HL Deb 05 June 1985 vol 464 cc830-6

9 p.m.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The Bill comes to your Lordships' House from another place, where it was the responsibility of my honourable friend the Member for Hornchurch. It comes with all-party support and with the backing of many hundreds of local groups and individuals across the country. During its passage so far, the Bill has been the subject of continuous consultation. At the outset some anxiety was expressed, particularly by the local authority associations in England and Wales and in Scotland. All were in favour of the Bill in principle, but there were fears as to certain impracticable resource implications and the possibility of being required to breach delicate personal, commercial or contractual confidentiality.

After much discussion (and I should pay tribute to the time and trouble local authority associations have devoted to this) accommodation has been reached whereby the aims of the Bill's sponsor are achieved and the practicalities for local authorities are realistic. I hope therefore that noble Lords will find this measure now is fair and balanced and will be able to give it a smooth and speedy passage through your Lordships' House.

The purpose of the Bill is threefold. First, it is intended to increase between-elections accountability of councillors to their electorate and to their ratepayers by making it easier than it frequently is for the public to know, and take an interest in, what issues are under consideration, what decisions are pending and what decisions have been made. The second purpose is to improve the quality of the decisions made by ensuring reasonable access to the facts and arguments on which proposed policy options are based, so that concerned members of the public may challenge or add to those facts and, if they so desire, put forward alternative arguments. The third purpose is to strengthen the relationship between councils and public by reducing the frustration and sometimes the suspicion and alienation which occur when information is hard to come by, and decisions appear to be pre-determined behind closed doors.

The Bill seeks to fulfil this purpose in England and Wales and in Scotland. It does so by making mandatory greater public access to local authority meetings, agendas, reports and background papers, at the same time enabling specified matters to remain private if the authority so desires. It also requires certain information to be published.

The existing legislation at present is contained in three Acts. The Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960 applies to the whole of Great Britain and extends to other bodies besides local government. It was in fact introduced by the present Prime Minister, who had an early piece of political luck when, as a newly arrived Back-Bencher, she was successful in a ballot and was able to make her maiden speech in moving the Second Reading. The other two Acts are the Local Government Act 1972 and the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, which apply to England and Wales and to Scotland respectively.

Broadly speaking, these three Acts give public and press the right to attend the meetings of the full council and its committees, but not its sub-committees. The press can see agendas and reports of council meetings, and press and public can inspect council minutes; but these obligations do not apply in the case of committees or sub-committees. In all instances an authority can exclude press and public if they judge this to be in the public interest, without a requirement to say why.

Existing practice vary widely, as noble Lords experienced in the ways of local government will be well aware. Some councils allow access to subcommittees; some hold them in private; some have no sub-committees at all. For visitors to meetings, some provide easily followed agendas and reports; others do not. Some have easily penetrable systems for obtaining information and others do not. If all practice was like the most open practice, further legislation would be uncalled for, but that is not the case. Difficulties for the public occur in councils of varying political hues. My honourable friend in his Second Reading speech, and other honourable Members on all sides of the House, at various stages of the Bill, gave examples from their own experience of councils who do very well, and others whose information-providing efforts are in effect far from satisfactory.

The gist of this Bill is quite simply that all information relating to decision-making in local authorities should be available to public and press unless there are specific, stated reasons to the contrary. Building on work done by the Prime Minister some 25 years ago, it now puts all local authority meetings on the same footing, requiring public and press access to council, committees and sub-committees. It opens to public inspection the background papers on which reports are materially based and enables, on payment of a reasonable charge, copies to be taken.

The extended obligations are qualified by local authorities' clear discretion to withhold papers or access to meetings in specific circumstances which are listed in schedules to the Bill. These include such matters as private personal information, financial and business affairs of people or companies, actions liable to lead to criminal proceedings, and industrial disputes. The Bill contains requirements regarding access of elected members to documents, including documents not available to the public; also that authorities maintain a register of significant delegation to officers.

The Bill is structured so as to insert appropriate clauses into the England and Wales Local Government Act 1972 and the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. This accounts for the rather strange numbering of some of the clauses. Clause 1 is for slotting into the 1972 Act. Clause 2 has virtually identical content for insertion in the Scottish 1973 Act. These two clauses confer the overall rights of public access qualified by local authority rights to choose to keep private such matters as are set out in the schedules. The provisions are in part new and in part derived from existing legislation. Schedule 1 contains within it two new schedules for insertion in the 1972 and 1973 Acts respectively. I only hope that what I have said reads more clearly in Hansard than it sounds at present, because this structure is really very complex.

Clauses 3 to 6 are relatively minor. I do not intend to detain your Lordships now by going through the clauses section by section. With the agreement of noble Lords, I shall respond to points made in the debate in a general way leaving any details until the Committee stage. I simply conclude by saying that, in my own experience, the need for this Bill is not because of deliberate unwillingness of councils to be open to the public they serve. It is more that practices, probably begun for excellent reasons, tend over a period of time to become established, elaborated and, in a sense, sheltered behind by elected members and officers alike, with the result that the public can find the system untransparent and even manipulative. No friend of local government wants that. With the best will in the world, councils need an up-to-date legal framework to underpin the particular form of answerability that our local government system demands of them. This Bill does, I believe, offer that framework. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Carnegy of Lour.)

9.10 p.m.

Baroness Stedman

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Baroness for the clear and able way in which she has put forward the case for the Bill. Like her, I hope it will have all-party support in this House and go through fairly quickly. Throughout England and Wales, too many things are being or have been, discussed in private, raising serious questions about local democracy and about accountability. When electors are denied access to information themselves, they expect that their elected representatives will be informed and will be able to advise them accordingly. But this has not always happened. In some places like Liverpool and Bromley the majority parties have made use of the denial of information to weaken their elected opponents. Even more scandalous is the position where the largest single party's representatives are systematically denied the necessary facts by a coalition of the minority parties acting together. In Hammersmith, for example, the largest single party does not have one member sitting on the Leader's co-ordinating committee because of an alliance between the people's elected second and third choices. This inevitably means that a large number of electors are not really represented when the council meets in closed session.

Even more ludicrous were the examples given in another place of the closed sub-committees—of the Straying Animals Sub-Committee in Blaenau Gwent which meets in private as does the Bottle Bank Donations Sub-Committee in North Bedfordshire. Why ever they should want to meet in private or what they have to hide I have not a clue. The parish councils, the town councils and the parish meetings are really at the grass roots of local government. They are down at the lowest possible level. They are very much in support of the Bill and what it is trying to do.

The ADC initially showed some concern at the extent to which information had to be disclosed and whether there would be a breach of confidentiality to the serious detriment perhaps of personal relationships or delicate commercial and contractual obligations. It now sees that most of those potential dangers have been eliminated in another place. The balance, it feels, has now been struck between openness and genuine confidentiality. I believe that the ADC now thinks that the Bill in general provides greater public access to information without impeding the proper administration of an authority. It also gained more support as a result of the Gamper v. Hackney Council case. The ruling given by Mr. Justice Lloyd in that case has changed the ground rules, and many authorities since that case have significantly changed their position.

I believe that this Bill goes some way towards increasing public accountability between elections by allowing the public a closer and more detailed insight into the decisions of their elected representatives, thus enabling the electorate to judge more accurately the performance of their elected representatives, and helping to break down the growing suspicion and hostility which many electors have begun to feel towards local government.

The wider accessibility of reports and the availability of those reports to the public attending the meetings can only help them to understand much better what is going on. Many councils already do this, and it is hoped more will now act in the same way. I understand that there are three authorities—Bradford, Brent, and Derbyshire, two Conservative and one Labour—who already act as detailed in this Bill, with no apparent problems. Indeed, the chief executive of Bradford, Gordon Moore, who was one of the arch-people in the report on the management of local government, has said: Our three party group leaders have estimated the annual cost at around £2,000—a minimal sum to pay for democratic accountability". In both this House and the other place, we set an example because the proceedings of both this House and another in Committee are open to the public. ILEA has also opended its doors to the public. We believe that this Bill, when it gets on the statute book, will make for much healthier and more open local government and should encourage more public participation.

From these Benches we would support the Bill before us. Several major amendments were made to it in another place, and I believe that as it comes to us the Bill is broadly acceptable to all those who will be concerned, including the local authority associations and the professional organisations, and we wish it a speedy passage through this House and on to the statute book.

9.16 p.m.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, we too welcome and support the Bill. I should like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, for taking us through a rather difficult, complicated few passages with great efficiency. There is a "Hear, hear" from the noble Baroness's Front Bench. I too was glad to note that the Bill had the support of the ADC and of the ALA. The ALA particularly were enthusiastic about it. I wish that the ADC had been a little warmer, but I understand their position in that they will no doubt hope to persuade some of their members to accept it.

We support a policy of more open government and this Bill is a step in the right direction. The public have a right to know why and how decisions are made, as has already been said, especially when they are decisions which affect their lives as closely as the decisions made by local authorities, subject, of course, to sensible rules of confidentiality to protect the interests of individuals and the financial interests of ratepayers.

Secrecy and confidentiality are often contused. Secrecy in government, local or national, has no place in a true democracy. While we acknowledge and appreciate the help and encouragement which the Government have given this Bill, we wonder how much support and encouragement would have been given if the water authorities, the health authorities, and certain of the Government's own activities were included in the provisions. I hate to introduce this sour note, but I personally would have preferred to see a much wider approach to this Bill. We believe that public access to the mechanics of decision making by all public undertakings is a right which should be enshrined in legislation.

Turning to the Bill itself, there are at least two areas which need close examination and to which we expect to return at Committee stage. One is the schedule of exemptions. The list is long, and for the most part sensible, but some inclusions in that list may need to be questioned. Another question mark relates to clause 100D and the provision for access to relevant documents.

At first sight—and I must apologise for saying, "at first sight" but the Bill was only available on Monday and there has been little time to absorb it—the new arrangements appear capable of being manipulated with more ease than the old. Since this is surely not the intention of the sponsors of the Bill, we hope to explore the situation at Committee stage and seek amendments if necessary.

I was a member of a local authority before, during, and after the 1972 Act, and I well remember the shock and dismay from officials and councillors at the prospect of opening up committee meetings to the press and the public. Dreadful warnings were given about pressures on decision making, about trivialisation of events, and above all about the public's inability to understand enough of the background to see why decisions were being made. None of it happened. As the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, has already said, many authorities are already implementing the provisions of this Bill, including the admission to sub-committees. My own ex-authority already practises almost all of the provisions of the Bill and it is right that those who still operate in an atmosphere of secrecy should be brought up to the standards of the best, as the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, said. We wish this Bill well and we look forward to the day when legislation to bring other areas of public concern under public scrutiny are before us. My Lords, we support the Bill.

9.21 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, speaking from this Dispatch Box I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lady Carnegy for bringing this Bill before your Lordships. It is no easy matter, as I know from practical experience. She deserves (and has had) the plaudits of the House for having had the courage to grapple with its undoubted complexities and for having set out so clearly its basic underlying principles. These principles have remained constant since the Bill was first introduced in another place, and with my noble friend at the helm I have no doubt that they will remain so throughout its passage through this House.

The Government attitude too has been consistent. We have supported the purpose of a measure which seeks to add to the information available to everyone as to what goes on in local government. Too often this is shrouded in mystery, and penetrated only by speculation. The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, made this point forcefully to illustrate the need for this Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, however, was, I feel, a little lukewarm. Unlike her, I am not prepared to speculate on what is not in the Bill and what might be the Government's attitude if it were. I should like, however, to make two passing observations.

First, the Bill is about local government and is confined to local government. As such, it has no repercussions beyond local government. The constitutional position of local authorities is not directly mirrored elsewhere in the public sector. It would therefore be mistaken to assume that the contents of this Bill could apply simplistically and uncritically to other bodies. The noble Baroness mentioned the water authorities and the health authorities.

Secondly, this Bill is timely because the concerns which underlie it are similar to those which have prompted my right honourable friends the Secretaries of State for the Environment, for Scotland and for Wales to ask Mr. David Widdicombe, QC, and his committee to inquire into local authority practices and procedures. Wisely, however, the Bill does not attempt to deal with areas of very considerable difficulty where the case for legislative action, let alone the content of any legislation, must be considered in the light of the Widdicombe Committee's findings.

Like other noble Lords who have spoken I have no doubt that this Bill will receive a Second Reading tonight. Should we look critically at the detail of the Bill at some future stage I have no doubt that the House is fully able, willing and capable of correcting it.

9.24 p.m.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, I should like to thank the two noble Baronesses for their welcome for the Bill, which is enormously encouraging to myself and to the sponsor. I should like also to thank my noble friend on the Front Bench for the fair wind that he has given to the Bill.

The points which have been raised are probably not large ones. The list of exemptions in the schedule needs to be looked at carefully. Noble Lords will have seen that it is provided in the Bill that they can be altered subsequently by the Secretary of State, so they are adjustable elements in the Bill. Nevertheless it is important that we try to get them right the first time. We should, I am sure, do that.

The arrangements for access to documents again is a detailed matter, and it is encouraging that the noble Baronesses who spoke on this subject are people of such enormous experience in local government. I am sure that their thinking will be both positive and wise. On the question of the limits of the Bill and the fact that it relates only to local government, it is not for me to comment because I think the remark was made to the Government. But I think that this Bill is all about the form of answerability that is particular to local government, and to that extent it has an implicit relationship to that which concerns the Widdicombe inquiry, because they are dealing with local government relationships between officials and councillors, among other things. It has a relationship, but it steers clear of their remit. It is only about local government because it is about that particular relationship, although the subject in general can be taken as wide as one likes.

May I just thank the noble Baronesses and my noble friend on the Front Bench, and hope that at Committee stage we can improve the Bill even further.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.