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“Greater secrecy results from Local Government Bill”

The government’s proposals for reform of local government “will result in greater secrecy, remove rights to see the facts and advice the Mayor or cabinet will be relying on, and allow local authorities to operate in greater secrecy, not less” according to the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

The draft local government bill published for consultation earlier in the year was criticised by a joint committee of MPs and peers.1   They recommended the bill be amended to provide guarantees of openness, so that the public would not lose existing rights to see reports laid before local authorities. The Local Government Bill, published today and which applies to local authorities in England and Wales, ignores the committee’s recommendations and “condemns the public and backbench councillors to darkness and ignorance about a Council’s proposed course of action”, the Campaign’s press officer Andrew Ecclestone said.

“Most existing rights to see council papers only apply to matters dealt with at a meeting of the Council open to the public. However, the new decision-making structures proposed in the Local Government Bill will not be required to meet in public. Existing rights to information will therefore be lost”, Mr Ecclestone said. All the bill says is that local authorities must have regard to any guidance issued by the Secretary of State dealing with publication of information.2  But the government have given no indication of what, if any, guidance will be issued. This is contrary to the government’s stated intentions for the reforms – openness and accountability.

The government’s draft proposals – which do not differ significantly from the Bill published today – were criticised by the Local Government Ombudsman for Wales. In his evidence to the select committee he said:

“One of the features of the current system which is fairly unique is that the public have access to agendas and reports to committees in advance of a meeting and certainly, in so far as openness is an important contribution towards good conduct, then I think that in so far as papers for meetings of the executive will not be available in advance, that will be a diminution of the current rules on openness.”3

He went on to say that “an adequate audit trail of reports and minutes and agendas and so forth will be crucial to openness, and from a practical point of view, crucial to an investigation should there be questions raised.” He concluded that the lack of adequate records of the decision making process was a symptom of “arbitrary decision making”.4

The Campaign said that together with a “deeply flawed” Freedom of Information Bill, there would a loss of openness in England and Wales which was in stark contrast to the proposals for greater openness published in Scotland yesterday.

The Campaign pointed out that the government had ignored the recommendations of the joint select committee which called for:

  • Agendas and background papers of the new executive decision-making structures to be published in advance;5
  • every step in the decision making process to be documented and made public;6
  • reasons for decisions, together with factual and analytical material, to also be published;7
  • officer’s advice to the mayor or executive councillors to be published.8

– Ends –
Notes:

  1. “Draft Local Government (Organisation & Standards) Bill”Report from the Joint Committee, HC542-I, 27 July 1999
  2. Clause 24(2)(c)
  3. HC 542-II, Q454. Mr Elwyn Moseley, Commissioner for Local Administration in Wales. Emphasis added.
  4. HC 542-II, Q455.
  5. HC 542-I, paragraph 176.
  6. HC 542-I, paragraph 113.
  7. HC 542-I, paragraph 177.

  8. HC 542-I, paragraph 178.
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