HC Deb 08 November 1999 vol 337 cc713-7

Lords amendment: No. 41, in page 22, line 2, after ("three") insert ("clear working")

4.30 pm
Mr. Hill

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 42 to 44, 46, 49 to 53, 58 to 80, 83, 86, 92 to 94, 97 to 102, 116, 117, 576, 581, 636 to 639, 642, 643 and 645.

Mr. Hill

This group of amendments makes provision for various matters connected with meetings and the procedures for them. On the first four issues that they cover, the amendments are direct responses to concerns raised during the passage of the Bill, and in particular to views expressed in the other place.

Amendments Nos. 41, 42 and 46 extend from three days to three clear working days the interval between the mayor submitting a report to the Assembly and the meeting at which the report is considered.

Amendments Nos. 43, 44, 61, 83, 116 and 117 make provision for written questions so that the mayor and Greater London Authority staff who may be questioned at Assembly meetings can provide answers in writing when oral answers are not practicable. The amendments also ensure that the text of questions and answers will be open to public inspection in the same way as the minutes of the meeting.

Amendments Nos. 49 to 53 remove the requirements to use the names "state of London debate" and "People's Question Time" while leaving both as defined terms in the Bill. They also place duties on the mayor to decide the form and procedure for both events, following consultation with the Assembly.

Lords amendments Nos. 60 to 64 replace the requirement for the Assembly to hold monthly meetings with one to hold 10 meetings a year. Those meetings must be no less than 28 days apart and may cover matters in addition to the mayor's report. They also clarify that the Assembly may hold any additional meetings that it chooses.

Lords amendments Nos. 69 and 78 make express provision for minutes of Assembly meetings. Lords amendments Nos. 65, 67 and 68, 86, 93, 636 to 639, 642, 643 and 645 provide for the Assembly to take decisions by a simple majority of those present and voting at a meeting, except where there is express provision to the contrary.

Lords amendments Nos. 70 to 76 make detailed provision for the Assembly to delegate the discharge of its functions to sub-committees and, in certain circumstances, to members of the Authority's staff.

Finally, Lords amendments Nos. 77, 79, 80, 92, 94, 97, 98 to 102, 576 and 581 expressly provide for the establishment of committees and sub-committees of the Assembly to which the Assembly may delegate its functions under clause 46(1)(a), and for the establishment of advisory committees.

Mr. Simon Hughes

We may have views on many groups of amendments, but for the reasons that Opposition Members made clear in the previous debate, we will not comment on many because we would not then be able to contribute to debates on, for example, London transport. The absence of such comments is not to be taken as a lack of interest or a lack of suggestions as to how things might have been done better.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

My point is generic, but it is right to raise it now. The Minister talked about the "state of London debate" and the "mayor of London". I think that it should be called the "state of Greater London debate" because that means a lot to my constituents in what used to be called outer London.

Mr. Hill

As a result of provisions now in the Bill, the Assembly will be able to do exactly that and widen the title of the debate to "Greater London" if it so desires.

Sir Sydney Chapman

I think that the Minister misunderstood my point, which concerned not what the Assembly can discuss, but the title "state of London" or "mayor of London".

Mr. Hill

I am sorry if I did not make the position clear. The Assembly can change the description of the debate to "state of Greater London" if it wishes.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 42 to 44 agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 45, in page 22, line 23, at end insert—

except as provided by subsection (4A) below. (4A) Where—
  1. (a) the Mayor receives advice from a person falling within paragraph (b), (c) or (d) of subsection (4) above, and
  2. (b) the functional body mentioned in that paragraph is the Metropolitan Police Authority or the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority,
the Mayor is not relieved by subsection (4) above from any requirement to disclose the advice, if or to the extent that the advice falls within subsection (4B) below. (4B) Advice given to the Mayor by a functional body falls within this subsection if it has been disclosed—
  1. (a) at a meeting of, or of a committee or sub-committee of, the functional body at a time when the meeting was open to members of the public by virtue of Part VA of the Local Government Act 1972 (access to meetings and documents); or
  2. (b) in a document which has been open to inspection by members of the public by virtue of that Part of that Act.
(4C) Any reference in this section to a member of staff of a functional body includes a reference to an officer or employee of that body.")
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 81, 82, 84, 85, 87 to 91 and 96.

Mr. Raynsford

This group of amendments covers the openness arrangements for the Authority and clarifies the Assembly's power to summons. It completes the provisions for privacy of advice to the mayor, extending them to advice from functional bodies and ensuring that such advice is not disclosed as a background paper for an Assembly meeting. It makes it clear that the openness arrangements in clause 48 apply to Assembly committees and sub-committees. It places a duty on the Assembly not to disclose certain types of commercial information relating to Transport for London and the London development agency. It makes express provision for the Assembly to summon former chairmen and members of functional bodies, and makes it clear that the clause 48 openness arrangements, with appropriate modifications, apply to the power to summons hearings.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I have a simple question for the Minister. Can he say whether, when this Bill becomes law, the facts contained in advice to Ministers will be available to the public? It is a straightforward freedom of information question. I understand the point about advice on what the mayor and Assembly should do, but will the facts compiled in preparing such advice be available to the public?

Mr. Brooke

The subject of advice is contained in amendment No. 45. As the Minister will recall, the issue of confidential advice to the mayor was included in neither the Green Paper nor the White Paper, although I acknowledge that it was included in the Bill. The hon. Gentleman will recall that, on 4 February, in a paving suggestion on what was then clause 37, I raised the subject in anticipation of clauses 51, 56 and 59 of the Bill as it was then.

On 9 February, I raised the question, substantively, of confidential advice from the 10 members of the cabinet and the two special advisers. In the Minister's reply, he widely extended the range of those whose advice would remain confidential. I said: I am extremely grateful to the Minister. However, I am simply asking—I am quite certain that he will satisfy me with a single sentence—what legislative cover there is for those other than the 12, to whom he has just referred? Although Hansard does not relate that he did so after receiving a paper from his officials, the Minister replied: The answer is that we shall be tabling amendments to clarify that issue. He was then kind enough to note: The right hon. Gentleman has raised an important point, which we shall ensure is covered by amendments tabled later in our proceedings."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 9 February 1999; c. 340.] Subsequently and privately, the Minister revealed to me how the matter had occurred; I shall not embarrass anyone by divulging what it was. However, I did look forward to seeing the amendments. They did not arrive on Report in this place, nor in Committee in the Lords. Eventually, they arrived, on 14 October, on Report in the Lords—more than eight months after the Minister's commitment that the Government would table them. They were then withdrawn by Lord Whitty on Report, and were finally introduced into the Bill at the very last possible moment, on Third Reading in the Lords on 1 November, after almost nine months' gestation.

Given the unhappiness of many people in local government about the provisions, the Government's handling of the matter does not inspire confidence. It will serve as the most vivid of indices that the Government made the Bill up as they went along.

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) raised two issues. First, the objective that we tried to achieve through the amendments—and which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is satisfied has been achieved in them—is to distinguish between advice to the mayor and background information that should be properly and readily available. That is also one explanation in regard to the question put by the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), who, in the nicest possible way, complains about the length of time taken to give effect to the commitments that I gave in Committee.

It is a difficult task to ensure that there is a proper distinction between advice and background information. We did not want unduly to fetter access to information through giving too broad a definition of advice. In response to points made by noble Friends of the right hon. Gentleman in another place, it is precisely for that reason that we have introduced the latest set of amendments. We want to try to ensure that the privacy of advice to the mayor is respected, while there is the greatest possible access to information and background papers.

Mr. Brooke

I am most grateful to the Minister for his answer. He may plead that the drafting powers of the Department were so entirely occupied that it took eight months for the matter to come up on Report in the Lords. However, if matters come up earlier. Members of this and the other place have the opportunity to improve legislation in the way that the Minister has just described. If the amendments are not tabled, such an opportunity does not exist.

Mr. Raynsford

I accept the principle of the right hon. Gentleman's comments; I hope that he will accept that that was achieved in practice. We have reached our objective of ensuring that the provisions of secrecy apply—contrary to what the right hon. Gentleman said, those provisions were covered in the White Paper. We pointed out that the advice to the mayor would be covered by the provisions of the Whitehall code, rather than the local government code. We are concerned to give effect to those provisions while ensuring that there is the maximum openness on all background information.

4.45 pm
Mr. Brooke

If the Minister reads the exchanges in Committee, he will see that he explained why these matters were not discussed in the Green Paper and the White Paper, but emerged only when the Bill was published.

Mr. Raynsford

I do not want to get into a lengthy debate with the right hon. Gentleman about matters covered in Committee. I accept that the matters we are discussing were not covered in the Green Paper and, no doubt, that is the issue we debated several months ago. However, the Government are committed to the Whitehall model, in which the privacy of advice to the mayor is guaranteed, but which is also an openness model in which there is maximum access to background information. That is what the amendments would achieve. It has been difficult to arrive at the right definition, but we are satisfied that we have done so, having listened to the views expressed in Standing Committee and in another place.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 46 to 94 agreed to.

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