HC Deb 28 March 2000 vol 347 cc223-4 3.35 pm
Mr. Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make further provision in respect of local government in England and Wales, for disclosure of information to the public and for convening meetings in public; and for connected purposes. Local government is undergoing great changes as part of the Government's agenda of modernising councils and making them more effective, more flexible and more responsive to local needs. The Local Government Bill has completed its passage in the other place and I broadly support its essential principles and the inclusive way in which the Government have proceeded by publishing a draft Bill, convening a Joint Committee of both Houses and undertaking extensive consultation.

Many Members will accept the need to move towards new political structures—whether mayors or cabinet-style executives—with clearer and more transparent lines of accountability. However, there is increasing concern that the new structures of local government should be both open and accountable and seen to be open and accountable. The general public and, indeed, non-executive council members must have ample opportunity to discuss and influence important decisions—on education, social services, planning or, as in my own constituency recently, the sale of council land that had been used as playing fields for many years—before they are made.

The role of the overview and scrutiny committees will therefore be crucial, as will the requirement that decisions be recorded with the reasons for them and the advice given by officers. It is essential that local government retains the trust and confidence of the community that it serves. The Bill's purpose is to ensure that that trust is retained because, once lost, it is extraordinarily difficult to regain.

The Bill would extend to the new structures of local government the existing requirements on openness and access to information in part V of the Local Government Act 1972. Meetings have to be open to the public and the media, although exempt information can be discussed and decided on in private. If the meetings are open, agendas, officers' reports and background papers must be publicly available three days in advance.

As the Local Government Bill stands, there is no requirement that cabinets should meet in public or disclose their agendas in advance, but it is vital that decisions that could affect a community greatly should not be made in private. That perception has to be removed. My Bill would require such bodies to meet in public unless particular types of exempt information were involved, which would maintain the current openness and transparency.

In respect of decisions not involving meetings—those taken by elected mayors or individual members of an executive cabinet—my Bill would give the public equivalent rights to see papers before they were taken. In addition, it would require a short delay before executive decisions could be implemented and provide powers for non-executive councillors and scrutiny committees to call in and review such decisions. My Bill is based on the premise that open decision making is better decision making.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Gareth Thomas, Mrs. Betty Williams, Dr. David Clark, Mr. Mark Fisher, Mr. David Drew. Mr. Gwyn Prosser, Mr. Huw Edwards and Mr. John Smith.