to the public is amazing. It includes those on parental rights, social services, amalgamation of secondary schools, the disciplinary sub-committee, the consultative committee for staff, the school curriculum sub-committee and the standing sub-committee of the education committee. One of Sefton's committees is open—the accident prevention sub-committee. It is open to avoid any accidental giving of information to the public. The press and public were removed from one of Sefton's sub-committees because it was to consider a list of books that should not be allowed in the public library. A list of 100 books was put before the council. I can understand why the council was embarrassed and conducted the meeting in private, because the list included "When the Wind Blows", by Raymond Briggs, "100 Questions on Pregnancy" by Claire Rayner and novels by Norman Mailer and Graham Greene.
Hon. Members would have to be elected representatives in Sefton to appreciate that authority's secrecy. Even the mayoral selection sub-committee meets in secret. I cannot think why, because the Labour party will not accept a mayoralty in the area, so I imagine that the matter is settled in the Conservative group before the sub-committee meets. The practices that I have listed should be ironed out, but I am not making a political point. Although Sefton is Conservative-controlled, and it does me no harm to criticise it, there are Labour-controlled authorities which are not as bad but getting that way. The practices of some Labour-controlled authorities leave a lot to be desired.
I understand that the city of Salford has a sub-committee for everything. He is called Les Hough, the leader of the council, who has been there for about 25 years. I have a vested interest in the London borough of Tower Hamlets as I live there when in London and pay rates there. It takes almost all of its major decisions in secret. It has sub-committees on policy, health, consumer services and social services, all of which are closed to the public. It has often refused to provide the housing emergency office, now Shelter's empty property unit—of which I used to be the chair—with information about planning and empty houses. It has failed to reply to questionnaires from the Town and Country Planning Association, refused to provide information concerning planning matters and declined consultation with the public. Tower Hamlets was alone among the London boroughs in not giving such information. I could go on at length about how it does not fulfil its responsibilities in communicating with the public, so enabling them to participate with councillors and officers.
531 The Bill is about partnership. It defends democracy and supports local authorities. It gives them strength, although some of them do not realise that that is what we are at. At this juncture in the history of local government, they need all the support that they can get.
§ Mrs. Angela Rumbold (Mitcham and Morden)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) on presenting the Bill. Like other hon. Members, I shall endeavour to confine my speech to the workings of local government and not stray into other issues such as quangos and other authorities that might follow the example of local authorities if the Bill becomes law. I am acutely aware that hon. Members can be accused of standing in a glasshouse and throwing bricks. That is a dangerous practice at the best of times.
There is some surprise at the fact that the Bill has to be introduced. Although I am convinced that it will greatly improve the workings of local government, it is a pity that local government has not adopted the suggested alterations and practices voluntarily. I should like to quote the chief executive of Bradford city council, Mr. Gordon Moore. He said:Left to its own devices local government would never voluntarily accept the freedom of information proposals in Robin Squire's Bill because they strike at the heart of the paternalistic 'we know best' attitude which dominates town halls.I am afraid that that is all too true. Many of us who have spent many years in local government share Mr. Moore's view, probably more than others who have not had experience of the workings of a council.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch said, many of the proposals are unnecessary for many councils that already practise a good deal of what the Bill suggests, but some authorities do not admit the public to their sub-committees. Although such meetings might fall within the exceptions set down in paragraph (g), of the schedule, it is important to clarify the matter beyond reasonable doubt.
The Bill can do nothing but improve the workings of local authorities and the relationship between the council and its electorate. When I was a councillor, I thought that the image of councillors was poor to say the least. A substantial cause of that was the simple inability of local authorities to communicate with their public. That was especially true of contentious issues such as school closures, changes in social services and that awful word that local government and, I suspect, the Government use — rationalisation — which covers a multitude of sins. Admitting the public and giving them the same bits of paper as elected representatives will at least illustrate the difficulties of coherent and sensible policy-making.
The Bill will create one problem to which I draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch because he will encounter it at the Committee stage, which I am certain the Bill will reach. For nine years I was the elected member of a London borough. At this point I should say that I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Knowles) will not take amiss what I am going to say. In common with many other authorities of both political persuasions — I emphasise that this involves authorities of both political persuasions—there is a committee of this London borough whose membership is restricted to the majority party. These committees are 532 generally classified under the name of leader's committee, consultative committee, co-ordinating committee. For seven years I was a member of such a committee. I believe that it is still in existence as a properly constituted committee under the standing orders of that council. It attracts attendance allowances and officers of the council attend and advise committee members. The committee has agendas. Minutes are taken and its proceedings are reported to meetings of the full council.
The purpose of the committee is to enable discussion to take place of sensitive policy and strategy matters. Therefore it would possibly be included in paragraph (g) of the schedule. However, the agendas are not published, except to members of the committee. During my time on the committee no other council member ever saw the agendas. The minutes were never circulated to members of the committee nor to members of the council. They were simply signed by the chairman at the beginning of each meeting. I do not believe that the chairman ever read the minutes. At least when I chaired that committee I have to confess that I did not read the minutes. The reports to the council merely gave the names of the members who attended the committee meetings and the dates upon which meetings were held. As far as I am aware, all this is perfectly in order. I do not believe that if the Bill becomes law it will be in order, although I can think of ways in which it will be possible to conduct business without the spirit of the Bill being transgressed.
There are both merits and demerits in the system. The merits are that sensitive issues relating to future policy planning, finance, and personnel can be discussed frankly in a small forum and the advice of officers can be obtained. The hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) referred to issues that are brought before local authorities where, of necessity, there is a variety and range of solutions. Some are more palatable than others and need to be discussed at one stage or another. I contend that the possible solutions should be looked at by everybody on the council, not simply by some members of the council. However, they can be aired in a particular forum and a collective agreement between the officers and members concerned can be reached. Early warnings can be given. This is particularly important for those who are responsible for the work of the council, simply by virtue of being in the majority. Warnings of problems that can arise can be given to members, who then discuss them with their colleagues. This possibly helps to facilitate the management and passage of the work of a committee.
However, in my view the demerits are these. Under this system only a few members are privy to the discussions. While my experience was that these matters were always presented to full meetings of the majority party members, privately this system was open to the unscrupulous caucus treatment that was outlined by the hon. Member for Bootle. It is a dangerous practice. Essentially, this committee was a non-executive forum. In other words, it could not make any decisions. It could merely discuss them. Therefore, nothing was ever decided. However, it was held and still is held at the expense of ratepayers because it attracts attendance allowances and takes up a vast amount of the time of officials. Very often I queried whether this was either desirable or necessary. A source of constant irritation was that it provided a closed forum for the expression of both paternalism and prejudice that was not always a true reflection of the views of the 533 members of the majority party, let alone anybody else, and was very much open to misinterpretation by the officers who attended those meetings.
§ Mr. Steve Norris (Oxford, East)
Would not my hon. Friend agree with me that one has to draw a very clear distinction between private meetings at which a group of members of a particular party discuss their policy—for example, how they might develop a strategy towards a particular issue—and private meetings where they are made privy to information that is not then made available to the other members of an authority? Is not that the crucial distinction? Ought we not to recognise that there may well be circumstances in which a group of council members will quite legitmately want to meet privately to discuss the formulation of policy and that that should not be excluded? Indeed, paragraph (g) of the schedule makes it quite clear that it is to be included. It is the conceding of information from all members of the authority that we ought to try to prevent.
§ Mrs. Rumbold
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Norris) for drawing my attention to that point and I accept it absolutely. There is no question but that it is very important for members of majority parties on any council to have the opportunity to discuss policy strategy and the broad outline of what is in the best interests of their ratepayers. My question is whether it is right that there should be these small groups of people who attend properly constituted council committee meetings that attract attendance allowances and that are always advised by officers of the council, thus giving those committee members the privilege of expert advice and information that is not always available to other members of the council—not even to all members of the majority party, let alone to members of minority parties. That I believe to be questionable. I am absolutely certain that paragraph (g) of the schedule to my hon. Friend's Bill covers most of the matters that are undesirable for public consumption, but I query whether only certain elected council members should have access to information, in the interests of better local decision-making. This is an exceedingly important point to which we must turn our attention.
On the availability of agendas and notices of meetings to the public, I make a plea that comes from the heart: that the language used in agendas, reports and even notices of meetings to the general public ought to be in the kind of language that the average man or woman can understand. Local government has its own special language. In education, for example, unless on understands what initials stand for — I cite the CLEA, the AMA, the RTA, the NAS/UWT, the NATFHE— one can be in very considerable difficulty in reading a report. In my very first year on a local council I remember reading agendas and papers wondering what on earth certain words meant. I came across the word "varnd" which I had never met before. I dared not ask either an official or a colleague what it meant in case I was thought to be too stupid for words—which I probably was. Therefore I looked up the word in a dictionary, but that did not help me very much—at least, not in the context of the use of that word in agendas and reports. It was a long time before that word meant anything to me. It is important that those who write reports, notices and agendas should ensure that they can be understood by the average person if they are seeking to inform the public of what is going on.
534 I chaired a committee for a year and there was always at least one item on the agenda that I never understood. Explanations were given to me, again in terms that I could not understand. I never believed that the people who read the agendas and attended the committee understood such items. However, we always got through the agendas and the items were always passed. I often wonder what happened to those decisions. They cannot possibly have meant anything much to anyone.
I am not surprised that the Association of Metropolitan Authorities has some reservations. On clause 3, I received a letter which said:Additionally, a further exemption might be required to cover cases where reports are simply not available three days before the meeting takes place.That is yet another area of aggravation for many people who work in local government.
§ Mr. Squire
My hon. Friend may be interested to know that one of the amendments that has already been suggested, which I did not discuss in detail in my opening speech, relates to that point. There is a suggestion that an additional clause should be submitted which would have the effect of covering items which, for exceptional reasons, were not available in three days. If that were the result of sickness, for example, the reason would he noted on the face of the book.
§ Mrs. Rumbold
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information. It is important, because many reports and agendas require more than three days for the people involved in the decision-making to have an opportunity to understand and consider them and if necessary research their responses.
On clause 4 the same briefing from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities said:The Bill provides that a large number of documents will be confidential and therefore excluded from public scrutiny,"—that is right—but this means that in future every document will have to be examined and a decision made as to whether one or the other of the 'confidentiality' reasons applies. This task will be time-consuming.That caused me concern. Of course it will be time-consuming, but is not that a great argument for the people who write reports having the discipline of thinking carefully about the length and nature of what they write?
§ Mr. Allan Roberts
I have heard the same criticism from the AMA, but that is the case now, anyway. Officers writing reports decide whether they should allow them to be available to the press and public. They stamp them and make a recommendation. Two agendas are produced. Agenda B is dealt with at the end and taken in secret. The officers decide which report should go in part A of the agenda and which in part B. Much of what is put in part B is put there for the wrong reasons and would not be there under this legislation. It would not be any more time-consuming, as that task is performed now.
§ Mrs. Rumbold
I agree. I hope that clause 4 will be put into effect so that officers' minds will be concentrated on the essentials that need to be included in order to facilitate sensible decision-making.
I fully understand that there are areas in local government which can, for one reason or another, never be discussed at a public meeting. Such areas relate to the personal lives of employees and people who live within the authority and whose business comes before local authority 535 committees. There is no intention here to obstruct the sensible working of local government. The Bill will enable people who live in the area governed by a local council to understand with much greater clarity what is being done and how it is being done. That is essential if we are trying, as I hope we are, to improve the relationship between the general public and local government.
It is only by doing that that we can possibly attract people with broader interests, but less time than is presently required of such people, to stand as members of local government so that they can give the benefit of their time, attention and possibly greater experience to the matters that come before local councils, all of which affect our lives in one way or another and all of which are vital. That is in no way intended to be derogatory of the many men and women throughout Britain who devote an enormous amount of their time, expertise and lives to the good running of their local authorities.
Clause 6 asks the local authority to publish a list of the names and addresses of all members of the authority. I should want to couple with that a list of the wards for which those members are the representatives and the committees on which they serve. I do not want to deny local ward councillors their effectiveness, but unfortunately it is a fact of life that many people do not know who their local representatives are on the council. It may be true that not many people in a constituency know who their local Member of Parliament is, but at least the local Member of Parliament has the opportunity, if he so wishes, to rectify that by seeking to inform people through letters, publicity and so on that he exists and what he stands for. The local councillor seems to be rather more obscure and it is important that local communities know who represents their ward.
It would be wrong not to mention my local authority of the London borough of Merton before I sit down. Every meeting of its council is open to the public and I pay tribute to it for that. It sets a good example. Would that every borough were so good. I suggest that in the adoption of the Bill, through its Second Reading today, and I hope through its successful Committee stage, all councils will be able to follow that excellent example.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)
First, I join in the congratulations expressed to the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) on his bravery in using his high place in the ballot for private Members' Bills to choose this Bill with which he had been associated in its previous lives. It is a good thing in a way that he has chosen it because he comes from a background of local government service. He was a former local government leader in the London borough of Sutton. If any hon. Member is able to persuade the, for the time being, majority party of the Bill's merits, it should be him.
It is important to stress, as we have in this debate, that the Bill has always had, in whatever form it has been drafted, all-party support. I hope that the Bill will receive a Second Reading today and will ultimately take its place on the statute book. If that happens, the hon. Member for Hornchurch will have completed the task that was begun by the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) about two years ago. The hon. Member for Bootle lit the torch by bringing the draft of a Bill before the House. I was able 536 to pick up the torch, as it were, and was given leave in June 1984 to introduce the measure by way of a ten-minute Bill. That measure is now before us in a more substantive form. It has been revised and improved and is now even more worthy of general support.
It is appropriate to recognise the efforts that are made to keep the House and the public informed of the desperate need for legislation of the sort that is before us. Mention should therefore be made of the Community Rights Project, which has its headquarters only about a yard outside my constituency in Waterloo road. Ron Bailey is the main worker for the project and he has been assisted in his campaign for this legislation by Daryl Upsall and others. The project has kept us on our toes. It has chivvied us over the past few days, perhaps even over-exhaustively, to ensure that no opportunity is lost and that everyone possible is present to support the Bill.
It is against that background, and on behalf of the Liberal party, that I give full support to the provisions in the Bill, which in their respective and different ways will enable local government to return to the principles for which and on which it was established. Its purpose was to bring government closer to the people and to allow the people to participate in what is done in their name.
The struggle among those who are elected can be generalised perhaps as the struggle between authoritarianism and libertarianism. It is the struggle between those who believe that when they take authority, or, rather, are given it — that is the essence of democracy — for a temporary period they are entitled to impose and those who believe that they should always act accountably in a representative capacity. Those who are elected to act on behalf of others should be accountable, and the more accountable they are, the better. A parallel premise is that information and knowledge are good. Democracy relies on information, and the more information that is made available, the better. Information provides a safety net and is not a danger.
There have been many attempts to open up government and I hope that another attempt will be made in another area of government later today when the House considers the practices of water authorities. The leader of the Liberal party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel), introduced a Bill last year to get rid of secrecy in national Government. In doing so he followed the excellent earlier attempt of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud). It can be said generally that there has developed an increasingly urgent feeling — this can certainly be said of the Liberal party—that every effort should be made to ensure that government is open. Nothing is more ludicrous than when actions are taken in the name of others at meetings that are closed to the public.
We in this place set a good example. The proceedings of the House and its Committees are open to the public, as they should be. It is that practice that we seek to translate to local government, where over the years, especially since 1960, more and more councils have resiled from the practice of open meetings. They have done so by moving more and more work from committees to sub-committees which are formed by delegated groups of councillors. That has happened since 1960 when the first Bill on this subject was introduced by the right hon. Lady who is now the Prime Minister when she was a Back Bencher, in her first speech to the House. Councils have taken the view that, with the formation of smaller groups 537 they can close their doors on the public. The doors of councils have been closed increasingly and it is only of late that the extent to which they have been closed has been realised, together with the necessity to burst them open.
The hon. Member for Hornchurch has rightly paid tribute to the three authorities of Brent, Bradford and Derbyshire but he was not quite accurate in his description of their political status. It is interesting that there is no overall political control of the Bradford and Brent authorities. Lack of overall political control does not necessarily imply that there is good behaviour in local government, but I believe that it makes it more likely.
Bradford has done an excellent job in opening the doors of the council to the public. The authority has allowed its activities to be reported and written about. A booklet is available entitled "Bradford City Council Behind Open Doors". It has put its officers at the service of this cause and they have travelled to many different areas. They were present when the three party group leaders of Bradford city council came to receive freedom of information awards this month from the Campaign for Freedom of Information. It has produced a code of practice on public access to documents and generally has given a sterling lead.
Brent is another good example. There is no overall political control in Brent, indeed, the party with most councillors is in opposition. The Conservative group rules but only with the support of my three Brent Liberal colleagues. On this issue the three Liberal members of the Brent authority are equally keen to ensure that Brent retains the principle of open government.
The third authority to which the hon. Member for Hornchurch referred was Derbyshire, which is not a split authority in political terms.
ILEA deserves recognition for the steps that it has taken to open its doors to the public. In other respects it can be criticised but in many areas of its activity it has made itself accountable to the public. It has done a good job and has set an example. That has also been recognised by an award for its efforts over the past year.
There are other good examples of open government, especially in local authorities where there is no overall political control. More and more councils do not have single party government and my party believes, as I do personally, that that is in many ways a good thing. It means that the tyranny of the numerical majority, which can often be contrary to the interests of the individual, is stopped. However, the battle still remains to be fought. Many of the provisions set out in the Bill offer a framework for the many and various stages of the battle.
Clause 1 deals with admission to meetings. That is obviously important because without the right of attendance one does not know what is going on. Some authorities allow the public to attend meetings but not to see documents while others allow the public to see documents but not to attend meetings. Some authorities prevent the public from attending meetings and from seeing documents. They are the worst offenders. There is a need for general improvement and the Bill provides ways of achieving exactly that.
Clause 2 seeks to provide access to minutes. Even such a small element of local government activity can be open to considerable abuse. I received a letter in August 1984 from Willie Hamilton, a borough councillor from the east Yorkshire borough of Beverley, which is commonly known as Beverley borough council. He complained about 538 the abuse of the council in its failure to produce minutes of meetings of its committees and sub-committees for verification and signing at the next or following meeting, which is a requirement that is laid down by the Local Government Act 1972. Those who support the Bill believe that that Act was the second step in developing what was done in 1960.
Apparently, the Beverley councillors receive an agenda for each council meeting and a record of what happened at the previous meeting, but only at the very last moment. It seems that they can make alterations to the minutes only by tabling formal amendments to be discussed at the following meeting. This means that if minutes are inaccurate or, even worse, falsified, it is impossible for minority parties to amend them. Beverley borough council was composed in August 1984 of 53 councillors, 36 of them being Tories with 11 Liberals, five Labour and one independent. Since 1974 the Tories at Beverley have been able effectively to prevent any corrections of minutes.
Clauses 3 and 4 deal with access to documents. I received a letter from Mr. Peter McBride of Tunbridge Wells in June 1984. He sent me a copy of a newspaper article from a publication entitled News in Focus of 3/4 April. The article described the Kent war emergency handbook, which has been produced by Kent county council and paid for by Kent ratepayers. It advises on what one should do in civil defence terms if, as it describes, "the bomb drops". It goes on to say, amongst other things, that a nice cup of tea will be needed. That is probably a slight underestimate of the response of most people in such circumstances and of the action that they would find appropriate.
Mr. McBride wrote and asked whether he could have a copy of the handbook referred to in the article. It was denied him on the ground that it was not for general issue and was only for those trained in civil defence. I have not read the handbook, but if one of its major conclusions stresses the need for a cup of tea, a kettle and social amenities in the shelters not much training can be required. Only investigative detective work by a reporter who eventually managed to get hold of the information and put it in a paper which was distributed freely led to the public being given the information that it should have had straightaway.
One could give further and worse examples. One such bad example involves the Labour-controlled Southwark borough council. It overcharged some of its tenants when they exercised their right to buy. It refused to publish or to divulge the names and addresses of those involved and it refused to tell those who had been overcharged. Former tenants had to guess whether they had been overcharged and write to the council. The council said that if they were right and they had been overcharged they would receive their money back. That is ludicrous. The information was made public only when the South London Press published on its front page a list of all the addresses, which meant that the malevolent as well as the aggrieved could discover who was about to receive a windfall, although in reality few people received any cash because the difference was made up using mortgages. It was left to the local paper to leak a so-called confidential document. The public cannot be expected to fully enjoy their rights when this sort of behaviour goes on.
Such behaviour does no good to local government. I hold no brief for the Labour party in Southwark; indeed, the contrary is true. Such behaviour, however, does no 539 good to the status of local government anywhere. I cannot believe either that it enhances the prospects of success for the majority party in such councils.
I shall concentrate on the clause which deals with access for councillors. My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) has direct personal experience from his local council of further instances. The subject has been publicised recently since my colleague, the leader of the Liberal group on Hackney council, took the council to court because it refused to allow him access to information which he said that he needed. I refer to Councillor Gamper, a member of the housing services committee, the public services committee and chairman of the Shoreditch district housing committee. That was his status when he sought to see the minutes of the direct labour sub-committee.
Hackney borough council refused him access to those minutes and to the sub-committee's meetings. On 14 November Mr. Justice Lloyd, in a well publicised judgment, said:Hackney London Borough Council had acted unlawfully by denying the applicant, a Liberal councillor, access to the meetings and the documents of the direct labour organisation (DLO) subcommittees in that they had failed to ask themselves the correct question, namely, whether the applicant had a need to know information in order properly to perform his duties as a councillor and by denying the applicant such access the council reached a decision that no reasonable council could have reached on asking themselves the correct question.That was a trail-blazing decision which has already had repercussions. David Gamper tells me that he has now been able to attend for the first time the direct labour sub-committee which has produced information which is useful to him. It is not all information that he can use to attack the council. For example, he has been able to establish that the council did what it was required to do in the tendering process by submitting 60 per cent. of its work to competitive tendering. He has also discovered that none of the non-direct labour organisations in fact tendered because they would have been required to use some of the restrictive practices operated by the direct labour organisation. In many ways Mr. Gamper is now in a better position to do his job and to advise people.
§ Mr. Ernie Roberts (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)
The Hackney borough council has adopted a policy of decentralising housing management. That information is now readily available not only to all councillors, as it should be, but to the citizens because their housing services and conditions are affected. It is not good enough to argue that a councillor needs information in order to attack the council. That should be no reason for obtaining information. Information should be given for the purpose of assisting the council and the citizens to solve their problems.
§ Mr. Hughes
The hon. Member is right. I hope that I made it clear that information is needed not only to make an attack on the majority party but so that individuals can be better represented.
Hackney has complied with the judgment and the committee is now open. The same pressure is now on elsewhere. In Newcastle the Liberal leader, John Shipley, acting in the light of the Hackney judgment, told the council that he would take legal action if it kept the policy 540 and resources working group closed to all opposition members. I agree with his claim that he has a right to know. But the leader of the council refused.
The Bill is necessary because some authorities do not consider themselves bound by the implications of the judgment in the case of Mr. Gamper and Hackney even though there are examples of movement, as in East Devon district council, where the council has changed its rules in response to the judgment.
One important and worrying aspect has come to light. It appears that in Hackney there was pressure on the majority Labour group from the Tory group to appeal against the judgment. That is not the only example of conspiracy between the two largest parties to exclude other parties from knowledge. That is dangerous and equally undesirable. I am glad to say that Hackney resisted the pressure. It would be appalling if, to keep Buggins' turn by the two major parties alternating and being always in the know, the smaller parties and independents were denied access to information.
Many councils need a Bill such as this to make them do what we believe they should have done a long time ago to achieve open government. Sutton council is still not perfect even though the hon. Member for Hornchurch is in the vanguard and waving the flag. I am told that a submission from Sutton to the Department of Education and Science about the transfer of a nursery school to a Sutton infants school recently was not made available to the local ward councillor, to the leader of the opposition or to the opposition education spokesman. In Colwyn bay a ward councillor was not allowed to see documents or to attend meetings to discuss a waste disposal site in her ward.
There was a controversial battle in Cambridge for many years over the redevelopment of the Kite, an old part of the centre of Cambridge. The redevelopment scheme was never discussed in the presence of the leader of the opposition on Cambridge council.
The television programme "A Week in Politics", made after the Hackney judgment, rightly criticised other councils as well. It took examples from councils where each of the three major parties has failed. The programme revealed that the redevelopment plan for the heart of Bromley—a major and controversial proposal involving a relief road—was discussed at a meeting attended only by Conservative councillors and employees of the building firm Wimpey. The Tory leader of Bromley council had the effrontery to say on that programme:There has been no secrecy.That was in spite of the fact that the council committee that agreed the town centre relief road document met in secret. That is unacceptable. A member of the Heart of Bromley residents' association appeared on the programme and pointed out that the people of Bromley heard only suspicions and rumours. They were given no facts. That is bad for democracy.
To show my impartiality, I will give an example from the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, where Labour is the largest party, but there is a non-Labour administration including two Liberals. The Labour party is excluded from the policy committee meetings that make many of the key decisions in Hammersmith and Fulham. If my persuasive powers have not yet managed to convince my two colleagues and the Conservatives on that council to change their ways, we need the Bill to make them do so.
541 The Bill is an attempt to correct many of the failures of local government over the years. Secrecy has become more prevalent and there are more tyrants in the town halls. Councillors were not elected to be tyrants. Every time that a decision is taken in secret, there are more rumours and more suspicions. The confidence of the electorate, reflected in turnouts at local elections, is further sapped.
All of us who support the Bill hope that it will have a speedy passage so that the concept that people in local government should be able to think that they were elected to govern in secret will be shown to be unacceptable. The law must make sure that such secrecy will be forbidden.
§ Mr. Charles Irving (Cheltenham)
I apologise to the House for having been absent for part of the debate. My absence was in connection with substantial improvements in the catering Department which I am sure will be welcome to the House. Let us hope that those talks will be as fruitful as we hope that the Bill will be.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) on having the foresight to introduce legislative proposals that are topical, sensible and, above all, conducive to much more openness in local government.
I had the honour to be a member of the Gloucestershire county council for 33 years and I have been a member of Cheltenham borough council for the past 36 years. So I can claim, with some modesty, experience of the different trends in local government over the years. I am glad to say that in my constituency, as in many others, there has been a vast improvement in the way in which the matters that we are discussing have been handled.
Although there have been many attempts since the 1960 Act to improve and tighten up the rules governing public access to local government meetings and documentation and, more particularly, the rules governing exemption and confidentiality, it is lamentable and, I believe, a self-imposed denial of the very freedoms that, as democrats, we claim to champion, that, in spite of consistent cross-party support, Parliament has failed to open up the functions and operations of both local and central Government.
With the exception of the improvements made in the Local Government Act 1972, the cause of democratic development of local authorities has ground to a halt. Indeed, in the absence of further legislation and guidance in these matters, there has been a temptation and a tendency in councils throughout the country to restrict the accessibility of information, to deny the public access to certain carefully defined meetings and to encourage the evolution of "political groupings" and so-called subcommittees, hidden from the public eye and often off limits to opposition councillors.
Decisions are frequently made behind closed doors and are often founded on information that is not made generally available. Those decisions are then rubber-stamped by committee and council meetings where opposition or even criticism is muted, if only because of a lack of knowledge or information relevant to those decisions.
President Madison of the United States said in 1822: 542Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.How right those words were and how relevant they are to today's debate.
I am reminded of the ring of confidence exuded by a councillor in a well-known seaside town who devised a novel way of making sure that the public and many of his colleagues were barred. He made all his decisions on the telephone. The committees never met, but the deliberations by phone were reported to the council and approved.
§ Mr. Irving
No, I never do. My hon. and learned Friend may talk to me on the telephone.
Nottinghamshire has 39 secret sub-committees and North Bedfordshire has 16. I do not cast any special indictment on those authorities. There are so many more, but I must not take the time of the House to list them all.
I am glad to say with some conviction that my own borough council has a comparatively good record, though, even there, some of our new committee chairmen find great difficulty in giving a consise answer to a probing question. Of course, that sometimes happens here.
In one authority in Wales, the straying animals sub-committee and the highly confidential slaughterhouse sub-committee conduct their interesting affairs in secret, protected from the outside world's prying eyes.
I do not know what the members of a slaughterhouse sub-committee do, but I imagine that they slaughter. I cannot see why they should have the temerity not to let people know whom they are slaughtering. It might make interesting reading. I am sorry that that is happening in Wales. It is such a lovely place. I do not want to get slaughtered there after making this speech. Perhaps I will keep away for a few months.
There can be no excuse in a modern western democracy for persisting with a cloak of secrecy around so much that need not be secret. We all recognise that there are highly sensitive affairs of state which, in the public interest, must be kept confidential. Those are properly protected in the Bill.
If we are to judge by the turnout in successive local elections, the public appear to be uninterested in who runs their town halls. The reasons behind moves to restrict access to meetings and documents seem in most cases to be extremely tenuous and such moves alienate the electors who feel distanced and irritated by secretative behaviour. That leads inevitably to suspicion and unease, and ultimately to a lack of confidence on the part of the public. Questions arise about councillors' motivations and intentions, and whether council meetings reveal the whole truth.
In supporting the Bill, I welcome particularly the "Reasons for Confidentiality" which form the schedule to the Bill. A clear and comprehensive list of rules relating to cases where meetings or documents should or may be restricted must be of vital importance, and is long overdue. If enacted, the regulations would make clear where people stand, and how far councillors may go in the area of confidentiality. It would remove misunderstanding and suspicion, which are currently the order of the day.
Equally important is the aim of the Bill to open up sub-committee meetings to the press and the public. It is the proliferation of those sub-committees — they may be 543 representative of or confined to one party — that has contributed to the ever-growing facade of secrecy that threatens to develop into a vicious circle or confidentiality trap into which councillors, through fear or mischief, may unwittingly or knowingly fall.
I recollect a letter that was sent to me showing that a certain authority had 34 sub-committees, none of which was open to the public and none of which reported to the council. They produced only unreported minutes. That was not a particularly good record. The proliferation of sub-committees, which may or may not be representative, is a danger. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) referred to one party in that respect. The practice may lead to the exclusion of factions that have a useful contribution to make.
The Bill is moderate and reasonable and should commend itself to most of the moderate and reasonable people in the House. I hope that it will have as much support as possible from the Government. In the long run there is nothing to be gained from secrecy in Government, and for those few areas where confidentiality needs to be maintained for reasons of law, public interest or personal privacy, it is essential that the credibility of local authorities should also be maintained. In my view, the key to that credibility lies in the maximum possible disclosure of the operations and affairs of those authorities.
I welcome the Bill as a measure that recognises the right of citizens in a democracy to learn about the activities of their local authorities. As democratic representatives and as a Parliament we have a duty to defend and promote the public interest. That is why I am more than glad to support the ill.
§ Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)
I can only echo the well-chosen remarks of the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving), although I shall not echo his refusal to be interrupted, or his propensity to speak on the telephone to the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross (Mr. Fairbairn), lest any conversation be sexually misconstrued.
I echo the welcome to the Bill given by the hon. Member for Cheltenham, and the congratulations that have been extended by all the previous speakers to the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), not only on winning a place in the ballot, which requires no great skill, but on choosing to introduce a Bill dealing with access to information in local government. It is an extremely important issue, and the Bill, which is well-presented, deserves to pass on to the statute book.
The Bill, which finishes in Hornchurch, comes to us via Bootle and Bermondsey. Therefore, I widen my congratulations to include the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts). The Bill is important as a matter of principle, because open government is an essential right of our citizens. Obviously, that right applies to both national and local government. Open government—the right to know—is basic to democracy. I should like to see the principle extended to central Government. I regard the Bill as a trial measure advancing the cause of freedom of information in a practical and straightforward way.
544 The local power élite can be a very closed and secretive organisation; indeed, it can become a self-perpetuating and self-protecting conspiracy against the people. That can happen particularly where majorities are large and where it suits the convenience of the governing party. My remarks cover both major parties in this House.
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey suggested that the right to know is encouraged only where there are hung councils. Hung councils operate under many disadvantages, particularly in regard to decision-making. Some rather sordid political manoeuvres tend to be involved, yet I have to admit that the pressure to make information public accumulates in regard to councils where the party balance is close. However, the principle of access to information should apply to all councils as a matter of right.
Local government is often more secretive than national Government, partly because there is not the same insistent pressure for information from the local media. At one time local newspapers were highly competitive in bringing information to the public. I recall the old joke about the visitor arriving in Bradford. Not being sure of the name of the local paper, he approached the paper boy and said, "Unfortunately, I have forgotten the name of the paper"——
§ Mr. Mitchell
I am grateful to the hon. Gentlman. I know the paper only too well. I was referring to my joke character. The visitor went up to the paper boy and asked for one of the local papers whose name began with an A. The lad said, "They all begin with t — there's t' Telegraph, t'Argus and t'Observer". They are now amalgamated into one newspaper. That is taking place everywhere. There is a local monopoly of news which has made newspapers less trenchant, less inquiring and less vigorous. It has had the effect of heightening the secrecy of local government. Information is the fuel of democracy. Therefore, it must be widely and freely available as a matter of right.
The prospects for the Bill appear to be very good and I wish it every success. It deserves to pass and must pass. It has the support of a large number of local authorities. In the document "Secrets File No. 9 — Central and Eastern England Edition", there is an impressive list of local authorities supporting the Bill. It is supported by 150 Members of Parliament. I hope that it will be encouraged on its way by the Government. It is good to have with us today the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave), for whom we all have a high regard. So many angels hover around the head of this Bill that I have become a little suspicious. Is the legislation strong enough with that amount of support?
I should have liked the Bill's provisions to extend to the ad hoc authorities that cover many aspects of our lives and subjects of great importance to the citizen. The ad hoc authorities do not have a clear democratic base and, therefore, do not rest on the basis of public support. It is more important to know what the ad hoc authorities are doing and to have access to information about what they are doing. This is particularly the case with health authorities. It has been suspected that political appointments are made to health authorities, and that 545 suspicion arises especially when there is a purge of chairmen and they are replaced by former Conservative candidates. It could be thought that those appointments are made to further privatisation and to stifle the natural discontent that would be ventilated against any Health Service spending cuts or any failure to keep spending in line with the needs not only of medicine but of the population.
Often there is a fetish for secrecy within these ad hoc authorities which is inimical to the basis of democracy. For example, the Grimsby health authority proposed, for no good reason as far as I understand it, to make disclosure of confidential information a dismissable offence and to write that provision into the code of conduct and conditions of employment. It was as though the authority was trying to erect an Official Secrets Act. Such steps are being taken when we at the centre are trying to dismantle an Official Secrets Act which is far too powerful. That legislation is being used as a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and that "nut" can be interpreted in several ways.
I believe that it is totally undesirable to write into the conditions of employment of health authority employees an insistence on confidentiality, without defining what constitutes "confidential information". Is "confidential information" the condition of Mrs. Bloggs in ward 3? Are the internal arrangements an authority can make when allocating scarce resources or making cuts the types of matter that are best discussed publicly? Those matters are best known publicly so people can check on the authority's exercise of power. One cannot help but feel that the desire to insist on confidentiality in such a way is due principally to a wish to suit the convenience of the organisations and their officials. That is not right. We are using a blunderbuss when a slap on the wrist is all that is necessary.
The right to know about the activities of ad hoc authorities is as crucial as the right to know about the activities of elective local government. Unfortunately, the Bill does not deal with ad hoc authorities. It deals with elected local authorities. Indeed, if we go on at length talking about these elected authorities, we shall frustrate an attempt later in the day to open up the activities of the water authorities, and that opening up is certainly desirable.
The Bill poses no problems to people in Grimsby. I was happy to see Grimsby borough council's response to the "Local Government Access to Information Survey" carried out by the local government and health advisory group. According to the council's reply, and as I know from experience of the council, access to information is exactly what one would like it to be. There are open committees, and sub-committees are closed only on grounds that are permissible under the schedule to this legislation. That is the most for which we can ask. On the question about public access to minutes, the town clerk replied:There is no provision under Standing Orders relating to public access to minutes, etc. A copy of the monthly minutes is, however, lodged with the Central Reference Library and is available for inspection on request. Additionally, copies may be had from the Town Clerk on request, on repayment; in fact, a substantial number of copies are supplied to regular subscribers on this basis. Copies of agendas (but not reports) are supplied to all members of the public attending meetings.546 There is access to information and availability of information in the way required by this legislation. I am glad that this system operates in Grimsby and that the legislation's proposals will cause no problems to the town.
I support the Bill's basic principles. As the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey said so eloquently, secrecy breeds uncertainty. Secrecy breeds rumours, circulates trivia and leads to suspicion, which is harmful to good and efficient democracy. Openness forces authorities to make better, more responsible and more clear-cut decisions. The most important aspect is the simple principle that democracy implies a right by the people to know what their representatives are doing on their behalf.
Providing open access to information might be an awkward task for councillors or, indeed, for the Labour party in local government, especially when Labour has a huge majority. I can imagine that open access to information would be frustrating for an incoming Labour Government if this legislation operated nationally, because powerful pressure groups would use that right to gather ammunition against the Government, just as awkward individuals and pressure groups are likely to use the right to know to gather information against a councillor or party of which they disapprove for political reasons. That will not be abuse of the legislation. It is an inevitable consequence, because we have to put up with and accept this principle which is so important, right and central to democracy.
I hope that other hon. Members will make briefer speeches than I have, because we shall have the opportunity today to strike two blows for open government. In a sense, Friday is the Back Benchers' playground, and words can expand to fill the available space. If they do so, we shall frustrate an important Bill on the water authorities. I do not wish to do so. If we are succinct and sharp and back this Bill to the hilt, we shall be able to achieve two major advances in one day.
§ Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)
This is one of those rare and agreeable occasions when there appears to be general agreement among all parties about the desirability of a measure. On looking back over some 50 years in public life, I am convinced that excessive secrecy is a major enemy of good government at any level. It militates against the development of a responsible democracy. As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) said, it leads to suspicion, to misunderstanding and, perhaps most important of all to the communities local government serves, to bad decisions.
The Bill is concerned with access to information in local government. Reference has been made to the effect of excessive secrecy on central Government. I recall particular instances in my political life when central Government have inflicted great injury on the national interest and even on the national honour as a result of Ministers and civil servants keeping Parliament and, therefore, the people in the dark.
I have in mind two appalling cases where the deliberate suppression of facts had devastating consequences that could have been avoided — as those who took the decisions knew—had Parliament been made aware of them. One was the enforced deportation of hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens at the end of the war and for two years after to certain death or slavery in Siberian 547 prison camps. Parliament was kept completely unaware of what was done and the civil servants responsible minuted that there would be a row if Parliament were told.
The other case was the knowledge of Cabinet Ministers that oil sanctions against Rhodesia were being breached and the concealment of that. The Royal Navy was made to stand guard in the Beira straits which gave the world the impression that we were doing our duty and preventing oil from reaching the rebel Smith Government when, of course, it was coming from elsewhere. As a result, the rebellion continued and led inevitably to a bloody civil war the consequences of which are perhaps not yet ended. I can think of other examples.
The Bill is not concerned with great questions of external policy, but the principle is the same. If we suffer from the British disease of excessive secrecy at the top, it is not surprising to find it throughout the administrative structure and operating at local government level.
The Bill has been needed for a long time. I shall not go over the case that was put so eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) and in the excellent speeches that followed. I am in broad agreement with everything that has been said so far. The best and most responsible people in local government in all political parties, dedicated to the service of their communities would also agree. I am delighted to find that three local authorities are already implementing the spirit of the Bill before it has been enacted by Parliament. The Conservative leader on the Bradford city council, Councillor Ronnie Farley, has said:Local Government should have nothing to fear from public accountability. Only the incompetent and prejudiced need lose any sleep over the Bill.The Labour leader of the same council has said:I look forward to seeing Bradford going beyond the Bill and allowing the public, in certain circumstances, the right to speak at meetings in the near future.In the rather odd circumstances in which Brent council finds itself — it is now Conservative-controlled — the Conservative leader, Councillor Bob Lacey, has said:Particularly where there is a large ethnic minority population, it is essential to have open government and easy access to files in order to allay people's fears that they may be discriminated against. We see the opening-up of files as a logical extension of democracy.To show how impartial I am in all this, permit me to quote Councillor Bill Lithgoe, the Labour group secretary in Derbyshire:As far as I am aware the move towards formalising our position on open government in line with the Bill has produced no administrative headaches, practically no costs"—that is a bonus—and no inconvenience in the first six months of implementation, and no request from a member of the public has made the transition unworkable.Here is local government moving ahead of Parliament. We should recognise that and pay tribute to it. I am asked to say that Essex county council warmly welcomes the Bill. I am not surprised. I have been an Essex Member for about 35 years, and our county has been under both Labour and Conservative control. The council is extremely well and prudently managed. I am not saying that from time to time it is not open to criticism, because all local authorities are, but it has never been criticised by any Government for the management of its affairs or the way that it looks after its ratepayers.
548 Thus, the best of local government and the most dedicated of its elected representatives are asking us to pass the Bill. Of course we shall need to look at the Bill in Committee. I was delighted when my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch told my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mrs. Rumbold), in respect of a point upon which the Association of County Councils was critical of the Bill, that that was a matter that was already engaging his attention and that he was sure it could be dealt with in Committee.
There are other measures to be brought before us today and other hon. Members who wish to speak so I shall not detain the House. We are grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch for using his good fortune in the ballot to introduce this timely and welcome measure. We are all agreed that this is one of the most important measures for the improvement of democracy at the grass roots that could have been brought before us.
The Bill will make for healthier and more open local government and, most important of all, it will encourage greater public participation. I hope that it will have a swift transition to the statute book.
§ Mr. Michael Hancock (Portsmouth, South)
It is plain from what right hon. and hon. Members have said, and from the way in which they have nodded in agreement with various remarks, that the comment about information being the fuel of democracy is generally accepted. On that basis, it would be a welcome change in local government for the Bill to receive a swift Second Reading and to be enacted fairly quickly.
I speak with some experience of local government. I am still a member of Portsmouth city council and Hampshire county council, and have been since 1971. Portsmouth's motto is "Heaven's light our guide". The city has made great play of that, but the people of Portsmouth and Hampshire might as well look to the heavens for more information because they do not receive it from Portsmouth or Hampshire.
Those two councils are classic examples of a gradual but nevertheless progressive decline in the amount of information that has been forthcoming to the people of that city and county. The reason is that the city and the county have been run by pint-sized, mini-dictators. They see it either as an opportunity to boost their egos or to carry through matters that they have not been successful in doing in their various business enterprises. As a result, the city has suffered irreparable damage.
Information is not forthcoming. Hampshire county council has a committee called the land sub-committee. It sounds as innocuous as some of the committees that hon. Members have mentioned. That committee runs virtually all the affairs of the county council. It has direct control over all the assets of the county council and makes most of the major decisions. The committee is held in private, which has been the case since 1974. Its membership consists of all the chairmen of the county council and two or, sometimes, three members of the minority parties. The minutes of the committee are sometimes not available for public debate for at least two months after the committee meeting. That is ludicrous because on many occasions many of the items it considers deal with the substantial land holdings of the county council, in the form of homes and schools, which are of obvious interest to local residents.
549 For reasons best known to that committee — the standing orders of the county council have been engineered to make secrecy acceptable — information about those homes, facilities and resources has been denied to the people who must foot the bill and bear the responsibility for the decisions when they are implemented.
The same is true of Portsmouth, where ludicrous positions also arise. When decisions are being made whether to proceed with road schemes or to demolish homes, the last people to be told of such a proposal are those who live in the homes. I make no apology for saying that during the 15 years that I have been involved in local authorities I have deliberately given information to both the press and the people involved. I believe that they have a democratic right to know that things are being done which will affect their lives, properties and futures. Yet they are often the last to be told. If I had not disclosed the information, it would have been months before those people heard about the suggestions. In some instances, if the scheme had been dropped, they would never have known that their properties had been under threat of blight or even demolition.
All hon. Members must be worried about that. All hon. Members must want to expose and change that. We would be kidding ourselves if we were to suggest that everything going on in local government could easily be overturned by this measure, because it will not. I hope that this will be the first of many attempts to open up meetings, reduce secrecy and make information available.
I shall give one classic example concerning housing in Portsmouth. Three elected representatives of a large council estate had the temerity to ask for a report about the condition of the houses on the estate. The matter was of universal concern to everyone living on the estate. The report was produced at the instigation of the housing committee. One of the three elected members for the ward was a member of the housing committee. When the three representatives asked for the report, they were refused access to it on the ground that it would not be in the public interest for them to have it. It is ludicrous that a local authority can produce a report and refuse it to three members, albeit of a minority party, who needed it to act in the interests of the people who elected them. That is only one of many examples of what goes on in Portsmouth. I am proud to represent part of Portsmouth in the House.
There have been many such instances during the past decade. I am not proud to say that secrecy has become more acceptable in those two authorities because of the lack of will of some elected members to get involved. From what I have witnessed, it appears that the majority of the majority party on both councils are happy to pass the buck and the responsibility to a few members. They are willing to sit back and allow the chairman to assume an almighty powerful position, or the leader of the council to assume that he has a god-given right to negotiate on behalf of the whole council and to expect his decision to be rubber-stamped when he deems it the right moment to make it public. That is ludicrous.
I am the only member on Portsmouth city council who represents the alliance party. The council's standing orders were recently changed to prevent me from being able to move a notice of motion, which would have enabled me to prise out more information from the local authority. It was done along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend the 550 Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). There was a conspiracy between the Labour and Conservative groups on the council. They did it because they genuinely like this cosy position, which allows them to carve up matters and to keep secret matters that they wish to keep secret. Recently, they changed the standing orders to prevent members who are in a minority from gaining access to information that they need to do their job.
I do not believe that an elected councillor has a roving commission to examine every file on every issue. However, I have a democratic right, which was given to me by the electorate, to examine any information that I need to enable me to vote and make the right decision. Time and again decisions are made by members who are totally ignorant of the facts. Portsmouth is to be rate capped. Most of the decisions about how Portsmouth will get itself out of the mess that the Government have put it in have been taken behind closed doors. The people will not hear the options that were considered by members of the council or of the officer corps.
In Portsmouth it is ludicrous that the chief officer's group considers a long list of available options to cut expenditure, while the councillors receive only the amended list. When councillors have the cheek to suggest that they have a right to know what was on the original list, we are told that it is of no interest or importance. How more stupid can it get than for a local authority to say to its members, "You are not entitled to know what each chief officer, whom you employ on behalf of the ratepayers, is talking about on behalf of the citizens of the city."?
§ Mr. Norris
I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's point. Those of us who have been and still are in local government recognise the circumstances that he described. Does he recognise that there are genuine difficulties in setting the parameters for publicity, especially in relation to the work of officers? Unless we are extremely careful in Committee, one of the difficulties that will arise from the Bill is that officers will not feel that they have the liberty to examine all the options. We would not w ant to deny them that. The hon. Gentleman should address himself to circumstances in which it might be desirable that officers at least should feel that they can discuss among themselves how they should approach a policy or initiative.
§ Mr. Hancock
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point. Officers must accept that they are as responsible to the citizens of the authority as elected councillors. They must be seen to stand by what they say and do as much as elected councillors. I am sick to death of the way in which local government officers want to hide behind the coat tails of elected members. They want to talk about matters and suggest that matters happen, and when they believe that the time or the political climate is right they want to expose their ideas to the inner caucus of the star chamber and say, "We believe this is in the interests of the city".
In the end, a stupid, small-minded council leader will say, "I will expose that to the public and take all the credit for it." What he does not understand are the inner thoughts of the officers behind it, who have no direct responsibility.
I am sick to death of the suggestion that local government officers are a breed apart and that they are 551 above being criticised by the people who pay their wages. I have seen too many examples of lethargic, lack-lustre local government officers being allowed to reach the top in local government because they have been shielded for too long by the willingness of council leaders to accept that that is what happens in local government. I am sure that other hon. Members who have experience of local government are also sick of it.
On behalf of the people who elected me in Portsmouth, I hope that the Bill will be passed. It may not do much to help in authorities such as Bradford and Derbyshire, which have already accepted that information is critical to democracy, but it will go a long way to improving what I consider to be the dangerous position in my city and county. I hope that it will go a little way to exposing those pocket-sized dictators who believe that leading a council is something that they can do for ever without being exposed to public criticism.
With other hon. Members, I pay tribute to local newspapers and radio stations, which work tirelessly in trying to expose many of the incidents about which we have talked. Reports in my local newspaper, The News, have often been the first and only opportunity for local people to know what their council is doing. The newspaper could do that because people like myself, who are sick of the secrecy, allowed it to have reports that we were given by officers who were far from happy with what was happening.
I urge hon. Members to support the Bill.
§ 12.1 pm
§ Mr. Piers Merchant (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)
For 10 years before my election to the House I worked as a journalist, and for most of that time I specialised in reporting local councils. In the mid-1970s, as municipal correspondent of The Journal in Newcastle, I reported on nothing else. Therefore, I have some experience of this subject and expecially of the inadequacies of present arrangements. I have no hesitation in supporting the Bill and in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) on the work that he has done. My only criticism is that in some areas the Bill does not go far enough. However, given the trend towards liberalisation and freedom of information, I accept that the boundaries of the right to know can be pushed forward at a later date.
We should not underestimate the cunning and deviousness of vested interests in local authorities, which may be eloquent in public in support of freedom of information, but which in practice use every device to prevent contentious, embarrassing or even innocuous matters from being put before the public gaze.
In that context, I was not surprised to read the brief on the Bill from the Association of County Councils. It is headed, "Memorandum of Views", which should be translated as the case against. Paragraph 2 states:The Association has noted with interest the work of the Campaign for Freedom of Information and its broad objectives",which I interpret as meaning that the ACC does not like what is being done. Paragraph 3 reads:The Local Government (Access to Information) Bill represents, therefore, one part only of the work of the Campaign"—in other words, the unacceptable part. The end of the paragraph states: 552Considerable anomalies would be created by the enactment of legislation in only one area"—in other words, please look elsewhere first.
Paragraph 4 states:The decision-making processes of local government as a whole are demonstrably the most open and publicly accessible of any Government or public sector body.In other words, the association rejects the need for change.
The paragraph continues:It is therefore, to some degree surprising that the first initiative has not been to tackle other areas where these procedures are not so well followed.That is a clear attempt to persuade us to avert our gaze.
Paragraph 5 states:The Association has therefore suggested that, rather than the legislation proposed by this Bill, the better course might have been to prepare a Code of Practice which would be an effective means of securing the implementation of current good practice by all local authorities.It will not have escaped the attention of the House that a code of practice has already been enshrined in a circular from the Department of the Environment some years ago. Nor will it have escaped the attention of the House that the code of practice puts no onus on local authorities to abide by its requirements.
Paragraph 6 states:However, the Association does not oppose the concept of this Bill, which is seen as being worthwhile.It supports the concept, but, of course, it does not want the Bill to become legislation.
The memorandum ends with paragraph 8, which states:Finally, the Association would wish to draw attention to the fact that the precise meaning of the Bill may not be without doubt in some instances. If the Bill proceeds, it is urged that it should be considered in detail by the Parliamentary draftsman so that any ambiguities or obscurities may be removed, while preserving the intention behind the drafting.Those acidic comments are the ultimate kick in the teeth. In code language, the ACC is saying that the Bill is meaningless and has been drawn up by amateurs.
That is the sort of language to which one is used in local authority documents, especially if one has reported local authorities for some time. It is an admirable example of bureaucratic obfuscation, but I am sure that it will not succeed in obscuring the issue for hon. Members. In any case, I draw some comfort from those remarks. The protestations of the ACC are a clear sign that the Bill would be effective and that it has county councils on the run.
Similar to the ACC brief was a letter that I received a few months ago from the chief executive of Tyne and Wear county council urging me to support the freedom of information campaign. I do not know whether the letter was sent tongue in cheek, but in reply I pointed out swiftly that more than 30 sub-committees, panels and working groups of that council were closed to the press, that every committee meeting was preceded by a meeting of the ruling group in order to make decisions, and that the history of the council was even worse. I did not receive a reply to my letter.
Such bodies will always support the principles of open government with their mouths, but we must not be fooled into believing that they will do so willingly in their minds. To illustrate the point, in 1975, Department of the Environment circular 45/75 was sent to local authorities advising them on how to behave with the press and public. It was a welcome, healthy and liberal circular which most local authorities proceeded to ignore. In addition to the statutory obligations which many councils only grudgingly 553 followed, that enlightened circular advised authorities to throw open the doors of all sub-committees unless there was an overriding reason for not doing so. It especially told local authorities to make available minutes and agendas before meetings.
At that time I was reporting on Durham city and county councils, and later on Northumberland county council, Tyne and Wear county council and Newcastle city council. I also covered the Northumbria police authority, the water authority and the regional airports committee. Comparison of the approaches of those authorities was interesting, and showed the marked inadequacies in the law and the shortcomings of codes of practice and mere advisory circulars. Some authorities took their responsibilities on information seriously. They had a principled stance, not only complying with circular 45/75, but going further. Northumberland county council was especially enlightened at that time. To show that I take no party political line on this matter, may I say that Durham county council—at the other end of the political spectrum from Northumberland — was also co-operative. With both authorities, most meetings were open, papers were made available in advance and chief officers were open and contactable.
I often felt that, on the latter point. Durham county was the most enlightened of the lot, possibly because it had no press office or public relations department to act as a buffer or screen. I often think that it is the supreme irony that many councils should find it necessary to build up huge press departments and then spend, in total across the country, millions of pounds of public money on telling the public what they think the public should know about the council's affairs, when it should be the public who are telling the council, through the democratic process, what the council should be doing, and the council should be responding to public demand rather than the reverse.
The period to which I have been referring so far is 1974 to 1980, but I no longer have the same close working knowledge of day-to-day practice in those councils. I accept that there may have been changes for the better, but the very fact that individual councils change their attitude on information supply from year to year is an illustration of the fact that the legal base is inadequate, and the onus of responsibility tends to rest on whim rather than on clearly defined approach.
It also unfortunately leaves councils free to punish the press by changing their policy if a line is taken by the local press with which they do not agree. During the years to which I have referred, the authority with the worst record was Tyne and Wear county council. At one stage—it was about 1977—I was able to produce a list of over 50 of its subsidiary bodies that effectively met in secret. Not only did they meet in secret, but it was even a secret where they met, and in some cases a secret that they even existed.
Yet some of the most vital issues which directly affected people in that area were discussed in that atmosphere, including the progress of one of the most important projects in the north-east for many decades—the metro rapid transit system—and only leaks revealed where faults were arising within the management of the construction of the metro project and on other areas of concern to the public.
Matters of local civic scandal or misconduct, too, emerged only through leaks rather than through the correct accountable process of committees and sub-committees. Press reporters discovered that the only way to find out 554 about these anonymous and secretive bodies was to creep down committee room corridors, listen at doors and snoop around the printing and committee support units where agendas were collated.
No agendas were issued in advance, so it was difficult to know even if a major committee was meeting, let alone what it was discussing. Often, if one could find out, the committee closed itself to the press within a few moments of starting business and discussed reports that were then not made available. Many, in fact most, reports were stamped at the top "Confidential" and were produced on pretty coloured paper, and with monotonous regularity they were enticingly waved in front of the press before being locked away for ever.
So paranoid were the leaders of Tyne and Wear at that time that I experienced on more than one occasion the farce whereby copies of reports were painstakingly collected from councillors before they were allowed to leave a meeting for fear that one guilty member might become incontinent and leak the document to the press. The adverse publicity that such actions necessarily inspired served only to drive the council deeper into the fox holes. Newspapers which dared to print something in advance were punished by the discriminatory withholding of a press announcement at a later date. The war of nerves that followed illustrates exactly why it is not conceivably in the interests even of local authorities to behave like that.
Tyne and Wear got such a bad reputation that most press reports were unsympathetic. That reputation persisted and was not unconnected with later moves in support of the council's abolition. To put the matter in more direct language, I should say that failure to communicate and the withholding of information convinced many that the whole structure should be radically reformed. A more open approach from the outset would have engendered an entirely different atmosphere, so that that council would have been seen to be a positive force for the good of people in the area rather than—as it was widely regarded, and still is—a negative force. Thus, freedom of information is not just in the interests of the press and the public, though obviously it is. It is also in the overriding interest of the councils.
I am glad to say that the position partially improved in regard to Tyne and Wear, but that was thanks only to a persistent and highly effective campaign masterminded by Mr. Stuart Garner, then the news editor of the Newcastle Journal, which continually highlighted the secrecy of the council, and the council was eventually shamed by the public into reforming some of its procedures, which it did most unwillingly. Agendas slowly began to appear in advance and closed meetings, at least in some cases, began to be open to the press and public.
So far I have dealt with illustrations from the past, albeit the recent past. This year there have been three, even more concerning, examples of the results of secret government involving intimidation and threats. In two cases they involved Labour councillors within the ruling group of Tyne and Wear, so in highlighting those I cannot be accused of crossing the political barrier.
The first councillor, John Hodgson, was disciplined and threatened because he leaked to a Conservative colleague on the council, a Mr. Martin Callaman, a document about proposed increased council funding of the so-called Newcastle centre against unemployment. That subject should have appeared, and been discussed in full, before a public committee, but it was discussed only in secret, 555 with strict instructions that the matter should not be divulged and should not reach the ears of the public. He was told that his views should have been made known only behind closed doors, and he was disciplined for not abiding by that request.
The second councillor, George Elsom, was given similar rough treatment by the strong-arm leaders of his group who were trying to railroad policy through the council at that stage. Mr. Elsom had expressed some misgivings on the miners' strike.
One of the motivations behind the suppression of information preventing the public from finding out what has been discussed behind closed doors is the fear that political parties have — I do not point at only one political party because, varying from one area to another, all political parties have been guilty of this—that the public may discover that there are disagreements between councillors within that group, and the leadership, possibly from an underlying feeling of insecurity, is afraid to reveal to the public that there are disagreements on policy.
That is an incredibly short-sighted approach to take because it redounds to the credit of political parties and leaderships that there is informed discussion, debate and, at times, disagreement within the group. For the leadership of a group to try to suppress all signs of disagreement merely belittles the reputation and standing not just of the leadership but of all the members of the group, who are then believed by the public merely to be vote fodder and toadies rather than people who are capable of thinking in the interests, and representing the people, of their areas.
The third example is rather different, although it involves the continued harassment and intimidation of another councillor, Ken Buckingham, an independent who has fought persistently for freedom of information. Both Mr. Buckingham and a former councillor, Mr. Chambers, have even claimed that they were subjected to physical violence because they were prepared to speak to the press on matters about which the ruling group felt they should not speak. Such desperate acts are bred in an atmosphere of secrecy which can grow when no law defines clearly the responsibilities of local government on free information.
I do not pretend that the council that I have mentioned is the only or worst offender. Nor do I claim that there are not other bodies which are equally guilty of holding back information which should properly be discussed in public and by the public. Those guilty might include the Government. However, I do not wish to imply that all councils are as unresponsive as Tyne and Wear. Many are open and sincere in their desire to be more open with information and policy decisions. As in so many spheres, it is not sufficient, unfortunately, to rely on those with a generous spirit. The full power of the law is needed to give a shock to those who are lagging behind. I therefore support the Bill fully and wish it a swift and safe passage into law.
§ Mr. Ernie Roberts (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)
I support many of the proposals in the Bill, although it is a sad commentary on present day society that we should have to consider such elementary democratic principles, which ought to have been put into operation many years ago. However, it is perhaps understandable that we should have to discuss basic democratic principles 556 when the Government are prepared, at a stroke of the law, to wipe out local government in the form of the GLC and the metropolitan county councils. We have a long way to go to impress on the Government the need for democracy in local government.
Everyone has a right to know. I have received many complaints from constituents about secrecy over their medical records. I helped one woman fight to get information about her medical records for many years. I have received complaints from parents who have been unable to get records on their children and from homeless people who want to know why they cannot have a house, why they are where they are on the housing list and how the housing list is made up. I have also received complaints from people who cannot find out what planning proposals there are for their street. Most recently, I had a complaint from a person who could not discover the proposed location of caravan sites.
I was chairman of the Coventry city council finance committee for some years. There was far too much secrecy in drawing up budgets. Ratepayers have a right to know about budgets, as it is their money which is being spent. They have a right to know why and how their money is allocated. There was far too much obstruction from bureaucrats working on behalf of the council. I opened up information about tenders but insisted that information about how decisions were taken was made available only after the job had been given. It is perfectly true that some people take advantage of information to get rich quick at the expense of others. That is the nature of our society but it is no excuse for secrecy. People still have the right to know. If people behave wrongly, the law should take care of them.
There are many Committees of the House that are open to the public and they often deal with more sensitive issues than are considered by many councils in secret. The press and other media often have access when the public do not, but the media are not the public. They might claim to represent the public but nobody has elected them. They represent only their newspaper owners and the political views of their newspaper. If the press is allowed into a meeting, so should members of the public. The result would be much more accurate news.
Local authorities are the biggest employers in the country and should set an example in industrial democracy. In its exclusions, the Bill mentions:disclosure of terms … likely to prejudice negotiations … with trade unions".In negotiations between the employer, the local authority, and its work force, trade union representatives, the facts should be put on the table. Both sides should have the information on which a decision must be taken. It is wrong that only council officials have information on the issue under discussion. The Bill will help that process and give a lead to private employers. In spite of what Conservative Members sometimes say, workers are not greedy, selfish and grasping, like some entrepreneurs.
I learnt about industrial democracy from my trade union. All of its members have the right to know everything. The rules provide that members can get any information and find out how anyone voted on any issue. They have real democratic control. There is much to be learnt from how trade unions such as mine operate.
Hackney borough council, part of which I represent, has decided to decentralise all matters relating to housing. It has opened its committees to the public so that they can 557 hear for themselves what is being decided. Hackney is determined to have open government for the good reason that it wants people to be aware of the difficulties facing it as a result of rate capping and other policies that the Government have forced on it.
It is right that people should be able to attend meetings. By doing so they will be able to see who is telling the truth: whether it is the representatives of the Government or the council and its local Government representatives. I hope that the Bill will have a fair hearing and a fair discussion and that many of its proposals will come to fruition. It will be another step forward in the interests of democracy in this country.
§ Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross)
I seem to be making a habit, as a lone Scotsman, of opposing Bills that the English unwisely foist upon themselves. I am glad that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) is in the House. He said that the Bill was conceived and parturated by angels. There is a saying, "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." But since in this case the angels are so anxious to tread all over it there is a new saying: "Wise men rush in to stop angels from their folly." I modestly claim the cloak of wisdom.
I notice that all the angels and archangels who have spoken in favour of the Bill say that they welcome it in its entirety. I am glad that they do, with the exception of the sponsor of the Bill, because I welcome more heartily than I can say on behalf of all my countrymen clause 8:This Act shall not apply to Scotland".I caution my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) not to try in Committee to extend the application of the Bill to Scotland. It would be extremely unfair. My colleagues who represent Scottish constituencies have not been forewarned about any attempt to extend the application of the Bill to Scotland. I should regard that as constitutionally improper. It would be a most unfortunate precedent in terms of a private Member's Bill.
§ Mr. Squire
My hon. and learned Friend heard my explanation of the reason for Scotland's temporary exclusion. Will he nevertheless accept that the whole House will have the fullest opportunity, should the Bill proceed through its subsequent stages, to reject the inclusion of Scotland, if the Committee so determines? In doing so, all of my hon. and learned Friend's countrymen may mass and assemble in the way that they normally mass and assemble.
§ Mr. Fairbairn
With the greatest respect I do not accept that explanation, although I wish to pay credit to the civility with which my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch has replied to the criticism of his measure, which I make for the sake of England. I had no idea that anybody would attempt to put this curse upon archangels. If, however, the English wish to put a curse upon our heads they can always outvote us by 11 to one on the Goschen formula. I repeat that I believe that it would be quite improper if this measure were to be extended to apply to Scotland. Since I am the only Scot in the House today, undoubtedly there will be no Scots on the Committee. Therefore, it would be quite improper if the Bill were to be so amended in Committee.
The first point that I wish to make to the Government before I make my points to the angels—the Government are an archangel; I see that the hon. Member for Great 558 Grimsby thought I was falling into a trap—is this. As I hope to explain during the course of my remarks about the details of the Bill, it would have massive manpower implications for local authorities. Very large, indeed impossible numbers of people to calculate, would have to be added to the work force of local authorities. Secondly, the financial implications of the measure are, as I hope to demonstrate, incalculable but inevitably huge. Here we have a Government struggling with the leviathan of public expenditure, which good-intentioned people such as the angels, the harbingers of the Bill, created in the welfare state and cannot control. It would not matter if there were a Labour Government. They would have the same leviathan which they struggled to control when they were in office and could not do so. Although they do not help us to do the same, they should, even in secret, understand the problem.
The second matter which I wish to put to those who propose the Bill in the liberal and democratic name of freedom of information is that the Bill is far from giving freedom of information; far from reducing the secrecy of which my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Merchant) spoke. I do not take the view that to relieve the frustrations of a reporter is a good motivation for legislation. I thought that reporters liked secrets that they could unmask. That certainly is my recent experience. The interests of journalists — I mean reporters; I am a journalist—should not be taken into account.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby gave an example. If we were to have a meeting of the local health board — that is not covered by the Bill although the hon. Gentleman thought that it should be—to decide who should be appointed to it, it might decide that it had found a gentleman—to reverse the hon. Gentleman's example — who was good at scuppering any attempts at privitisation and who was good at increasing the staffing levels of unnecessary clerks. The announcement of that Labour council, as it would be, would not be that three people were interviewed, that the board realised that Dr. Obstinate was the guy who could frustrate the purposes of the Tory Government and therefore it had appointed him to the health board. It would say that three people were interviewed and that the unanimous decision of the health board was that Dr. Obstinate should be appointed. In other words, the genuine reason would be inevitably hidden.
I wish to expound that by looking at the implications of each clause. Let me make it plain to the House and to the Bill's sponsors that I am not in favour of secrecy but I understand the benefits of confidentiality and trust. I do not think that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby meant it, but he suggested that somebody who had leaked information had done nothing wrong. A breach of trust is always a serious matter. Whether that trust ought to be there in the first place may be disputed, but a breach of trust is a serious matter in all circumstances.
I do not wish to frustrate the debate in any way and I hope that no sponsor of the Bill will think that, if I pay attention to its consequences in some detail, I am attempting to do so. I am not.
Clause 2 deals with the minutes of proceedings. It is essential, as all will agree, that there should be a right to prevent parts of certain minutes being available to the public. For instance, suppose a committee or subcommittee of the local authority were discussing the adoption of baby Cotton. I am sure that there will be 559 minutes of that matter in the relevant local authority. Nobody will suggest that those discussions should be open to the public. Therefore, the question immediately arises of what should and should not be open to the public.
§ Mr. Fairbairn
Perhaps baby Cotton is not an especially good example. So far we do not know the name of the parents, and nor do I think we should. In all adoption procedures the purpose of ensuring the anonymity of the real parents is to prevent the traumatic event of the child, in later life, discovering who its real parents were and the reason why it was discarded, if that is not too brutal a term, by its real parents.
I could give the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Roberts) 100,000 examples or reasons why certain matters should be kept confidential. The real reason for decisions being kept confidential when they involve members of the public is not to hurt those concerned. For example, if two school teachers discuss a pupil and the pupil is able to read what the teachers have said about him, it would be deeply distressing to him in some instances. However, two teachers should be able to make a genuine assessment of a child. The discussions of lawyers and clients seem to have a holy grail of protection for reasons that we understand, but there are many circumstances in life of the simplest sort in which people will not be frank with one another if they know that anyone can discover what they have been saying.
I shall give an example. If I told my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mrs. Rumbold) what I genuinely thought of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, I would not have to say, "By the way, that is confidential." I would assume, on the basis of ordinary human trust, that she would not repeat my remarks. She would realise that they were so complimentary that to know about them would embarrass the hon. Gentleman. There are so many facets of human exchange, especially for those who have to take decisions and sit in judgment, that demand that the concept of confidentiality should be maintained.
§ Mrs. Rumbold
Has my hon. and learned Friend studied the schedule in detail? It seems that paragraph (d) of the schedule would cover adequately that which he is putting before us.
§ Mr. Fairbairn
I have studied the schedule in detail and one of the characteristics upon which I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) in preparing the Bill is that one is introduced to its horror in stages. It becomes worse and worse and the schedule is the worst part.
Clause 3 provides three days of notice. What will happen at Christmas time or new year, for example? Are we talking about dies non? Are we talking about Sundays or other days when the council does not meet? What is the notice that we are proposing to give? The complication is huge. Unless the council is prepared to go to the expense of sending minutes and reports to councillors by special delivery, councillors will receive such documents only after the press and members of the public are aware of their contents, including groups of disrupters, activists and who knows what. That would be unfortunate.
560 Clause 4 is appalling and execrable in every possible way. Those who support the Bill should understand its real implications. It is all very well saying that everyone should see everything but let us understand the real difficulties that will be faced by local authorities. The views which I am about to express have been put to me by the association that represents all Scottish local authorities and which is Labour-dominated. The House should consider its views with serious concern. What does clause 4 mean? Does it mean that any person has a right to search for documents or that he has a right to see a specific document that he can name? Does it mean that a person can say, "I want to see the housing file for 1948 to see whether I have been prejudiced in the way that my housing application has been handled"? Or does it mean that the person need only say that he wants to know why he has not been given a house?
If a person has smashed the last three houses that he lived in, has 19 convictions for robbery with violence and the importation of cocaine, and the housing manager has dared to put that in his file, the person could take the case to the European court on Human Rights and question whether that information should have been taken into consideration.
§ Mr. Squire
My hon. and learned Friend is pursuing a false hare on clause 4. Personal files are exempt from the Bill's provisions and even if they were not, the trigger for clause 4 is the appearance of a document on the agenda of a further committee so anything that dates back and is not on a future agenda is not covered.
§ Mr. Fairbairn
I did not mean to use my illustration to challenge the retrospective element, but in the year 2020 what happened in 1985 will be relevant. My hon. Friend's point is even worse than his Bill.
I shall read to the House a paragraph from the document composed by what is known by some as COSLA. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden that all initials should be banned and the use of them made a criminal offence. If my hon. Friend puts that in the schedule I shall certainly vote for it. I never know what anyone is talking about. The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) will know better than I the tragedies and dangers of initials. We were on a Select Committee together and we never stopped using initials which nobody understood. I had to use initials to make words, such as COMEOFFIT — and rather better examples which I shall not give today for fear of frustrated reporters.
COSLA states—this is the point that I wish to put sincerely to those who believe that the Bill will end secrecy or clandestine behaviour—It will mean the end of officers engaging in frank and meaningful written exchanges of view if they are to be the subject of public scrutiny. No officer is going to give a completely open opinion on a matter if he knows he may be called upon to justify his view in public or even in court.My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) complained of a committee which always did its business by telephone so as not to commit its opinions to writing. My advice to every English local authority if this wretched Bill is passed is never to commit anything to writing—always do business on the telephone. The Bill will increase secrecy and cause nothing to be recorded even if it should be.
Let us take another example. Let us suppose that the planning department, the roads department and the public 561 amenities department have tripartite talks about whether a certain planning application should go ahead. If those interdepartmental committees report and their files have to be laid open to the public certain people will be at a great advantage.
Imagine what would happen about the Stansted development. By the way, if we all flew from Edinburgh and Glasgow, there would be no problem. I hope that Stansted is listening. Imagine how the objectors at Stansted would benefit if they could read week by week opinions expressed by officials in departments about the rights and wrongs and difficulties of various proposals. That is a good example of what could happen.
People could examine the work of the planning committee of Little Underhighbury and claim that it was at odds with the planning committee of Little Overhighbury. Wreckers would be given a special advantage.
Suppose that an officer said that a council had three options — to refuse planning permission, to list the buildings so that the owner was prevented from demolishing them, or to grant planning permission, subject to the condition that the owner did not demolish the buildings. If I were an unscrupulous owner I would read the minutes and demolish the building before it could be listed.
Such difficulties arise if we have the grand concept that confidentiality — what some people call secrecy — is wrong. I can think of several planning applications in Perth and Kinross district council that would have been affected in that way and many historic buildings — large and small, simple cottages and high streets of great value—would have been pulled down if the Bill had been on the statute book.
If advice to party political groups is to be exempt from scrutiny, surely some protection must be given in respect of similar advice to other groups. What is a party political group? If I want to get an exemption so that information can be fed to the public, all that I shall need to do is to ensure that someone in the room is not a party political person. The group would then cease to be a party political group.
Decisions would have to be made by an official or a committee on the status of internal papers in relation to the schedule of privileged documents annexed to the Bill. Let us think about that for a moment. Every document of every council in the land will have to be scrutinised to see whether it is legally permissible to publish the information or whether the information is defamatory or could give rise to a claim against the council. Who will do that work? Will it be a legal officer on £28,000 a year?
Hon. Members may not think that I am much of a lawyer. Perhaps I am not, though the sovereign thinks different—she made me one of her counsel learned in the law. But I would have the greatest difficulty if I were asked to write an opinion of counsel on which sentence and which document fell within any provision of the schedule.
§ Mr. Fairbairn
If the Bill goes through, I shall gain a lot of work. I should tell the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser), who has gratuitously removed my practice, that I do not like complicated law and I do not think that 562 complicated statutes add to the liberty of people. On the contrary, they subtract from it. I believe that the Bill, well-intentioned as it is, will have that absolute effect.
May I say——
§ Mr. Fairbairn
I do not know why my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) should say "In conclusion". He is obviously in favour of the Bill. Not one hon. Member has pointed out the difficulties in the Bill, and the House should hear why the Bill is wrong. There is no need for my hon. Friend to give the baby another pat on its bottom; it already has 100 obstetricians delivering it.
A mother might go to a council because she wants to know why her child cannot be taken on the bus to school. A protester might go to a council and attempt to cause trouble. He might want to prevent the council from demolishing a building and erecting another one. In any such confrontation, an officer has to be competent to say which bits of which document the person concerned may see. He will have to be a fully trained defamation lawyer if he is to interpret properly the schedule to the Bill.
The manpower and cost implications of the procedures set out in the Bill must be considered. If files have to be separated, so that the relevant documents are not in numerical order, and with letters and replies spread over three different files, the council clerks will have great difficulty. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden referred to the difficulty that clerks have in writing reports in clear English. What a time they will have in writing reports in English that is good enough to get round the schedule. That is a matter at which the House should look with the greatest possible care. A filing system with separate categories such as "confidential", "doubtfully confidential" and "open", would be completely unworkable.
There is a ridiculous provision concerning the minutes of meetings. A council will be in defiance of the law if it does not provide copies of the agenda and reports to every member of the public attending a meeting. They have to be provided three days before the meeting. If I wished to interfere with the business of the council, I would get 3,000 of my friends to come to a meeting and complain that only eight copies of the agenda were provided. They could complain that, in regard to 2,992 of them, the law had been broken. The next week the council might feel it necessary to publish 5,000 copies. In that way the council could be forced to waste money, thus defeating the Government's attempts to curb local government expenditure. Economic policy could be frustrated in that way.
The Convention of Scottish Local Boroughs says:No organisation, whether a public body, Government Department, company or private business, could operate if the burdens associated with clause 4 were placed upon them.I think that I have said enough. [Interruption.] I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch muttered the word freedom. I urge him not to confuse freedom——
§ Mr. Squire
In response to my hon. and learned Friend's suggestion that no organisation could possibly operate in such a way, I muttered the words, "Three do."
§ Mr. Fairbairn
I beg my hon. Friend's pardon; evidently I misheard him.
563 It would be easy to drive a horse and cart through any of the paragraphs of the schedule from (a) to (g). The words of paragraph (c) are:the disclosure of spending estimates for a specific item would be likely to benefit a contractor or supplier".I know of no spending estimates that would not be likely to benefit a contractor or supplier. So that strikes out all spending estimates.
Paragraph (d) states:that disclosure would give access other than to the persons concerned to personal information or files on individuals".Why should the "person concerned" be allowed to see confidential information about himself? I would be absolutely appalled if I thought that I could go to my doctor and see his file on me. Imagine what would happen if a mentally ill person were allowed as the "person concerned" to ask his doctor whether he could see a file which said, "This nitwit is a schizophrenic, and is likely to remain so. His paranoic fantasies are interrupted by moments of sanity when he sees the lunacy of the Local Government (Access to Information) Bill." I would be very upset if I were allowed to see a teacher's assessment of me which was hostile. It does not matter how unjustified or justified the assessment is.
I do not believe that people should be able to read on file what officials doing their duty have written for the benefit of those who are elected to local government. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby said that those who are elected should exercise their power accountably. I agree that they should do so. The Bill will make it impossible for them to exercise their power accountably, and that is why I oppose it on principle. As all the obstetricians gather around this moribund—I hope—child, I say please do not foist this on Scotland as foster parents.
§ 1.1 pm
§ Mr. Steve Norris (Oxford, East)
Despite the blandishments of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Mr. Fairbairn), I remain convinced that the House should congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) on his luck in getting this measure placed so high on the list of private Member's Bills. My hon. Friend brings to us a measure which is, despite the suggestion by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross, about the sustenance and enhancement of democracy and the democratic process.
Surely we do not need reminding that democracy is not simply a concept that we can trot out on election day once every three, four or five years. It is a concept that embodies a continuous right to know how decisions are taken, who is making the decisions and, most importantly, what facts those taking the decisions employ in their armoury when they decide on our behalf.
I am disappointed by the fact that the Conservative party has not as wholeheartedly supported the freedom of information campaign generally as it should have. Freedom of information is vital to the democratic process, and all parties should embrace it wholeheartedly. As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) said, that sort of information and type of freedom are often inconvenient to councils. However, we should never allow ourselves to believe that on that basis we should ignore freedom of information measures.
564 The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) referred to the disdain that is clearly evident among the public in their attitude towards local councils. That attitude is reflected in the pathetic turnout at local elections, despite the importance of the decisions that are made on electors' behalf. Surely all hon. Members have asked themselves from time to time why, when a county council, district council or London borough can make more relevant decisions about government than a Back Bencher, there is such a pathetic turnout at local government elections. That is due in no small measure to the fact that the public say, "What is the point?" The paternalism and the we-know-best attitude, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mrs. Rumbold) referred, are so prevalent that people feel that there is no point in bothering to try to influence decisions which they know will be taken by a cabal or caucus behind closed doors.
I am a member of Berkshire county council, one of the local authorities on the list of those that support the Bill. We feel there, I think unanimously, that we have always endeavoured to use the schedule of reasons for confidentiality as the benchmark of whether items should be in part 2 of our agenda. I believe that that has stood the council in good stead and has improved the quality of its decision making.
There is more that Back Benchers can contribute on this occasion than merely, as my hon. and learned Friend the member for Perth and Kinross suggested, a further pat on the bottom on a baby who is already obviously assured of many admiring godparents. We have an obligation to study some of the more involved aspects of the Bill because there are items about which we should be careful. One is the matter to which my hon. Friend the Member for Morden and Mitcham referred briefly and on which I intervened—whether there is a place for confidential meetings of party groups.
I should be surprised if we did not all share the view that the arrangements for councillors' remuneration in local government are unsatisfactory, to say the least. We neither agree to pay them a realistic salary nor accept the idea that there should be no payment. Those options have a number of difficulties that we should not debate today. One of the results of that was that Berkshire county council, by a majority—by no means a unanimous vote—decided that there should be standing sub-committees of the policy committee, labelled for convenience A, B and C which, because they are official standing sub-committees, are eligible for allowances. They have the services of the officers of the secretariat and of any other chief officer whose attentions might be needed.
Those arrangements are solely to enable those party meetings—because that is what they are—to take place in a more organised framework than would otherwise be the case. They are sub-committees which meet in secret now and which should able to meet in secret in the future because of the kind of decisions and discussions that will take place at such meetings.
There are Liberal, Labour and Conservative group meetings. They all work in the same way. That stresses the importance of distinguishing between discussions about how to develop a policy and discussions on facts. With respect to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross, who has now left, that was a distinction about which he was not entirely clear. Discussions will take place among individuals of the same political 565 persuasion as to how they will tackle political or other problems. It is utterly naive to imagine that such discussions will not take place in private, however we legislate. Of course they will, and it is entirely appropriate that they should, and it will only further democracy if such discussions can take place between people of like mind. That is one side of the argument.
On the other side, we have the magnitude of the events to which my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) referred, the possibility — albeit he was referring to Government circumstances many years ago—that important matters of information and fact will be denied to members of the public or, worse, to minority council groups because such facts and information are regarded as inconvenient. That is wholly indefensible, and the Bill strikes at the heart of it.
Let us hear no more of the nonsense that the Bill will prevent discussion, or of the nonsensical idea that as a result of the Bill it will not be possible for groups of Labour, Liberal, Conservative, SDP or any other councillors to talk amongst themselves about how they wish to tackle an issue. Let us nail once and for all the appalling concept that we should allow to continue a system whereby one group of councillors can deny information and knowledge to their colleagues on the council or to the general public.
Despite the blandishments of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross, it is evident that all that is needed to make the Bill work is a change of heart and mind. I say that secure in the knowledge that three councils already utilise the provisions of the Bill and, surprise, surprise, are able to live with them. They have recognised that intention and bona fides will make it work.
It has been suggested that one could circumvent even the schedule relating to confidentiality. That is an important point, and it is true. I should be surprised if a local government officer or an astute local government group leader could not find a way of ensuring that almost every item on the agenda either prejudicedthe Council's position in negotiations concerning land, property, goods or services or with trade unions",as provided in paragraph (a) of the schedule, or would be likely to have an effect on a contractor or supplier if someone wanted to talk about what the council thought it would spend on a particular project. It would be easy to hide behind paragraph (f) of the schedule and say that the disclosure of an employee's salary or conditions of service would infringe personal privacy. If a council wanted to bury a quite proper discussion about why a particular officer was in its employ and what on earth he was doing there, it would be easy to do so. Let us not fall into the trap of imagining that the Bill will, of itself, prevent any of the abuses which some councils appear to be hell-bent on continuing, because it will not.
I hope that the Bill will be enacted, and I hope that we shall come to see it in the same context as other pieces of legislation, such as the Race Relations Act 1976 and the equal opportunities legislation. On all sides it is accepted that those pieces of legislation have established a benchmark of standards and made it clear what the criteria of local councils should be. That is the value of the Bill.
We should ask ourselves as local councillors and hon. Members whether there is a good reason why the interests of ratepayers or constituents will be prejudiced by the disclosure of information or the opening up of a 566 discussion. There is all the difference in the world between the public interest and the interest of the public. We would do well to bear that distinction in mind.
My final point is on the detail of the Bill. It may be better considered in Committee, but it is one of which I have experience and which I hope to draw to hon. Members' attention for future reference. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross said that there would be a large cost element in the Bill. I am not sure that I see it as a huge and major cost element. However, clause 3(1) refers topayment of a reasonable feefor agendas and reports. Clause 4(1) refers to members of the public copying "at their own expense". In other words, the elector would be charged by the local authority or would use his own photocopier. Given that it is unlikely that he would bring his own photocopier into the building, he will probably want to use the council's. Although the point may seem small, I have seen it arise in two other contexts—in the Consumer Credit Act 1974, and in the Data Protection Act 1984. Both Acts embody requirements about the fees that members of the public should pay to companies and statutory bodies for information about them.
In the Consumer Credit Act there was a clear acceptance that such charges should always be moderate and reasonable so that it would never be a bar to the acquisition of information that it was likely to cost too much. If I am right—my hon. Friend the Minister, who I am sure has the figures in his head, will correct me if I am wrong—the present fee under the Consumer Credit Act is £1 for every submission. Interestingly, when the Data Protection Act comes into force, if a member of the public wishes to see an extract from his personal file, he will have to pay a fee of eight or nine times as much.
I counsel my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch to ensure in Committee that proper account is taken of the fact that it would be possible for a local authority to demonstrate that the cost of providing information on a complex issue ran into hundreds of pounds. It would be unreasonable to ask a member of the public to pay that sort of fee, even if the local authority could say, "We must employ so many people for so many hours photocopying documents and researching, and at their current rate of salary, it will cost several hundred pounds to get together the information."
An option that my hon. Friend must bear in mind is the idea that there should be, as under the Consumer Credit Act and the Data Protection Act, although the latter is a larger sum, a standard maximum fee which members of the public must pay on every occasion that they wish to acquire information. If that is done, it may be necessary to consider the impact of such an arrangement on the financing of local government. We must be careful not to ensure that local authorities, whose resources are already under considerable pressure, are put in an even worse position as a result of the Bill by having to provide many more services and much more information out of their existing budgets.
None of my reservations about the practicability of the schedule of reasons or about costs is a reason for opposing the Bill—far from it. The Bill is a small brick in what all of us hope will be a large building. It points the way to a new and much healthier attitude in local government that might, in part, lead to local government restoring its 567 credibility and prestige, the lack of which the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey and others mentioned.
I welcome the Bill. I am sure that its passage through the House will be rapid and expeditious, and that we shall come to regard it as a benchmark for standards by which local authorities will not only be able to judge themselves but will have advanced the cause of those whom they represent.
§ Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)
I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) on his luck in the ballot and on his wisdom in choosing this measure. I also congratulate those who have sponsored the Bill. My hon. Friends the Members for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) — the Opposition's local government spokesmen — who are attending a local government conference in Birmingham starting later today, wish me to say that they too, support the Bill. I assure the hon. Member for Hornchurch that his Bill has unanimous support from Opposition Front and Back-Bench Members.
I am glad to note the resolutions of unconditional support that have been received from the Greater London council and the Association of London Authorities. Conservative Members may allege many things about the GLC, but they cannot allege that it has not been open. Indeed, it has probably opened itself to much criticism by being so frank.
One's endorsement of the principle of the Bill and wholehearted support for its Second Reading does not mean that every detail of the measure is correct, as the hon. Member for Hornchurch has recognised. For example, he agrees with the mild criticism of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities to the effect that the Bill should not prevent the urgent conduct of business at short notice and in good faith. I emphasise "in good faith" to ensure that urgency is not used as an excuse for secrecy. It is clear that matters should go on the agenda if they are topical, even if they come up at short notice.
An example of that occurred in my constituency. Last weekend we read about a siege at a house in Streatham. Police surrounded the house, in which was a man who was wanted in connection with a number of armed robberies. It was clear that the police regarded him as a dangerous criminal. The street was cordoned off, as a result of which a number of people who had gone to work in the morning found that they could not get back to their homes at night. There was splendid co-operation between the Metropolitan police and the London borough of Lambeth, and homes were provided overnight for more than 100 people.
If there had been a meeting of the social services committee—or even if there had been a sub-committee meeting open to the public the next day — it would clearly have been in the interest of topicality that that urgent item of business should be reported, with what had happened on that occasion being made known to the citizens of Lambeth. It would have been only right for the matter to be discussed by a Lambeth borough council committee. I am sure that the hon. Member for Hornchurch would not want to exclude such matters of urgency and topicality.
568 We need a comprehensive definition of a member's interest, as provided for in clause 5, because I understand that there are differences between authorities in that respect. The sooner there is a simple and comprehensive definition of "interest," the better.
Based not on personal experience, but on the experience of some of my local councillors, I have a nagging reservation about the provision in clause 6 relating to addresses. I am in favour of the names of councillors being known and the wards that they represent and the addresses where one can communicate with them. I have been a councillor in Lambeth for six years and have been told that on occasions councillors there and elsewhere have had their privacy invaded in an unacceptable way because their addresses were known to the press and other organisations. There have been occasions in my borough when councillors have been picketed outside their homes because of decisions that they had taken or were likely to take in relation to their public duties. There have been other examples of harassment, with the daubing of councillor's houses and so on.
It is difficult to find a balance between public accountability and the desire of most councillors to have their addresses known, so that people can readily communicate with them, and the activities of those who, unreasonably, use the public knowledge of councillors' addresses to harass them and even do damage.
§ Mr. Squire
The Bill does not say "domestic address," and I do not know whether I need say more. It is a matter into which the Committee can look. At that stage we can consider whether the measure should specify "domestic address," though as advised, I understand that it would not necessarily have to specify that.
§ Mr. Fraser
I am grateful for that assurance. The point needs to be made clear so that the interests of the public can properly be balanced against the need for privacy and security of those who hold public office.
§ Mr. Austin Mitchell
Some of the disturbance about which my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) has been speaking, which is absolutely monstrous, arises often from the monopoly of the local press when a newspaper conducts a deliberate vendetta against a local council—for example, The Standard's vendetta against Islington. Perhaps the Bill could improve the situation by shifting the focus on to important information about the way in which the council works and the decisions it takes and making that available, rather than by leaving the situation as it is, with it being focussed all too often on trivia and personalities.
§ Mr. Fraser
My hon. Friend is correct, though I must emphasise that, in the cases in Lambeth about which I have been speaking, there was harassment not by the local press but by anarchist groups and the like. Some incidents affecting local councillors have been quite unacceptable.
Following the passage of the 1960 Act, with access to council committees, there has been a tendency on the part of some local authorities to shift business to sub-committees to avoid the need for public presence and scrutiny.
There is always a danger that decision-making in local authorities could be further removed by committees or sub-committees delegating matters to the chair's action, which would not be covered by the Bill. Decisions that are 569 delegated to a chair, and therefore the information involved, can be just as important as those reached by the committee. There is something to be said for important decisions that are reached by chairs, when authority is delegated to them, being announced publicly. For a while, I was a sub-committee of one of the Lambeth borough council's planning committee. I thought that was a desirable arrangement, because it meant that I could expedite planning applications. There is far too much delay in processing planning applications—it holds up builders and developers. I used to sit with a few council officers deciding on those fairly trivial applications, but there were hundreds of them. I would have been happy to have made those decisions in public. There is something to be said for considering that aspect.
The case of baby Cotton has been mentioned recently. When the matter came before the court, the President of the Family Division of the High Court properly deliberated on personal and private matters in his chambers, but he made himself accountable to the public by reading his judgment in open court on the following Monday. There is no reason why chairs who reach important decisions that have been delegated to them should not do so in a way which allows for public access.
The Bill is entitled "Local Government (Access to Information) Bill", but it does not cover every aspect of access to information. A large part of my work as a Member of Parliament is involved in dealings with Lambeth borough council. People who have waited between six months and one year for a decision about the granting of housing benefit are entitled to have access to information on why those decisions are taking so long. I should like the Bill to be extended to afford access to information in those cases.
In October 1984, a constituent came to see me after she had spent seven months as a single person in homeless accommodation. She believed that she had rights under homeless persons legislation. She felt that seven months was far too long to be in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I wrote to the homeless persons unit of Lambeth borough council on 30 October 1984 asking when she might get a reasonable offer. I received no reply. I wrote again at the end of November 1984, sending a copy of my previous letter, and received no reply. I wrote again on 10 December — 10 months after the lady went into homeless persons' accommodation—and again received no reply. In January, I wrote again to the housing allocations section, and received no reply. I then wrote to the director of housing in Lambeth asking for a reply to my three previous letters, but received no reply. Indeed, we no longer have a director of housing in Lambeth. I wrote to the chair of the housing committee towards the end of January and, so far, have received no reply.
In case the Minister thinks that things are at all amiss at Lambeth borough council, I must tell him that, on the whole, I get extremely good, conscientious and constant service from most parts of that housing department. However, the fact remains that the lady who came to see me has now waited almost 12 months to learn her status as a homeless person. It is worth adding that the bed-and-breakfast accommodation is costing a lot of money. If, as a Member of Parliament, I cannot obtain access to information about that person's rights as a homeless person, she is even more disabled when trying to obtain 570 that information. I believe that a Bill which deals with access to information ought to deal with individual cases—people who want to know about their rights.
Another example is the correspondence for six months with my local authority about the inter-borough nomination scheme. After five months I received a letter which said:The situation outlined above has unfortunately led to the accumulation of a backlog of outstanding members' inquiries. Consequently the answering of members' inquiries from central allocations will be actioned on a date order basis until the backlog has been reduced.I should have been a little more reassured if I had not discovered subsequently that the letter had been printed on a word processor and that the same letter was being sent in answer to all sorts of inquiries something like six months after they had been made. Matters relating to homeless persons under the inter-borough nomination scheme cover the legal and administrative rights of citizens who are entitled to information about those matters.
In general, I am in favour of the Bill. I should like its provisions to be extended. In the words of the Maud report, the more the proceedings of an authority are open to public scrutiny, the more obvious will be their probity and the more difficult it will be for any irregularity to remain hidden. Only if the procedures of an authority are reasonably visible and intelligible to the public can there be real public confidence. That requires much more than observing the letter of the law or the admission of the public to meetings. A centuries-old slogan is that there should be no taxation without representation. I believe that there should be no rating without the right to be present at meetings of committees and sub-committees, to listen to the decision of the chairman and to hear how individual applications are proceeding.
The Bill is so deserving, beneficial, obvious and just that we do not need to waste a great deal of time upon discussing its contents. I hope that as soon as possible we shall be able to give a Second Reading to it.
I hope that the principles of the Bill will also apply to water authorities—a matter that the House will have an opportunity to discuss later today. The principles enshrined in the Bill certainly ought to apply to urban development corporations. The London Docklands Development Corporation exercises many of the functions of a local authority. It has planning and land acquisition functions and a housing investment programme allocation that is about three times as large as the allocation of the surrounding authorities. It stands at present at £73 million, as against one quarter or one third of that figure in the case of some of the surrounding authorities. It reaches extremely important decisions about the lives not only of those who live in the area of the development corporation but of those who live on the edges of its area. Therefore, I believe that the same principles that apply to local authorities ought to apply with even more force to the development corporation. At one time the leaders of the three surrounding local authorities were appointed as ex officio members of the development corporation. With the passage of time, only one of those leaders now serves on that corporation. At the very least its proceedings ought to be open to the appointed leaders of the surrounding authorities. Indeed, it ought to go much further than that: the proceedings ought to be opened up altogether.
I wish to comment upon the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross (Mr. Fairbairn). I 571 thought that his opposition to the Bill was synthetic and that he was discourteous to the House. Having spoken as a Scotsman upon a Bill that does not concern Scotland—having spoken for over half an hour—he ought at least to have had the courtesy to stay and listen to the speech of the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Norris) who followed him.
The hon. and learned Gentleman's argument against the Bill in principle had no substance. He mentioned its manpower and financial implications which, he said, were of incalculable proportions. The answers to his questions are to be found, in part, in those local authorities which already put the provisions of the Bill into practice and which suffer no adverse financial or manpower consequences.
As for personal privacy, the hon. and learned Gentleman had only to read paragraph (d) of the schedule to the Bill to see that his fears were groundless. The hon. Member for Cheltenham referred to what was said about secrecy by an American President. Perhaps I could adapt for the benefit of the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross a quotation from Abraham Lincoln, who said:His argument is as thin as the homeopathic soup which was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon which had been starved to death.Perhaps it might be the shadow of a grouse which had been starved to death. There was very little substance in the remarks of the hon. and learned Gentleman.
I support the Bill because secrecy at its worst is the sponsor of corruption, oppression, injustice, inefficiency and deception. We have seen that from as long ago as the Star Chamber up to the decisions of post-war Cabinets. There have been disgraceful Government decisions, such as that to hide from the House of Commons, as the right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) said, the deportation of people to Soviet Russia. We have also had recent disclosures of the hiding of expenditure on and the implications of the development of the hydrogen bomb. No matter what feelings may be about those issues, those issues should be open to public scrutiny.
The hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross said that the Bill will inhibit officers in writing reports which might be open to public scrutiny. That is the test of conduct. If it is known that decisions and what is written on a factual basis will be open to public scrutiny, writers will think of the interests of the entire community and write in a way that can be justified to all those who are likely to read what is said and be affected by their decisions.
Openness makes for efficiency and removes corruption and oppression. I wholeheartedly support the Bill.
§ Mr. Merchant
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I draw to your attention a matter which may constitute an abuse of the customs of the House? While I was in the Chamber earlier I was passed an envelope by one of the Messengers, which I believe was one of a number, containing a duplicated letter headed "Northern Liberal Party", from an obscure address in Cleveland and signed with a squiggle, "pp Mrs. Fletcher". The messenger service is hard-pressed at the best of times to pass messages between hon. Members, and I should be grateful if the matter could be looked at because the 572 acceptance of large batches of duplicated letters from outside the House overloads the system and constitutes an abuse of a custom.
§ Mr. Geoff Lawler (Bradford, North)
I do not wish to detain the House long. First, I apologise to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who is not in the Chamber, for ruining his joke earlier. He said the line with such seriousness that I honestly thought that he was in difficulty. I could not believe that someone could arrive at Bradford and not know the name of the local newspaper. That should ensure me reasonable coverage at least.
Bradford has a proud tradition of firsts in many things. For example, it was the first authority to have free school meals, to promote an industrial and urban area as a tourist area—something that it is doing successfully—and to have amended, in May 1984, its standing orders to allow for the provisions of the Bill. In November 1984 the Bill's provisions came into effect and since then Bradford has advocated the very thing that the Bill is aimed at—freedom of information and open government. I am proud to say that it was a forward-thinking Conservative administration that introduced that, with all-party support—much like the Bill which is introduced today by a forward-thinking Conservative Member with all-party support.
Bradford started from the admirable position that one should take the view that all meetings and documents should be open unless there is a good reason to the contrary—not the opposite view, which has so long existed in local authorities, Government and other public authorities, that everything should be hidden unless there is a good reason why it should be made open.
The system is operated in Bradford by agendas being made available in seven libraries throughout the city. On the agendas is the name of a person whom a member of the public may telephone to find how to obtain access to reports relevant to items on the agenda. The papers can be inspected and photocopied at the expense of the member of the public. That is an important point. The estimated expenditure of the Bradford open government policy is estimated to be a mere £2,000. Some of the fears of hon. Members are therefore somewhat exaggerated.
Another factor to be taken into account is officer time. However, it is the council's view, and mine, that the time that is spent by officers informing members of the public of the council's decisions is worth while. Bradford has tried to market its open government policy. It has made the public aware of it through the press and by issuing brochures. The public are used to council secrecy and are suspicious about what goes on behind the large closed doors of city halls and council offices. It will take time for them to become accustomed to access to meetings and documents. The open government has been operating for a mere two to three months in Bradford and as time passes I am sure that the public will become more aware of it, will become used to the idea and will make greater use of the facilities that have been made available.
A woman came to my surgery last Friday on behalf of a number of tenants living on a council estate. The tenants were objecting to a planning proposal to erect a community centre on some green land opposite their 573 homes. They did not know that the planning sub-committee was meeting on Wednesday to discuss the proposal and that they could attend the meeting, listen to the arguments there advanced and read the background papers. They attended the meeting and I am sure that they read the background papers. The sub-committee's decision may not be any more to their liking but at least they will know why the decision was taken and why the project was proposed. They will be in a position more effectively to argue their case at subsequent meetings.
Bradford has been operating a freedom of information policy and it has worked. The city has not suddenly become ungovernable. Some officers, through natural conservatism, have tended to label more documents "restricted" than perhaps was necessary, but through the pressure of other officers, council members and members of the public I am sure that their approach to the marking of documents will be relaxed and that more and more documents will be derestricted. When documents are restricted there is provision for members of the public and councillors to make an appeal for the documents to be declassified and made available to the public.
The citizens of Bradford have true open government and I am sure that the council's policy will go a long way to abolish suspicions that undoubtedly exist among the public towards local authorities. They regard local government as a monolithic institution. Perhaps they perceive it as one that is trying to conspire against their own interests. All these myths and cobwebs can be blown away in Bradford and, once the Bill is enacted, in local authority areas throughout the country.
I have the honour to represent part of a city which has been forward-thinking enough to implement the policy that is advocated by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire). I commend the Bill to the House and I look forward to the day when other cities can have the same system of local government that Bradford is fortunate to possess.
§ Mr. Michael Knowles (Nottingham, East)
One of the criticisms which has been expressed by a local government organisation contains a germ of truth which those who support the Bill—and I am one of them—will have to take on board. The criticism is that there is no greater practitioner of the mushroom approach to the supplying of information than the Government when dealing with Back Benchers on both sides of the House. The lack of information in local government is as nothing compared with that in central Government. We have heard several examples of what has happened in national Government over the years.
The Bill is designed to try to make authorities justify secrecy and confidentiality, and secrecy is endemic in our system. That is certainly true of our governmental system, both local and national, and in our social systems as a whole. It has bedevilled industrial relations on occasion. Decisions are handed down in the absence of any discussion.
This secrecy affects many people and not only the employees of local authorities. When I was the leader of a local council I tried to have printed in the newspapers the schools examination results. That seemed to me to be a straightforward policy.
I thought that that would be of interest to parents who were deciding where to send their children to school. The 574 teachers fought me tooth and nail for the same reasons that others fight for secrecy—paternalism and the belief that they know best. It is the attitude of the nanny state. Pupils are the children of teachers' paymasters. The ratepayers pay teachers' salaries. Regardless of that, the teachers said that the results had nothing to do with the parents and that they knew best. I confess that we did not win the battle.
The same attitude can be found in most professional groups in local government—the teachers and the social workers. No one is allowed to interfere with what they want. Possibly the worst is the education lobby, which believes that it has a divine right to ransack the public coffers. That belief has been around for the past 30 years and has had some success.
We are not only tackling local government in the Bill, but we are taking on a wide aspect of our society which affects all kinds of relationships. A cost is involved in breaking down that system. I do not mean a monetary cost, but society will be changed. The "Nanny knows best" attitude has grown up over 500 or so years. It is the inheritance of an agricultural society with the lord in his manor and the peasants being told to do as they are told. That attitude still bedevils many of our systems.
If we are to change it—I believe that we should—we must accept that we shall change many other things. We are after changing people's hearts and minds. Three councils may already practise that which is proposed in the Bill, but that means that 450 do not. Many councils will see the Bill as another pain in the neck shoved on them by unfeeling parliamentarians who do not practise what they preach in their own place of work. That will be the reaction.
If we do not convince people that we want to change society, that reality of power which has gone from committee meetings to sub-committee meetings will disappear into working groups. Caucus meetings have already been discussed. Unless people are convinced that that change is for the good of society, no matter how many Bills we pass, it will make no odds.
Many problems are the result of local government being given too much to do. The machine is not suitable for the tasks imposed upon it, particularly in the post-war era. The massive growth in spending has caused its own problems. With that growth came a change from the old-fashioned relationship, which one could liken to the American constitution with the officers acting as the executive and the councillors acting as the legislature and keeping an eye on them. With the growth in democracy came a belief in a more parliamentary style of system so that the majority party in a council runs that council in the way that the Government run Parliament. That means a hard and fast division on party lines.
The savagery of politics in many local battles makes this Chamber look tame. The bitterness and depth of feeling is often much greater than it is in the House.
§ Mr. Knowles
Yes, only among Conservatives. We have not spoken about the others.
Corporate management has been mentioned. Local government has inherited a medley of federal structures. To turn that into more of a unitary system and to enforce management disciplines on those entrenched professional groups has caused many a long battle in many a council. In the first 18 months after I became leader of Kingston 575 council, 12 of the 13 senior officers left the council for one reason or another. That is not an unusual story. Such things have happened throughout the country.
It has been claimed that many virtues will follow from the passing of the Bill. I believe that it is right in itself. It is said that the Bill will help to avoid another Poulson case, but the system in the United States is much more open than our system, yet is the local government less corrupt? I believe that generally it is more corrupt. The Bill is justifiable in itself. It is a good thing.
Reference has been made to insane little committees in local government. I remember that when I first went into local government my council had a sub-committee on books. Some pressure groups wanted to ban books. When I was leader of the council I toured our public libraries to make sure that there were Noddy books in every one. We got rid of the books sub-committee. It was not only councillors who wanted to ban books—"Read it one more time and then we'll ban it"—because many other groups with crackpot ideas try to bring pressure on councils.
It has been claimed that if information is made available the public will be convinced of the rightness of decisions. I am not sure that that follows. If a council wishes to close a school, no matter how rational and justified the decision may be, parents will not accept it. The idea that making documents available to the parents will convince them is mistaken. However, people may come to realise that hard decisions and hard choices have to be made. It is difficult to get that message across in politics, and it would be a good thing if we could bring that home.
My hon. Friends the Members for Mitcham and Morden (Mrs. Rumbold) and for Oxford, East (Mr. Norris) mentioned political group meetings and how they are tied into the official structure. That presents difficulties. The group meetings could be made sub-committees of the council, but that would bring worries in its wake. There could be a one-party committee, as we had in Kingston, with no executive powers, but there are obvious dangers in that. Alternatively, there could be a system in which there was no link between the officer structure and the majority party and councillors in general. The two worlds would be separate. I do not think that that would be acceptable either. We face hard choices, and anyone who says that solving those problems will be easy is deluding himself.
I support the Bill, but I do not share the belief of those who think that it will bring a host of solutions to other problems in its wake. It is justifiable in itself.
§ Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) on his good fortune in the ballot and on presenting a Bill that has great support across party boundaries and throughout the country.
My hon. Friend is following the precedent of our right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) who introduced a similar Bill 25 years ago, and who can say what will be the status of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch in 2010? Perhaps he will be leading the nation then. If he is ever in a position of patronage, I hope that he will remember what I have said today.
576 I welcome the Bill wholeheartedly, not only because I believe in any sensible attempt reasonably to remove the veil of secrecy in government, both local and national, where those secrets are unnecessarily classified as such, but because I believe that knowledge is power and secrets are the building blocks of that power. However, secrecy is often an abuse of power and tends to show evidence of a lack of self-confidence by Governments and authorities which, paradoxically, reduces their standing in the eyes of those for whom they have a responsibility. Strength can come from a self-confidence in one's own policies that openness of government helps to produce. The Bill will be a valuable but modest step towards the desirable openness that I hope will become more prevalent.
The Bill is supported by many disparate groups—local authorities, trade organisations, local groups and Members of Parliament. My local council of Richmond-upon-Thames fully supports the Bill. Indeed, in several respects the council is already acting in accordance with the provisions of the Bill, including the opening to the public of sub-committee meetings, and the specification of the reasons for committees or sub-committees conducting the whole or part of their proceedings during the exclusion of the press and the public. The chief executive and town clerk informed me this morning that, while it will be necessary to consider the Bill and all its ramifications in much greater detail—by, no doubt, the whole council—at the general purposes committee on 29 January the principle of the Bill was accepted nem. con.
My hon. Friend mentioned some of the local authority meetings that are held in secret. He mentioned the Stevenage decision as to the choice of the colour of roses. That meeting was held in secret, as was a meeting dealing with the colour of the dye for maggots acceptable for fishing. Of course, both such matters should be discussed in public. Wars have started over the colour of roses, and the public need information of impending warfare. So far there have been no wars following the choice of the colour of maggots, although wars followed the Diet of Worms.
On a serious point, what is more essential to those who go fishing than to know the nature of the dyestuffs? Some of them are rumoured to cause skin cancer among those who handle the maggots. Therefore, fishermen should be able to hear such discussions so that they can judge rumours for themselves. It is vital that such discussions should be open to the public.
In reply to the criticisms of the Bill, I point out that the cost is minimal in comparison with the value; indeed, with a change of system some savings might be possible in certain councils. I do not believe that it is a matter of too far too soon, or too little too late. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch I believe that the Bill is basically very well constructed, with occasional tiny blemishes, and wholly necessary for the good of democracy.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. William Waldegrave)
It gives me very great pleasure to say that I have enjoyed the debate. There was a colourful contribution by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Mr. Fairbairn), who has asked me to say that he has an urgent engagement north of the border and that is why he is not present.
It cannot be disguised that there has been near unanimity in the debate. What I have to say will not seriously disturb that unanimity. The Government 577 welcome the Bill. They welcome particularly the spirit in which it was moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire). I congratulate him, as others have done, not only on his good fortune in the ballot but on his choice of subject and on the way in which he has presented the Bill.
I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend has been realistic about the complexities of some of the issues involved. I think that it is right for me to put on record some of the doubts and matters which will have to be discussed seriously in the Committee stage that I hope that the House will grant to the Bill.
We are often teased by the fact that what are always described as the "Conservative-led" Association of District Councils and the "Conservative-led" Association of County Councils have criticised some measure introduced by the Government. The position has been a little different today, in that the objections of those two bodies have been brushed aside with a great deal of forthrightness by some of my hon. Friends and by some Opposition Members. I shall remember that in future in other contexts.
I remind the House that the ACC and the ADC have serious doubts about clause 4. That clause is wholly unacceptable to the ADC, while it is merely unacceptable to the ACC. Those matters must be seriously discussed in Committee. I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch said that those issues must be examined properly.
Unfortunately, in the time available to me, I cannot comment in detail on all the admirable speeches that have been made, but I shall try to touch on some of the main points. We need to examine clause 4 and paragraph (g) of the schedule. My hon. Friends the Members for Oxford, East (Mr. Norris) and for Mitcham and Morden (Mrs. Rumbold) have given the reasons why we should examine that paragraph. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden said something that cannot be true. She said that the schedule could cover all the interests of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross. I do not believe that all those matters could possibly be written into a schedule to any legislation.
A serious problem arises in clause 4 and paragraph (g) of the schedule. For the first time, we will write into legislation provisions giving greater protection to the information going to party groups and to officers serving such party groups than will be available to officers serving the properly constituted committees and sub-committees of the councils. I do not say that that would be wrong in all circumstances, but I believe that we should note what was said by the hon. Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Knowles), because he has great experience in this regard. Perhaps these measures are correct, but let us not charge too lightly into a move to include for the first time in legislation provisions about which many people have serious doubts. Hon. Members have expressed those doubts today.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced the establishment of an independent impartial inquiry into the procedures of local government in the modern age. I hope that he will soon announce the names of the members of the inquiry. A number of hon. Members have said that the great growth of local government, the wider range of tasks local authorities perform and the much greater discretion they have, make local government a different animal from what it was. Perhaps it is right that 578 some of those practices should have grown up, but we should examine them carefully before building into an admirable Bill provisions that may not have been fully thought through. I hope that the Committee will consider those aspects seriously.
The Committee should also consider a number of lesser matters. With respect to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross, I think that we should consider whether the Bill's provisions should be extended to Scotland. I believe that the Government would welcome that move. Unfortunately, there were no Scottish representatives in the Chamber today to urge that course on us.
It is unlikely that the provisions written into any schedule in any one year to define limits and exclusions will remain in that form for the rest of time. I suggest that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State should have the power by order to amend the schedule from time to time. I believe that the Bill's sponsors should consider that point.
A number of other practical and sensible points were brought home to the House. I believe that hon. Members and the members of the inquiry which my right hon. Friend will set up will want to read the speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East and of the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser), who made a positive and interesting speech.
The hon. Member for Norwood and my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) said that the load placed on hon. Members in extracting information from local authorities — that is the duty of all hon. Members — might be lightened if we managed to get across to people the idea that direct access should be more readily available in the first instance. That would benefit us all.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Norwood for welcoming the Bill in general terms. He pointed out some of the matters that must be examined carefully.
I was alarmed to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch say that he was a moderate. He was then followed by the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts), who said, somewhat unconvincingly, that he was an extreme moderate. The final superlative came when the Bill was supported by a member of the Liberal party.
The Bill has genuine cross-party support. That is why I am pleased to say that the Government broadly welcome it, with the proviso that we must study clause 4. Some hard things have been said against it by the local authority associations. We must also look hard at paragraph (g) of the schedule.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch rightly said—this point was re-emphasised by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) — that secrecy in central Government is a separate issue. No one would suggest that the House or its Committees should go into secret session, except in time of war. My hon. Friend made it clear that the issues have different origins.
I was proud to note, when the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said that there had been three crucial steps on this subject—the Prime Minister's Act in 1960, the Local Government Act 1972 and now this Bill—that all three steps have been led by the Conservatives. That is something of which the Conservative party can be proud.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby made a point with which I sympathise. It is a matter about which he can 579 speak with some authority—that the Bill's success for the public will depend upon the behaviour, capacity and skills of the local press and how it presents the measure.
There has been a terrible degradation of journalistic standards since Watergate. No journalist now thinks that any story is of interest unless it has been leaked. It is becoming a well-known joke in Whitehall — and doubtless in local government—that the only way to get the local press to pay attention to anything is to say that it is secret and to release it. The matter is then put on the front page. If it is put out as a press notice, no interest is shown. I make what might have sounded like a frivolous point in all seriousness. The success of the Bill will depend upon the hard slog of ordinary, professional journalism, not the type of journalistic pornography that relies only upon the excitement of leaks and betrayals.
My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) made a powerful speech. We all listen to my hon. Friend when he speaks on such matters.
I hope that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) will not feel that I am being patronising or rebuking him, but there was a feeling in his speech that the subject of information and the importance of being beastly to bureaucracy had recently been invented by him in Portsmouth. When an hon. Member is speaking in the presence of someone like my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point, it is worth remembering that some have been at this game for a long time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Merchant) put the journalists' point of view forcefully. He showed how difficulties could be put in the way of serious journalists. He spoke about his news editor conducting and following through a serious campaign about information in local government. The Bill relies upon that type of serious approach.
Other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South paid glowing tributes to their local newspapers. That may not be unrelated to their reporting of this debate. I join them in paying tribute to the Bristol newspapers which cover local authority matters seriously.
I hope that I have shown that, although serious doubts have been put forward—the ACC and the ADC, which I have quoted, have voiced their doubts—strong voices have said that something along the lines of the Bill can be made to work. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Lawler) described what is successfully taking place in Bradford, under outstandingly able Conservative leadership. That should encourage us all, as should the news that it can be done without excessive cost.
I hope that the progress started in 1960 by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and carried forward by the Government of my right hon. Friend the Member for Old 580 Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) between 1970 and 1974, will be taken a further step forward, thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch. I do not wish to minimise the volume of work that he and the Committee still have to do. To make the Bill practical and acceptable the Committee will have to tighten up the drafting and deal with some of the points of principle that have been raised. If that can be done, there is no reason why a satisfactory Act should not reach the statute book.
The difficulties should not be minimised. The matter is not over bar the shouting today. It is necessary to get round the problems in clause 4, the difficulty in paragraph (g) of the schedule and what appears to my legal advisers to be a problem in clause 5 —that the clause may diminish existing rights of councillors under common law. The Hackney case, referred to today, reminds us of existing rights under the common law. It would be sad if, inadvertently, we narrowed them in any way. Therefore, we must get that point right. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch nodding. I know that he is taking those points on board.
With those serious, but not terminal, provisos, the Government welcome the Bill.
§ Mr. Squire
I wish to make the briefest of responses because I am aware that hon. Members have gathered for a subsequent debate. I warmly thank almost all hon. Members who demonstrated a great depth and range of knowledge about local government, on which I hope the Committee will be able to draw during its deliberations. It was generally agreed that no one party can claim that all councils controlled by it are free from any of the allegations of excessive secrecy. I hope, therefore, that we can approach the Committee stage in an all-party atmosphere.
I particularly thank and accept the point made by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), which I should have made in my speech. I thank the officers of Brent and Bradford council who have spent and no doubt will spend considerable time travelling the country and explaining how the system works in practice.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Mr. Fairbairn) has perhaps made the most serious possible charge against all Scotsmen. The gist of his comments was that while English and Welsh councils can operate the Bill at a minimal cost, and have said so publicly, the Scots, of all people, are faced with spending lots more money. He has thus dented for ever their reputation among those of us from south of the border for the careful way in which they husband their resources.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 42 (Committal of Bills).