HC Deb 04 July 2000 vol 353 cc242-68 '.—(1) In section 100D of the Local Government Act 1972 (inspection of background papers) for subsection (1) there is substituted—
  1. "(1) Subject, in the case of section 100C(1), to subsection (2) below, if and so long as copies of the whole or part of a report for a meeting of a principal council are required by section 100B(1) or 100C(1) above to be open to inspection by members of the public—
    1. (a) those copies shall each include a copy of a list, compiled by the proper officer, of the background papers for the report or the part of the report, and
    2. (b) at least one copy of each of the documents included in that list shall also be open to inspection at the offices of the council."
  2. 243
  3. (2) In subsection (2) the words "of the list, or" are omitted.'.—[Ms Beverley Hughes.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government new clause 11—Meetings and documents: notice etc.

New clause 5—Decisions made by individuals—access to information— '.—(1) A prescribed decision shall not be taken by a decision taker unless public notice containing the details specified in subsection (2) has been given by him at least five clear days in advance of the date on which it is proposed to take the decision by posting it at the offices of the local authority. (2) The details referred to in subsection (1) are

  1. (i) the name of the individual taking the decision
  2. (ii) details of how he may be contacted
  3. (iii) a short description of the decision to be taken
  4. (iv) the date on which the decision is to be taken
  5. (v) a list of the reports and background papers relevant to the decision.
(3) The provisions of Part VA of the Local Government Act 1972 shall apply to any report relating to the proposed decision and to any background papers used in preparing that report, as if the report were to be considered at a meeting of a principal council. (4) Nothing in subsection (1) shall prevent a decision being taken without giving such notice where by reason of special circumstances, which shall be specified in the written record of the decision, the decision taker is of the opinion that it should be taken as a matter of urgency. (5) In this section— prescribed" has the meaning given by section 21(11). decision taker" means
  1. (a) an individual member of a local authority executive or
  2. (b) an officer of the authority discharging functions of the executive delegated to him.'.
Amendment No. 82, in clause 21, page 16, line 4, leave out subsection (1) and insert— '—(1) Meetings of
  1. (a) a local authority executive
  2. (b) a committee of such an executive
  3. (c) a sub-committee of such an executive
  4. (d) a joint committee
  5. (e) a sub-committee of such a joint committee
shall be open to the public subject to the provisions of Part VA of the Local Government Act 1972.'.
Amendment No. 19, in page 16, line 5, leave out "or held in private" and insert— 'unless necessary to exclude the public for individual items of business on the grounds that they involve the likely disclosure of exempt information as defined in paragraph 1 (all reports) of Part of Schedule 12A to the Local Government Act 1972.'. Amendment No. 83, in page 16, line 6, leave out subsection (2).

Amendment No. 20, in page 16, line 7, leave out from "decide" to end of line 9 and insert— 'which parts of its meetings, and which part of any committee of the executive are to be held in private.'. Amendment No. 84, in page 16, line 11, leave out from beginning of line 11 to end of line 12 and insert— 'any meetings referred to in subsection (1).'. Amendment No. 85, in page 16, line 20, at end insert— ', and where such reports, background papers or other documents relate to a decision which is to be taken they must be made available at least five clear days before the date on which the decision is to be taken'. Amendment No. 86, in page 16, line 21, leave out subsection (7).

Amendment No. 87, in page 16, line 25, leave out subsection (8).

Government amendment No. 111.

Amendment No. 88, in page 16, line 42, leave out subsection (9)(a).

Government amendment No. 112.

Amendment No. 89, in page 17, line 20, leave out subsection (10).

Government amendment No. 220.

Amendment No. 90, in clause 99, page 74, line 25, after "10(5),", insert "21,".

Amendment No. 91, in schedule 4, page 87, line 34, at end insert— '. In section 100A of that Act (Admission to meetings of principal councils), in subsection (6)(a), for "three" there is substituted "five".'. Amendment No. 92, in page 87, line 34, at end insert— '. In section 100B of that Act (Access to agenda and connected reports)— (a) in subsection (3), for "three" there is substituted "five Amendment No. 93, in page 87, line 34, at end insert— '. In section 100D of that Act (Inspection of Background Papers)—

  1. (a) in subsection (1) leave out from "members of the public—" to the end and insert—
    1. "(a) a list of the background papers for the report or the part of the report shall be attached to or included in the report, and
    2. (b) at least one copy of each of the documents included in that list shall also be open to their inspection at the offices of the council.",
  2. (b) in subsection (2) omit the words "of the list, or",
  3. (c) in subsection (2) after "included in the list" omit ",".'.
  4. (b) in subsection (4)(a), for "three" there is substituted "five"'.
Amendment No. 94, in page 87, line 34, at end insert— '. In section 100I of that Act (Exempt information and power to vary Schedule 12A), after subsection (2) insert— (2A) The Secretary of State may by order substitute for the reference to 'three clear days' in sections 100A and 100B such greater number of days as may be specified in the order.".'. Government amendment No. 205.

Ms Hughes

Throughout this Bill's passage through the House, the issues relevant to these amendments have been the basis of an informed and constructive debate on access to information. I am sure that that will be the case this evening, too.

I hope that both sides of the House will agree that we all start with one aim in mind—to ensure that the new structures are as accountable and transparent as possible. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that the third aim of the executive arrangements, as identified by the Joint Committee, was to improve efficiency and establish a more modern approach to decision making. The debate has been concerned with how we strike that balance.

During debates in Committee, we identified that the central issue to ensure access and transparent decision making is public access to information. First and foremost, local people need to know what decisions are going to be taken, and also when and how they are to be taken. They need to know what information, analysis and ideas will be available to decision makers, and what will influence them. Above all, local people need and deserve to know how they can make their input into the decision-making process. Decisions that affect people should not come as a surprise to those affected. Equally, once a decision has been taken, the public need to know what that decision was and the reasons for it.

It is through this public access that, to a considerable extent, the accountability that we all seek will be delivered. It is unfortunate that the Opposition should diminish the role of overview and scrutiny, as it is vital to this matter and to the proposed structures. All the new structures, with their separate, identifiable executive and powerful overview and scrutiny committees, will contribute significantly to ensuring that future decisions by the council are made in an open and inclusive process that involves local people in deciding local issues.

Central to building the framework to deliver that ready access will be a requirement for executives to maintain a public forward plan of decision making, as set out in our guidance. People will see what decisions are going to be taken over coming weeks and longer. They will also see how the executive is planning to consult and involve them, and how they can participate. Amendment No. 112 empowers the Secretary of State to make regulations requiring such a forward plan. For the information of the House, draft regulations were yesterday made available showing how we intend to use the powers, should clause 21 be amended as we propose.

I recognise that there remain genuine concerns about whether the access regime really will bring about a culture of openness and transparency. I accept that these concerns have been fuelled by recent experiences, referred to earlier by right hon. and hon. Members, of the experimental new working arrangements being tried by some councils. Councils are already making significant progress in trying new and innovative ways of working that will involve local people far more readily and significantly in their decision making, but not every experiment has achieved the kind of openness that we want to see and will be required under this measure. Indeed, some have fallen well short of the spirit of our proposals.

I remind right hon. and hon. Members that these shortcomings, where they exist, have arisen before councils can adopt fully the new structures that the legislation will put in place. They are, therefore, not yet compelled to adopt the regime of public access that we are introducing; they are instead using existing legislation not to promote openness but, on occasion, to increase secrecy.

To achieve our aims, there must be change. Not only must there be a tough regime for access, there needs to be a culture of openness, and public confidence that such a culture exists. It is important that all right hon. and hon. Members accept that we are talking not just about structures but about mechanisms and levers to try and drive a new culture into local government. That is what we are putting in place, and the proposals need to be seen in that light.

We are therefore taking one further measure which I believe will dispel some of the proper concerns that have been raised and build that public confidence. Amendment No. 111 will allow the Secretary of State to specify in regulations the circumstances in which a council's executive must meet in public. If the House accepts that amendment, we intend to make regulations requiring that when a decision is being taken collectively by an executive, and is one of the key decisions that will be of the kind contained in the forward plan, the executive will have to meet in public to make that decision. The draft regulations placed in the House yesterday make that clear.

Mr. Waterson

What is the logic of having meetings in public to discuss key decisions and still having the possibility of meeting in private, or in secret, to discuss decisions that are not key and are, by definition, probably rather unimportant?

Ms Hughes

That is no different from what happens currently. I do not think that anyone would argue that every decision, such as those currently delegated to an officer, for example, should have to be taken in the formal arena of a public meeting. That is not in the spirit of the point that I made at the outset of my speech about the balance that needs to be struck between openness and transparency on the one hand and efficient decision making—which is also in the interests of local people—on the other.

As I was saying, the draft regulations will make it clear that such decisions will have to be made in public. In addition, to ensure that openness and accountability are a reality, we shall make it clear in our guidance accompanying the Bill that it is not just when a formal decision is being taken that the meeting should be in public. People should not be able to get around our clear intentions for access by, for example, questioning officers in private about their advice one week and, the following week, formally taking the decisions without a debate in that public arena. One could argue that that has been one of the problems with the committee system, and it should not be carried over into the new regime. We shall therefore make it clear that we expect that when the executive is having a collective discussion with officers, pertinent to any key decisions, the public should have access to those discussions.

8.15 pm
Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford)

My hon. Friend has made an important and welcome statement that goes beyond regulation 3 on page 5 of the draft regulations to which she has just alluded. Will she confirm that the wording of regulation 3 will need to be revisited again to make it clear that a meeting of a council executive will have to be open when matters pertinent to key decisions are being discussed, not just when those decisions are being determined?

Secondly, regulation 15 seems to leave the definition of key decisions to individual local authorities. Would it not be more sensible to have national parameters to help define key decisions?

Ms Hughes

I remind my hon. Friend of what I said. We will make it clear in the regulations that we expect that when an executive is having a collective discussion with officers, pertinent to any key decisions, the public shall have access to those discussions. The regulations will reflect that commitment.

On my hon. Friend's second point about the definition of key decisions, the draft regulations are, as he knows, out for consultation. What constitutes a key decision is a specific question that councils are being asked in that consultation. In fact, that was drawn to the attention of the local authorities when the draft regulations were published. We will take cognisance of the responses that we receive on that issue before firming up our views on how a key decision should be defined. Certainly, the responses of local authorities will be very germane.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test)

My understanding of the process that is being sought, and my view of an ideal process, is of a seamless mesh of access to information prior to a decision being made, while a decision is being made, and after it has been made via the scrutiny process when a key decision is in question. Is it the Government's intention that the new clauses will allow for scrutiny when a decision is being entertained but has not yet entered the decision-making process? That is what happens in Select Committees in this House, even though no legislative process is being undertaken at that particular moment.

Ms Hughes

We have already made it clear during extensive discussions in Committee that key decisions announced in the forward plan that we envisage will be weeks—possibly up to three or four months—in advance of a decision being taken, and that overview and scrutiny committees can call the executive members responsible to account before the decision is taken. That is already provided for in the draft regulations.

Mr. McDonnell

On the definition of key decisions, I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important to consult local authorities. Does that mean, therefore, that these regulations will be brought before the House for debate for potential amendment and approval?

Ms Hughes

In terms of the outcome of the consultation, there will be the opportunity to discuss the regulations.

We are very comfortable about moving in this direction and with responding to some of the issues that have been expressed. I hope that no one would argue that there should be no opportunity for early discussion in private among executive members about issues likely to lead to key decisions. It is in the interests of local people that members, with officers, are able to explore options and think through the implications of potential decisions before they make a decision.

Certainly, in terms of the concerns that are being expressed, we are also clear that when an executive is meeting to discuss issues that are pertinent to key decisions with officers, those should be in the public domain. I hope that that reassures some of my hon. Friends and hon. Members about the concerns that they have raised.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

I am grateful for that clarification, but will my hon. Friend confirm what will be covered as regards advance disclosure? The timetabling is not clear. How much advance disclosure should there be? Would draft reports be covered by advanced disclosure requirements? Technically, it would seem that under the regulations a draft report could be the subject of a subsequent decision without any advance disclosure. Is it clear that the regulations will cover draft reports as well as the formal reports?

Ms Hughes

Yes, I think that our policy is clear on that. Under the Bill as it stands, where a member of the executive receives officer advice the report must be disclosed at least three days before a decision is taken. We are not saying that an executive member must have officer advice before taking a decision, although, as the guidance makes clear, in most circumstances we would expect that to be the case.

Our aim is to start from the position that too many councils have excluded the public from decision making for too long. That is a hallmark of the committee system. The desire to change that system is at the root of our proposals. Public access must be the norm. If people are elected to represent their communities, they must be seen to be delivering the best possible deal for those communities and to be accountable for that.

We shall carry over into our new provision the existing concept that certain matters, such as those relating to individuals or commercial contracts, are exempt information, on which, notwithstanding any general requirement for open meetings, decisions should properly be made in private. While we will carry across that concept, as I said in Committee, we shall review those categories to find out whether they are too widely drawn and should be reined in. Again, we will be consulting on that.

Mr. Waterson

As it might save time later, will the hon. Lady explain now what is the difference between what she is proposing to accept and applying the existing system of openness, as contained in the Local Government Act 1972 and elsewhere—subject always to confidentiality—which applies to council and committee meetings, to cabinet or executive meetings? Would that not be far simpler and achieve much the same result?

Ms Hughes

No, it would not. We are talking about an entirely different system. The hon. Gentleman has a complete blind spot about scrutiny and cannot see the advantages of a separation between executive decision making and scrutiny. Precisely because that is the structure that we are talking about, which we believe is preferable to the moribund process of the committee system, we need different arrangements to ensure access to information. Those are the arrangements that I have put before hon. Members today in our amendments.

In Committee, the hon. Member for Eastbourne said that his aim on access to information was to hold the line and that is what he just said. He asked why things could not stay as they are. Holding the line is not good enough. We want to move that line decisively towards better access, greater openness and greater accountability for local people. The arrangements that we propose will achieve that aim much better than the present arrangements.

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South)

On the issue of greater openness and accountability, I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that the media have expressed concern about access to information and the openness that the executive will allow for reporting. Is she also aware that at the first executive meeting of Luton borough council, Luton on Sunday, usually the scourge of the council, expressed amazement at the openness and accountability that is now available? It is far in excess of what was previously available. Also, the three days prior notice of information from the executive needs to be reconsidered if we are truly to be more accountable not merely to the media, but to citizens who want to be more involved and informed about the important work of the executive.

Ms Hughes

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am aware of developments in Luton because I was there last week to talk to council members, as she knows, and I was impressed by what they are doing and the spirit in which they are trying to implement their new arrangements in advance of the Bill becoming law. If she will bear with me a little longer, I will deal with the number of days notice.

In addition to our robust access regime, our amendment for open executive meetings and the review of exempt information—the outcome of which we can implement through an existing order-making power when the consultation is complete—we are also putting some other provisions before the House. New clause 9 will ensure that background papers are now listed with reports. New clause 11 will allow us to increase the minimum number of days that papers are available in advance of decisions, to which my hon. Friend referred, and we shall consult on whether we should use that power in the near future. Finally, amendment No. 112 allows us to make regulations for the forward plan.

In addition, we will for the first time bring key officer decisions into the access-to-information fold. All of those provisions taken together represent a considerable advance on the status quo that the Conservatives want so dearly to maintain.

On the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) and others, I am sure that the spirit of their and our objectives is the same. I believe that the regime and the measures that I have outlined will more than meet the concerns from which the amendments sprang. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that the regime that we are putting in place will ensure that decisions are not only taken accountably, following rigorous local debate, but that they are seen to be so taken, and that where an individual member of the executive is taking a decision, she or he does so after proper debate and only once people know all the facts. My hon. Friend's new clause 5 would achieve just that and our draft regulations deliver those aims. Therefore, I think that we are in agreement in wanting proper access and accountability. I hope that he shares my view that our package of measures will deliver that.

Finally, the Conservative amendments speak for what they are. In contrast to our regime for access and for reforming, modernising and extending existing provisions and significantly improving public access to them, the Opposition's amendments reflect their stance of holding the line, staying put and not recognising that local government in this century is a far cry from local government two centuries ago when the system that we still have was designed. Indeed, it is a far cry from the local government of the 1960s, when the then Member for Finchley, now Baroness Thatcher, introduced her private Member's Bill. Time has moved on, we have moved on, local people have moved on in terms of what they expect, but the Opposition and their amendments have not. In short, I cannot accept the amendments.

We can all agree, however, that we want a proper, transparent and accountable system that really allows local people to know who is taking the decisions, and when and how they can influence those decisions. The framework put in place by our provisions will deliver that. I commend new clause 9 to the House.

8.30 pm
Mr. Don Foster

The speech made by the Under-Secretary of State was a tour de force; it was remarkable. She accused the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) of wanting to hold the line. She said that the Government did not want merely to hold the line, but to move beyond it. To hold the line was not good enough, she said; they want better access. In effect, she accused the hon. Gentleman and his party of looking backwards, while the Government are looking forward. She said that the Government are making progress.

According to her pronouncements tonight, we certainly are making progress. Indeed, during the past few months, we have made much progress. However, it would be somewhat disingenuous of the hon. Lady to pretend that all forward movement has occurred so easily. Even her hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Hall) found out only a few moments ago that obtaining concessions from the Government on the issue is like getting blood out of a stone.

The hon. Gentleman pointed out—helpfully, his words planned and ready—that there were surely two improvements that we could make. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman knows that I too wanted to raise those issues. He asked the Minister whether it would not be a good idea to revisit both draft regulation 3 and the definition of "key decisions". All he needed from the Minister were two short words: "yes" and "yes". However, the hon. Gentleman did not receive those answers; instead, the Minister made a longwinded attempt to arrive at "yes" and "maybe"—even the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that.

Ms Beverley Hughes

Not fair.

Mr. Foster

The hon. Gentleman made it clear that a clear statement was needed in the regulations on the definition of a key decision. If the Minister checks the record, she will find that she referred only to what would be placed in the guidance. In a moment, I hope that she will confirm that she intends to ensure that the change of definition appears in the actual regulations.

For the many people who care about freedom of information and openness in government, a long and weary road has been travelled. Both sides of the House can claim credit for the progress that has been made. They share that credit with many organisations: the Society of Editors, the Newspaper Society and, not least, the Campaign for Freedom of Information, whose members have worked tirelessly on the issue. Credit is deserved by those organisations and Members on both sides of the House, including the hon. Member for Eastbourne, who is even now rising to his feet and to whom I give way.

Mr. Waterson

I am not so extravagant as to ask the hon. Gentleman to include me in his list, but he might think of including Baroness Thatcher.

Mr. Foster

On this one occasion, I am delighted to include the right hon. and noble Lady. The House will recall that she and another former Conservative Member of the House, Robin Squire, promoted measures on the matter.

Progress has been made. However, it is worth reflecting on the genesis of the matter. For example, when the draft Bill was considered by the Joint Committee, it recommended that the agenda of the executive be published in advance, together with all papers relating to items which are on the agenda for decision. Advance publication of the agenda is hardly a major request.

However, paragraph 2.99 of the Government's response to the Committee, published in December 1999, stated: The Government is concerned, though, that a requirement to publish papers before a meeting might once again drive majority groups into private discussions outside the structures of the council and the purview of the overview and scrutiny committees. At that time, the Government were not even prepared to consider advance publication of agendas.

That is where we started. Since then, with pressure from many organisations and from Members on both sides of the House, the Government have come to believe that we need the production of a forward plan that details the matters in respect of which the decision is to be taken…the name of the decision ta…by when the decision will be taken…who will be consulted…the means by which any such consultation is proposed to be undertaken…how, and by when, people should make representations to them…a list of the documents, other than documents that are [then] available only in draft form, submitted to the decision-taker for consideration in relation to the matter in respect of which the decision is to be taken. That represents good progress.

Furthermore, there must be three days advance access to reports, agendas, and background papers for decisions that will be taken at meetings held in public. The finalised reports on which decisions are taken by individual executive members must, apparently, be publicly available in advance. I should be grateful if the Minister clarified that point, as there is some confusion in the draft regulations that we saw yesterday.

Other progress has been made. After a meeting, individuals must produce a record of the decisions, including the reason for the decisions and the alternative options considered and rejected. The Government have agreed to undertake a review of the exemptions from public rights of access to meetings and information in schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972. They have also agreed to amend the Act to require officers to list the background papers to their reports in the reports themselves.

That is a pretty impressive list of the changes that we eventually managed to get out of the Government. I suspect that, tonight, all that many of us want to persuade them to do is to state categorically that they are willing to take one more, final step.

I should like the Government to do one more thing, although I accept that they are unlikely to do so—I should like many of the issues that we have successfully debated to be included in the Bill. I should prefer them to take that route instead of dealing with such matters in separate regulations. However, I accept that that is probably a step too far for the Government at this stage.

The hon. Member for Bedford identified the two key issues on which we seek a clear statement from the Government. The first relates to key decisions. We need to be clear that the Government are willing to reconsider and widen the scope of the definition of "key decision" and, after consultation, to ensure that it is included in the regulations. I hope that the Minister will give us a clear "yes" on that matter.

The second issue relates to meetings that may or not take place in secret. Currently, it is the Government's intention to allow a group of members of the executive, if they want to do so, to hold in private a meeting to discuss a particular issue before a decision is taken. As I understand it, we have tonight heard a clear intention to change that arrangement. Unfortunately, the current draft regulations state: Subject to regulation 4, a meeting of the executive of a local authority, or of a committee of such an executive, shall be held in public if it is a meeting at which consideration is to be given to a matter in relation to which a decision taken at the meeting would be a key decision. The important phrase is "at the meeting". There is a real possibility that members of the executive may meet—on an agenda item, with papers in advance—to discuss the pros and cons of a proposal, perhaps the proposed closure of a school. It may well be that the decision on the issue will be taken at a later meeting, or delegated to an individual executive member. In those circumstances, under the current draft regulations, it would be possible for the meeting to be held in private, if the executive so determined. That would mean that members of the press and the public did not have the opportunity to listen to the arguments for and against that decision. It is certainly my belief, and that of the Campaign for Freedom of Information and the other organisations to which I have referred, that that needs to be changed, so that there is a clear statement of what is meant.

Dr. Whitehead

For the avoidance of doubt, will the hon. Gentleman make it clear to me that, wherever his party forms the executive in a local authority, he will use the best endeavours of his national party machinery to ensure that that local authority abides by the laudable sentiments that he has expressed this evening?

Mr. Foster

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making his comments in a non-provocative way. It would have been possible to have been slightly more provocative.

Mr. Waterson


Mr. Foster

Now the hon. Member for Eastbourne is going to be provocative, just when I was hoping that for once we could all come together and agree to move forward positively.

Mr. Waterson

I am tempted to say, "You rang?" Does the hon. Gentleman not think that this is a problem that will shortly solve itself?

Mr. Foster

The hon. Gentleman has now got me puzzled. The example to which I was referring was certainly one that would not easily solve itself. Perhaps he knows of another.

I take the spirit of what the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) says. He will be aware that it is very much the view of the Liberal Democrats that decisions that are entitled to be made at local level must be made by people at that level. It is not for those at national level to tell them what decisions they should take. I nevertheless give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that my party will take steps to encourage all Liberal Democrat councils to operate with maximum openness.

I suggest a form of words to the Minister for draft regulation 3. I shall read it slowly so that the Minister can take it in. It might say something like: "Subject to regulation 4, a meeting of the executive of a local authority, or of a committee of such an executive, shall be held in public if it is a meeting at which (a) a key decision is to be taken or (b) discussion is to take place concerning a matter about which a key decision is to be made or may be taken in the future, whether by the executive or by any other decision-taker." From what the Minister said in response to the hon. Member for Bedford, I think that that is in line with what she has in mind.

I seek a clear assurance about the definition of key decisions, and an absolute assurance that, where discussions about key decisions are taken in a meeting of the executive for which there is an agenda item and for which papers have been prepared in advance, the meeting will be held in public, whether or not the decision is taken on that occasion. If I can obtain those two assurances, I will not urge my hon. Friends to press our new clause and amendments to a vote, and we shall support the Minister's new clause.

8.45 pm
Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

Like the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), I welcome what the Minister had to say this evening. She was helpful in addressing the genuine concerns that have been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House to the effect that the new structures for local government should be at least as open and transparent as they were in the past. We should all recognise that the Minister and the Government have moved very far from the Bill as it was originally printed and from the discussions in Committee that I read in Hansard. It is a tribute to the Government that they have listened to the case put by hon. Friends, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Hall), by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) and by other members of the Committee. It is to Ministers' credit that they have done so.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford that one or two matters still need clarification, and the hon. Member for Bath has identified them. It is important that any discussion on a key issue, whether or not a decision is to be made on that occasion, is open to the public and that they are notified in advance. That is what members of the public want. They want to see what their councillors say, how they address the issue, and on what information they base their decisions. Those are the determinants—not whether or not a decision is taken. I am sure that the spirit of what my hon. Friend the Minister said takes that into account. I hope that that spirit will be reflected in her reply and in the draft regulations. That similarly goes for the definition of a key decision.

There are greater difficulties in defining a key decision. It is difficult to define them, and in a way I regret that we are going down that path. I would like to say all important decisions—but perhaps "important" is equally open to definitional difficulty. I cannot say that I envy the Minister the job of wording regulation 15, but it needs to be wider, and we need to hear something in the spirit of what she said in opening the debate, but clearer and firmer than that.

There are still one or two further matters that need clearing up. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) raised the question of draft reports. I listened carefully to the Minister's reply, and she appeared to be making a different point rather than answering my hon. Friend's point about draft reports. Draft reports do not lead immediately to a decision, but they can be crucial. The drafting of an original report for a local authority will determine the tone and parameters of any important decision about, for example, the closure of a school or an old people's home, or anything else. So the issue of draft reports needs to be considered. I hope that the Minister will answer that point a little more clearly in her reply to the debate.

I agree with the hon. Member for Bath that, ideally, the provisions should be written into the Bill rather than into regulations, but perhaps that is difficult for the Government to accept at this late stage in proceedings. No one will press the Minister tonight to put the provisions in the Bill. The progress that we have made on the regulations is sufficiently encouraging, and it shows the spirit in which the Government are dealing with the issue. There are issues on which we need the greatest possible legislative clarity. This is a difficult area.

Most hon. Members are sympathetic to what the Government are trying to do, which is to release local authorities and their decision making from the impenetrable, slow and cumbersome committee structure. However, in doing so, the Government inadvertently went down a much less transparent route in the original Bill. The Minister has saved the legislation and the Government tonight from that unhappy and probably unintended route, and has retrieved the situation; but she must recognise that significant decisions will still effectively be delegated to members of the executive—cabinet members, as they call them in my local authority in Stoke-on-Trent—and made in conjunction with the chief officer. It will be difficult to achieve transparency in those decisions. Any one of those decisions may not come within the definition of a key or important decision, but cumulatively they have a great effect on all our constituents.

We are pursuing a difficult route which will lead the Government to keep a very close eye on matters. I hope that, quite apart from these regulations, the Government and the Ministers will revisit this piece of legislation over the coming months and in a year or two's time, to see how it is working and whether members of the public—and of the local press—are worried about a lack of transparency.

It was very encouraging to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Ms Moran) say that the local newspaper found that the present arrangements as demonstrated in Luton were actually more open than the legislation would require. That is to the credit of her local authority and the way its councillors and officers are operating in the spirit of the legislation, but we all recognise that it is perfectly possible to operate in a different spirit. Moreover, when decisions are very contentious and difficult, and a local authority feels itself beleaguered—as happens all too often—there is always a tendency for any local authority to smuggle things through and take decisions which, once they are a fait accompli, people will have to accept. Those of us who have been councillors in the past and have been chairs of committees understand that tendency only too well; it crosses all party divides and is simply a human tendency.

It is thus very important that we get this aspect right tonight, because whether we get it right or not along the lines that we are talking about, this will be difficult legislation to put into practice, and it will be difficult to ensure that there genuinely is openness; so the greater the clarity we get from the Government—in what the Minister says in winding up, and in the drafting of the regulations, and in the monitoring of the operation of the legislation—the better.

The spirit of what the Government are doing is right. Since Committee, the Government have moved an enormous distance in addressing these problems of openness and access to information, but we still have some way to go. I hope that, when the Minister winds up, she will recognise that advice in the spirit in which it is offered to her.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

I very much agree with what the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) has just said. He summed up the problems that we face succinctly and clearly. Where I disagree with him is that I would not be so sanguine that we have found the solution to the problem—although he is cautious about it.

I always feel extremely wary when we send a Bill to the other place in a sense incomplete, with a key area of it lying around as draft regulations on which the Government will consult. Our final destination on this vital issue remains so uncertain.

We have been considering the Bill since April, when it had its Second Reading. We have had hundreds of amendments and here we are, in July, at its last knockings in this House, still fiddling with a vital section of it. That is a great indictment of the Government. The Minister, in the little tirade at the end of her speech, said that Conservative Members were a bunch of old-fashioned neanderthals. [Interruption.] Of course we probably are—at least, I probably am, but not my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson). However, that little diatribe hid the fact that each and every one of the concessions that the Minister has made tonight has had to be wrung out of her bit by bit; the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) was quite right about that. Every gesture that has been made in this respect has been resolved by trench warfare waged not only by the Opposition but by Labour Members.

We are about to agree to the amendment—my hon. Friends would not wish to agree to it, but we are about to do so because the Government have a large majority on it—even though we still do not know the definition of the key word. What is a key decision? We still do not know that. We do not know what can be interpreted as a key word. As I understand the regulations, the decision as to what a key decision is will ultimately be decided by the local authority concerned, with some guidance from the Minister in some manner, which we have not seen—[Interruption.] I am sorry. It has been seen, but it has not been agreed. That is an extremely dangerous thing. I cannot believe that journalists and editors throughout the country will be satisfied by that.

The old committee system was described as slow and cumbersome. In many respects that is true, and those of us who have been councillors know what it is like to sit through some endlessly boring committee stages, but they are open to the public and to the press, and the arguments that flow back and forth can be heard by everyone. If decisions are not key decisions, but are nevertheless important decisions—the discussions before the closure of a school, perhaps—they will be taken in private and will not be properly explained and challenged until the scrutiny procedure starts, as I understand it.

I believe that we now have an intensely bureaucratic set of regulations, which are out to consultation. We do not know what they will be like in the final analysis. I believe that the House will be asked tonight to nod through a very significant provision that could bring about a substantial diminution of press freedom and public freedom—without our seeing the detail, which, in my view, should be in the Bill.

Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan)

I very much welcome the changes that have been made to the Bill in regulations. We have moved an awfully long way from the first drafting. As I said, that is a tribute to the work that has been done by Members on both sides of the House and by other organisations.

The Government had to balance the need to allow councils thinking time to get together with their officers and discuss things that are in the air before they take key decisions, with the need for a clear, transparent, decision-making process. We now have what is probably approximately the right balance. I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) on the need to monitor the working of the legislation. The regulations are obviously quite complex and will be difficult for authorities to operate. We need to monitor, to ensure that the regulations are complied with. There is a clear need for Government, and for ourselves as Members representing people, to ensure that our councils do the proper thing.

We need to be aware that the legislation is only part of the process of modernising local government; the other part was the Local Government Act 1999, which provided for the creation of community plans. The community plans involve the community in the way local government takes its decisions. The regulations make it absolutely clear that the community, local businesses, voluntary groups and individuals must be involved in that process. When those elements are combined in the decision-making process, the result will be that the transparency, the openness and the involvement of the public in local government will be very much better, once the Bill becomes an Act.

I therefore welcome these moves by the Government, and hope that the House will approve them tonight.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

I share some of the reservations that have been expressed by my hon. Friends about the journey that the Bill has made on openness and on its provisions for access to information. I gladly pay tribute to the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which has been a beacon of light, has monitored progress, and has demonstrated benchmarks.

In an earlier reading of what seemed to be almost another Bill from another world, one took the view that it had been drafted by the Home Office. It had all the magnificent over-defensive reactions that reflected the thought that dangerous talk cost lives and that local electorates should not have the same standard as is suggested for the Bill. It seemed inconsistent that a Government who were taking steps to advance open government were also permitting a situation that denied the residents of my local authority, for example, the access to information that they had traditionally had. The fact that the regime is now looser than was originally conceived in the Bill is to be welcomed.

9 pm

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central made two valid points. First, if terms such as "key decision" are not properly defined, that gives rise to anxiety. The standard in one place may well be different from that in another, and I know that the Minister is mindful of that fact. However, if a constituency covers two local authorities, two different standards of access to information might apply. That would give rise to conflict and would reduce our ability to participate. After all, openness of information is the greatest incentive to participation and to involving people in local government. They feel more involved if they know what is going on and, if they are sufficiently interested, they may participate in the process.

All political parties are trying to reach out and increase participation and the sense of validation of the decisions taken. I am naturally cautious about executive-style mayors such as we have in London, but I am a Conservative and one would expect me to view change with caution to some extent. Therefore, the first point that the hon. Gentleman raised was the variable standard between authorities.

The hon. Gentleman made another important point on the issue of regulations. The House drowns under regulations and we have very little say over them. They are not even properly scrutinised. I was going to whisper, but I do not have to do so in the House because most of the information traded here is not relayed anywhere else. Therefore, I will mention the Child Support Agency. We all agreed with the concept, so it bears some relation to what the Minister is doing here. However, on a quiet summer's afternoon, when we were busy and our concentration was elsewhere, a raft of regulations was passed. As a Parliament, we caused great hurt to many of our constituents.

For many years, we have had to sit—I certainly have—in our surgeries wondering how such an outcome could have come about. It is difficult to put right a wrong. Although regulations have the effect of primary legislation, they are not primary legislation in the sense that we can take up the House's time to try to satisfy ourselves—this is what the process is about—that they are fair and reasonable.

The hon. Gentleman said that he was bit cautious about regulations, but that he accepts the good intent of the Government. I am very concerned about regulations, however, because 2,500 of them flood through as statutory instruments each year, and that is in addition to the 2,500 pages of legislation that existed even before the Home Secretary announced yet another Bill for this Session. I hope that the Government take that point on board, because it is disappointing to think that we shall not see the regulations before the Bill is returned to the House of Lords.

I want to give a cheer to amendments Nos. 82 to 87, which were tabled under a distinguished collection of names, to which mine was also appended. I commend to the Government a more vigorous approach when the matter is considered in the Lords. I hope that they will enable us to discuss the regulations in detail without the constraints that apply to most regulations.

Dr. Whitehead

I shall add my brief comments to those who have said that the measures that the Government have introduced on Report will lead to a culture of openness in the new form of local government. That is important, because when we consider the past and the future of local government we should be honest. The idea that there was a golden age of openness in local government that the Government first ignored, and then had to be dragged kicking and screaming back towards, is not true.

In the past, local government has, in some circumstances, operated in admirable conditions of openness. However, there have also been instances in which local authorities have operated in shocking conditions of secrecy. There have also been occasions, even after the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 was passed, on which local authorities subverted the requirements of such legislation by various means, including caucuses, pre-meetings, half-group meetings and half-group and officer meetings and so on.

In circumstances in which it is clear that a major decision is to be made, a seamless web of information should be made available to the public before it is made. That is the order of the day when that decision is being entertained and discussed and once it has been made and implemented. The Government have suggested changes to the Bill. I was a member of the Joint Committee of both Houses that scrutinised the draft Bill and, as hon. Members have reflected today, it is right that considerable moves have been made from some thoughts that came before that Committee.

The circumstances that will exist after the Bill is enacted will be a challenge to any local authority that wishes to pursue its activities in secret. The assumption will be that a good reason must be put to the public if items of any major importance to that local authority are to be decided in private. That does not mean that there are not circumstances in which certain decisions should be discussed in private. Certainly, there are circumstances in which decisions should be taken privately, such as those relating to tendering of contracts, in which a third party can get an advantage from those contracts, or cases relating to employees or disclosure of information which, in certain circumstances, may be prejudicial to individuals. However, I can think of only a few occasions when that is relevant, and there is an overwhelming case for openness in local government, which the changes will advance. I commend the Government amendments for the way in which they engender that culture.

Finally, there is now an onus on those in all political parties who purport to speak for local government at national level to make sure that excuses are not made for local authorities that are run by their parties in a majority, if those parties fail to live up to the culture of openness that the Bill will introduce. I certainly hope that what the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) said and what Conservative Members said in support of that greater openness will be backed by action in future. If local authorities do not do that, those parties should take action themselves.

Mr. Shepherd

The hon. Gentleman said that he could see good reasons why certain matters are confidential, and cited tendering as an instance. That relates to the commercial confidentiality argument which goes right through whole areas of British government. Why should a tender, which is an open market transaction, be protected by secrecy? In the United States, that would considered an outrageous suggestion, as people, including the public at large, want to compare open tenders. One might not take the cheapest tender, but one is forced to give the reason for that, such as quality of goods, service or reliability. I am nervous about starting to cocoon areas on the ground that they may require confidentiality.

Dr. Whitehead

Of course that must be constrained very scrupulously, but I am concerned that the playing field might not be level. If a private company wants to gain some advantage, for example, in a land transaction and the local authority is required to give it access to information that enables it to take advantage of the tendering process, the public might be deprived of money that might otherwise have gone their way if that information had not been available to the private company.

Such a requirement would be necessary if we had a regime in which everyone—whether a public, private or voluntary body, or whatever—were always required to disclose exactly the same information. Unfortunately, private companies have been able to take advantage of the openness of public bodies to make deals to the disadvantage of the public interest. We should be aware that that is possible and ensure that, in that instance and that instance only, the public interest is not compromised by the fact that the playing field is not level in those circumstances.

I hope that the spirit of openness heralded by these amendments is made a reality. One political party has recently introduced an ethics committee to its own internal proceedings. I imagine that that party would want to ensure that its ethics committee looked into any local authority, on which its representatives were in a majority, that proceeded secretively. Hon. Members from all parties have signed up to an important principle tonight. We should now ensure that, in future, the reality of local government conforms to the principles that we have enunciated.

Mr. Waterson

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, the Government have got themselves into a terrible mess. They have twisted, turned and tried every way to save their face, but it will not wash. We have heard all the usual guff about openness, transparency and so on, and we must all learn a new theology about key decisions. The Minister had the temerity in her opening remarks to boast about the fact that the draft regulations were put out for discussion. Yes, they were, but only since yesterday—talk about legislating on the hoof. The Government have rushed out the draft regulations. [Interruption.] I shall take no lessons from Ministers; they have the great panoply of the civil service at their disposal and have been preparing all this stuff for years.

We are having this discussion only because we pressed the matter in Committee, because the Minister has been greatly embarrassed in the media—we know how important they are to the Government—and because a bunch of brave Labour Back Benchers have tabled amendments.

The Government have rushed out the draft regulations and guidance because they are in an absolute panic, trying to buy off a Back-Bench rebellion—apparently, successfully for the moment. They have made an embarrassing climbdown, but to avoid the appearance of having done so, at least to anyone below the age of five, they have produced an incredibly contorted system of new regulations and guidance on key decisions that hapless local authorities will have to work their way around—as if they have not got enough on their plates with best value, cabinets and all the other weird and wonderful stuff, and with the odd directly elected mayor thrown in. It is as if Ministers' memories have been erased. If all that is so clear, obvious and straightforward, why did not they do it at the outset?

Why were these proposals not in the Bill when it was printed? Why were they not set out in the 400-odd amendments that the Government tabled in the other place? Why were they not in the nearly 400 amendments that the Government tabled in Committee? Why have they appeared only in the 115 amendments that the Government have tabled at this late stage of the Bill's progress through the House?

9.15 pm

If everything was so clear, obvious and self-explanatory, why did the Government resist the Opposition's amendments and the amendments tabled by other parties in Committee? Our proceedings this evening have turned into a face-saving exercise. There has been the occasional coached intervention from trusties on the Government Back Benches to make it seem that we are engaged in a natural, organic process. The Government's first instinct at all stages of the Bill's passage through the House has been to resist a movement to keep the regulations, rules and practices that applied under the previous Conservative Government. That has not been a movement towards greater openness.

Let us leave all that to one side, however. Let us take it that we are where we are. If these matters are so important and significant, why are we debating regulations in a vacuum? My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) made the point clearly. There will be consultation and eventually regulations will be produced. One wet afternoon, they will pass through some part of the House. By then, the spotlight will have turned on something else. Who knows in what form the regulations will eventually appear? If these issues are so important, they should be set out in the Bill.

By way of semi-explanation, the Minister responded to the old adage that the best line of defence is attack. She made the usual attack on the committee system. She alleged that the committee structure excluded people. No, it did not. People had a right to go to council meetings and committee meetings except where there was something properly confidential to be discussed. That is the point.

The clear purport of the Opposition's amendments has not changed throughout the progress of the Bill, as the Government have twisted and turned. It has been straightforward. We wish simply to ensure that the position that applies to council meetings and committee meetings will apply to meetings of executives or cabinets.

The Minister derided a phrase that I used in Committee, but I make no apology for using it again. We have been seeking throughout to hold the line. The right hon. Lady said that that was not good enough. That is absurd. She went on and on about the moribund committee system and the status quo, for example. However, our position could not have been clearer, simpler or easier to understand for those in local government.

Baroness Thatcher, as she then was not, introduced a private Member's Bill that set out the original provision of openness. It became an Act in 1960. We opened up the meetings of councils and committees to the public and the media. Further legislation was introduced, not least the measure that was brought before the House by my former hon. Friend, Robin Squire, which cemented the approach of openness and introduced some details, quite properly. I see no reason why that system—it was simple to understand and was operated over many years—cannot be applied to the Government's proposals.

The Minister mentioned scrutiny. What relevance does that have? We are talking about meetings of cabinets or executives and whether they should be in public. In a desperate attempt to solve problems of their own making, the Government have produced an intensely complex and bureaucratic regime, against which I would happily contrast our common-sense approach, which is based on experience. That is why I shall invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against Government new clause 9.

Our two amendments are straightforward, and they were debated in Committee. One refers to part I of schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972, which enshrines the rules that I have already discussed, which currently apply. The other would amend clause 21 and put the onus on an executive which wants to meet in private.

Not surprisingly, the Liberal Democrats, as is their wont, are trying to have it both ways. They are trying to run with the hare and the hounds. They push for amendments, but are happy to accept the bizarre results that the Government have come up with. It is no surprise, therefore, that last week at the local government conference, when the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) was asked whether he was optimistic or pessimistic about the future of local government, he replied, "Both."

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

As the hon. Gentleman will recall, I said that I would be optimistic, were the Liberal Democrats in government.

Mr. Waterson

I am not sure that I remember the hon. Gentleman's comment quite that way, but let us not fall out about it.

If the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) can engage in drafting on the hoof, let me do the same. I shall provide the clause that Ministers are looking for. They do not need a lot of clever parliamentary draftsmen. The wording, subject to all the confidentiality provisions that ordinarily apply, should be something like this: Meetings of the cabinet or executive should be held in public when

  1. (a) members are making a key decision, and
  2. (b) members are not making a key decision.
Is that simple enough for Ministers?

I do not understand the logic of producing all sorts of regulations, under which one must first establish what is a key decision. A series of criteria must be met. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), or possibly my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, pointed out, the same people must make the decision as to what a key decision is, but let us leave that on one side for the moment.

When it has been decided what is a key decision, which must be discussed in the usual way in public. Fair enough, but why not apply that to all decisions, key and non-key? Why not continue the present practice, whereby a council meeting or a committee meeting has a full agenda, and apart from items of confidentiality, which are usually taken at the end of the meeting, the meetings are open to members of the public and the media?

I do not understand the problem that Ministers perceive, except that they are trying to pretend that the current proposal was the idea all along, and that they have not been driven to that expediency by pressure from the Opposition, the Liberals and their Back-Bench colleagues.

Let me give the Minister a warning. Why does she think that her cabinet ideas have been embraced with such alacrity by certain Labour-run councils, even before the Bill passes into law? Does she agree with Councillor Brendan Bird of Hammersmith and Fulham, a leading member of the Labour Campaign for Open Local Government, and someone who may be advised not to walk in any dark alleys on his own at present? With reference to the Government's proposals, he asked: If this is modern, why do all the good ol' boys love it so? I will tell him. For many of them, the secrecy was the attraction—the ability to hold meetings behind closed doors, as they did in the past, but to be approved for doing it and seen as part of the modernising agenda.

I warn the Minister that some of her dwindling band of supporters in local government may well melt way if the attraction of being able to meet in private—in secret—without public or media being present, is not available to them.

On the mechanics of the Government's proposals, we received the draft regulations only yesterday. Of course, I was grateful for my copy. Is it not remarkable how fast a Government can move when they are up against a Back-Bench rebellion? The accompanying letter makes the obvious point that the draft does not incorporate any comments received in consultation. That would be an achievement, given that that started only yesterday.

Regulation 15 contains the definition of a key decision. Such a decision must be an executive decision which, in the opinion of the decision taker— that may be somewhat subjective— is likely to result in something that has a material effect beyond the internal workings of the local authority or has a significant effect on the authority. We discussed in Committee how one would define those terms and the incurring of expenditure. I wonder whether that definition includes decisions about councillors' expenses and allowances, for example. There are other cases involving special urgency and other ways in which one can avoid the strict requirements of the regulations.

At the end of the day, there are still three major objections. One is that these are regulations; they are not in the Bill. Secondly, they still require people in a given authority to put decisions into a particular category, and it is for them to interpret those regulations. Thirdly, as I have already indicated, the problem is much simpler to resolve than that.

The House does not need to be reminded at too great a length, but it may need reminding to some extent, of the problem we have been trying to address. It took up quite a bit of time in Committee. It seemed to me that the burden of proof was firmly on Ministers who wanted to change the existing system, which seemed to me to work well, and that they should make a good and convincing case if they felt that there was any reason not to apply the regulations to the new cabinet system. We wanted to stop the Government effectively retreating from the Conservative legislation that I have already described.

Mr. Andrew Ecclestone of the Campaign for Freedom of Information put it rather well when he said: We are now finding a Labour Government removing the rights Mrs. Thatcher gave us. That is absolutely spot on.

Perhaps the most appalling example of the kind of thing we are trying to tackle was described in an article in The Guardian by Mr. Peter Hetherington, referring to Cardiff council where fat-cat councillors gave themselves huge pay rises. They included the then lord mayor, who was initially paid a package of £58,500. The local council was so irritated by media criticism of that that it decided to cancel all council advertising in the local press and set up its own 140,000-circulation newspaper. The really awful part of it is that those decisions were made by the cabinet in secret.

I have a final illustration of why 1 think the Government are trying to persuade us that they have throughout had a certain mindset which is simply wrong. Very recently, as Mr. Hetherington pointed out, the Labour national executive described current campaigns against the cabinet system as "naive, misinformed or mischievous". The fact is that a whole range of people have come forward to oppose the Government's proposals: Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Charter 88, newspaper editors, main television channels, the National Union of Journalists, the Council for the Protection of Rural England—the list goes on and on and on.

But the reason we are here today discussing these tortuous amendments is very simple. It is nothing to do with any of those organisations, or even with me or my hon. Friends. It is because Labour councillors and Labour Back Benchers were not prepared to put up with what the Government are trying to impose. I say, "Good for them!" I do not mind their having the credit if that is where the credit is due. Good for them, if they are heading in the right direction. We could be dealing with this problem in a much simpler, clearer, crisper way. That is why we shall vote against the Government's new clause.

9.30 pm
Ms Beverley Hughes

Despite the regulation churlishness from some quarters, I detected some warmth from some hon. Members for the provisions that we are bringing forward tonight. I welcome that very much. In the short time that I have I shall try to deal with some of the residual issues that hon. Members have raised.

The definition of key decisions will be enshrined in regulations. Contrary to the view of regulations expressed by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), and as his hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) acknowledges, regulations are legislation and are binding on local authorities. I agree that the definition contained in draft regulation 15 is incomplete; it is imperfect, but we are working to improve it in close co-operation with local government and others. We commit to change it if that is the outcome of the consultation—that is why the regulations have been published in draft. Hon. Members may want changes to be made to the definition, but we expect key decisions to be the sort of decisions that traditionally would have gone to a committee for agreement, that the local community wants to know about and that are properly the concern of elected members.

We shall consider the form of words suggested by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), but I have to tell him that it goes too far. I shall explain why, because it relates to an important point that we have skirted around in our debate. A degree of ambiguity lies at the heart of some of the concerns expressed by hon. Members tonight: on the one hand, they express a desire to decentralise and to give as much discretion and decision-making power as possible to local councils, local councillors and local people; on the other, they appear to challenge the integrity of councillors by attempting to constrain them.

We are consulting on the definition of a key decision and we shall analyse the responses. However, I should like hon. Members to acknowledge that there must be a degree of local discretion on whether a decision is significant. A decision that would be significant to a small shire council might be a small matter to a large metropolitan authority. We must have confidence in local councillors' ability to make decisions with integrity and to discuss them in the public domain. I hope that the House accepts and acknowledges that point.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Will there be any monitoring of the way in which local authorities allow in the press, and will cases of abuse be taken up? That is an important matter about which many people are concerned.

Ms Hughes

Yes, not only will there be monitoring of those practices, but they will be open to challenge. If decision takers are making decisions about what needs to be discussed and decided in the open, those decisions can be challenged through the structures that we are creating; people will have to account for decisions about what needs to be in the public domain, as well as for the substantive decisions they make in their role as councillors.

The reassurances I have given do not encompass draft reports, because such reports are not meant to be made public. We need to acknowledge the need for officers and members to be able to think the unthinkable: they need to be able to set down a series of options early in the process of decision making, at a stage when options have not been finned up, but a decision is imminent. Having said that, there is provision against abuse—for example, the possibility of reports remaining in draft form until immediately before a meeting. The provisions for prior publication of reports and our undertaking to review whether three days are enough—

It being four and one-half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the programme motion, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER, pursuant to Order [this day], put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 326, Noes 124.

Division No. 251] [9.35 pm
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Blizzard, Bob
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Boateng, Rt Hon Paul
Alexander, Douglas Borrow, David
Allan, Richard Bradley, Keith (Withington)
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)
Ashton, Joe Bradshaw, Ben
Atherton, Ms Candy Brake, Tom
Atkins, Charlotte Brand, Dr Peter
Austin, John Breed, Colin
Ballard, Jackie Brinton, Mrs Helen
Barnes, Harry Brown, Russell (Dumfries)
Barron, Kevin Browne, Desmond
Bayley, Hugh Buck, Ms Karen
Beard, Nigel Burden, Richard
Begg, Miss Anne Burgon, Colin
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Burstow, Paul
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C) Butler, Mrs Christine
Bennett, Andrew F Caborn, Rt Hon Richard
Benton, Joe Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife)
Bermingham, Gerald
Berry, Roger Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Best, Harold Campbell-Savours, Dale
Betts, Clive Cann, Jamie
Blackman, Liz Caplin, Ivor
Blears, Ms Hazel Caton, Martin
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Chidgey, David Grocott, Bruce
Clapham, Michael Grogan, John
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Gunnell, John
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands) Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Hanson, David
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) Harvey, Nick
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Clelland, David Healey, John
Clwyd, Ann Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Coaker, Vernon Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Coffey, Ms Ann Heppell, John
Coleman, Iain Hesford, Stephen
Colman, Tony Hewitt, Ms Patricia
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Hill, Keith
Corbyn, Jeremy Hinchliffe, David
Cousins, Jim Hoey, Kate
Cox, Tom Hoon, Rt Hon Geoffrey
Cranston, Ross Hope, Phil
Crausby, David Hopkins, Kelvin
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley) Howarth, Alan (Newport E)
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Cummings, John Howells, Dr Kim
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack (Copeland) Hoyle, Lindsay
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Darling, Rt Hon Alistair Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Darvill, Keith Humble, Mrs Joan
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Hurst, Alan
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Hutton, John
Davidson, Ian Iddon, Dr Brian
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Ingram, Rt Hon Adam
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C) Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Davis, Rt Hon Terry (B'ham Hodge H) Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Jamieson, David
Dawson, Hilton Jenkins, Brian
Denham, John Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Doran, Frank Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Dowd, Jim
Drew, David Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn)
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston) Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Edwards, Huw Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Efford, Clive Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa
Ellman, Mrs Louise Keeble, Ms Sally
Ennis, Jeff Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Fearn, Ronnie Kemp, Fraser
Field, Rt Hon Frank Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Fisher, Mark Khabra, Piara S
Fitzpatrick, Jim Kidney, David
Fitzsimons, Mrs Lorna King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Flint, Caroline Kirkwood, Archy
Flynn, Paul Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Follett, Barbara Lammy, David
Foster, Rt Hon Derek Laxton, Bob
Foster, Don (Bath) Lepper, David
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) Leslie, Christopher
Fyfe, Maria Levitt, Tom
Galloway, George Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Gardiner, Barry Lewis, Terry (Worsley)
George, Andrew (St Ives) Livsey, Richard
George, Bruce (Walsall S) Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Gerrard, Neil Llwyd, Elfyn
Gibson, Dr Ian Lock, David
Gilroy, Mrs Linda Love, Andrew
Godman, Dr Norman A McAvoy, Thomas
Godsiff, Roger McCabe, Steve
Goggins, Paul McCafferty, Ms Chris
Golding, Mrs Llin Macdonald, Calum
Gordon, Mrs Eileen McDonnell, John
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) McIsaac, Shona
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) McKenna, Mrs Rosemary
Mackinlay, Andrew Sawford, Phil
Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert Sedgemore, Brian
McNulty, Tony Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Mactaggart, Fiona Shipley, Ms Debra
McWalter, Tony Short, Rt Hon Clare
McWilliam, John Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Mahon, Mrs Alice Skinner, Dennis
Mallaber, Judy Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S) Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Martlew, Eric Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Meacher, Rt Hon Michael Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Meale, Alan Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Merron, Gillian Spellar, John
Michael, Rt Hon Alun Squire, Ms Rachel
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley) Starkey, Dr Phyllis
Milburn, Rt Hon Alan Steinberg, Gerry
Miller, Andrew Stevenson, George
Mitchell, Austin Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Moffatt, Laura Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Moran, Ms Margaret Stoate, Dr Howard
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N) Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W) Stuart, Ms Gisela
Morris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley) Stunell, Andrew
Sutcliffe, Gerry
Mountford, Kali Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Mudie, George
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck) Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen) Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Naysmith, Dr Doug Temple-Morris, Peter
Norris, Dan Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Oaten, Mark Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
O'Hara, Eddie Timms, Stephen
Olner, Bill Tipping, Paddy
Pearson, Ian Todd, Mark
Pendry, Tom Touhig, Don
Perham, Ms Linda Trickett, Jon
Pickthall, Colin Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Pike, Peter L Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Plaskitt, James Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Pollard, Kerry Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Pond, Chris Vis, Dr Rudi
Pope, Greg Walley, Ms Joan
Pound, Stephen Ward, Ms Claire
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Wareing, Robert N
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Watts, David
Prescott, Rt Hon John Webb, Steve
Primarolo, Dawn White, Brian
Purchase, Ken Whitehead, Dr Alan
Quinn, Lawrie Wicks, Malcolm
Radice, Rt Hon Giles Wigley, Rt Hon Dafydd
Rendel, David Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Roche, Mrs Barbara
Rooker, Rt Hon Jeff Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Rooney, Terry Wills, Michael
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Winnick, David
Rowlands, Ted Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Roy, Frank Wood, Mike
Ruane, Chris Woodward, Shaun
Ruddock, Joan Woolas, Phil
Russell, Bob (Colchester) Worthington, Tony
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Ryan, Ms Joan Wright, Tony (Cannock)
Salter, Martin Wyatt, Derek
Sanders, Adrian
Sarwar, Mohammad Tellers for the Ayes:
Savidge, Malcolm Mrs. Anne McGuire and
Mr. Graham Allen.
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Bell, Martin (Tatton)
Amess, David Bercow, John
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Beresford, Sir Paul
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Blunt, Crispin
Baldry, Tony Body, Sir Richard
Beggs, Roy Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Leigh, Edward
Brady, Graham Letwin, Oliver
Brazier, Julian Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Lidington, David
Browning, Mrs Angela Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Burns, Simon Loughton, Tim
Butterfill, John Luff, Peter
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet) Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
McIntosh, Miss Anne
Chope, Christopher MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew
Clappison, James Maclean, Rt Hon David
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe) McLoughlin, Patrick
Madel, Sir David
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian
Collins, Tim May, Mrs Theresa
Cran, James Moss, Malcolm
Davies, Quentin (Grantham) Norman, Archie
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice) O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury)
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen Ottaway, Richard
Duncan Smith, Iain Pickles, Eric
Evans, Nigel Prior, David
Faber, David Robathan, Andrew
Fabricant, Michael Robertson, Laurence
Fallon, Michael Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Flight, Howard Ross, William (E Lond'y)
Forth, Rt Hon Eric Ruffley, David
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman St Aubyn, Nick
Fox, Dr Liam Sayeed, Jonathan
Fraser, Christopher Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Gale, Roger Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Garnier, Edward Soames, Nicholas
Gibb, Nick Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Gill, Christopher Spring, Richard
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Gray, James Swayne, Desmond
Green, Damian Syms, Robert
Greenway, John Tapsell, Sir Peter
Grieve, Dominic Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Hague, Rt Hon William Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Taylor, Sir Teddy
Hammond, Philip Townend, John
Hawkins, Nick Tredinnick, David
Hayes, John Trend, Michael
Heald, Oliver Tyrie, Andrew
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Viggers, Peter
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas Waterson, Nigel
Horam, John Wells, Bowen
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Whitney, Sir Raymond
Hunter, Andrew Whittingdale, John
Jack, Rt Hon Michael Wilshire, David
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Jenkin, Bernard Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Key, Robert Yeo, Tim
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater) Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Laing, Mrs Eleanor Tellers for the Noes:
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Mr. Stephen Day and
Lansley, Andrew Mr. John Randall.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour.

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