HC Deb 23 January 2001 vol 361 cc867-94 7.48 pm
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2000 (S.I., 2000, No. 3272), dated 13th December 2000, a copy of which was laid before this House on 19th December, be annulled. The regulations are but the latest episode in a long and tortuous process that has far more to do with saving ministerial face than with any attempt to improve local governance in this country. They were issued just before Christmas—sneaked out without even a press release. It is also typical of the Government' s contempt not only for the House but for local government that, had the previous debate gone the distance, we would be debating this matter—if at all—very late tonight, possibly at 11 o'clock or 11.30. It is by good fortune rather than good management by the Government that we are having this debate now.

I made a prediction on 4 July last year, when we had a serious debate—on the Conservative Benches, in any event—on the sort of changes that the Government were trying to make in access to information in local government. The Government had brought out draft regulations and were sending them out for consultation. I said then that 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. I cannot judge whether it is raining, but that afternoon—or evening—has arrived.

This is all part of the process that the Government call local government modernisation. However, too much of it amounts to being anti-democratic and anti-local government. Because the new structures of cabinets or executives will in effect give little or no choice to councils. I said on a previous occasion that the Minister was the Henry Ford of the local government world—we could have any colour we liked, as long as it was black. In this instance, we can have any type of structure we like as long as the Government wish to impose it. I appreciate the Minister of State's sensitivity on these matters, but if she interrupts her conversation with the Whip briefly to listen to some of the arguments, she might be in a position, just for once, to answer the points raised in the debate.

We are not the only ones, by any manner of means, who have expressed concerns about the overall effect of the changes on local government. They encourage the sort of one-party states that we see in some Labour-controlled councils, and encourage a culture of secrecy and exclusion. No wonder that Councillor Brendan Bird of Hammersmith and Fulham, a leading member of the Labour Campaign for Open Local Government, said of the Government's proposals: If this is modern, why do all the good o1' boys love it so?—[Official Report, 4 July 2000; Vol. 353, c. 261–2.] The answer, then and now, is simple. The one-party states which had always sought to make decisions in small groups behind closed doors were allowed to do so in the full and certain knowledge that they were conducting their [...]iness according to the Government's previous [...]. The net result is that the Government are cementing in the oligarrchies—the small groups running the councils—and telling them that they can carry on their business as they have always done, in small groups that are accountable to no one.

The Government's structures would have applied to every council in the country, save that it was conceivable that they would have been defeated in the House of Lords. It was only a last-minute deal between the Government and the Liberal Democrats that exempted some smaller shire districts from the regulations but imposed them across the great majority of local government in England and Wales.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way at this relatively early stage in his remarks. He will correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that under the proposed regime, only key decisions will have to be made in public. For my enlightenment and edification, can my hon. Friend offer any indication of what the definition of "key decision" is likely to be?

Mr. Waterson

My hon. Friend has characteristically cut to the heart of the regulations. If he will bear with me, I will deal with his point in detail in a moment.

As the Local Government Chronicle put it recently, the cabinet system is failing to impress, let alone the regulations about secrecy in local government cabinets. It said that a survey of councillors by Bristol city council found that many were unhappy about the replacement of the committee system with five scrutiny commissions. Some 86 per cent. of the 22 councillors who responded said that scrutiny was less effective. No one thought that it was more effective One councillor said: Bring back the committee system. It worked and all members were involved in the decision-making process. This is a two-stage problem. The Government are requiring the majority of councils to bring in an executive system which, in effect, banishes the majority of councillors from any direct input into decisions made by the councils. The Government's proposals to increase secrecy in local government then make that process even more of a problem. It is no wonder that many Labour councillors have expressed their concerns and opposition.

It is only because the Government were forced into a partial U-turn by the Opposition, the Lords and their own Back-Bench rebels that we have these new regulations and the concept of key decisions to which my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) has referred. Our position on key decisions has always been the same. How do we differentiate between a key decision and a non-key decision? Who is to choose what is a key decision? Even more importantly, why bother making that distinction? If matters are really important, they should be debated in the full glare of the public eye unless there is some circumstance of confidentiality, as is the situation now. If they are not that important, why should they be conducted in private?

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong)

Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House who takes the decision now as to which decisions are taken in public in committee, and which are not?

Mr. Waterson

As the right hon. Lady well knows, the majority of issues on a particular agenda are heard in public. Usually, at the end of the meeting there are items that may be subject to confidentiality. [Interruption.] The right hon. Lady will have a chance to defend these bizarre and byzantine regulations in due course, if she can just contain herself. As she knows, most agendas have items at the end which are dealt with confidentially—and for all the usual reasons of confidentiality, quite properly.

The Government are in a real mess over secrecy in local government because they are not big enough to admit that they got it wrong and to return to the status quo. Let us remember what leading members of the Government have said in the past about secrecy and openness. The Prime Minister, no less, said: We want to end the obsessive and unnecessary secrecy which surrounds government activity … He also said: The first right of a citizen in any mature democracy should be the right to information. It is time to sweep away the cobwebs of secrecy which hang over far too much government activity … I wonder whether he or, indeed, the Minister, remembers those remarks.

Here is another interesting quote from the Minister for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher): Labour believes that democracy and openness should prevail, not patronage, sleaze or secrecy … I checked the last edition of the Evening Standard when I was having a cup of tea, and I think that the right hon. Gentleman currently owns up to six homes, and who knows how many it will be by the end of the debate?

When all those worthy statements of intent actually hit reality, we found a different kettle of fish. Let us not forget the comments of the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes). In last December's Municipal Journal, the non. Lady stated: Let's have no fantasies about this being an open regime … this does not mean that the executive must always meet in public. Councillors must be able to meet in private to discuss broad options, to have their political disagreements. The Minister for Local Government and the Regions—[Interruption.] If the right hon. Lady wants to correct me, she can do so in due course. She, too, has made some interesting comments on these matters—not least during the Standing Committee of the Local Government Act 2000. She said: We are attempting to change the structure in order to secure levels of accountability hitherto unknown in local government. We agree with that statement. The right hon. Lady certainly has been trying to achieve levels of accountability hitherto unknown in local government; the trouble is that they are lesser levels than pertained in the past. She also said that I am not at all convinced that we shall secure openness by requiring that all meetings must be in public. What has the Minister got against meetings held in public?

Last May, in an interview with the Local Government Chronicle, the Minister mused on the purpose of her proposed reforms. I cited the interview during the Standing Committee. The right hon. Lady said: It is not feasible to have effective decision making when all of the thinking is done in the glare of publicity, because then people will not be thinking the unthinkable.—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 23 May 2000; c. 267–75.] There we have it. That seems to be the philosophy that has guided the right hon. Lady in producing the regulations and their recent predecessors.

In stark contrast, the official Opposition have a strong and consistent record on the promotion of open local government. In 1960, when Baroness Thatcher—as she then was not—was a new Back-Bench Member, she steered through a private Member's Bill that was enacted as the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960. For the first time, councils were forced to open up all meetings to the press and the public.

The Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985—also passed by a Conservative Government—allowed the public access to key council papers three days before meetings. It is no wonder that Mr. Andrew Ecclestone of the Campaign for Freedom of Information remarked: We are now finding a Labour government removing the rights Mrs Thatcher gave us. Is not that incredible?

Even in the teeth of such criticism, the Minister carried on. We heard comments such as those made by Sir Jeremy Beecham of the Local Government Association who talked of witnessing the "strange death" of local democracy. The Society of Editors noted that, as a result of the reforms, there would be a reduction in the flow of information to the public and to the media.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

During the John Smith memorial lecture on 7 February 1996, was it not the height of hypocrisy for the Prime Minister to say: The first right of a citizen in any mature democracy should be the right to information—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. The hon. Gentleman might like to rephrase the remarks he used about the Prime Minister.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Was it not totally inconsistent and contrary to the high public standards that one would expect from the Minister who is first among equals in this country when the Prime Minister made the following comment? In 1996, he said: The first right of a citizen in any mature democracy should be the right to information. It is time to sweep away the cobwebs of secrecy which hang over far too much government activity. Labour purport to be the Government of openness and freedom of information, but the Prime Minister is trying to cloak local government in secrecy through this statutory instrument.

Mr. Waterson

My hon. Friend makes a telling point. After four years, we are used to such hypocrisy from the Government.

Several independent organisations criticised the Government's proposals. The National Union of Journalists noted that cabinets or executives meeting behind the closed doors that are being imposed will deny basic access to local democracy. The Society of Local Authority Chief Executives also criticised the proposals. The list goes on: the Local Government Information Unit, Charter 88 and the Campaign for Freedom of Information all criticised what the Minister was about.

There has not been much improvement. In the teeth of a Back-Bench rebellion—from the vast swathe of empty Benches behind the Minister, I assume that it has been seen off—the Government got themselves into a terrible mess; since then, they have been bashed from pillar to post trying to find a solution—to satisfy not the Opposition or local government, but the Labour rebels on the Back Benches and in local government. They rushed out draft regulations, relying on the bizarre distinction between key and non-key decisions.

Most of us will have received a briefing from the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which has a distinguished record on dealing with such issues over the past six to nine months while the legislation was going through the House. The CFI points out that there remain serious concerns that the Regulations will increase secrecy in local government if adopted in their present form. Because of the distinction between key and other decisions, the CFI is concerned that There is no minimum standard of openness which would apply to all councils. That is right. Such a provision is notably absent from the regulations.

The CFI also notes: Where decisions are based on draft reports, no advance disclosure is required. That provision seems to have crept in since our last debate on the proposals. The CFI states: This is carte blanche to suppress embarrassing information.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

From my hon. Friend's visits to Worcestershire, he will be aware that there are deep reservations in the county about all the proposals. I am particularly alarmed about the impact of key decisions. An enormous electoral ward such as Bowbrook or Inkberrow, where huge decisions could be taken affecting communities, will not be subject to openness under the proposals. Why are huge electoral divisions excluded in that monstrous way?

Mr. Waterson

My hon. Friend has made an important point to which I shall return in a moment. The CFI is also most exercised on that matter.

A new ground for secrecy has crept into the latest version of the regulations—it certainly was not included in the draft regulations on which consultations were held last summer. The requirement to meet in public when discussing key decisions can be got around if the executive asserts that the main purpose of the meeting is to be briefed by officers. I can think of no Conservative-run council which would stoop to such a base subterfuge, but I can certainly think of a few Labour or Liberal Democrat councils where that might be an attractive option.

The CFI is absolutely right in its comments on the definition of a key decision. The definition is to be made by the people who take the decisions in a council. The CFI states: We believe a substantial step backwards into secrecy will occur if the Government does not set national minimum standards of openness for local government.

Mr. Bercow

Surely the whole issue of key decisions [...]regnant with uncertainty and arbitrariness. The matters that are judged to be key decisions need not necessarily be of a party political character. Is my hon. Friend aware that I was a member of Lambeth borough council, as the councillor for the St. Leonard's ward from 1986 to 1990, and that there were members on both sides of the council who genuinely believed—I did not agree with them, but I respected their view—that the decision to allow a circus with performing animals to take place at a venue in the borough was the issue of the greatest moment that they had ever considered? Other members took a different view. Would we meet in public or in private? Would the decision he key or marginal—who knows? Will my hon. Friend advise me?

Mr. Waterson

I am aware of my hon. Friend's distinguished career it local government before he came to this House. He raises a good example of a key decision. I do not want to go into defining the fabled key decisions too much, as the Government have become so contorted in trying to do so that they are in danger of sucking some perfectly sensible people into the black hole that they have created.

The CFI has tried to fix a figure for the amount of money that would identify a key decision. It has suggested a national financial threshold, but we do not agree. That seems to us merely to pander to the absurdly complex and bureaucratic system that the Government have produced because they cannot bring themselves to say that they were wrong and that the previous system should be reintroduced.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Is not the kernel of the regulations that efficient councils such as my own Cotswold district council would want, wherever possible, to hold meetings and debates in public? Only inefficient councils with something to hide will hide behind these regulations and try and hold meetings and take decisions in private.

Mr. Waterson

My hon. Friend is right, and has touched on the whole point of the debate. Regulations that are too complex will cause ill-intentioned people to find a way around them. The simple rules about openness and disclosure in local government that obtained under successive Conservative Governments meant that all meetings—in council and committee—and the relevant agendas and papers were open to the public, except where there were legitimate reasons for confidentiality. It is much more difficult to get around a simple rule such as that.

I return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) about the key decision definition. The CFI stated: The critical failing of the definition is that a decision which significantly affects people in one ward will not be a key decision. How bizarre can one get? That must be wrong according to any view.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

In a county council area, one electoral division might include several different village communities. Does not my hon. Friend agree that a council decision with a serious impact on more than one hamlet or village in a rural area would therefore not qualify as a key decision under regulation 8 of the draft regulations?

Mr. Waterson

My hon. Friend is right. The provision is typical of the metropolitan liberal elite that drives Government policy in this and so many other areas. The Government assume that all wards are inner-city wards, with people crammed into a relatively few streets. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) said, some wards cover several different communities, with different needs and aspirations.

Mr. Luff

In Worcestershire, a critical decision must be made about the location of an incinerator. It will be located in one electoral division of the county, not more than one. No decision is more sensitive or more key than that, but it will not constitute a key decision under the rules, and meetings about it will be held in private.

Ms Armstrong

Yes, it will be a key decision.

Mr. Luff

The Minister, from a sedentary position, shouts that it will be a key decision but she clearly does not know her own regulations.

Mr. Waterson

My hon. Friend gives an extremely good example. Few decisions could be more acutely sensitive locally than the siting of an incinerator. Under the definition of key decisions, because the decision that my hon. Friend describes would affect only one ward, that decision would not have to be subject to the requirements of the regulations. That makes no sense at all.

The CFI went on to say: At present, the initial opinion of the author of the report as to whether publication would disclose "confidential" or "exempt" material within the terms of the Local Government Act 1972can he challenged by a councillor present it the committee meeting considering the item. Those Conservative Members who have been in local government will remember that. If the meeting decides otherwise, councillors can consider so-called exempt material in public. Under the regulations, that would not be possible.

The Minister does not need to take my word about the nonsenses that the regulations create. Only the other day, in an article in the Local Government Chronicle, George Jones and John Stewart, two leading professors of local government, wrote: The Local Government Act 2000 is a piece of bad legislation. It is a classic example of central prescription based on no real evidence. They also mentioned secrecy and key decisions. Of the latter, they wrote: This wheeze immediately raised the problem of what a key decision is; one person's minor decision is another's key decision. I refer the House back to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham. The authors of the article conclude: Generally, the consequence could be to drive decision making away from the public arena of the cabinet to the privacy of the individual decision maker, sometimes after private discussions by the cabinet. They end with a crushing indictment of the Minister when they state: These changes show how little had been thought through initially, and reinforce the case against detailed central prescription. How much better it would have been for the government to have allowed innovation, and not assumed it knew what form the innovation should take. It is typical of the Government that their original intention was to reduce accountability and encourage secrecy in local government, and to create a new culture of concealment. They have been pushed from pillar to post by the Opposition in this House, by the Lords and by some of their own Back Benchers. The regulations are all about saving the Minister's face.

Ministers should admit that they got it hopelessly wrong on cabinet secrecy and revert to the clear position that existed under the previous Conservative legislation. The press and public currently have a right to attend council meetings and committees and to see council papers three days in advance of those meetings. The next Conservative Government will reverse any changes that are passed and will require all cabinets to be open to press and public, as was previously the case. We will promote openness and accountability in local councils, even if the Government will not, and we will seek to reinvigorate local democracy. Conservatives are now the party of local government.

8.18 pm
Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

I was interested in an intervention made earlier by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) in the speech by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), asking the latter to deal with the important question of key decisions. It took about eight minutes before the hon. Member for Eastbourne got around to addressing that issue. After some introductory remarks, I hope to get to it rather more quickly.

During the passage of the Local Government Bill, Liberal Democrats here and in another place made it clear that we were worried about early versions of the Bill in respect of freedom of information. The hon. Member for Eastbourne rightly pointed out that the Conservative Members worked hard to persuade the Government to change their mind on the issue, but Liberal Democrat Members did too. We were delighted therefore that the Government were prepared, over time, to make changes in that regard.

Mr. Bercow

I note the hon. Gentleman's point about the Liberal Democrats' determination to force a Government rethink but, in view of the fact that his party prides itself on its grounding in local government, why—and it is a simple point—is he not accompanied by a single colleague from his own party as he eloquently makes his points this evening?

Mr. Foster

I could do a statistical analysis of what percentage of Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are present in the Chamber, but I shall not stoop to that.

I wish to discuss the key points of the debate. I said that I was delighted that the Government were prepared to move forward. Given the assurances that were given during the passage of the Local Government Act 2000, Liberal Democrats were prepared to support the Act at its final stage. Therefore, I want to put it firmly on the record that we will not support the Government's regulations this evening. The regulations are deficient in several respects and fall short of the assurances that were specifically given in debates on last year's Act. I shall come to those assurances later.

Unlike the hon. Member for Eastbourne, we do not advocate a return to the status quo. There can be no doubt whatever that, in certain respects, the Government's proposals for freedom of information are a move forward that should be welcomed. It is acknowledged that the regulations require executives to meet in public when they discuss key discussions, and they relate not only to the decisions that are taken collectively, but to those that are taken by individuals. That is an important point. The regulations also require greater advanced availability of papers relating to important decisions than is required at present of certain categories of exempt information that is not disclosed. That is a helpful move forward.

However, we are genuinely concerned that the regulations could lead to the some local councils returning to the dark ages if they wish to do so. They could hold many more of their deliberations in secret.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne has dealt with the three key concerns. The first is the issue that was touched on by the hon. Member for Buckingham. What exactly is a key decision? The Government's proposals will, in effect, leave it to local authorities to decide what the definition should be. That could lead to authorities being secretive if they so wish.

We are also concerned about aspects of the regulations. The use of the get-out clause on draft papers could determine what types of information would be prevented from being made available. Like the hon. Member for Eastbourne, we are also concerned with the new provision that has suddenly and rather mysteriously appeared. It will allow executives to meet in public when discussing key issues, but will enable them not to do so if the executive itself asserts that the main purpose of the meeting is simply to be briefed by officers.

The definition of a key decision is pivotal and the regulations have two approaches to it. One definition is that a decision is likely to be a key decision if it involves significant expenditure or savings in relation to the council's budget for a service. The problem is that it is then left to the individual council to decide what constitutes a significant expenditure or a significant saving. Those authorities that wish to be secretive could set a high figure, but those that wish to be fairly open could set a low figure. That would lead to the problem that councils across the country could set very different standards. Surely freedom of information is a basic right to which all citizens are entitled regardless of where they live or by which council they are served.

The second part of the definition allows people to consider how many wards in a council area are likely to be affected. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) raised an interesting point when he said that an incinerator in his area would be sited in just one ward. That is an important decision but, under the regulations, a key decision must affect two or more wards. The hon. Gentleman would be well advised to consider his example more closely, because the council's expenditure on the incinerator would be almost minimal. Therefore, the decision would come under neither of the two categories and the council would be entitled to determine that the matter was not a key decision, so it would be able to discuss it in private.

Ms Armstrong

The hon. Gentleman is being disingenuous. A waste incinerator would affect the whole population in a council area and the expenditure on it would affect the whole population. Even if the decision were taken at arm's length, a significant sum of money would be involved, so no one could pretend—here or anywhere else—that it would not be a significant decision. The matter would have been scrutinised long before the executive or mayor came to take such a decision. In those circumstances, to pretend that it would not be a key decision is an insult to the council and to local people.

Mr. Foster

I am grateful to the Minister for that strongly expressed response. She is helping us to begin to tease out, and has put on record, her understanding of what will happen if the regulations are accepted unamended.

I have another example from my constituency. The local council had to decide whether to close a small school for infants that serves the people in only one ward. According to the officers' report, only a small saving would be made, so they argued that the decision was being taken for purely educational reasons. Therefore, the decision affected only one ward and only a small sum of money was involved. That means that, under the regulations, the decision could have been taken in secret by the executive.

Ms Armstrong

indicated dissent.

Mr. Foster

The Minister shakes her head, but if her understanding of the meaning of small sums of money and one ward is different from mine, we obviously have a difficulty.

Mr. Bercow

I very much agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. In the type of case that he has described, surely the only circumstances in which a debate on the decision would automatically be held in public would be either if the school building—by extraordinary serendipity—happened to cross a ward boundary and/or if parents from more than one ward sent their children to that particularly small school. Neither of those circumstances can be assured.

Mr. Foster

The hon. Gentleman is right. One could start to develop all sorts of complex examples that involve bringing in pupils from other wards or show that a couple of bricks the outside the ward in question. However, the case that I have described is a good example of the problems that could occur if the council shows no good will and does not want to be open with the people that it seeks to serve. When the council clearly intends to discuss matters in secret, the regulations will make it perfectly possible for it to do so.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne also briefly touched on the issue of whethey it would be possible to avoid making information available to members of the public by keeping a report in draft form and by continuing to keep it in draft form up to the last minute. I raised this issue several times in the Committee considering the Local Government Act 2000. In response to one of my points, the Minister said: The hon. Member for Bath expressed concern that people might keep things in draft until very late to avoid having to disclose information at an early stage. We need to look at this carefully to find out whether we should stipulate in regulations the papers relating to a decision be made available at least a certain number of days before a final decision is taken in all but the most urgent cases … We will certainly consider whether we should make such provision through regulations.

Ms Armstrong

Has the hon. Gentleman looked at the regulations, because they fully cover his concerns and he should be reassured?

Mr. Foster

I have looked very carefully at the regulations, and I shall refer my remarks to regulation 9, the definition of report as it appears in regulation 2 and the guidance itself. However, I am totally unconvinced that the concern that I expressed has been covered. Indeed, the Minister wanted to take the matter further. She also said: any paper that goes to an executive member in relation to taking a decision will be made public at the same time.—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 23 May 2000; c. 272–302.] At one point, the Minister was prepared to acknowledge that any paper that could be used in assisting an executive to come to a key decision would be made public.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information, which has also studied the regulations and the guidance in considerable detail, is not convinced on this matter. However, if the Minister is convinced that all is well, perhaps we could consider whether it is possible to abuse what she seeks to introduce.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Before the hon. Gentleman moves on from regulation 8, can he tell me where the Secretary of State has published guidance on the meaning of the word "significant"? That is an absolutely crucial consideration. The regulations say that a council must have regard to any guidance for the time being issued by the Secretary of State when it determines what it thinks is significant. I have not seen that guidance. Has he?

Mr. Foster

To be fair to the Minister, she has produced guidance that refers to the Government's understanding of the word "significant". Once the hon. Gentleman reads it, he will not find it especially convincing, but, more importantly, he will find that an individual council will be able to make one decision while another council makes a totally different decision based on the guidance offered by the Minister.

Mr. Key

indicated assent.

Mr. Foster

That is my concern, and I see that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me. [Interruption] The hon. Member for Buckingham asks about the issue of a key decision. That is also a significant issue, hence the two are intimately bound together.

I am interested in whether there are measures to prevent abuse. The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes), said on Report: Having said that, there is provision against abuse—for example, the possibility of reports remaining in draft form until immediately before a meeting.—[Official Report, 4 July 2000; Vol. 353, c. 265.] I should be grateful if the Minister could draw my attention specifically to the provision against abuse. I and others have looked for it, but there is no evidence in the regulations of effective safeguards against what the Minister describes. Indeed, the assurance that safeguards would be provided was given in another place by the noble Lord Whitty, who said: we shall prevent by regulation any abuse covering the disclosure of draft reports.—[Official Report, House of Lords. 24 July 2000; Vol. 616, c. 61.] I look to the Minister to tell us where we can find those safeguards.

The new aspect of the regulations is that they will allow executives to meet in secret when they claim that the principal purpose of the meeting is for an office to brief a decision maker, or members of a decision-making body, on matters that are connected with the making of an executive decision. A number of bodies are concerned about that. The problem is that if a small but key decision on a significant issue is to be discussed at the same time as other matters, it is perfectly possible that, because it is only a small part of the business in hand, the executive will ensure that it is discussed and dealt with in secret session.

I do not accept that all was well in the past, as the hon. Member for Eastbourne suggested. Progress has been made. Nevertheless, in several key areas, the regulations are genuinely deficient. I very much hope that the Minister will be prepared to think again and to take some of our significant and key concerns back to the drawing board, so that we will have another opportunity to consider them when hon. Members on both sides of the House might be able to give their support.

8.36 pm
Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

I have only three questions for my right hon. Friend. However, before I put those to her, I should explain that we are discussing the regulations because a particular model of local government is being developed. If we go back half a century, it is interesting to note that the great reformist idea was to try to model central Government on local government. A great man, called Jowett of Bradford—my right hon. Friend will know of him—tried to persuade everyone that if we could transfer the committee system of local government to central Government, we would improve the way in which the Government worked. That is a very interesting idea.

However, we are now moving in the opposite direction. We want local government to adopt the Cabinet system, and that has implications for local government. One of the implications is that the way in which the Cabinet system works, within an envelope of secrecy, must be transferred to local government.

Important issues are involved, although this is not the moment to debate them. Local government needs radical reform. It should offer a diversity of models—it should not be a monolith. I hope that the Government's reforms will work out well. In some respects, I am agnostic about them, but I hope that they will produce the advantages promised.

I agree with what has been said about the provisions, but I shall not repeat all the good points that have been made. In some respects, what we are offered represents a gain on the existing situation—for example, with regard to access to papers when key decisions are taken. I pay tribute to the Government for that and for having listened to all the representations that were made.

There was considerable disquiet about the suggestion that there had been a decline in openness as a consequence of the larger changes being made to local government. The Government made a genuine attempt to listen to those concerns and produced the "key decision" formulation in response.

I shall set out my questions, which I hope my right hon. Friend will answer when she responds to the debate. What is to prevent local authorities from taking a restrictive view of the regulations? With respect to key decisions, the budgetary provision or the significant effects provision, what is to prevent individual local authorities from taking a restrictive view of those matters? No figure is specified in the budgetary provision, so radically different views could be taken about what counts and what does not. With regard to significant effects, the guidance refers to the traditional practice of local authorities as to whether they delegate such matters to officers or committees for decisions.

It would be odd if an authority that had traditionally been restrictive in such matters were allowed to continue to be restrictive. The question what prevents the regulations and the associated guidance from being interpreted in a wholly restrictive way by a local authority is important, and the Minister should answer it.

The second question arises out of that. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House why she felt that it was not possible or necessary to provide some kind of standard minimal guidance for authorities to follow? Despite celebrating the diversity of local government, as I have just done, there is an expectation that there will be a common minimal standard across the board.

We want the larger reforms to work and to carry people's confidence. If it came to be thought that the provisions were being used in a way that denied the access that the Government had intended, there would be an erosion and a corrosion of belief among the public in the Government's wider reforms. That would have extremely damaging consequences. Why do we not require some kind of minimal floor, so that everyone knows that there is to be a certain commonality of access across the country?

The third question follows from that. Can the Minister tell the House what can be done if restrictive behaviour occurs—if some councils abuse the provision to ensure sufficient access? What can people do? It has been suggested that they can kick up a fuss, but we know how effective that would be. There is talk of judicial review, but that is not an option in the vast majority of cases.

Will it be possible for people to complain to the local government ombudsman that their authority has interpreted the guidelines wrongly, or has given the guidelines a restrictive interpretation that was not intended when they were introduced? If my right hon. Friend could give an assurance on that point, along with the other two, that would help in considering the regulations.

8.43 pm
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Among Members of Parliament for my constituency, there has been a tradition of seeking openness in local government. My late predecessor, Michael Hamilton, in his early years representing Salisbury, introduced a private Member's Bill which allowed planning committees to sit in public for the first time. I feel strongly about the issue.

Members of the public do not realise the nature of the process that we are going through tonight. An official from a Government Department said to me this morning in a Committee that the regulations would be the subject of a statutory instrument and would therefore be approved by Parliament. I had to explain to the official that under the statutory instrument procedure, the question put by the Chairman of the Committee is not "Does the Committee approve?", but "Does the Committee agree that it has considered the proposition?" That is it. The Executive are simply informing the House what they intend to do. Then, through the usual channels, we have to fight like mad for such a prayer as this to be considered on the Floor of the House. Of course, the Government then use their majority to get their way. The negative procedure needs to be explained because it is widely misunderstood outside the House.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)

My hon. Friend is making a very good point. With such prayers, it is scarcely open to us to approve a measure, and if we find an error, we certainly cannot change it. That is one of the main shortcomings of parliamentary procedure today.

Mr. Key

My right hon. and learned Friend is, of course, wholly right. The fact that we cannot make any amendment is another of the objections to the statutory instrument procedure.

I was disturbed by the timing of the statutory instrument. It was cynically tabled within a day or two of the House rising for the Christmas recess and it cynically came into effect on 9 January—the day after the end of the Christmas recess. That is extraordinary, and it certainly does not show any noble intention on the part of the Government. Hon. Members may call me cynical if they like, but if I had tried that ruse when I was a local government Minister, I would not have got away with it.

Mr. Desmond Swnyne (New Forest, West)

Was there any press notice stating that the regulations were to come into force?

Mr. Key

Not that I saw, and I keep a pretty sharp eye on such things. My hon. Friend is right to draw the House's attention to the fact that we do not know what is happening. [Interruption.] I shall give way to the Minister for Local Government and the Regions if she wants. No doubt she will return to the point later.

One of the most extraordinary things about these extraordinarily prescriptive regulations is that, only a decade ago, the then Government—of whom I was proud to be a member with responsibility for local government—was berated by the Labour party because we could not concede the principle of general powers for local government. Indeed, such arguments were frequently deployed by those then on the Opposition Front Bench, but we said that the tradition in this country was that local authorities operated under statutory obligations laid down by the House. However, as soon as the Labour party came to power, all the pious talk of general regulations went out the window, and we now find that we have to consider such incredibly prescriptive regulations.

The definition of the word "significant" matters very much indeed. I look forward to the Minister telling us where that word is defined. No doubt it has been defined if she says so, but it is certainly not helpful that the House does not know what the Secretary of State may think significant.

I have only one other comment to make, and it is in relation to regulation 12, which deals with publicity in connection with key decisions. Councils—and Governments—often resort to a practice that I find increasingly surprising. In my constituency, under the Liberal Democrat council, in coalition with the Labour party—each party is a tiny minority, and by far the largest number of elected councillors belong to the Conservative and Independent group, but the Liberal Democrats and Labour have a pact, which gives them control—it is extraordinary how often, when a tricky issue must be explained to the public, or an unpopular issue has been raised in committee and a difficult decision taken, it is not the chairman of the local authority committee who goes on local radio or does the inter hew with the local newspaper but the officers of the authority who are put up to defend the local authority's actions. That practice is much to be deplored.

I wonder whether my hon. Friends have come across such behaviour; perhaps they will give examples. We also see it in Government. From the top down, there is a culture of behaving in that way. Civil servants—or, in the case of the Ministry of Defence, senior officers—are asked to write letters to newspapers, or to appear on television to explain something that the Government have done.

Local authority officers are too often put up to speak for the councillors. The names of the officers of the district council in my constituency who do the explaining to the public are far better known than those of the councillors who take the decisions. If I were to ask my constituents the name of the chairman of the planning committee or the area committee, they probably would not have a clue, but they would know who the chief executive or the relevant officials were, because they are always turned out to make excuses for the councillors.

Ms Armstrong

indicated assent.

Mr. Key

I am delighted that the right hon. Lady agrees with me, on that point at least.

I hope very much that that practice will not be used as often as it has been, so I am surprised that, given that the right hon. Lady agrees with me, there is nothing in the regulations before us, which stipulate in enormous detail what should happen, that defines the parameters within which elected district councillors or local authority councillors can choose whether to explain or to undertake the publicity in connection with key decisions, rather than the officers of the local authority. That is deplorable. It should be a matter of great honour to local authorities that the elected representatives of the people should explain their actions. That is what accountability is meant to be all about, but accountability is lacking in this instance, just as it appears to be lacking in the regulations that we are considering and in the Government's whole approach.

8.52 pm
Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

I am genuinely confused about the Minister's position. I cannot fathom why there would be an attempt to reduce the standards of openness that we have seen across the country, historically, since the days when Lady Thatcher opened up local government in many ways. I puzzle on that dilemma. I accept, as the Minister has said across the Floor of the House, that that is not the intent of the regulations, and yet the general conclusion of many hon. Members and the tentative questions of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) show that there is unease about the drafting of the regulations.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) made a pretty good fist of outlining the anxieties of the Campaign for Freedom of Information about the measure, and my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) did likewise by highlighting the detail of some of those arguments. I do not intend to read the Campaign for Freedom of Information briefing into the record because I know that the Minister has a copy, and that those in her Box are fully apprised of the arguments. However, too many people are arguing that, following the introduction of the regulations, the standards of access and openness will be lower, under the new regime, than they were before.

Ms Armstrong

indicated dissent.

Mr. Shepherd

I see that the Minister disagrees, but because the argument about any of these things no longer lies in this Chamber but will be pursued in the other Chamber, I must tell her in truth that I support the arguments advanced in the Campaign for Freedom of Information brief. I believe that they are reasonable and must be addressed.

Consistency between local authorities is important. Why should one local authority have a lower standard than that of the local authority just across its boundary? In the concept of the financial quantum, what determines what is a "significant" amount? The regulations are detailed, so could they not try to identify that? The discussions must be open or public if they involve amounts above a certain figure. It is not a question of war or battle with the Minister; it is about trying to achieve an objective. I do not think that, as drafted, the regulations do that. There has not been an advance but a retreat.

I accept that that is a difference of judgment. However, in these matters, the devil is in the detail. Every Member represents local authorities to some extent, and Members on both sides of the House do not want access to local government information to be diminished. However, the regulations do that and should be withdrawn or redrafted and reissued.

8.55 pm
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

It is a great honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) who speaks with such authority on these matters. I have no such knowledge or authority; I am merely the layman fumbling through the devil of the detail in the regulations.

The Prime Minister told the Campaign for Freedom of Information in March 1996: We want to end the obsessive and unnecessary secrecy which surrounds government activity. It bears repetition that, on the basis of that principle, the residents of New Forest district should, as a matter of principle, be entitled to expect greater scrutiny of and access to information after the regulations are passed. However, in my estimation, that is not the case. That is partly a consequence of the Local Government Act 2000 and the move from the committee system, and partly a conclusion that I reached having made my way through these rather detailed and confusing regulations.

Regulation 5 in part II states that documents will be made available only after a decision has been reached, and as soon as is reasonably practicable. My understanding is that, at the moment, my constituents can inspect such documents three days before the meeting of the council.

Ms Armstrong

I hate to tell the hon. Gentleman this, but councils still have to produce documents a minimum of three days before such meetings. They have to produce a list of key decisions several months before and then they have to report. The hon. Gentleman is talking about reporting arrangements on decisions that have been taken. I should hate him to continue to appear so confused before the House.

Mr. Swayne

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for straightening me out on that one. It is useful to hear her answer. Perhaps she can be as helpful about regulation 21(1)(c) in part V, which lays out the grounds on which the public can reasonably be excluded from a council meeting. It provides reasons and states: in view of the nature of the item, that if members of the public were present during the transaction of that item, the advice of a political adviser or assistant would be disclosed to them. There is a thing—the advice of a political adviser should be made known to the public. I should have thought that political matters were the one thing on which the public would demand scrutiny. Very often, that is what divides councillors, and it is only appropriate that the public should have access to that information. It strikes me as monstrous that they do not. However, time is short and I am keen to hear what the right hon. Lady has to say.

8.58 pm
The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong)

I am pleased to speak in this debate and to follow the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) who, I understand, has just been appointed to the Opposition Front Bench. In those circumstances, he will have to read his brief rather better than he did this evening. Indeed, he will have to understand the interaction between local government and the health service a little more effectively than he seemed to understand local government in his remarks.

Much of what we heard from the Opposition was a bit disappointing. I felt that the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) was simply playing politics rather than seriously trying to see how we can move forward on the issue.

I appreciated, however, the comments of the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). I am aware of his consistent interest in the issue, and I assure him that the overall regime that we are introducing will be far more demanding on councillors than any previous regime. I assure him also that some of today's malpractice will not be possible under the new regime. I shall deal with the latter point in more detail later.

I am happy to say that the regulations will have to be considered regularly. Ministers will have to examine both the regulations and the guidance to ensure that they are achieving our overall aim of introducing in local government a new culture of openness and public accessibility. We want the public to know that their council is acting for them and on their behalf, and to see that in the way in which the council works at every level. That objective underpins everything that we are seeking to do.

The issues dealt with in the regulations are important and difficult. However, throughout the process of working out the detail of out policy we have been consulting widely, including with the Campaign for Freedom of Information. I do not think that the hon. Member for Eastbourne properly reflected the campaign's views. However, such representations are a part of debate and I do not object to that.

We have discussed, both in the House and with all those involved, precisely what details should be included in our access to information regime. I know that there have been concerns, including among my hon. Friends, about access to information. Those concerns are quite understandable: the regime is central to the success of our policies to make council decision making more efficient, transparent and accountable. However, we have listened carefully to the concerns and we have acted on them. At the final stages of our debate on the Bill, which is now the Local Government Act 2000, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes) explained in detail our proposed access to information regime. These regulations put that regime in place.

The regime applies to every council once it has adopted an executive constitution. It is a regime of greater openness. I happily accept that we have been helped in putting together the regime by the contributions of the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). I remind the House that he is on record, in the Local Government First magazine of 6 January, as saying: the Tories should be open and honest about their own hypocrisy—at the time they attacked the Liberal Democrats for negotiating with the Government to achieve much more openness. As the hon. Gentleman has recognised, we have delivered much more openness. Other Opposition Members, however, argue that the regulations will shut out the press and the public from the council chamber and say that that might create a breeding ground for corruption and inefficiency. They argue also that we somehow sneaked out the regulations, just before Christmas, when no one was looking. They have also talked great nonsense about key decisions. I shall deal in turn with each of those points.

As for the old regime, it is nonsense to say, as Conservative Members do, that the regulations will shut out the press and the public from the council chamber. I accept that, in the past year, regardless of political persuasion, some co moils have become far too secretive while purporting to be moving towards new constitutions. Such councils have not done a good job of making the case for local democracy. However, let there be no doubt that the Government deplore such behaviour regardless of which party is in control.

It is woolly thinking to relate that increase in secrecy to the regulations that we are now considering. All those councils are operating under the old regime which Conservative Members have been extolling. It is under the so-called part VA provisions that councils have shown that they can become more secretive. Yet Opposition Members want to retain those provisions. That is an example of the Tory hypocrisy that the hon. Member for Bath outlined.

The world has moved on. If, as Conservative Members suggest, we overturned the regulations, we would be in an even worse predicament. Once a council adopted a new constitution, we would not return to the Opposition's beloved but flawed part VA. We would not revert to the status quo. If councils so chose, there would be total secrecy and the regime would lack even the flawed safeguards of part VA. No hon. Member supports that.

Our regulations provide greater openness, transparency and accountability. They will deliver a regime under which people know what the executive will be discussing, who its members are, and therefore whom they can hold accountable. People will know to whom they are talking, and they will see the papers that the executive is considering. They will also be able to see key decisions being debated and taken collectively. Under the new regime, no significant decision will come as a surprise to anyone. No one can say that with confidence about the current regime.

The new regime is the antithesis of the breeding ground for inefficiency and corruption that Conservative Members pretend the regulations will create. People will have far greater knowledge of, and access to, decision makers than they have ever had in the past. They will also be entitled to greater advance notice of decisions than under the old regime, and they will have access to papers that cover a much longer period.

I shall now deal with the view that we sneaked out the regulations. When we published the regulations, I wrote to the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman)—perhaps he does not communicate with the hon. Member for Eastbourne—and to the hon. Member for Bath and told them that we were laying the regulations. My noble Friend Lord Whitty wrote to the Front-Bench Members in another place, and we announced the regulations in a parliamentary answer. That is usual practice, but we went way beyond it. We wrote to the Newspaper Society, the Society of Editors, the editors of all the leading regional papers, the Local Government Association and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives. Of course, everybody who has a copy of our guidance pack was sent an automatic update including the regulations and revised guidance. No one can claim that that constitutes "sneaking out" the regulations.

Let me respond to some of the specific points that other hon. Members made. I accept that, under our regime, there are circumstances in which an executive can meet in private to think the unthinkable away from the public glare. I make no apologies for that—such meetings have always happened. Indeed, as long ago as 1986, shortly after the part VA provisions were enacted, the Widdecombe report to the then Secretary of State stated: It is a simple reality, which no legislation can alter, that politicians will develop policy options in confidence before presenting their final choice for public decision. We do not think this unreasonable. If the law prevents them from conducting such discussions in private in formal committees, then they will conduct them less formally elsewhere. We would not in any way wish to discourage individual local authorities from opening deliberative committees to the public and press if that is appropriate to their particular circumstances, but do not believe that they should be required by law to do so. We therefore recommend that the legislation should be amended so that the rights of members of the public and press to attend meetings and inspect documents do not apply to meetings of committees and sub-committees which are purely deliberative with no powers to take decisions on behalf of the council. As hon. Members on both sides of the House know from experience, the choice is either to bring such meetings within a formal framework and properly record them or, as under the current regime, which is so popular with the Conservative party, for them to be informal, unrecorded and unaccountable. As a woman, I might say that women are excluded from many such meetings, but I shall not stoop to that. We have chosen the former course. The Conservative party prefers the latter—informal, unrecorded and unaccountable meetings.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne referred to remarks made by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston: "There are no fantasies. This is an open regime." Her remarks happen to have been misquoted by the hon. Gentleman. I hope that he recognises that.

Thinking the unthinkable perhaps, the Conservative party asks why we cannot have a regime that requires that every decision-making meeting be open. The answer is simple. If two members of the executive got together and decided that they wanted to switch on a light or switch on the central heating, in law, that would be a decision. If a mayor and her or his deputy met to go to a function and decided to use the official car, that, too, would be a decision. No one would want such a situation to be dealt with in the way suggested by hon. Members—recording and publishing the fact that a decision is to be made, giving three days' notice. We must achieve sensible government while making the regime as open and accountable as possible.

Several hon. Members referred to key decisions. We consider them to be ones that would involve significant expenditure of taxpayers' money or otherwise have an impact on the local community. As our statutory guidance makes clear, they are the decisions that councils often took to a committee. Although I accept that some people are concerned that too many decisions were delegated, we want to achieve continuity. Under the old regime, councils were not obliged to take such decisions to a committee, but they must now make them in public, although they were not previously obliged to do so. Councils can and do delegate such decisions to officers. Where that is the case, no one knows when or how the decision was taken.

I agree that the precise definition of such decisions is difficult, but, for the first time, we have tackled that. I accept that we may not have got everything right, but we have produced a definition that nearly all the bodies involved—for example, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, which the hon. Member for Eastbourne prayed in aid—helped to us to construct. Under our regulations, for the first time, even when decisions are taken by officers or individual members, they will be open. People will, for the first time, have advance notice of those decisions.

The definition in the regulations is clear and practical, and I do not accept some of what Conservative Members said. I cannot believe that anyone would say that a decision to close a small school with three pupils was minor or did not involve major expenditure. In any case, such a decision would have to go to the Secretary of State. We are being perverse. We must have a regime that makes it clear that the way in which councils operate has to be open, but we must also allow them to continue to govern. We must proceed by getting that balance right, and the regulations and the guidance seek to strike the right balance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) asked what would prevent a local authority from taking a restrictive view of the regulations. The regulations will go a long way to preventing those who have been involved in malpractice or poor practice from continuing such practice. We now have definitions and, if the regulations are implemented alongside the guidance, I do not believe that their effect can be as perverse as the effect of some regulations under current legislation.

Why is it not possible to provide standard or minimum guidance for local authorities to follow? I think that that is what the guidance does: it sets out what we would expect the minimum to be, and what would happen in the event of restrictive behaviour. A citizen could go to the ombudsman, and, as my hon. Friend said, could take his case to judicial review; but we would expect value inspectorates looking at corporate governance to look at that as well. If we see it in context, it is clear that the regime will be far more rigorous and demanding, from the council's point of view, than it is now.

I have not been able to deal with all the matters that have been raised because, with the leave of the House, the hon. Member for Eastbourne wants to speak again. I hope, however, that I have assured Members on both sides of the House that the regime will be more open. We are having to introduce definitions that have never been introduced before, and councils are able to make decisions completely.

I could have given many examples of Tory authorities that have been involved in extremely bad practice, but that is not what the debate is about. It is about how we achieve the right balance to bring about the greatest possible openness. We want to do that without preventing councils from making everyday decisions—decisions that are not particularly significant, other than in that waiting to make them might prevent those councils from governing effectively.

9.16 pm
Mr. Waterson

Let me make a few points in the time—barely two minutes—that the Minister has left me.

The Minister says that the world has moved on. Sadly, the Minister has not. She seems to be trapped in a parallel universe, in which she believes that government by assertion will somehow make all the problems go away. She goes on and on about the new culture and so forth, but we are not impressed, the Campaign for Freedom of Information is not impressed, and nor for that matter is the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), who asked three penetrating questions that went to the heart of what is wrong with the regulations.

The Minister made a doomed attempt to defend the concept of key decisions. I think the House is as puzzled and as much in the dark as it was at the beginning of the debate. The regulations are riddled with holes and inconsistencies. Despite all the tinkering and the fiddling and the wriggling, they are still thoroughly unsatisfactory. They will bring less openness to local government, and the next Conservative Administration will abolish them.

Tonight's debate is not what the Government intended. They planned for no real debate, and for a decision—if any—to take place late at night, possibly involving no vote at all or a deferred Division. That is the Government's attitude to openness—

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 17(2).

The House divided: Ayes 141, Noes 266.

Division No. 77 [9.18 pm
Allan, Richard Gray, James
Amess, David Green, Damian
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Grieve, Dominic
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Gummer, Rt Hon John
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie
Ballard, Jackie Hammond, Philip
Beith, Rt Hon A J Hayes, John
Bell, Martin (Tatton) Heald, Oliver
Bercow, John Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Beresford, Sir Paul Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David
Blunt, Crispin Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas
Body, Sir Richard Horam, John
Boswell, Tim Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Jack, Rt Hon Michael
Brand, Dr Peter Keetch, Paul
Brazier, Julian Kennedy, Rt Hon Charles (Ross Skye & Inverness W)
Breed, Colin
Browning, Mrs Angela Key, Robert
Burnett, John Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Burns, Simon Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Burstow, Paul Lansley, Andrew
Butterfill, John Leigh, Edward
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife) Letwin, Oliver
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Cash, William Lidington, David
Chidgey, David Livsey, Richard
Chope, Christopher Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Clappison, James Loughton, Tim
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Luff, Peter
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey McCrea, Dr William
Collins, Tim MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Cormack, Sir Patrick McIntosh, Miss Anne
Cotter, Brian MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew
Cran, James Maclean, Rt Hon David
Davies, Quentin (Grantham) McLoughlin, Patrick
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice) Madel, Sir David
Day, Stephen Major, Rt Hon John
Duncan Smith, Iain Malin, Humfrey
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter Maples, John
Evans, Nigel May, Mrs Theresa
Fabricant, Michael Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Fallon, Michael Moore, Michael
Feam, Ronnie Morgan, Alasdair (Galloway)
Forth, Rt Hon Eric Nicholls, Patrick
Foster, Don (Bath) Norman, Archie
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Oaten, Mark
Fox, Dr Liam O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury)
Fraser, Christopher Öpik, Lembit
Gale, Roger Page, Richard
Garnier, Edward Paice, James
George, Andrew (St Ives) Randall, John
Gibb, Nick Rendel, David
Gidley, Sandra Robathan, Andrew
Gill, Christopher Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Ruffley, David
Russell, Bob (Colchester) Tredinnick, David
St Aubyn, Nick Trend, Michael
Sanders, Adrian Tyler, Paul
Sayeed, Jonathan Tyrie, Andrew
Shepherd, Richard Waterson, Nigel
Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns) Wells, Bowen
Spelman, Mrs Caroline Whitney Sir Raymond
Spicer, Sir Michael Whittingdale, John
Spring, Richard Wigley, Rt Hon Dafydd
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John Willis, Phil
Stunell, Andrew Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Swayne, Desmond Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Syms, Robert Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Taylor, Matthew (Truro) Tellers for the Ayes:
Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion) Mr. Keith Simpson and
Tonge, Dr Jenny Mr. David Atkinson.
Abbott, Ms Diane Corbyn, Jeremy
Ainger, Nick Corston, Jean
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Cousins, Jim
Anderson, Rt Hon Donald (Swansea E) Cranston, Ross
Crausby, David
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Cummings, John
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack (Copeland)
Ashton, Joe
Atherton, Ms Candy Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Atkins, Charlotte Dalyell, Tam
Bailey, Adrian Darvill, Keith
Banks, Tony Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Barron, Kevin Davidson, Ian
Bayley, Hugh Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Beard, Nigel Dawson, Hilton
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Denham John
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Dismore, Andrew
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C) Dobbin, Jim
Bennett, Andrew F Dobson, Rt Hon Frank
Benton, Joe Donohoe, Brian H
Bermingham, Gerald Doran, Frank
Berry, Roger Dowd, Jim
Betts, Clive Drew, David
Blackman, Liz Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Blears, Ms Hazel Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Blizzard, Bob Edwards Huw
Borrow, David Efford, Clive
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Ellman, Mrs Louise
Bradshaw, Ben Ennis, Jeff
Brinton, Mrs Helen Fitzpatrick, Jim
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Fitzsimons, Mrs Lorna
Buck, Ms Karen Flint, Caroline
Burden, Richard Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Butler, Mrs Christine Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)
Byers, Rt Hon Stephen Foster, Michael J (Worcester)
Caborn, Rt Hon Richard Galloway George
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Gapes, Mike
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) George, Rt Hon Bruce (Walsall S)
Campbell-Savours, Dale Gerrard, Neil
Cann, Jamie Gibson, Dr Ian
Caplin, Ivor Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Caton, Martin Goggins, Paul
Cawsey, Ian Golding, Mrs Llin
Chaytor, David Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Clapham, Michael Grocott, Bruce
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Grogan, John
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Hain, Peter
Clelland, David Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Clwyd, Ann Hanson, David
Coaker, Vernon Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet
Coffey, Ms Ann Healey, John
Cohen, Harry Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Coleman, Iain Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Colman, Tony Hendrick, Mark
Connarty, Michael Hepburn, Stephen
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Heppell, John
Cook, Rt Hon Robin (Livingston) Hill, Keith
Hoey, Kate Naysmith, Dr Doug
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Olner, Bill
Howells, Dr Kim O'Neill, Martin
Hoyle, Lindsay Palmer, Dr Nick
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Pearson, Ian
Hume, John Perham, Ms Linda
Hurst, Alan Pickthall, Colin
Hutton, John Pike, Peter L
Iddon, Dr Brian Plaskitt, James
Illsley, Eric Pollard, Kerry
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) Pond, Chris
Jamieson, David Pope, Greg
Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle) Powell, Sir Raymond
Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn) Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark) Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Prescott, Rt Hon John
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Primarolo, Dawn
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak) Quin, Rt Hon Ms Joyce
Joyce, Eric Raynsford, Nick
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Robertson, John (Glasgow Anniesland)
Keeble, Ms Sally
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston) Rogers, Allan
Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth) Rooker, Rt Hon Jeff
Kemp, Fraser Rooney, Terry
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Khabra, Piara S Rowlands, Ted
Kidney, David Ruane, Chris
Kumar, Dr Ashok Ruddock, Joan
Ladyman, Dr Stephen Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)
Lammy, David Sarwar, Mohammad
Lawrence, Mrs Jackie Savidge, Malcolm
Laxton, Bob Sedgemore, Brian
Lepper, David Shaw, Jonathan
Leslie, Christopher Shipley, Ms Debra
Levitt, Tom Short, Rt Hon Clare
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S) Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Lewis, Terry (Worsley) Singh, Marsha
Unton, Martin Skinner, Dennis
Lock, David Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
Love, Andrew Smith, Angela (Basildon)
McAvoy, Thomas Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
McCafferty, Ms Chris Smith, John (Glamorgan)
McCartney, Rt Hon Ian (Makerfield) Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Snape, Peter
Macdonald, Calum Soley, Clive
McDonnell, John Southworth, Ms Helen
McFall, John Squire, Ms Rachel
McIsaac, Shona Starkey, Dr Phyllis
Mackinlay, Andrew Steinberg, Gerry
MacShane, Denis Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Mactaggart, Fiona Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
McWalter, Tony Stinchcombe, Paul
McWilliam, John Stringer, Graham
Mahon, Mrs Alice Stuart, Ms Gisela
Mallaber, Judy Sutcliffe, Gerry
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S) Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Martlew, Eric Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Maxton, John Temple-Morris, Peter
Meacher, Rt Hon Michael Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Merron, Gillian Timms, Stephen
Michael, Rt Hon Alun Tipping, Paddy
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley) Todd, Mark
Miller, Andrew Touhig, Don
Mitchell, Austin Trickett, Jon
Moffatt, Laura Truswell, Paul
Moonie, Dr Lewis Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Moran, Ms Margaret Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N) Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Morley, Elliot Wareing, Robert N
Mountford, Kali Watts, David
Mudie, George White, Brian
Mullin, Chris Whitehead, Dr Alan
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck) Wicks, Malcolm
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood) Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen)
Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen) Woolas, Phil
Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Wills, Michael Tellers for the Noes:
Winnick, David Mr. Graham Allen and
Wood, Mike Mr. Mike Hall.

Question accordingly negatived.

    1. cc891-4
    2. EMPLOYMENT AND TRAINING 1,434 words, 1 division
    1. c894
    3. c894
    4. LEGAL SERVICES 45 words